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How to Develop Groove in Your Playing

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Groove gives music life. It has an influence on others that gets them moving and swaying and dancing to the music. It makes music more memorable, and is one of the ingredients that evokes emotions in others. How to Drum defines it like this: “Groove is basically the swing and flow of a beat or song. If a beat has a good feel to it, it has good groove.” Learning to feel what you’re playing, and play with feel is an important step for every musician.

Learning to play with groove comes with experience - it is a skill that needs to be learned. It comes more easily for some than others. Here are some practical hints that may help.

1. Count with the Music

Music is made up of recurring patterns of beats - most commonly patterns of four. You need to be able to feel where those patterns start and finish. Learning to count out loud with the music really helps here.

How to Drum explains:

Before you can start grooving to any beat, you must feel the pulse of the pattern. This takes a bit of practice. Listen to the pattern and try to count the quarter notes in your head. Developing your internal clock is what every drummer needs to do. When you can feel the pulse of the song, you will be able to play around it, as well as accent certain notes and beats.

2. Move to the Music

If you want others to move to your music, it helps if you move to it yourself. While you count, tap your foot, sway your body, nod your head or wave your arms. It will help you feel the music, and also help you to play in time.

Tommy Emmanuel plays with incredible groove, and in his tutorial videos recommends moving as you play your instrument as the key ingredient for playing with groove. I’ll let Tommy explain it himself:

3. Loosen Up

If you feel tight and mechanical, you’ll sound that way too. If your fingers, wrists and muscles in general are tense, you’ll find it hard to put those little variations into your playing that are so important to groove.

Lots of people agree here:

  • “Tension inhibits movement, which makes you slow and sloppy. Speed and precision come from loose and relaxed muscles, a light grip, and stress-free posture.” (David Barnes)
  • “The common denominator and most important aspect of “Proper Drum Technique” is a natural, relaxed, comfortable motion that produces the desired sound as effortlessly as possible. I consider a motion to be “natural” when its movement gives the fullest range of motion, least resistance, and the most relaxation.” (Tom Mendola)
  • “There are a few things that are always true when we are unable to play something we want to play on the guitar. One of the things that you will always find, if you look for it, is what is called uncontrolled muscle tension.” (Guitar Lovers)

4. Drummer’s Dance

The “drummer’s dance” puts many of these points together, and may work for you even if you’re not a drummer! A couple of years ago my son was a bit tense when he played drums, so his teacher encouraged him to do a drummer’s dance as he played. It essentially comes down to moving your body to what you feel from your playing. Besides being great for performance, it really does help with groove - it encouraged my son to relax his muscles and find the feel of his own drumming.

I haven’t been able to find any more information on the drummer’s dance - if you know anything about it, let us know in the comments. Scenes from the movie Drumline come to mind.

5. Jam with Others

For some of you, setting up a home recording studio has robbed you of a social life. Well, it’s time to get one back again. Learning to play with others is an important musical skill, and really helps in learning to play with groove. If you can’t find any real friends, then jam along to your favorite songs.

Playing with others for fun or performance gets your mind of being technically correct and perfect. It also teaches you to play something that fits in with what the others are playing, and to think about the roles each musician is playing. And playing with someone who has a good feel is one of the best ways of picking it up yourself.

6. Learn to Listen

When playing with others, learning to listen to one another will help in improving your sound and feel than anything else. You learn to complement one another’s playing by blending or contrasting with what others are doing. And you’ll never learn to play with groove together unless you can hear and feel what the others are feeling.

A bass guitarist needs to listen to the kick drum and lock in with what it is doing. A rhythm guitarist can often find inspiration in what the snare drums are doing. A keyboard player or lead guitarist can add interesting phrases when the other instruments are less busy. And you can learn to make room for one another’s playing - to drop down on what you are doing so that someone else can take over.

7. Use Eye Contact

Eye contact can help with this too. I rely on eye contact more and more as my tinnitus gets louder. I can watch the way the other musicians are moving their bodies, and move mine in sympathy - it really helps in picking up the feel of their playing.

I can watch the drum stick hitting the hi hat and the rhythm guitarist strumming. Using eye contact helps me to focus so we can stay sharp as a group. And it makes it easier to communicate a change in direction if we are looking at each other.

Of course, you don’t want to ignore the audience and stare at one another, or give each other the evil eye - though I do often try to make the other band members smile. But when I’m playing in a group, I make sure I look at the other musicians fairly regularly - especially the person who is leading the way with the rhythm.

8. Don’t Emphasize Every Note

Groove comes by emphasizing some beats more than others, and anticipating or holding back on certain notes. Playing every note with the same intensity is mechanical, boring and lifeless.

A rock beat emphasizes the back beat - beats 2 and 4. Experiment with emphasizing different beats, or emphasizing half a beat early or half a beat late. If you take a chord progression from a familiar song and emphasize different beats, it will sound like a whole new song.

9. Leave Gaps in the Rhythm

Incorporate some silence into your playing. Besides emphasizing some beats and playing the others quieter, silence on the occasional beat can add an extra flavor, and give the groove a different feel.

From time to time during a song have all of the instruments abruptly stop playing for a beat or two - or even a whole bar. The effect can be very dramatic.

As an old friend Glenn often says, “Less is more.”

10. Play Longer

My son started drumming at age six. He quickly learned a few basic drum patterns, and played them for a few bars and stopped, then played again for a few bars and stopped. I imagine a lot of playing in home studios is like that - record a four-bar lick and stop; record a eight-bar rhythm and stop.

I challenged my son not to stop after every few bars, but to keep playing the same pattern for a few minutes. He found it very difficult at first, but after persevering for a week or two started to get the hang of it. Besides helping with finger memory (or stick memory?), it helped him to start feeling what he was playing.

How important is groove in the music you produce? How do you achieve it? If you have some tips to add to the list, let us know in the comments.

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