Groove. What is groove? What does that word mean in a musical context?

Some people define it as the element of music that makes one want to dance. I don’t disagree – any fans of Michael Jackson’s or Prince’s music are well on their way to understanding groove – although I also feel that a groove-oriented approach can be employed playing tied whole-notes or rests.

I define groove as a feeling of consistent, predictable, and reliable forward motion in the music. It has a consistency and reliability that gives the listener the sense that it could go on for another half hour and not be surging or dragging or wavering in any way. Creating this feeling with our bass playing is perhaps our most important musical contribution to
any ensemble.

It’s important to point out that groove is rarely metronomically precise; there are subtle ebbs and flows when living, breathing musicians play music well together. Before the click track became ubiquitous in the creation of most of western music, some of the most groove-oriented rhythm sections had ridiculous feel and groove independent of a quantize function.

That said, I’ve found one of the most beneficial areas of focus for developing groove ability is to calibrate one’s internal sense of time; working with a click track to the extent that you recognize what steady and consistent time sounds and feels like. As you work with a click, some of those groovicidal tendencies start to become apparent… such as rushing as the dynamic level builds or dragging as it drops. Until we have spent time with the click, we usually aren’t aware of our natural time tendencies.

I’d like to suggest the following exercises be practiced daily to begin the process. As a variation, I also like to use ghost notes (muted notes that are plucked as normal but the fretting hand simply rests on the strings) as they are less forgiving of discrepancies with the click.

These exercises aren’t intended to be completed successfully so you can move on to the next thing; rather, they’re best done regularly and consistently to help calibrate your internal sense of time. Cool? Here we go…

1. This one’s from David Hungate, the legendary original bassist with Toto and first-call Nashville session player: set your metronome to 40 bpm, which will probably be the slowest setting on most electronic metronomes. Try to play staccato quarter notes between each click, with the click sounding on beat 1 of each measure. Listen for any flams, or instances when the click and your bass aren’t precisely together (they will sound like “bloom” versus “boom”) and try to adjust your playing accordingly. This exercise is surprisingly tough yet amazingly helpful – primarily because the metronome isn’t providing any subdivision, so you are reliant upon your own internal clock to keep time between each click. With practice, you’ll gradually be able to lock – or play in sync – with the click sooner and sooner.

2. Set the metronome to 90 bpm – these will be quarter notes sounding on each downbeat. Get used to tapping your foot on each click – count “one, two, three, four” to help internalize the quarter-note pulse – and practice playing measures of:

  • whole notes
  • half notes
  • quarter notes
  • eighth notes
  • sixteenth notes
  • quarter-note triplets (6 notes per measure)
  • eighth-note triplets (12 notes per measure)
  • sixteenth-note triplets (24 notes per measure)

Once you’re comfortable with each subdivision, practice mixing them up and alternating between them. As you do this, pay close attention to ensure that you’re not rushing or dragging the tempo – particularly during the first few beats of each new rhythmic pattern.

Play with the metronome clicks on only beats 1 and 3 at a variety of tempos (hint: reduce the metronome’s bpm setting to half of the intended tempo). Then, leaving the same metronome setting, hear the clicks as beats 2 and 4, and practice grooving with those clicks serving as the backbeat.

4. Play that first exercise (the one from David Hungate) with the metronome click on beat 2 only. Then go back and play with it on beat 3. Then beat 4. Isn’t it interesting how different it feels depending upon where the click is landing?

5. Set the metronome to 90 bpm again and practice alternating back and forth between a measure of straight sixteenth notes and a measure of shuffled sixteenth notes. Listen for flams or other rhythmic inconsistencies.

It’s always helpful to record yourself playing these and listen back without your instrument in your hands. Listen for flams and try to adjust your playing to minimize these rhythmic inconsistencies. These recordings can be a source of encouragement when taken at regular intervals (weekly?) as you’ll likely soon discover that your timekeeping is making good progress!

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