How to groove
This is a long article; use headphones or good speakers to listen to the audio examples.
A drummer’s role in a musical group is to provide a good feel and solid time.
Chops are fun, but they will definitely not land you any jobs if your time and groove are not great.
This short tutorial is not meant to dive deep into the philosophy of groove; instead, it aims to offer a few tools to help you further develop your feel.
Dearest, I want to start off by dispelling a few myths:
First of all, one may be born with an innate sense of groove, but that doesn’t mean he/she doesn’t need to practice hard to improve on it.
Someone lacking talent that spends a couple of hours a day practicing and playing to music will definitely be the better player; this could mean she is groovier, has better timekeeping skills and a better ability to react to the music being played.
Second, groove isn’t something magical. There are technical elements to it that, once understood and applied to your playing, will greatly boost the way you impact the listeners.
In all the examples I will be using the first 2 bars of the main groove from Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, unless otherwise noted.
The first sample will always be the control groove, followed by the one that illustrates the concept we’re talking about. The tempo of the control groove is 98 BPM.
What influences groove?
A. Time consistency
Grooving takes place only if there is a pattern of repeated sounds, at predictable, expected intervals.
The following example is of how a drum pattern feels like when its timing is unreliable. The end result is pretty jarring.
You’ll hear it with and without a pulse, which is played by the ride cymbal.
In the following examples you can hear how big of an impact the tempo at which the rhythm is played has on the feel of it.
The sample starts with the control groove at 98bpm, followed by one at a slower tempo of 60bpm. Next are 2 more grooves, one at 120bpm and the other at 200bpm (this one's kinda akward)
- When playing slower tempos, count smaller subdivisions of time. For example, if playing quarter notes at 60BPM, count eighth or sixteenth notes. This helps you keep better time, ensuring the time between each quarter note is as equal as possible.
- A way of improving your inner metronome is as follows: set up a click that plays one bar of time, then a one bar rest. This will train your perception of time.
Eventually, have the bars of rest be somewhat random.
The focus of this exercise is improving the speed with which you adapt to the anchor (click) whenever you drift away from it.
- Another approach is to listen to the decay of the drum/cymbal.
Practice this: play the ride cymbal, then play the next note right before you can’t hear the decay anymore. Provided you strike the cymbal in the same area, with the same force, the length of time between strokes should be almost identical.
Next, pick another point during the decay time, and add the other instruments when hitting the ride. This forces you to listen, frees you up from counting and discourages overplaying.
- To enhance your ability to react to and feel what’s going on in music, practice the following:
Have the click be anywhere in the 16th note grid: 1, e, & or a. Do the same for the triplet grid: 1 trip-let
(1 & a). Practice using that as your anchor.
The subdivision we like least to have as the click is the one we need to work with, since that’s exposing a weakness in our time keeping skills.
c. Micro-temporal variations
Micro-temporal variations are usually felt in 3 major ways: ahead, on top or behind the beat.
This subject has been researched by various music experts over time, and they’ve reached a conclusion: where you place your snare drum has the biggest impact on the groove. Of course, this falls AFTER having solid timekeeping skills in the order of priorities.
The samples are as follows: the whole groove behind the beat, kick behind, kick ahead, snare behind, snare ahead.
All the variations are preceded by 2 bars of the control groove.
The micro temporal variations need to be agreed upon ahead of time when it comes to playing in a band context, as flamming between the drums and other elements of the rhythm section can be detrimental to the groove.
Swinging a rhythm too much or too little can make or break the groove.
To illustrate the effect more or less swing applied to the riding surface has, I’ve tempered with the hi hat.
In these examples, the hi hat pattern is gradually more and more swung. Starting from straight 16th notes and up to flammed 8th notes, you can hear how the feel goes from straight to half-way swung, to swung. Eventually, the 16th notes become displaced to such a degree that they flam with the notes that follow after them.
When playing at a faster tempo, it helps leaving out some notes. This increases clarity and helps you groove better.
One way of practicing this concept is:
Play alternating 16th notes on the hi hat, to a click. This will anchor you, so that you’re only morphing the feel, not changing the tempo.
Go from a straight feel to a swung one. Keep moving the left hand hi hat note past flamming, until you get back to the straight feel.
Pay attention to how it feels and sounds. The right hand plays straight 8ths, the left one is morphing. Play this exercise at a comfortable tempo, such as 88 BPM.
Do this with your other limbs as well, keeping time on one, morphing the other.
Learn how this feels, and incorporate it in your playing.
Micro-dynamic variations are the volume changes within a pattern played by one limb on (usually) one voice of the instrument. This can be an effective way of making a groove flow smoothly. Lower variation means the voice attracts less attention to itself, letting the others be in focus. If there is no variation whatsoever, it can lend an electronic feel to the groove.
The first sample is the control, as always, whereas the second one features the hi hat playing identical 8th notes all through the groove.
Macro-dynamics variations are the differences in the relationship between the various drumset voices used in the groove, such as the kick, snare and hi hat.
