How To Play Drum Set: Time and Feel

In this article, I’m going to share with you about time and feel. They’re 2 of the most powerful things you need know in learning how to play drum set. All professional working drummers have these two things in their playing and it’s why they get the gigs.

Time and Feel are essential in how to play drum set.

I know that Instagram and YouTube are loaded with videos on how to play drum set licks and fills. The more notes we play on the drums, the more likes and subscribers we get.

That’s all well and cool for cyberspace but in the REAL music space, that’s not going to work so well. In fact too many drum fills and licks will stop the gigs from coming.

Drum set for beginners: What are time and feel?

“Time” is simply being able to keep a consistent tempo while playing drums. “Feel” is the music energy that makes makes people tap their toes, clap their hands or want to dance.

If either time or feel are missing or weak in our playing, our drumming won’t line up well with the other musicians’ playing. The other band members count on us to provide good time and feel as much as we count on them to do the same.

Learning how to play drum set is also about learning how to play with other musicians.

Continually speeding up or slowing down when we play, is like walking on a treadmill that’s constantly changing speeds. It keeps the rest of the band from getting into a consistent groove because here’s no stability in the time flow.

Not having feel in our playing, is like painting a picture with only the color gray. It’s a picture but it doesn’t have any color to inspire emotion or feeling in the music.

How are drums played?

As drummers we have always had an obsession with chops. What trips us up though, is playing slow grooves like 70 BPM or slower.

At this tempo, if we cut out all of the drumnastics, our drumming feel is exposed and often times isn’t as groovy as we’d like it to be. In slow tempos, the strength of our time is also challenged and tends not to be so strong.

Learning how to play drum set is not all about chops.

Playing slower tempos in our drum practice can really help improve our time and feel. One way to do this is by playing super simple beats at slow tempos.

Whatever style of music you like to play, take a drum beat and make it as simple as you can. Often times that means playing quarter note versions of drum beats.

Then set your metronome to 60-70 BPM and play it. Focus on playing your groove a little behind the beat. That’s where the magic happens.

To super charge your drum practice, check out my article about goal setting for drummers.

Ahead, on and behind the beat

There are 3 places we can play our time on the drums and where we play our time also affects our drumming feel. Knowing this time concept is very important for learning how to play drum set. Next, I’ll explain more about these 3 different places in time.

On the beat

Let’s think of metronome timing as perfect time. This is our first place in time and we’ll call this one “On the beat.” When we practice with a metronome, we intuitively try to line up our drumming perfectly with metronome timing. This is certainly good practice but it actually won’t give us the best feel.

In the picture below, my finger is pointing to the middle of the drum stick. This represents perfect metronome timing.

The placement of your notes is important in learning how to play drum set.

Ahead of the beat

The second place in time is ahead of the beat, also called “On top of the beat.” This means that we are playing slightly faster than metronome timing. We are playing steady time but it’s always a little bit anticipated and feels rushed.

This is the biggest problem most musicians have with their playing. It’s also why they have a difficult time grooving with other musicians. Playing ahead of the beat robs us of the potential to have good feel in our playing.

In the picture below, my finger is pointing to the front side of the drum stick. This represents playing slightly in front of metronome timing.

Behind the beat

The final place in time is playing behind the beat. This is where the magic really happens. The grooviest, funkiest most swinging music is played slightly behind the beat. Like playing on top of the beat, the timing is consistent but more relaxed.

You can really feel that things are pulling back just a bit and creating a nice pocket for the music. “Pocket” is that place musicians play that creates a unified rhythmic home for a song. It’s like the springboard for groove.

In the picture below, my finger is pointing behind the drum stick. This represents playing slightly delayed from metronome timing.

The Soul Power Hour will change your time and feel

I have a great practice regimen that will help you develop both your time and feel. This works especially well for straight-note music but can also be used for Jazz Swing drumming practice.

About 10 years ago, I had a regular practice ritual that I called my Soul Power Hour. I played along with my favorite Soul artists for a solid hour. James Brown, Brothers Johnson, Earth Wind and Fire, Rick James, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and many others.

Hawaii Bassist Mark Tanouye helped me learn how to play drum set all over again.
Here bassist Mark Tanouye performs with one of my drum students Christopher Lindsay.

My good friend and great Hawaii bass player Mark Tanouye, suggested I do this to help improve my 8th-note and 16th-note grooves.

