Got Groove?

  • 03/18/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

The first time I played in a band, I was in high school. I had been playing guitar for about a year and was jamming with some good friends that were at a similar skill level to mine with bass and drums. We wrote a number of songs, played in front of people every chance we got, and saved up a bunch of money between the three of us to make a recording.

I remember practicing as a band in preparation for that first recording session. We made sure we all knew our parts and hit our notes. We had this idea that we wanted to "keep it real." To us, this meant not designating a set time for guitar solos, maybe taking a drum solo if the urge set in, but it also meant that we wanted energy to come out of our songs before perfection. We were filling our brains with Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Clapton as well as the 'grunge' scene greats: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam. Every one of these bands represented something that we wanted for our music in one way or another -- the 19-minute jams of live Zeppelin, the simplicity and angst of Nirvana, the sophisticated riffs and soaring melodies of Soundgarden, the smooth, yet piercing nature of Clapton's Blues... (I'm sure anybody could go on for pages about their favorite musical heroes). We had our heroes, our songs, and our practice hours and were ready to make our record.

And then first recording session started...

I still remember squinting my eyes in dismay and my stomach sinking after hearing my band recorded for the first time. We were awful!! This was NOT what I thought I heard in practice and was certainly not what I kept hearing in my head. We laid down three songs in our first day of recording and at the end of the day, the engineer gave me a rough, unmixed copy of all three songs to listen to until our next scheduled session.

I went home, put the rough mixes on 'repeat' and my discouragement began to grow. I knew something was wrong with the music, I just wasn't sure what it was. I knew we weren't finished and that a 'real' mix would probably help them somewhat, but I had this nagging feeling that we were not near as 'good' as we thought we were. We were in tune, on pitch, generally in time and I was hearing all the parts we practiced, but it just wasn't right... and it was very frustrating. After all, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) wasn't doing anything I couldn't play or sing. What was it that made their stuff work, and mine so bad (besides the millions of dollars behind the CD I purchased at Best Buy)?

I got out a pad and paper and started writing down words or phrases that came to mind as I started critiquing my recordings. My plan was to share these thoughts with the engineer at the beginning of our next recording session to see if he had any insights. I remember writing down stuff like: floppy, dead, uneasy, no backbone, spongy... After about the 10th 'repeat' of my songs, I took the disc out, popped in some Zeppelin and went to sleep.

We arrived for our second session the next day and the first thing I did after setting up our gear was hand the engineer my list. I halfway expected him to get mad and deliver lines like: "it's only your first day... wait till we've fixed some stuff... wait till its mixed." Instead, he put our recording up on the speakers, listened back for a couple minutes without responding at all (those were long minutes) and then finally stopped the music, nodded his head and said: "Yep... You got no groove!"

I'd heard the term "groove" before, but it was in the context of Soul, R&B, or Rap. We were a rock band! Screw the "groove"... we're supposed to rock!! When I heard "groove," I thought of a cheap keyboard spitting out ridiculous sounding, fake drumbeats while some guy walked aimlessly around a stage trying to keep his pants from falling down. Resisting the urge to argue with my engineer (who I thought I might be paying too much for at this point), I simply responded ,"huh?", hoping he was on to something that could help our band out.

He suggested I take a seat right next to him and he started playing back one of the songs. He had everything muted except for my rhythm guitar. "How does it sound?" he asked. I responded with a monotone "fine." Then he started the song over playing nothing but the drums back followed by the same question, which received my same response. He did the same thing for the bass and my vocals. He then played the whole track back to me again and after the first minute of the song, he said, "now what do you think?" Feeling like we should be getting somewhere at this point, I simply pointed to my list that was sitting on the desk. It was interesting though, the only time I got that 'uneasy' feeling was when he played all the tracks back at once. Played back one by one, they seemed raw and naked, but not uneasy. The engineer slid his chair over gesturing for me to take his spot and do some tweaking on the board. I didn't know what I was doing, but I turned things up and down, muted and un-muted, turned knobs and slid faders. I wasn't really getting anywhere so I turned to him and asked him what his 'muting exercise' was supposed to teach me.

