How to Groove

I am a white keyboard player. My favorite kind of music to play in a band situation has been r&b, soul, etc. Grooving is an important element of this type of music. Once I learned about grooving, I realized that it is an important element in other types of music as well.

Although grooving is easy, the fine points have to be learned. I learned by experience. In this document I will attempt to pass some of this experience on to you.

I'm going to use the terms "figure" and "ground" to explain the effect of the groove on the audience, although I have never heard any other musicians or instrumentalists use the terms in a musical context. These are terms from psychology and art that basically sum it all up functionally.

Prerequisites: You must play your instrument well enough to precisely control the timing, pitch, and loudness of each note without much effort. You must have "rhythm". (Sorry, but it seems that some people just don't.) You must be able to listen to others while you are playing. You must be willing and able to function as part of a unit, and not just go shooting off playing solos all the time.

I will describe grooving in a band context, although it can (and should) be done solo too.

While a groove in and of itself can be very interesting, the purpose of a groove is usually to provide a background for a song, while something else provides the foreground. In terms of "figure/ground". the groove is the ground. The figure is usually the singer, a solo instrument, or an announcer.

A groove is repetitious. In a groove, all of the players play patterns over and over. As long as they play smoothly and mesh well together (are "in the pocket"), they will, to the casual listener, remain in the ground. As soon as someone breaks his pattern ("changes up"), he pops into the figure. Part of the concept is that only one player should be figure at a time, even in rehearsal.

Here's how you develop an original groove in rehearsal. First of all some player or players lay down a basic groove. It could be the guitar playing a rhythmic pattern with repeats; it is often the drums and bass grooving together. The other players join in: each plays something different that fits, and repeats it. After a few dozen "go-rounds", with any luck you are "locked", at least rhythmically, although some of the parts may need improvement.

Here's the important part: now, each player gets a chance to change up, and fix his part to be easier to play or less awkward or to fit better or be different. The key is that ONE player at a time changes up. That way, he can change his part intelligently, since he knows what the other parts will do. While the one player is changing up, the other players must remain in the pocket. It usually only takes one go-round for a player to change his part, then a few more for the other players to recognize what he has done.

For instance, you might start a basic 16 bar groove with drums, bass, guitar, and keys. After 4 go-rounds, the guitar changes up, and settles into a new pattern. Once he has stayed put for at least one go-round, so it is clear that the guitar has settled into a groove, the keyboard player changes. Pretty soon the entire band is grooving, and no one needs to change up. The band is ready to back a figure, like a vocalist or soloist.

In actual practice, you might practice the same groove, as a band, for 20 or 30 minutes before reaching a good level of complexity and familiarity.

Later, in a live situation, you all start up on the groove you developed in rehearsal. No one needs to change up, since you know the groove from rehearsal. It can be and often is a little different from show to show, but the point is that no one changes up.

One of the challenges in grooving is to have your groove down well enough (as a unit) that next time you play together (or play in front of an audience) you can hit the groove from the get-go. You have to be able to do this. This is where intensive reherasal pays off.

How many times I've played something in the first go-round (live) that was a little tiring or awkward and had to keep it up for the remainder of the song!

The point is that any change-up becomes figure, and takes the audience's attention away from the real figure. The function of the groove is to provide a ground for the figure to stand in front of. It just so happens that the ground is good to listen and dance to!

Now, what happens when, over the course of a song, let's say during an instrumental section, each player has changed his part a little to build more energy or complexity into the music, and the groove is busy? And now it's time for the singer to come back in with the last verse?

Answer: you "break it down". This is a key concept. To break it down, at the end of the 16 bar pattern we have been talking about, each player would suddenly revert to the original groove. If the singer (or soloist or other figure) comes in at the same time, the audience's attention is magically redirected to them, since the band is once again ground!

Breakdowns are always used at the end of solos when it's time for the vocalist to come in. They can also be used in the middle of a long instrumental section, to pass the attention from one soloist to another, or to leave room for an announcer to speak.

For instance, the keys, bass, and drums have been grooving under the guitar solo, adding a little energy and building as the solo progresses. The band then breaks down, and the vocalist comes in while the keys, bass, drums, and guitar all groove. Get it?

So, the groove is the repetitious playing that forms the ground. The groove can be permitted to change and build where appropriate, as long as the figure is still figure. The groove must not step in front of the figure; it must remain ground. Once the groove has built up, it can be reset with a breakdown.

How do you signal a breakdown when live? It's usually the drummer's job. In fact, it's the drummer's job to control the flow of the song. He starts the song, signals the breakdown, leads you through the "channel" (which is a part of the song that is not repetitious), and ends the song.

The usual cue for a breakdown is a hit on the snare. It could be an extra hit, a louder hit, or a rimshot. A good drummer will play well enough that his drum hits are very controlled and even, so that even the slightest change, such as a slightly louder snare hit on beat 3 of bar 16, will easily be noticed by the rest of the band as the signal to break down.

That's how it is done live. Many times in the studio, the drummer (or the producer) will fail to capture that dynamic of the drummer leading the changes. But it's there live. However, sometimes records even by good bands will not give you a good example of the groove control because of this lack. I suspect it's usually the producer's fault. Personally I like to hear the signal; it's part of the song. I don't think many laymen can hear it, so why take it out?

For examples of grooves (there are hundreds but I feel obliged to give a few), listen to anything James Brown did (listen to the band, not him!); Cameo; Chaka Khan; Kool & the Gang; Madonna; etc. etc. etc. Listen to "Never Too Much" by Luther Vandross for an easy example to pick up on.

It's great fun and feels good to play a groove for ten, fifteen minutes without changing up. It clears your mind, much like Zazen. Your consciousness can be far away. Kind of like driving on a desert freeway at 60 MPH for an hour without seeing another car.

This article was written Febuary 3, 1995. Edited November 5, 1999.
(c) 1995-1999 Steve Runyon