OKAY – we’ve made it this far into a murky topic… A daunting subject to tackle, but I’ll do my best to keep things on track. This is where we really have to start slogging through the weeds though, because there’s some terminology we might not all agree on, some variation in styles of music… Even some differences in WHY people want to play drums in the first place.
Let’s get a primary definition out of the way.
Here in Part 3, we’re mostly talking about the single MOST important aspect of being a drummer – keeping time. That is first and foremost what I mean by “groove.”
For our purposes, it’s the drummer’s playing within the context of an ensemble or a piece of music that provides pulse and feel. That means both the overall pulse of the music at hand and the spacing of the notes orbiting around it. It’s not just metronomic timekeeping, but that’s a decent place to start.
Before any of that fancy stuff happens, music needs some kind of momentum. Fast or slow, shuffled or straight, 4/4 to 17/16… Most music relies on some kind of pulse. That pulse is what keeps the whole thing together, and without a foundational rhythm to come back to, all the chops and speed and technical facility is just noise. Context is everything for that kind of stuff – and for most listeners and dancers (and hell, most non-drummers), the only thing that truly matters in your playing is that you maintain and guide the momentum/pulse of the tune at hand.
I waited until this third entry to tackle groove playing because, well, it’s maybe overlooked among drummers, and under-addressed in both the practice rooms and “water cooler” discussions of musicians of all stripes. It’s the element that, in many cases, goes unnoticed when it’s done right. When the time is solid and the music is jamming steadily along, it’s how it’s “supposed to be.”
So, let’s unpack what it means to “groove” – and how to develop it in the first place.
First, the two primary elements: time and feel.
I’ll keep this brief. Metronomes keep time. Drummers often keep time. Music is based on repetition, and repeating at a relatively steady rate is pretty damn important in most musical situations. Do I have to spell it out?
The click is your friend. You won’t lose feel. I won’t even get into playing with a click live (a whole can of worms), but I will say this – it’s excellent for practice. It’ll keep ya honest. Promise.
The next tier of the term “groove” still has to do with keeping time and providing pulse… But doing it in a way that pretty universally feels good – and yowza, if that isn’t an elusive, totally subjective quality to chase.
Feel(s good, man)
There are those who (mistakenly) claim that “groove can’t be taught,” but that’s the very subject Benny Greb tackles in The Art and Science of Groove. With his methods and others, that mysterious “groove” CAN be practiced and improved, it just doesn’t show its face the same way that developing chops and speed do.
You can’t just ramp up the metronome and see that your paradiddle speed has improved. It’s not necessarily about dexterity or pattern memorization, nor is it even entirely physical… It’s not a chart to read.
It still has to do with maintaining a pulse, of course, but there’s so much more to it. The physical side is often about relaxation, not necessarily strength, the mental side more about “feeling” the time that counting it.
Feel comes from knowing what to play, playing it authentically, and maintaining the “right” pulse for the situation. It’s tough to put a finger on… But we know it when we hear it.
I won’t pretend to know all the “techniques” to improving feel, but I’ll mention a few below. It’s not as straightforward as some of the methods for building speed or learning patterns – but that doesn’t mean that feel and groove aren’t intertwined with them as well.
This whole thing – “Twofold” – is problematic. There isn’t a clear line. I’m stabbing at dualities: facility vs. feel, chops vs. songs, ripping vs. restraint…
Hell, the line between a “groove” and a “fill” can be blurry. “Beats” can be too busy, even self indulgent, and not really “groove” at all. Similarly, fills can be perfectly musical, responsible, and have just as much “groove” as the basic beat of a tune… The “beat” to any one song (or style) could be tenfold as busy as the “fill” in another. Soloing can be a different animal altogether. “Melodic” playing is whole other topic… The variables go on and on…
Like I said, we’re wandering into the weeds a little bit here.
Vague as the divide may be, though, I think we can all recognize a little bit of the difference. When we watch drummers, especially those that we admire, there are fairly different sensations between a “Whoa! What was that?” moment of something “impressive” – and head nodding, toe tapping moments when the pulse is just how you want it to be.