He responded by playing the song again, this time with the guitars and vocals muted leaving just the drums and bass. "Does listening to this make you feel uneasy?" He asked. "YES!" I fired back, feeling like we might be narrowing down the problem. After all, my guitar playing wasn't in the mix and it still felt uneasy! They were playing basically together and hitting their parts, but it didn't feel right. He drew my attention to the computer monitor and zoomed in to the individual hits from the kick drum and bass guitar. Even the ones that were supposed to be played on the same beat were slightly off from each other. "Is this normal?" I asked. "Sort of" he replied. "Notice how, in general, your bass player's notes happen slightly before each kick drum hit. Now look at your rhythm guitar." ...Gulp... (Which was a strummed acoustic line for the song we were examining) He brought my guitar track in to view along with the snare drum track. 'Seeing' my music in terms of waveforms was new to me at this point so I wasn't quite sure what I was looking for. There were some hits that were aligned, and others that were not, but, as with the nature of acoustic guitars, there were a lot more peaks.

The engineer pointed out some of the largest peaks on the acoustic guitar as accents and asked me to grab my guitar and play the chord progression with the same strum pattern I had used on the recording the day before. As I was playing, he started tapping on the desk and narrating:

"This is what your drummer is playing... I want you to adjust your strum pattern so that every time my right hand hits the desk hard, you are accenting it with the guitar on a down stroke... not too much now... keep it mild. Now, simplify the strum pattern so that it is more of a straight 16th note pattern... strum softer overall... put more emphasis on the "a" of 2", do you feel yourself rushing?... pull back a little... here comes a fill, ride it forward on the beat with your drummer... (some of this didn't make sense to me at all).

After a few more suggestions he stopped playing the desk and hit 'play' on our song with the drums soloed. I began to play along with the drums using my modified strum pattern and started to notice a sense of convergence. The drums and guitar started to feel like they were working together a little more instead of just existing together. He un-muted the bass and it all fell apart. "What happened?" He zoomed in on the bass and kick tracks and reminded me that the bass seemed to be playing slightly ahead of the kick drum. Then, he took the bass track and moved it. He moved the whole thing so that most of the bass notes were hitting with or slightly behind the kick drum... another step forward!

My band mates, who were in another room were getting antsy. I went in and started to try and explain what I was hearing and feeling about our recordings. They joined us in the control room and we all spent the next 45 minutes or so just listening to some of our favorite CDs with commentary from our engineer. He was picking apart things about the songs I'd never even thought to listen to. I still remember a few of the things he pointed out:

"Notice how the vocals are pulling back in time here, but then at the end of the phrase, they seem to push the beat as the band moves in to the chorus." ("Superunknown" by Soundgarden -- commenting on the end of the 2nd verse "If this isn't making sense...It doesn't make it lies...")

"Listen to how the snare drum feels like its pulling back the reigns of the song every time it hits. Bonham is intentionally hitting the snare slightly behind the beat." ("Since I've Been Loving You" by Led Zeppelin)

"Here, on this song, the drums sound like they are driving the groove forward whereas the guitars seem to be on the back of the beat. ("Song by Lenny Kravitz)

"The reason this guitar solo reaches into your stomach and squeezes your insides is partly because of the note choices, but listen to how Ross Childress plays around the beat... Pulling back where it makes sense emotionally to pull back... pushing the beat as the notes climb... holding that 'top of the run' note just a little longer than a robot would so make it penetrate the listener... pushing those double stops as if reving up an engine"..."There are moments of uneasienss, but those are followed with moments of satisfaction as a listener." (Guitar solo on "Shine" by Collective Soul)

Well we weren't recording, even though we were paying for recording time that morning, but that hour or so was one of the most beneficial and critical times for me as a musician. I'd never thought about music in this way before. I knew it was good to listen to each band member as you were playing. I had the basics of arranging a song for a band, thought I could play on tempo, but I didn't even think to listen to WHERE things were happening with in the beat. This was a much more intentional way of making music. It seemed almost surgical or clinical, but the things my engineer was pointing out in my favorite songs made perfect sense.

