Try this: Sit back, close your eyes, and hone in on that thumping wad of muscle inside your chest, the one that’s been faithfully squeezing out those beautifully imperfect quarter-notes all these years. Say hello to the world’s first metronome. Beautiful, isn’t it? Now try walking into a studio you and your bandmates are paying a few hundred bucks a day for and telling them you got all the click track you need right here (pound your chest dramatically). After they stop laughing at you and/or threatening you with bodily harm, maybe you’ll wise up and realize this ain’t 1970 — in the high-speed, precision-obsessed world of modern recording, the ability to play comfortably to a click is a prerequisite for any working drummer. And it takes practice — lots of it.
Luckily, there’s no better way to keep your internal ticker in tip-top shape than with a regular winding round the old click track. And if you think those sterile plastic boxes with names like Dr. Beat and Rhythm Watch are all math and no music, well, you’re right. That’s why people still hire real live drummers, after all. Just remember that the line between being “musical” and being “unemployed” is drawn by your ability to sync up your internal clock with the one being fed through everybody else’s monitor. But hey, don’t take our word for it. We gathered three seasoned professionals together for this article — Jason Bittner of Shadows Fall, Shannon Larkin of Godsmack, and Ray Luzier of Korn — and asked them to spill their most intimate click secrets, share stories of their personal journeys to click mastery, and impart some sage bits of advice to anyone who wants to take this whole drumming thing seriously. You know who you are.
“My click’s name was Phil Rudd,” says Shannon Larkin, describing how his introduction to musical meter came not from a metronome at all, but from the human time machine that made AC/DC forever synonymous with a rock-solid, 4/4 backbeat. “I talked to an engineer who did the Back In Black album who swears to me that Phil Rudd did not use a click,” Larkin says. “I wasn’t there, and it’s even hard to believe, because if there’s a perfect record, that’s a perfect record.”
But that was then — the glory days of flying without a net. “These days,” says Larkin, “studio producers demand the consistency of the click because when drums are tracked first, everything else has to layer properly.” Larkin learned this fact the hard way the first time he stepped into a major studio, to record
But getting thrown into the deep end has a way of teaching you how to swim in a hurry. “The embarrassment of trying to keep my pocket to this machine in a major studio for the first time made me really go home and work with a click track and try to perfect it,” he says.
And as Larkin hunkered down in a practice room somewhere in Hagerstown, Maryland to face off against the tyranny of the click, Ray Luzier was about to get a rude awakening of his own 3,000 miles away in Hollywood, California, where he had recently arrived, fresh-faced and cocky, at the renowned Percussion Institute Of Technology (PIT) to begin his musical education.
“I was pretty naïve back then,” Luzier says. “When I moved from Pittsburg I thought ’Wow, I got my stuff together.’ I only cared about how fast I could play double bass at that time. I didn’t realize I wouldn’t get a gig if my timing wasn’t happening. My teachers, Joe Porcaro and Ralph Humphrey, were really pushing me to use the click.”
It didn’t take long for Luzier to have a come-to-Jesus moment of his own in the studio. His first band, 9.0, having just signed with Shrapnel Records, was working up a debut album when the singer told Luzier he’d have to play every song to a click. “It freaked me out,” he says. “I remember locking myself in my rehearsal space for about four to six hours a day just playing all the songs to a click for about four months because I got so paranoid of being replaced. I’m thinking, ’Oh no, Kenny Aronoff’s going to do my first record,’” he laughs.
Ironically, years later, a more seasoned Luzier would be the one subbing as a “ghost drummer” on an album for some poor sap he won’t name, whose competency as a live performer just didn’t translate to the studio. “There’s nothing worse than the drummer who’s in the band sitting in the control room watching you do his tracks,” Luzier says. “That is probably the most horrific thing ever for a drummer.”
Jason Bittner’s experience with click re-education wasn’t nearly as traumatic. When he really started immersing himself in the click at Berklee College Of Music, he was surprised to find it suited him right off the bat. “I don’t know why either,” he says. “Because I was always reading drum magazines since I was a kid and I was always reading stories about the click track and people who could play to it, and reading those articles I always felt stand-offish from it [irony alert]. But once I started working with it I locked in kind of easy.” Goes to show: Results will vary.