As a bass player, I’m very interested in
rhythm—or more specifically, groove.
What’s the difference? I think of rhythm as
being generally how we describe the division
of measures and beats. Rhythm can be notated.
Groove, on the other hand, is rhythm
feeling. We all know it when we feel it.
There’s just no denying the emotional impact
of a band that’s “in the groove,” playing as
one. I think groove is distinctly human. It’s an
artistic reflection of our physical selves, how
we walk, dance, and breathe.
Much of what makes something groove
has to do with how musicians find and agree
upon a tempo, and how they subdivide the
basic rhythmic unit of a tune (for example,
the quarter-note). Within those subdivisions,
there’s a lot of room for interpretation as to
where to place notes and accents. The extent
to which musicians play off of these subtle
differences will determine whether something
really grooves or not.
I think it all comes down to control. How
much control do you have when it comes to
note placement? Let’s look at a few examples
of what I mean. Fig. 1
shows three typical
ways you can divide a quarter-note. In the
first measure, we split it up using sixteenth-notes.
This example consists of a dotted-eighth-note on the downbeat, plus the last
sixteenth-note of each beat. In the second
measure, we move to a triplet feel and play
the first and last note of each triplet. We move
to straight eighth-notes in the final measure.
or download example audio
Now let’s try clapping out the three patterns
in succession, repeating each bar a few
times. Then—and here’s the tricky part—try
to morph between the three patterns. Huh?
Okay, let me explain: In this exercise the
downbeat stays the same. Our goal is to slowly
move the subdivision backwards (relative to
the downbeats) from the sixteenth-note preceding
the next downbeat, to the triplet and
then all the way to the eighth-note. Listen to
the audio example on the online version of
this lesson to hear this shifting in practice.
You should do this accompanied by a
metronome set to 80 bpm with the click
being the downbeat. Try to get as smooth
a transition as possible, imagining in your
mind what the next subdivision in the series
sounds like before you make your move.
Playing this pattern may seem counterintuitive.
After all, isn’t groove about consistency
and keeping things steady? That’s true, but in
order to keep a steady beat you have to have a
lot of control over where you place your notes.
Strictly speaking, we’re keeping a steady pulse
(the downbeat doesn’t move). It’s just the
upbeat (subdivision) that we’re sliding around.
As I mentioned, there’s a lot of room
for interpretation in how to feel subdivisions.
I’m a jazz musician, so I swing a lot.
The swing groove is based on dividing the
quarter-note into triplets. Where you place
the third triplet is really a matter of preference.
The online version of this lesson has
a few different triplet placements for you to
hear. They’re all valid and all have a certain
character, but are difficult to notate.
Of course, it’s equally important to be
able to control your basic pulse or tempo.
You might find that you’re better at keeping
things steady in certain tempos. Medium
tempos—with the quarter-note anywhere
between, say, 80 and 160 bpm—are usually
the most intuitive. (Is it a coincidence that
this is the basic range of the human heartbeat?)
But what happens to your sense of
tempo at the extremes? Are you rock-steady
at 40 bpm? What about 400 bpm?
One trick I’ve learned is to relate everything
back to a manageable tempo by
imagining subdivisions in your mind. For
example, when you’re playing in a super-slow
tempo like 40 bpm, you can think of the
sextuplet-note subdivision shown in Fig. 2
or download example audio
As an exercise, try playing along with
this audio sample by creating a quarter-note
melody over a blues in the key of F.
Remember, you should only imagine
sextuplets in your mind as you play the
quarter-notes. They’re mental placeholders.
In the audio sample, I’ve faded them in and
out so you can test if you’re in sync.
Conversely, if you’re playing at a very fast
tempo, you can relate it back to a more manageable
tempo by focusing on the downbeat
of every other bar. In this case, the quarternote
would actually feel more like a 32nd-note
subdivision of a slow tempo. Psychologically,
this helps me relax. Instead of stressing over
every note, I’m focused on longer phrases.
Feeling subdivisions and hearing them
in your mind (even when you’re not playing
them) are vital skills. From my experience,
working with a metronome is the surest way
to hone them. I remember walking down the
street many years ago and running into the
great trumpeter Donald Byrd. I could hear
a clicking noise coming from his pocket. He
told me he liked to walk around with an electronic
metronome on all day—to let a tempo
really “sink in.” I’ve never forgotten that.
Bassist/composer Ben Allison is one of a few
bandleaders working in jazz today who has
developed his own instantly identifiable sound.
His last six albums—including his latest,
Action-Refraction—have all reached the top of
the CMJ jazz radio charts, and he has toured
the world with The Ben Allison Band, Man Size
Safe, Peace Pipe, and Medicine Wheel. Visit
for more information.