"Should we re-record the songs we did to a click? Would that help?" I asked. "Well, playing to a click track helps you stay on tempo and can help all of you get in the groove, but it won't put you in the groove." He continued... "Every guitar part, every drum hit, and every bass line has a specific 'place' within each beat. It's important to find parts that fit well together rhythmically, but it goes beyond that. Every instrument has a sweet spot, and this sweet spot can change song-by-song, groove-by-groove, and definitely varies by genre. This variance within the beat is called "Pocket." When each instrument is playing in the right place for the song with respect to the other musicians, the players are said to be "in the pocket" and the result is a strong groove! The uneasiness you feel when listening back to your recordings comes from each one of you jumping outside the pocket with respect to the other instruments. That's why things seem floppy, disjointed and drab when you listen to the whole mix."

Understanding that this was only the beginning for us as musicians, we took what our engineer had said to heart and got ready to start recording again. We had already laid down our basic tracks and didn't have the budget to throw away a day's worth of time to re-do everything. I did re-play a few guitar parts, and the bass player fixed a few parts where he felt especially inconsistent, but thanks to great audio editing (yes even in 1998) we were able to reduce our floppiness and sound a little tighter. That first recording project wasn't anything I would hold up as a great representation of my work, but it was a catalyst for me as guitarist and a band leader. Getting a grasp on this groove stuff meant I could help other musicians hear the same things, and ultimately, I would get to be a part of creating better sounding music! So, my quest to understand groove continued. Since that recording, I've run in to a number of bits of information, 'hands-on' experience and cool situations that have helped me really understand what it means to groove. Here are some tips as you're learning to groove, or perfecting your pocket as a guitar player.

Start to Develop a Pocket Conscience.

You may already have this, but you might not know it. If you feel uneasy when listening to a live band or recording, but are not quite sure why, you've got the beginnings (just as I discovered) but you need to develop it more. As you're listening to 'pro' bands or artists, try to train your ear to listen to each part individually but in context with the other parts of the song. This can be difficult because you're not just trying to figure out a guitar part, so you can't just hone in on one part and ignore what the other band members are doing. It's almost like you have to turn up the part you're focusing on mentally but keep one ear on the rest of the band. For example, you've got a cool bluesy groove happening between a bass player, a single guitar and a drummer with a couple other filler instruments sitting in. Start to listen for where you hear each musician playing within the beat. If it's a slower, laid back, 6/8 feel, the drummer is probably playing the snare just behind the click track each time it is played. The kick should be right on the beat, toms fills should drag behind just slightly as should cymbals. The hi hat will have a groove within it itself, ebbing and flowing depending on whether it hits with the kick or snare. The bass player will be laying back with the snare drum for his whole groove which will place most of his notes barely behind the kick drum because the kick is right on the beat. If there was piano, it would generally lay back, but would get to take liberty and push with fluttery runs that add flavor, but not too much or it starts to sound amateur -- even if the run is awesome! Organ can get away with pushing the beat a little more than piano and guitar. Horn players can be pretty late if they are providing fills, but must be right on if they are following a rhythmic line.What does this mean for a guitarist? If you were the player, should you lay back with the snare, or be right on top with the kick and hat? Should the pocket be different for lead playing? It's totally a 'feel' thing but generally, the rhythm playing should lay back with the snare (in this type of groove). It's REALLY easy to unintentionally push the beat on slow bluesy numbers because so much of the band is holding back the tempo. When playing over tracks like this, I find it easier to play lead because there is more flexibility and artistic interpretation acceptable with the pocket of a solo. With a solo or vocal line, you can be all over the place, and really work your pocket to add emotion to your playing. This partially why slow blues is so fun to solo over. You can use familiar shapes and licks from the great players of our time, and you have such a wide pocket, you can pull way back to make people tense up and then blast them with something just ahead of the beat before you hit that golden note at the top and the listeners are left saying: "oh yeah..." and nodding their heads slowly with a look of satisfaction on their faces. It's definitely still possible to go over the top and sound like you don't really fit with the cool, calm collected band behind you though.