I took his advice to heart but it was incredibly challenging. His practice suggestion made me feel like I didn’t really know how to play drum set at all. Those practice sessions turned out to be some of the most beneficial of my entire career.

Check out my article about another important skill that gets drummers a lot of work.

I learned how to play drums all over again

Also per Mark’s advice, I started off by practicing with Stomp! by the Brothers Johnson. I played quarter notes on the hi-hat and kick drum with 2 and 4 on the snare. That’s it. A very simple and pared down groove.

Try as I did, I couldn’t get my playing to lock in with the bass and drums on the recording. It was unbearably frustrating. I had studied music in college and had been playing drums professionally for about 20 years at that point. Still, I couldn’t get my groove and align with the music.

The Brothers Johnson a great band to help you learn how to play drum set.

My Jazz drumming was okay. I could groove nicely in a Jazz context. It was the Soul, Funk, Pop, R & B groove thing I wanted to learn. I was ready to expand my drumming capabilities beyond Jazz and Mark’s suggestion was just the medicine I needed.

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I can feel it!

I remember the day I could finally feel the quarter notes on my kick locking in with the bass and drums on the Stomp! recording. It felt amazing! It was the same feeling I had when I swung my first Jazz quarter note on the ride cymbal.

The overall timing was slightly behind the beat and even though my practice beat was simple it had incredible feel. It was the first time I really realized that playing less can be so much more in drumming.

That feeling is another side of music altogether. I often call it the dark side of the moon. Something we don’t often see (or hear) but is always there and we just need to tap into it. It has nothing at all to do with chops or speed. It’s the feeling of playing REAL music.

Playing in the studio is another way to learn how to play drum set.

The truth about how to play drum set

The more I practiced this simple exercise, the better my time and feel became. As I listened intently to these great Soul recordings, one thing became abundantly clear.

The bass was often busier than the drums. The drummers would almost always hold down quarter notes on the kick or a “boom-whack” 2 and 4 beat while the bass player bounced around.

From the moment I figured that out, I relaxed and stopped trying to overplay my 8th-note and 16th-note grooves. I tuned into the music more and my playing really smoothed out.

The Bonny B drum lesson

Before leaving Hawaii to move to Japan, I also had a drum lesson with the great Bonny B. He shared another interesting point with me about groove. It’s not important to have a busy hi-hat pattern.

To Bonny, playing simply is much more effective for creating a deeper groove. The key is to play the important notes of the groove and internalize the rest in our bodies.

He uses busy hi-hat playing mostly for color. Just playing off beats or quarter notes on the hi-hat works great and glues the band together. With Mark’s and now Bonny’s help I was learning how to play drum set on a new level of groove.

Bonny B helped me learn how to play drum set and take my grooves to new heights.
Bonny B., my wife Satomi and me after the drum lesson.

I have another article about my 25% rule that will help you choose the best notes to play in your grooves and get more gigs.

The time and feel puzzle came together

After moving to Japan, I continued to marinate on all that I had learned about Soul drumming. Shortly after relocating, I had the chance to sit in with many Funk bands and hosted a couple of Funk jam sessions. What I realized was that most young drummers here also didn’t understand how to lay down a simple, soulful and effective groove.

They suffered from the same overplaying disease I had before my Soul Power Hours. All of this strengthened my determination to make my drum grooves open, relaxed and always feel good.

Here’s a video of me playing with simplicity and focusing on the time and feel.

At, all of my courses help you master time and feel in your own drumming.


Time and feel are two of the essential ingredients every drummer needs to make their playing blend with the band. Pare down your playing and try playing a slow groove. You’ll discover those little kinks in your playing that you need to work on.

Try my Soul Power Hour drum practice routine too. It might be challenging in the beginning but it’ll quickly help you improve your drumming time and feel. It’ll help both your Jazz and non-Jazz drumming. Start by practicing with Brothers Johnson’s Stomp!.

Try and lock in with every note the drummer John JR Robinson is playing. If you find it difficult, keep trying and relax into the groove. Focus on playing slightly behind the beat and simlify, simplify, simplify. Practice it as much as you can.

When you have the opportunity to play out with other musicians be disciplined. Try to keep your playing simple as well. If you play this way, I guarantee you will have more fun than if you start playing lots of chops. You will also get more playing opportunities.

Keep groovin’ and KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!

How is are your time and feel?

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