Keeping time, or playing in the pocket is a skill that every musician should develop. The metronome is a unique tool and plays a key role in finding your tempo. The role of a drummer in a typical band is to anchor the song, which sets the rhythm of the groove while supporting the song. A bass-line synchronized to the drum beat can create magical moments. The two instruments work like an engine, often sending listeners into uncontrollable fits of dancing. If you play with bad timing then people may start to leave the building.
Pieces of music have a regular beat, that rarely changes throughout the song or movement. The most common beat for modern pop songs is about 120-140 beats per minute (BPM). Since a drummer helps to glue together rhythm and melody, keeping in time is imperative. Unfortunately, humans are not born with an innate sense of timing, so it must be developed.
The best way of improving your skill at playing in the pocket is to play with a metronome. Start off with a slow beat, say 80 BPM, and just concentrate on playing on the beat, every beat. There is no need to play any complicated licks or grooves, strumming one note will do perfectly as a beginner. Don't be robotic, just use the sound as a guide in your playing.
When learning a song, it is a good idea to use a similar technique. If a song is at 140 BPM, don’t try and play it at that speed first time. Set your metronome to a speed you feel comfortable at, and focus on playing along perfectly. By forcing yourself to play at too high a speed, too soon, you will develop bad technique by trying to move your fingers as quickly as possible, which will make it much harder the next time you try to learn a fast song. If you play along with a metronome, increasing it by five or 10 BPM each time you get comfortable at a certain speed, you will soon reach the speed the song is meant to be played at. By keeping perfect form throughout, you will progress faster and make it easier for yourself in the future than if you try and take a shortcut through poor form.
Some people argue that playing with a metronome will make your playing sound mechanical. It is true that playing in time with the piece, playing all notes as they are written, will not always create the sound the composer aimed for. Playing to a metronomic beat will not capture the swing, or the groove of the song. Inject yourself into the music and let it breath a bit. That's what it takes to move the crowd!
To take your playing to the next level, you transcend the sheet music and metronome to find your own tempo within. If you can tap your foot in time, then you can play music in time too. Listen to a popular recording and try to play along as as closely as possible. This leads to developing your own interpretation of the music and finding your own tempo. Much of your success hinges upon your motivation and will to learn.