Let's look at a different type of feel: The driving, faster paced 16th note progressive rock feel. Here, the drummer is going to push the snare to move the beat forward with a sense of urgency and the kick is going to be the one pulling back just a bit, not near as much as the snare would pull in the slow blues number, but still lays back enough to anchor the groove. The hi-hat pushes the beat along with the snare and the fills can push forward just a little to give a little energy boost when appropriate. In this type of groove, the rhythm guitarist should try to fit his timing right between the pushed snare and anchored kick. You're not pushing as much as the snare, but not pulling back quite as much as the kick. One could say that you should then be right on the click track if you're using one, but I find that thinking just ahead of the beat gives a sense of authority and tightness to the rhythms as long as the bass player is pulling back with the kick a little, especially with riff-oriented rhythms. Unlike the slow blues genre, the leads in straight, up-tempo rock tend to be very 'quantized feeling,' or right on the beat. One of the biggest mistakes people make with this type of groove is pushing their leads. Because the rest of the track is so urgent feeling, soloists tend to create a run-a-way train feel with faster solos because they get caught up in the groove. It's very important to think right on top of the beat here, especially when adding a bunch of notes. On the other hand, being too behind the beat creates the feeling that the lead guitar player isn't keeping up with the energy... it's a tightrope!

Medium tempo rock has its own challenges, especially if the tune is really 'strummy.' That 'Third Eye Blind' feel might sound simple, but it can be one of the most difficult things to nail as a band. In my own playing, I have found that laying down a simple rhythm acoustic guitar part, and getting it to lay right in the pocket is by far one of my biggest musical challenges. I think one of the reasons medium tempo stuff is so hard to nail is because there are no extremes. Everything is right in the middle. You can't pull back like you can in a slow blues 3/4 or 6/8 feel, and the track doesn't scream precision either like a driving up-tempo song. Since it doesn't strongly suggest one direction or another for pocket placement, it takes awhile to determine just how you should be thinking as you approach the track. Since this is the choice genre/feel for many singer/songwriters, the groove becomes secondary to the song which unfortunate because a poor groove will kill a great song. While every song presents its own unique pocket, there are general guidelines I try to start with when I'm playing a medium tempo rock song.

If its a straight feel (no triplets, not a lot of anticipated notes) I generally try to play rhythms right on top of the beat... maybe just ever so slightly behind so that I'm on the safe side. Leads or riffs tend to be on or behind in the pocket. Pushing with a solo over a medium tempo number always makes me want to get out of my chair and walk around nervously looking for something else to occupy my mind. Regardless of whether I feel the drummer pushing or pulling the groove, I tend to think a little behind the beat with my strummed acoustic guitar because I find that if I don't, I end up rushing to the point of severe discomfort to my ears.

If the song has a swing feel, I always think behind the beat as a rhythm player. A lot of the time, I'm playing clean riff-laden chord type material over this type of groove and it feels much better when played slightly behind the beat. I shoot for my leads to generally pull back but have very precise "on-the-beat" moments... hitting right with the snare and cymbal crashes. There's also some flexibility to push your solos along with an aggressive drum fill to add to the tension, but you have to be careful.

The beauty, fun and challenge of determining the pocket that is best for the overall groove of the song is that it truly is as unique as creating the song itself. These generalities are a GREAT place to start, but it’s your refined groove consciousness that's going to help you identify how you need to drive or pull back in any given situation. As both a rhythm and lead player, your role in the groove should ALWAYS be at the forefront of your mind when playing with others, just as much as any note choice, lick or lyric. More than anything else, its what separates "just okay but kinda awkward" players from, really good ones!

It should also be on your mind as you're practicing. If you can, practice to a drum machine instead of a click track because you can practice pushing or pulling back while listening to the interaction between the different drum parts, even if they are programmed. Using backing tracks for rhythm playing is often overlooked. We're used playing solos and developing melodies or partaking in gymnastics! This is great, but keep in mind that for most players, you're holding down a rhythm part for most of each song. Take some time to develop rhythm lines over backing tracks. In many cases, you can use the same tracks you use for your leads.

You can develop your groove conscience simply by listening to music as well. The next time you've got your music player on for a car ride or trip, try to feel out where each instrument is playing in the groove. Think in terms like "just ahead" or "just behind" the beat. When it comes time to play for yourself, your listening will pay off because you can compare the grooves you are playing to some of the grooves you've likely listened to recently.

