By Ken Kirkland
What exactly is “groove”? I’ve spoken with other musicians about it and there’s not really a clear cut definition. Most people say it’s just something you feel. But what if you don’t? Let’s try to dive in and figure it out exactly what groove is and how to find it.
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 brings out emotions in others. 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 playing with feel is an important step for any 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. Some people have natural groove. If you find yourself struggling with groove here are some tips that may help.
1. Count with the Music
Music is made up of repeating 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. 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 musician needs to do. When you can feel the pulse of the song, you will be able to play around it and 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…whatever. It will help you feel the music, and also help you to play in time. Moving as you play your instrument is a key ingredient for playing with groove.
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. Tension inhibits movement, which makes you slow and sloppy. Speed and precision come from loose and relaxed muscles and a stress free playing posture. The common denominator and most important aspect of any 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.
4. Jam with Others
For some of you, setting up a home 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 (the dreaded “trackwork”). Playing with others for fun or a gig gets your mind right for 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. Playing with someone who has a good feel is one of the best ways of picking it up yourself
5. Learn to Listen
When you’re playing with other people, learning to listen to them will help with improving your sound and feel more than anything else. You learn to complement one another’s playing by blending or contrasting with what others are doing. 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 out on what you are doing so that someone else can take over.
6. 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 sync. 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 crowd and stare at one another, or give each other the evil eye – though I do often try to make my other band members smile. But when I’m playing in a group, I make sure I look at the other musicians fairly regularly.
7. Don’t Emphasize Every Note
This is a big one. 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. Rock emphasizes the back beat. Beats 2 and 4. Experiment with emphasizing different beats or emphasizing half a beat early or half a beat late (reggae 101). If you take a chord progression from a familiar song and emphasize different beats, it will sound like a whole new song.
8. 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. “Less is more.”
9. Play Longer
After all, there’s is no substitute for time. The longer you play with your band the more natural it’ll be to find the groove. Learn each other. You can anticipate changes in the song based on body language and become more effective at “groovin’ ” with each other.
How important is groove in the music you play? How do you achieve it? If you have some tips to add to the list, let me know in the comments.
By Ken Kirkland