In most pop, funk and rock settings, the hi hat is what can be thought of as “the connective tissue”, bringing together the kick and snare parts. From a listener’s perspective, that is its sole role. For you, the drummer, though, it helps keep you grounded and in check. It makes you aware of where to place the other voices.
For this reason, playing the hi hat as the quietest voice enhances the groove. Conversely, if you play the hi hat as the loudest voice detracts from the groove.
These grooves illustrate the different hi hat volumes concept.
Practice tips: play a rhythm of your choosing. Alternate which limb plays the loudest, then which one plays the quietest. The other two/three voices must not change, unless it’s part of what you’re working on.
Be strict about it: change once every 2/4/6/8 etc bars, focus ONLY on what you decide to ahead of time. Be deliberate in practicing this.
This will challenge your technique. Make sure the only sound that changes is the limb you’re working on. Do not allow the other limbs to alter how they sound like.
c. Dynamic range
Here you have 2 samples: one where all the voices of the drum kit are playing as loud as they can, the other being at a medium dynamic level. You can clearly hear that since there is little dynamic difference between the voices, the rhythm has a different feel to it.
a. Overall dynamics
Playing louder gets a different tone from the drum when compared to playing softer.
This is why certain genres have rules ie. Jazz is usually really quiet, latino has very quiet hi hats, rock is overall loud, with metal being the loudest.
Different genres have different voices that are required to be the loudest element. Whilst jazz requires the ride cymbal to take the lead, with the hihat playing 2&4, followed by the kick and snare comping and supporting, rock leads with the snare backbeat and the kick, with the hihat/ride being the quietest. In some cases, a hihat/ride ostinato can be done away with as well.
James Brown’s funk has the hihat and snare in lead.
You can shape grooves from other genres by applying the ‘lead’ of the style you’re playing in. Take a funk groove and put it in a jazz context: ride leads, kick and snare are supporting.
A muffled drum’s decay is shorter than that of a livelier drum. A shorter decay makes a drum sound more ‘pointy’, so you can play faster, more complex rhythms on it.
Try playing drum n bass at 180 bpm a la Jojo Mayer on a John Bonham drum kit...some of the notes, as well as the intricate details will get lost in the ring and decay of the drums.
This is a loose list of almost random tips to improve your playing.
- Focus on breathing constantly, especially during drum fills. If you hold your breath during a fill, this makes your body feel the need to rush, because it enters ‘the danger mode’.
Pick a tempo where one bar is slower than your breathing rhythm and do this for a while. Breathe in for one bar, breathe out for one bar. Following this, play challenging fills, without changing your breathing pattern.
Additionally, when playing difficult grooves for a prolonged period of time, we tend to forget to breathe. Intentionally breathing will increase the blood flow to your muscles, and it will relax your arms, legs and back. This will also make your grip more comfortable.
- Check if your shoulders and elbows could be in a more comfortable position when playing. Can they be lower, more relaxed? Can your elbows be closer to your body, so that you use fewer muscles to play the part?
Test it: record yourself playing a few bars of a groove while being very tense, then a few bars while being very relaxed, almost loose. Compare and contrast. This is especially useful when playing challenging parts.
- When playing closed handed (right handed drummer leading on the hihat with the dominant hand), make sure your chest isn’t protected by your arm. If this is the case, whenever you open up to play a fill or to change the voice you ride on, it will affect your feel.
Doing this for the first time might feel weird and uncomfortable. Be persistent, make sure you’re relaxed and both you and your playing will benefit from it. There IS a difference between something being uncomfortable because it’s new, and it not working for you. Being relaxed works for every musician...and for every person, as a matter of fact.
- Have a relaxed default position to come back to. A hunched back causes problems, even if it might be comfortable for a moment.
- Whenever you feel your grooves are too stiff, move with the feel of the groove. This will loosen it up, making it almost impossible not to groove. Keep the motion going during the fill. This will put the fill into the same space as the groove.
- Air drum during the count in, so you’re inside the groove from beat 1. Otherwise it might take a few bars to get into it.
- Don’t relax your muscles during rests; keep your body ready to get back in the groove. Air drum if needed. Relaxing too much might make you miss the downbeat!
- Play a groove, and solo one limb at a time. Pay attention to the sound.
Then do the same thing, but don’t solo the limb; instead, focus on each voice for a 4 bars at a time. When playing with a band, do the same with all the elements of the band. The next step would be focusing on how different instruments interact with each other.
- Play with intentionality, be deliberate in what and how you’re playing. Don’t let your limbs go on autopilot.
In this short tutorial we’ve looked at what a drummer’s role in a band is, at the fact that talent means nothing(!) without hard work and that groove isn’t made of pixie dust: it can be empirically studied and, even better, it can be learned and acquired.
Dearest, practice. Give it at least 30 minutes every day, even on a pad or a pillow. Some practice is always better than none, if it's correct. If you're forming bad habits during practice...address those first with a good teacher.