Some people have it, some don't, that deep sense of groove that seems to be reserved only for a select few musicians. Steve Gadd, Clyde Stubblefield, Vinnie Colaiuta, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, these are just a few of my favourite groove masters.
Are they born with it, or can it be developed? How do we improve our sense of the groove? These are common questions that come up in my drum lessons and the answer is pretty simple, practice them! But if we are to get a little more specific, and if you really want to perfect this subtle art, then there are some very important aspects to work on.
Groove can be hard to define as it doesn’t have to do with the notes that are being played, and is more about the way that those notes are executed. Professionals and amateurs alike, as drummers our job is to be a master time-keeper.
A lot of new students want to learn things like rudiments, reading, and coordination, but rarely ask about groove. It seems to a missing element from the minds of many musicians. But what I’ve found is that what a lot of students need help with is learning how to groove. While I do teach the fundamentals to my students to make sure they have the necessary skills to achieve their goals, I am constantly pushing the importance of developing a sense of groove.
In an ideal world we would always have a stellar musicians to play with who can teach us the art of the groove. But these days there aren’t as many opportunities for musicians to gig regularly, and so more time must be spent alone practicing.
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.
Did you notice how I put “Practice to groovy songs” first, and “Practice to a metronome” second? It’s because for me, nothing beats learning groove right from the source, which is from my favourite groove masters. But practicing to a metronome definitely has its benefits and a lot can be learned from concentrated practice with a click.
This will also prepare you for studio drumming, as you may be required to record while playing along to a click track.
Play to different types of subdivisions. Quarter notes are fine, but there are dozens of ways you can practice along to a metronome. I will soon be making a video on this topic and will post here. So keep checking back!
Practice to Drum Samples
Most recording programs come with great drum loops that you can use for your practice sessions. Like a metronome but with a bit more of an organic feel to it, and these loops are usually played by world-class drummers so you’ll be playing along to a repetitive masterfully played drum groove. Check out programs such as Garageband, or Ableton Live for programs that are easy to learn and that include drum looping capabilities. You can also get into programming your own drum grooves to play along to. This will only deepen your understanding of what a groove is, as you will have to use your intuition and your ear to make danceable repeated patterns.
You can also find some great drum loops online, from some of the top drummers. One of my favourites is Mark Guiliana's loop pack from the Loop Loft. He plays some heavy grooves, some are challenging and others are more straight-forward.
Who is your favourite drummer? Learn songs that they played on and then record yourself playing along to the song. Listen to the original and then listen to yourself. Yes, this step hurts. It will always hurt to listen to the great drummers and then your own drumming immediately afterwards. But the more you do it the more you will see progress. Put your head down and get to work! It’s the only way you will truly see the progress that you desire.
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 it more important to play perfectly in time or to make a beat feel good? If you choose the latter then that is correct! Listen to many classic recordings up until the 1970s and you will hear deviations in the tempos, but only if you listen to the beginning of a song and then the end of a song. Otherwise, when the feel is correct, you’ll be hard pressed to hear it in the song. Why? Because the drummer was making the groove feel good that deviations lose their importance.
Here's a video of me trying to make it feel good, while jamming to Nate Smith's tune "Pavement" on his solo drum album "Pocket Change"
Thanks Nate for being a huge inspiration!
Groove isn’t just about how deep your sense of pocket is, but it also has to do with how you execute and articulate the notes you are playing. There is a huge difference between playing a groove and playing a groove that has feeling to move millions of people. Do you want to be the drummer to play that groove that people recognize within 3 or 4 seconds of hearing it? (Sunday Bloody Sunday?????).
A simple and fun exercise is to play a groove and then work on controlling the dynamics of each individual limb. This can be difficult at first, but keep at it and you’ll soon see results.
Another great exercise for getting command over your groove is to practice playing crescendos and decrescendos with the entire beat, to improve your control of all the limbs as a unit (check out example "d").
Set the click at 60bpm (or slower) and play quarter notes with all four limbs in unison. Do this for a minimum of 5 minutes at a time, or, if you are disciplined enough, for up to 30 minute. Focus on getting the notes right into the groove. Don’t rush or slow down. Stay relaxed and in the pocket, making it sound even and fluid.
Feel the space between each note and do not rush to the next as it will disrupt that sense of space. It can take some time to feel a deep groove, but be patient and it will come. It might feel a little bit boring to do this, but that’s where the discipline aspect comes in. Are you a disciplined person? If not then this exercise might not be for you. But at least try it a couple of times first.
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.