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Counting Off Songs

his is a good place in the lessons to discuss an important but overlooked skill: counting off songs. It may seem simple and obvious, but it is a common source of problems and confusion when playing with others. It’s essential to know how count-offs work, how to follow them and how to do them yourself.

What’s worse than starting on a bad note? Starting on a bad rhythm. The count-off, sometimes called a count-in, is meant to keep that from happening.

What is a Count-Off?

You’ve likely heard bands count off songs (either live or on recordings). Someone in the band calls out 1 2 3 4 and the whole band starts playing.

A lot of people wrongly think the count is just a countdown to start playing. Well, we’re not moving furniture. No. The count-off is more than a simple countdown.

The count-off sets the tempo and often addresses the feel or meter of the song.

The count-off tells everyone this is the exact tempo at which we are all going to start. At the end of the count-off, everyone needs to come in together and at the same tempo.

Bad count-offs, or musicians who don’t know how to follow them, can cause a lot of rhythmic chaos in the beginning of the song before the musicians finally align rhythmically after a few bars. First impressions matter in music, too. Starting off with a little rhythmic chaos is terrible whether you’re part of the band or the audience.

When Do You Need a Count-Off?

You don’t always need a count-off. Often one musician starts the song by themselves and sets the tempo. Then, the other musicians join in. No count-off is necessary. A guitarist may play a solo intro. The drummer may play a pickup fill which leads everyone in. You might start with the bassline. There are many possibilities.

But, sometimes the song calls for everyone to start at the same time. That’s when you need a count-off.

Who Counts Off the Song?

Often the drummer counts off the song, but there’s no rule. It might be you, another band member or a conductor.

Methods of Counting Off Songs

There are a lot of methods to count off songs. The obvious one is to count verbally: 1 2 3 4.

Drummers may count off a song clicking their stick together. Or, they may use some other drum or cymbal.

Someone may just snap their fingers.

Sometimes someone might pat or stomp their foot on the ground.

The singer might do some dance moves for a visual cue.

Other times someone may bob their head to the beat.

In a band you will likely work out your own system. But, when playing with strangers, you have to be ready for any and all of these approaches. This is one of those things you will only learn through experience.

What Numbers and Beats Get Counted Off?

The beats that are counted in a count-off can vary. There’s not one standard. It depends on the song—how it starts, the tempo, the meter. And, different musicians might have different styles or preferences of counting things off.

Someone may say 1 2 3 4 and off you go. This works well for a lot of songs.

For really slow songs you may only count 2 or 3 of the beats. 2 3 4… That’s sensible because there’s no need for everyone to stand around waiting.

For faster songs, counting off 1 bar may not be enough to get everyone feeling the tempo. Instead people will count off two bars. But, if you count: 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4, someone might get confused and start a bar early.

Instead it’s common to count off two bars like this: 1    2    1 2 3 4… 

This is a bit confusing when students firstthink about it. In the first bar you’re counting 1 2 on beats 1 and 3! Then you count 1 2 3 4 in the second bar like you’d expect. We’ll talk more about this in another lesson, but you are counting a bar in 2/2 then a bar in 4/4.

Counting this way just makes it clear two bars are being counted off and keeps anyone from coming in a bar early.

It’s also common for people to throw in "ah one, ah two, ah one two three four…" which adds a little more groove to it.

2 & 4 Count-Offs

In jazz, funk and other settings the person counting off will often snap their fingers. If you don’t know better, you are in for a rude surprise. The finger snapping is often indicating beats 2 and 4. If you expect the snap to be 1 2 3 4, you’re about to make a giant mistake. You will come in at half the tempo and one beat too late!

You have to learn to hear that finger snap as the backbeat. You don’t run into this much in rock settings, but jazz, funk, R&B, anytime you have horn players, people with sunglasses, hats and goatees, if they’re snapping their fingers, it’s probably 2 & 4. You’ve been warned! [See this lesson's exercises to practice this.]

Pickup Notes

Another consideration for how you count off a song is whether or not it has pickup notes. Music doesn’t always start on the first beat of a bar/ Pickup notes are notes which lead into the first downbeat. You usually avoid counting over any playing. The person counting off will usually count up to the pickup notes. So, if there are pickup notes on beat four the count would go: 1 2 1 2 3 ….

Counting the Right Meter

You don’t count 1 2 3 4 for every meter. Different meters have different ways of being counted and counted off. We’ll talk about each meter specifically in the next lessons.

Don’t be surprised, though, if you run into some musicians who don’t know better and count everything off with 1 2 3 4. You might have a chat with them.

Be Stealthy and Creative

The audience doesn’t need to hear the count-off. Sometimes it can add to the live atmosphere. It’s pretty fun when punk bands play really fast short songs with a fast aggressive count-off. 

Some songs just need more subtlety. There are ways to be stealthy and creative with count-offs.

You can do some sort of visual cue.

Sometimes a drummer can hit an electronic pad that is only audible in the band’s in-ear monitor system.

You might have a fun phrase that counts off the song. John Lennon counts in A Day in the Life with “Sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy.”

Sting has a song in seven called Love is Stronger than Justice. Live he counts it in with “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 All good children go to heaven.” This is purely for fun. I promise you the drummer Vinnie Coliuta doesn’t need Sting’s lengthy count-in.

Count-offs are a great place to have a little fun.

Practice Coming in on a Count

It’s critical that you can listen to someone’s count and come in at the right tempo. You can’t come in slower or faster.

Use a Gap Click

Check out the exercise page for this lesson. You’ll find exercises to practice coming in on a count. Also, you can set the StudyBass online metronome to disappear for a few beats. You can set the volume for any click to zero. Have it sound for 4 beats then be silent for four beats to practice your accuracy. Try it at different tempos and with different counts.

If you or anyone in your band is having trouble, practice starting songs over and over. Don’t play the whole song. Count it off, play the first few bars and then do it again until everyone has it.

Are You Ready for Different Tempos?

Beware about tempo, too. Just because you mastered playing a song to the original recording doesn’t mean a live band will play it at that exact same tempo. Be ready to play the song at a faster or slower tempo.

Practice Counting Off Songs

You should practice counting off songs, too. Someone may look at you and say “count it off!” when you don’t expect it. Be ready.

When you count off, count musically. Count in a way that suits the song. Don’t drag out the words where it’s hard to feel the beats. Be clear. Be rhytmic.

Check out the song suggestion page for this lesson and listen to how others count off songs. Go to local gigs and listen for how they count in songs.

Remember, the aim of your count is to set the correct tempo. If you count off too slow, the song will drag. And, even worse, people in the band may try to correct it by speeding it up.

Counting off too fast can cause similar problems. People may be unable to play it that fast, or it just sounds wrong at that tempo. And, again, people may try to slow things down which is awkward and not something an audience wants to hear.

Before you count off out loud, take a moment to imagine the music in your head. Don’t just start counting! Hear it and feel it in your mind, then count off of that.

A major tip I can give you is this: sing the melody or vocal part to yourself to get the tempo in your mind. It’s less likely you will imagine the singing part too fast or too slow.

Another possibility is to have a metronome nearby. Listen to a few clicks or watch the flashing light to find the tempo.

Summary

I hope this lesson has set you up for success with song count offs. It may seem like a simple thing to do, but it is critical to get right. You need to be comfortable with count-offs.

Don’t forget to practice with the exercises on this lesson’s exercise page. And, try setting a silent gap click on the StudyBass metronome. Lastly, see the suggested songs to hear examples of the pros counting off songs.