The elusive "groove" is often perceived as a rare quality among musicians. Names like Steve Gadd and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson often come up as masters of the craft. So, is groove innate or acquired? The answer is simple yet layered: it's cultivated through practice.
Groove isn't just about the notes you play, but how you play them. While students often focus on rudiments, reading, and coordination, the subtle art of groove can be overlooked. As drummers, we're not just timekeepers but groove-keepers as well.
Many budding musicians miss out on the value of learning how to groove. Although I do teach the essentials to my students, I emphasize the need for mastering this crucial aspect of musicianship.
In an ideal world, we'd all have the chance to play with seasoned musicians who can impart the secrets of groove. But with fewer opportunities to gig regularly, solo practice becomes even more essential for honing this skill.
Here are some ways to improve your ability to lay down phat grooves:
Practice to Groovy Songs
Some songs just have that extra special feel that makes you want to tap your foot and nod your head along to the tune. Practice along to that song! If it makes you dance then learn it so you can make other people dance. If you don’t know which songs are the grooviest then a good place to start is with these YouTube and Spotify playlists that I made. They are songs that I enjoy playing along to for different reasons, but mainly because they are simple and groove hard.
Ever wonder why I prioritize "Practicing to groovy songs" over "Practicing to a metronome"? Simple. Learning groove from masters in the genre provides invaluable insight. However, don't discount the metronome. It's an essential tool for focused practice and it's crucial for studio work, where playing to a click track is often required.
Experiment with various subdivisions when practicing. While quarter notes are a good starting point, the metronome offers a plethora of rhythms to explore.
Practice to Drum Samples
Want to elevate your practice sessions? Most recording software comes packed with top-notch drum loops. Think of it as a metronome with a more organic feel—often played by world-class drummers, no less. Software like GarageBand or Ableton Live are user-friendly and offer robust drum looping features.
For an extra layer of groove mastery, try programming your own drum patterns. This hands-on approach not only hones your intuition but also sharpens your ear for crafting danceable, repetitive grooves. Happy drumming!
Record & Compare
Got a favorite drummer? Dive into their tracks and record yourself playing along. Then, brace yourself—listen to both the original and your version. Yes, it's a humbling experience to compare yourself to the greats, but it's also the quickest path to progress. The more you practice this way, the closer you'll come to achieving your own drumming greatness. So, let go of your ego, be brutally honest with your assessment, and get back to the drum kit. Your future self will thank you!
Find the best musicians you can to play with, that way you will always be learning and improving. Don’t be shy, call someone up who you admire and ask them if they would like to jam sometime. Or pay them and call it a lesson. Drummers don’t only need to study with other drummers, and in fact, one of the best teachers I ever had was a bass player. We would practice playing slow grooves with a metronome and it helped me a ton.
Great grooves sound great because the drummer playing them is not stressed. They are in the moment and are not stuck in their head worrying about the tempo or which rudiment they are using. Just relax and listen to yourself and you will begin to hear the groove.
Study Different Types of Grooves
Ever heard of the Pretty Purdie Shuffle? How about New Orleans Funk? No? Then start listening! Look up the master drummers of groove and study them. Try to figure out what it is that makes them groove-masters and then put that into your own drumming.
For help getting started with this, check out my article Top 5 Drummers to Study In Each Genre as a starting point. Especially check out the studio greats. Sometimes the music they played won’t be your absolute favourite, but if you can listen past this and hone in on their mastery of the groove then you will learn a ton from them. Play along to these masters and you will soon realize the genius in their playing.
Study from Groove Books
Check out any of the following for massive amounts of groove-based content
Pick a groove, any groove, and play it between 10 minutes to one hour without stopping! Do that on a regular basis and you’ll become a groove master.
Make it Feel Good
Is playing perfectly in time more crucial than making a beat feel good? If you picked the latter, you're spot on! Listen to iconic tracks recorded before the 1970s; you'll notice tempo shifts—but only if you compare the song's start and end. Why don't these deviations stand out within the song? Because when a drummer nails the groove, those tempo shifts become inconsequential. The ultimate goal is to make the beat feel so good that timing variations fade into the background.
Groove is more than just a deep pocket; it's about how you articulate and execute each note. Do you aspire to lay down a groove that's instantly recognizable within the first few seconds? (Think "Sunday Bloody Sunday.")
For a practical and engaging exercise, try this: play a basic groove and focus on the dynamics of each limb individually. It might be challenging initially, but persistence will yield results. Another effective exercise is to practice crescendos and decrescendos within an entire beat. This will help you gain better control over all your limbs, functioning as a cohesive unit. Refer to example "d" for further guidance.
Set your metronome to 60 bpm or slower, and play quarter notes with all four limbs in unison. Aim for at least 5 minutes per session, or up to 30 minutes if you're disciplined. The goal is to perfectly align each note within the groove—no rushing or lagging. Focus on the spaces between the notes; rushing to the next beat will disrupt that essential sense of space. Achieving a deep groove can take time and may feel monotonous, but that's where discipline comes into play. If you question your own discipline, give this exercise a try at least a couple of times before deciding it's not for you.
Play to the metronome but place the click on different parts of the beat. Play with it on the &’s, the ‘e’, or the ‘a’.
Learn how to play a common drum groove, such as an 8th note rock groove, but start it on a different beat. This will force you to stay focused on the execution of the groove and the exact placement of each note. Practice going from the original beat and then shifting it onto a different subdivision.
Rhythmic Illusions, by Gavin Harrison, is the best resource for learning about Beat Displacement. Click the link to check current price on Amazon.
Groove is a difficult thing to really get for some people. Work hard, and don't get discouraged. It will come with time.