Good drumming should be underrated…
Musicians often talk about groove, for example, “that drummer has a great groove,” or, “I’m trying to set up the groove and stay in it,” but what exactly do they mean? In this post I will discuss groove and provide exercises to work on to improve your “groove“.
If you listen to a great drummer with great groove you will notice they have a great sound (they create appropriate and pleasing tones from their instruments), they have great time (the tempo of the song doesn’t speed up or down unmusically), they have a great feel (a term used often interchangeably with groove), but again, what does this all mean?
Groove is the sum of at least five things (in no particular order):
- Unison coordination,
- Reliable subdivisions,
- Good time,
- Appropriate feel,
- Good sound.
Let’s begin discussing each of the above aspects of groove.
1. Unison coordination.
Unison literally means “corresponding exactly“. Playing two drums (or cymbals) at the same time means you are playing in unison. But how do we know if our hands or feet are ever playing at exactly the same time? If you recorded your playing and slowed it down you might find that the bass drum and hi hat are not precisely played at the same time. Achieving unison playing is an ongoing process of refining our playing. The goal is to play two instruments and create one sound from both at the same time. The better your unison playing; the more groove!
The following exercise will improve your unisons. Focus on lining up all instruments that are played at the same time when doing this exercise. 40 BPM or slower is recommended; this gives you the ability to hear if you aren’t playing in unison.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE EXERCISE: The Four Unison Systems are to be played with one bar of the Nineteen Bass Drum Melodies at a time. Use a log book and write down what you get through every day so that the next day you can resume from where you left off. If you can do two bass drum melodies each day you will see improvement very quickly! Be careful to start with easy combinations to get the ball rolling; i.e. don’t combine triplet melodies with sixteenth note systems on day one!
Four Unison Systems.
Nineteen Bass Drum Melodies.
2 Reliable subdivisions.
Subdivisions are the space between the beat. In common time there are four beats to the bar. We can subdivide these beats with eighth notes to count 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + like this:
Eighth Note Beat.
Or we could subdivide the beats with sixteenth notes to count 1 e + d 2 e + d 3 e + d 4 e + d. For example:
Sixteenth Note Beat.
In each example above there are different divisions of the beat. Conveniently the eighth note beat overlaps with the sixteenth note beat so there will be many occasions in music where going between the two will be a musically possible option, however consider the following shuffle rhythms that are notated differently:
Each of these, as written, sounds different. If the song required the drummer to play the first type, but the drummer occasionally slipped in to playing the second one, the groove would suffer. The first rhythm has a completely different feel (defined shortly) than the second one. This means if you are playing, for example, a jazz ride cymbal pattern, and the ‘skip’ note (the + after the 2 or 4; played on the last of a group of triplets) is consistently placed every time, it is reliable. Every time you play that rhythm, the skip note is always exactly on the last of a group of three triplets. This reliability adds to your groove.
The following exercise will improve your reliability. Count STRONGLY. This cannot be overstated.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE EXERCISE: Play each line many times until you are completely locked in with the metronome. Count out loud at all times. When you are playing a line completely in time begin to count the next line while playing your current line. Then make the seamless transition to the next line. Keep counting out loud. Continue this to the bottom and then go back up! I suggest starting at 60 BPM. This exercise is commonly known as The Table Of Time. It is found in many drum books and expanded upon too.
Table Of Time.
Keeping a steady beat is the most important thing a drummer can do. But it is just one aspect of groove. Whereas the previous point was looking at subdivisions (the space between the beats 1 2 3 4), good time refers to the ongoing beat itself. The counts 1 2 3 4 shouldn’t speed up or slow down unmusically. I say unmusically for now leaving open the possibility for a future discussion on musical time keeping (pushing/pulling the beat). Keeping the tempo throughout the song will add to your groove.
The following exercises will improve your time:
- Always work with a metronome when possible.
- Turn the metronome down to the lowest possible common denominator when working on exercises. For example, if you are working on a page of drum beats from a book at 100BPm, turn it down to 50 BPM and play the same as you previously were. Now you are getting less help, and your “Big Time” (a Billy Ward concept), will be improved. This is your ability to feel the time in larger values rather than relying on keeping time on a note-by-note basis; rather you can “feel” the tempo.
- Play with a real band. Listen for the tempo, try to feel if it speeds up or slows down. Try to identify if a musician is speeding up of slowing down (but don’t try to confirm this with them after the song is finished –without tact– unless you want to make your next project a one man band!)
4 Having appropriate feel.
Musicians throw the word feel around, almost always meaning a slightly different thing. Some people will claim they can learn an instrument by feel alone, but those who say this and are successful are far and few between, the only ones I’ve met, have been highly perceptive and unique. With a bit of guidance they might have gotten to the same point a lot quicker! But I digress…
Feel is almost a subjective term so let’s define it. The feel is created by the subdivisions, tempo, time signature (pulse & metre), sound, lyrical content, and more occurring in the song. This term is almost interchangeable with groove, so let’s specifically talk about the subdivisions in a given song or even style of music.
A rock song like T.N.T. by AC/DC has a different subdivision than a shuffle by B. B. King. Playing the correct subdivisions in each of these songs is crucial to achieving the feeling that the band in question is known for. On a more subtle level, the subdivision of a big band swing track is hugely different to a New Orleans second line rhythm. Even a Texas blues shuffle has a different subdivision to a Chicago shuffle. Drummers even go as far as to analyse individual drummers for their specific feel; i.e. Tony Williams versus Art Blakey.
The following exercises will help you improve your feel:
- Listen to lots of music in all styles. This will give you a big picture of how different styles sound against each other. It also gives you a deeper picture of each style itself and identifies to you the subtleties within it.
- Getting a good teacher to explain the technique and concepts behind different musical styles. For example, Daniel Glass gave me a great lesson that I had heard from many great teachers before (I guess it just took the drummer from Royal Crown Revue to convince me it was a good idea!): The jazz ride cymbal pattern should emphasise the quarter note pulse; be careful not to accent the 2 and 4. Then developing the physical hand technique to do this required a teacher in front of me to demonstrate it. Maybe you could search youtube, but this is just but one example. The best thing you could do is find a good teacher in your area.
5 Good Sound.
This point might be possibly the easiest and hardest to address. Having a good sounding instrument and making it produce good sounds will improve your groove. Be careful though because simply spending lots of money on a nice drum kit won’t get you called back to the gig if you can’t play it well.
Creating a good sound is a must for a professional drummer, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to spend top dollar on equipment. Buying expensive equipment will offer tonal superiority however even with a more budget set of drums, cymbals, and hardware, the drummer can achieve a good sound by focussing on a variety of things. Many of these could require blog posts of their own but I will mention a few here which you can google for more information on:
- bass drum technique,
- snare technique,
- stick choice,
- cymbal choice,
- rims (die cast or triple flanged),
- head choice,
- recording choices and/or mic’ing techniques, et cetera.
The list really goes on.