For some musicians, when the music gets exciting their time goes along for the ride. In short, they tend to speed up. And when the music relaxes again, they slow down. Drummers seem to be particularly prone to this in the early stages of their development. In fact, legendary studio bass player Carol Kaye says she's never met a drummer who didn't speed up during fills! That’s tough news.
We all have tempos that feel natural to us. We also come across tempos that we seem to not be built for. The solution is to work on ALL tempos. A good general rule when practicing is to concentrate on stuff you have trouble with, including tempos you find hard. You need to be able to play whatever tempo is thrown at you and do it without speeding up or slowing down. That doesn't mean you have to be rigidly metronomic. Music must flow, and sometimes a bit of tempo creep is unavoidable -- perhaps even desirable. But if a tempo feels awkward or unnatural, that’s a tempo you need to work on. Your ultimate goal is to keep better time and not drift to your ‘comfort tempos’ – the tempos that your body is most comfortable with and would prefer to work toward.
The place to really focus your attention is fills. When playing straight time, you're more able to focus on the music. But when we attempt a fill, it's common to shift our attention onto what we're doing rather than listening, and that’s when we get into trouble.
My advice is to always put the music first. In fact, let the music lead. When playing time, think in terms of ‘participating in’ the time andi tempo rather than ‘creating’ it. Don't thnk of yourself as THE timekeeper or even A timekeeper. The whole band is responsible for tempo, and it’s so much easier to just join in rather than try to force it to happen. Listen to the band -- especially the bass player -- and then just play along.
When it comes time for a fill, your job is to play something that fits into the music. Keep one ear on the band so you can hear how your interpretation fits against the tempo and tune. If you tailor your fills to be a part of the music, you shouldn’t have any problem with the tempo getting away from you, even if your fill is a bit of a crowd pleaser.
One trick you can use is to watch for visual clues. Every musician has a way of marking time … tapping a foot, rocking, head bopping (I sometimes wonder if Steve Gadd will have neck problems from rocking his head the way he does). If you’re unsure of where the time is, watch how the other players feel it. A quick glance at a tapping foot can reassure you or show you that you’re a bit off.