When listening to some traditional bluegrass music recently, it occurred to me that today’s rock and pop musicians have lost something – individual responsibility for timekeeping.
If you’ve never really taken the time to dissect a really good traditional bluegrass band (ie: no drums or electronic instruments), you should. It is a wake up call. First of all, these players can all really play. Secondly, they all have excellent timing. These players participate in a wonderful synergy when it comes to keeping the rhythm on a song. The upright bass typically plays on the downbeats (like a kick drum), and the mandolin, fiddle, and acoustic guitar share the upbeat responsibility (like a snare backbeat). It gets tricky when a particular instrument solos or does a fill. The other instruments have to cover it. For example, when the fiddle is soloing the mandolin will do short muted chord stabs on the backbeats. Then when the mandolin takes off on a solo, the fiddle takes over the backbeats playing their version of short muted bursts. The acoustic guitar can also at times do the short muted backbeats, but usually is pretty busy filling in a majority of the chord comping you hear. And of course, the banjo’s role is to provide the droning sounds of open strings, much like bagpipes, or other celtic and folk instruments. (a modern equivalent would be the synth pad).
Here’s a great example – an old recording of Alison Krauss & Union Station playing “Dark Skies”. Notice how everyone shares responsibility for the timekeeping.
i guess my point is – in contemporary music musicians rely too heavily on the drums to do all the timekeeping for them, and all too often the other musicians couldn’t count out a rhythm if you asked them to. In short, we’ve become lazy. We can learn a thing or two from the bluegrass boys about taking individual responsibility for the song’s rhythm.