Groove… It’s a word we hear a lot as musicians. This guys got a “good groove”, that gals got “groove”, etc. But what does it really mean to groove? And how can we be sure we are grooving, and what can we do to improve our groove? Good questions! I shall do my best to shed some light on this mystical word, and share the things I look for to make sure I’m keeping things… just like Ash said… “groovy”.
First things first, let’s take a look at the actual word itself. What does the word groove actually mean? Well, in its simplest form, it means space. Imagine a machine cog. The kind you would generally see on the inside of a mechanical watch. It will usually be a round disc, and the edges will be full of “teeth”. And the way you get those teeth is to cut “grooves” into the round disc. So in this case, the groove is literally a space that has been cut out of the disc, in order to produce teeth that can fit into the “groove’s” of other cogs.
Hmmm… interesting… a groove is a space that allows other machine cogs to fit and work together. And that my friends, is how a well oiled, “groovy” band works. Everyone leaves enough space for the other “cogs” to fit in place, and everyone knows where they fit in the machine, and what role they play.
On the other side, you would have a band full of people not caring about leaving any space, not caring about where they fit in the band and simply playing in a completely selfish manner. Probably trying to constantly show off and play as many fancy things as possible. It just creates a big old mess, and it’s definitely the opposite to “groovy”. Therefore, a groove is a team effort. That doesn’t mean a musician can’t groove on their own, but it’s much more appreciated when the band plays together.
The groove is not some kind of magical spell or mystical force that just “happens” under the right conditions when the planets align, and the Mayan calendar say’s it’s “groovsday”! It’s a feeling and a sound we deliberately create as individuals and as a band. “So what’s the secret recipe?” I hear you say. Well, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the most important ingredients to cook up a groovy gravy.
Ok, so the question is… can you groove at faster tempos? Well, yes. Of course you can! But if we remember what the word “groove” really means, then we can begin to realize that leaving space will become increasingly difficult the faster we play. The less space we leave for other musicians (or machine cogs), the less chance of grooving we have. When we play at slower tempos, it’s easy to leave spaces to invite the groove. We can play more complicated beats, with bass drum variations, ghost notes,etc… and still be able to leave those spaces available. However, when we start to speed things up, the more we complicate things, the harder to leave space it will become.
If we take a listen to the old school Motown, soul, and funk tunes, we find that a lot of the time, the faster tracks will have very simple beats. 8 beats on the hi-hat, 4 on the bass drum and 2 on the snare. No ghost notes, no fancy fills, no fluff… just groove. But when we slow things down a bit, such as in the “Purdie shuffle” for example, we can hear there is quite a lot going off. But because the tempo is slower, there is still that space and room to breathe we need in order for the groove God’s to bless us with their magic.
The right beat at the right time will sound groovy. But the same beat at the wrong time will just sound strange. Again, it’s all about fitting in with the rest of the band. If the others are playing a shuffle, and you start a straight rock 4, you’re in trouble.
Less obvious are the little things. the bass drum pattern, the hi-hat or ride rhythm, the ghost notes or lack of… are all involved with creating a beat that will either contribute or detract from the rest of the band. Now again, this is a team effort, so it’s not just up to the drummer to make sure the beat matches. It’s up to the whole band to be on the same page. But we can only achieve this symbiosis when we are aware of our surroundings. If we bury our heads into our instrument and just focus on what we want to hear, then we have got no chance. But if we are constantly paying attention and listening out for that group sound, then we can adjust and make subtle changes whenever we need to. And even though they are subtle, they can be the make it or break it details when building a juicy groove.
The dynamics refer to how hard we hit, and the volumes we achieve. But it doesn’t just refer to the overall volume of the drums, it refers to everything individually. From the different volumes of the song parts, like verse, chorus, etc… all the way to the different volumes of the stick strikes on the hi-hat.
Each individual drum has its own dynamic range. When we play a double kick on the bass drum (not a double pedal), we can completely change the feel by changing the dynamics of the two kicks. We can play them both at the same volume, or we can make the first a little softer than the second giving it a little more “feel”. And the same can be said for the rest of the kit. Ghost notes, for example, can change the feel of the groove very easily. And the hi-hat especially is very susceptible to a wide dynamic range. You can be playing a rock 4, and change the feel by making every hit the same volume, or have it “pulse” with one soft and one hard. And if you flip the hard and soft beats around, from the upbeat to the downbeat, now you have a completely different feel again.
All of these things will contribute (or detract) from the feel in order to create a certain groove. And again, as team players, we need to base our decisions of how to groove on what the needs of the rest of the band are.
The bulk of the groove is usually felt when we play a beat, but that doesn’t mean that a fill can’t be groovy. If you are trying to create a nice groove, but every 4 bars (or even less) you crash cymbals and do long fancy fills, the groove will be dead in no time.
Just like the other factors, a fill can either add or subtract from your groove. Too many fills, too long, and too fancy can all be a death sentence to your groove. But just enough, the right length, and with a nice dynamic range can not only keep your groove alive but embellish it nicely. If you have a nice “pulse” going on your hi-hat, striking the downbeat harder than the upbeat, then keeping this “pulse” going through the fills will help to maintain the groove where it is.
A cymbal crash an easily stop a groove dead in its tracks. The reason is, if you recall, we mentioned that a groove is literally a space. Well, a crash will completely drown out any space at all. Now I don’t mean that you can’t use a crash if you want to groove, it’s the where and the how that matter. If you crash every 2 bars (I see this happen waaaaayyyy too often!), then you will be killing your groove every 2 bars (that’s supposing you had one in the first place!), and facing the daunting task of trying to bring your groove back to life again, just before another 2 bars go by, where you will be killing it off again. So why to put in all that work, all those hours of practice, just to drown it all out with cymbal crashes all the time.
So it’s just like the expression “in the pocket”. In order to allow the rest of the band to fit “in the pocket”, then we need to leave enough room.
Some say that groove is the intelligent use of rhythm. Some say is the use of the notes and beats. But if you ask me, I would say that groove is the use of space. What you don’t play, is as important (or more) than what you do play.
So keep it steady, keep it simple, keep the whole band on the same page, and until next time… keep it groovy.