Side note: the use of quotation marks is getting excessive – but these terms aren’t so concrete. It’s art, after all… It’s not like we’ll ever all agree on it.
Even if we’re not totally honest about it in our playing (I’m probably not), we’ve got a pretty idea of what feels “musical” and “groovy” – and what’s busting out the hottest new lick or swinging for the fences (not for the sake of much but itself… and attention).
A huge portion of this is maturity and confidence – getting outside of your own ego or desire to impress and “serving the music,” as so many people say. But what does that actually mean?
How do we know if we’re serving the music or not? How can we develop that particular skill?
It’s not a simple answer, but here are some good places to start:
So maybe it isn’t the case for solo street performers or YouTube shredders, but for most of us, the primary thing we do is play songs, right?
To play songs well… You have to, well… Play songs.
Whether that’s to albums through headphones, high school jazz band, garage rock with your buddies, symphonies, rap battles… whatever. The more you play pieces of music with other instrumentation, the more you’ll get a sense of both form and function. You’ll start to get a sense of how the pieces fit together, to predict changes, and to know how you fit in the whole stew of sounds.
When playing in certain styles of music, there can a be a pre-established framework for “genre.” Knowing at least a little bit about the background of the music you’re playing will also provide a ton of context for what “grooves,” what the timekeeping typically feels like, and how different types/styles/backgrounds of music are assembled.
James Brown funk and a bebop tune can both groove HARD, but they hardly require the same “parts” on the drum set. Grooving in hiphop is not quite the same as grooving in country music, but the basic idea is the same – the style of music itself should dictate what – and how – you play (at least to some extent).
A familiarity with the “standards” of a style allows you to make choices that the almighty listener (and other folks in the band) will expect and rely on. It can also provide a roadmap for music making – so you can play what you want to hear.
Open those ears up! LISTEN as hard as you possibly can to the other musicians in your ensemble de jour. Listen for accents and space, listen for the primary melody or “featured” component of the song. Make room for it, support it, become the foundation upon which great castles can be built!
Even if it’s just you and your headphones, treat loops and drumless tracks and your favorite albums the same way. Let your ears feast on the bounty of “groove” information that everything in the song (or jam, or track) has to offer.
Beyond the primary focus of a piece (or section) of music, there are plenty of other nuances that can guide your playing. Are your kicks matching and/or complimenting the bass line? Is your hihat/ride pattern a subdivision that works with everyone else’s rhythms? Are you choosing the same level of straight/swing as the rest of your bandmates?
At the very basic level, are you playing in time?
Your ears are your best asset. An integral part of your instrument. They’ll often tell you what you need to play, and by omission, what you probably shouldn’t play.
What to Practice
For some practical application, beyond just listening, here’s a few morsels:
• Playalongs – Drumless tracks and loops make you listen to cues and clues, but do “most of the work” yourself.
• The Click – The met will you keep on track, and there’s variety of other, challenging ways to test your timing with gap clicks… even mindgames:
• Jams – Play with other people as often as you can, whether it’s written music or just jamming around. Get used to making drumming decisions based on what you hear around you.
• Space – In many cases, less is more. Try locking into a groove for 3 minutes with no variation. The next time you’re at band practice or improvising, resist the urge to play fills. Strip your kit down to the bare essentials… The point is to be thinking about leaving room for the other parts of the song to breathe, and focusing on the core elements you need to keep the train moving along.
• Record – Audio or video, any quality you have access to, making some recordings of yourself playing will reveal a ton about your groove. Listen critically and make a note when you hear yourself stumble, when you hear the groove get less groovy, when the time fluctuates… The recording won’t lie, and the insight is invaluable.
This ended up much longer than I anticipated, and I barely scratched the surface. To circle back to the “chops vs. groove” premise, I’ll leave you with this great analogy from Mike Johnston:
Next time, we’ll wrap up the series with how I’m coalescing (sort of) all this stuff in my head, and what this whole “Twofold Path” approach is really about. As always, I love your comments!