Find a Great Drummer and Play with Him Regularly!

You can listen to great grooves all day, and you can practice till your blue in the face with backing tracks, drum machines and click tracks, but nothing helps you develop a great sense of pocket better than regularly jamming with a drummer who understands how to groove. If he/she knows when to pull time with the snare or drive the kick, you'll get to FEEL exactly what this whole article has been talking about and it'll knock you upside the face. It's a great feeling and it will cause you to drastically step up your game as a rhythm player.

Here's a great exercise to do with your drummer:
-Pick 3 songs to learn -- one from each of the three 'feels' discussed above.

-Listen to them together and discuss what you hear each part doing within the groove.

-Identify a metronome tempo and leave it on the whole time you're playing.

-Practice it up, and then record what you've created.

-Listen back to it and compare your groove to the feel of the original song. Identify differences. You may have done something even cooler than the original as you were feeling the song out together. Or maybe you're floppy! Given what's been discussed here, try to identify why. Who is pushing too much and where? Should the snare really pull back as much as it is? Are you rushing your acoustic guitar playing? Is your fast run too behind the beat? Are you leaving enough space in the slower number... Playing around with the pocket to create emotional moments?

If you can't find a GOOD drummer to regularly play with, sequenced drums WITH groove built in to them work well - not NEARLY as cool as playing with the real thing, but better than playing to a perfectly robotic drum part or metronome. Software programs such as Toontrack's EZ Drummer are great because you can zoom in and examine the midi information to see exactly what the groove is doing. In other words, you can actually look at the midi track and see that snare is consistently slightly off the beat and if it is pushing or pulling. You can look at each part of the kit and identify what the drummer who recorded the loop was doing to create that groove. This is a great drill in and of itself if you have the option to do it.

Regularly Record Your Playing Without Drums

Yes, I have spent quite of bit of your time analyzing drum playing and just told you to find a great drummer, but a good sense of groove also needs to be present when you're playing solo or with a couple of other guitarists. If you've ever sat around in a circle and played a bunch of songs together with acoustic guitars, it becomes very obvious who's got groove and who doesn't.

Grab your acoustic guitar and your click track and lay down a rhythm groove. Strum it up! Be the percussion, the bass line and the texture. Focus on how you're attacking the strings, where you're putting your accents, which strings your emphasizing, use palm muting and string muting etc... Then listen back with and without the click track. If you haven't done a lot of 'by yourself' rhythm playing, you may find that you are quite floppy. That's okay; the first step is hearing it! You can then begin the process of developing a good internal groove machine that is built in to your playing.

You won't always want to play with a click if you're performing or practicing songs and/or grooves by yourself. Starting out with it and regularly going back to it will help give you a consistent anchor point so that you make sure you're not speeding way up by constantly pushing the beat, or slowing to painful crawl on a slower, meditative number. When I'm practicing to play as a one-man act, I'll choose tempos, give the metronome a listen for a couple bars, then turn it off, play the song and then turn it on again at the end to see where I ended up. If I end up way faster, I try to think more behind the beat the next time I play the song. I use a similar process to correct for chronically slowing down a particular piece.

If you can regularly learn to tap your foot for a whole song while you play, you'll develop a better groove more consistently and in less time. Tapping your foot gives you a built in "sub-divider checker." So, if you're going to add some triplets in to your strumming over an otherwise straight groove, you've GOT to have a rhythmic anchor or you're going to sound quite silly. Also, if you've got that 'tap' going, you'll be less likely to drastically speed up or slow down with appropriate and organic changes in dynamics. Standalone performers who use their body to help them groove always seem to have a better feel to their songs.

Admittedly, I've stuck to discussing different types of Rock or Blues grooves. Once you get in to stuff like up-tempo jazz and Afro-Cuban style grooves, there's even more fun! If you're primary genre isn't Rock or Blues, take some of these tips and listen for what's happening in your primary genre, and if it hasn't already happened for you, let your quest for consistent grooves begin! Once you start its a great and never ending journey of learning and applying!