Mastering the Groove
Mastering the art of grooving requires practicing your bass lines to sit in front of the kick drum, behind it, and right on it.
Sometimes, a tight relationship between the kick drum and bass is needed, but other times, the groove feels better when they don’t line up perfectly on the grid.
Talking about “groove” and what it means is almost like talking about politics or religion: It sparks wildly different and passionate opinions. Groove is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and in my opinion, is often misused. I squirm when I hear a producer ask a drummer for a different groove, when he should actually be asking for a different beat or a different pattern. The groove, to me, is the space that happens between the beats. The groove is the rhythmical relationship of notes played by several musicians together, and yet it’s still nearly impossible to put your finger on its essence. As musicians, however, we have the ability to approach it from the technical end by breaking down some of the elements that create this illusive, magical “state of time” we all strive for.
Our tastes in art undoubtedly change and evolve. When I first heard D’Angelo’s album Voodoo, I didn’t quite get it. The way bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Questlove interacted on that album just didn’t resonate with me right away, even though I consider myself a huge soul-music fan. When I returned to the record a few years later, it changed my life. Nothing I had heard in years made me feel like those grooves did. My chemical and/or spiritual reaction to what a groove was had changed, and I had no power over it or intellectual reasoning for it. The album is an astounding example of bass notes and drum hits not lining up on “the grid.” As a matter of fact, they don’t even get close to lining up in some parts. The groove, in this case, is manifested and established in the obvious rub between the bass and drums. To get there, you have to know where the actual time is and decide how to manipulate it until you feel right. And feeling right is much better than feeling correct, right?
Mastering the Groove is the title of my favorite instructional video for bass. Taught by Randy Jackson (yes, dawg, that Randy Jackson), the video was released in the ’90s at the height of his career as a studio musician. It features a specific segment that focuses on developing the ability to choose whether to play slightly behind the beat, right on top of the beat, or slightly behind it. The skill employed by D’Angelo’s rhythm section has its roots in this demonstration, but I had never actually seen it explained by a high-level bassist until Jackson’s video. As a professional bassist myself, I’ve found that there is no skill more important than to be able to manipulate the feel by adding the human element of intentional imperfection.
I’m often asked by astoundingly talented colleagues (whose primary instrument is not the bass) what they should focus on when playing bass on their home recordings. I tell them that as musicians, we all have to consider how we attack the note and when we cut the note off—the main two building blocks of “grooving.” But we bassists, who mostly play one note at a time, have to be especially picky about these considerations. You can never get perfect at it, and you can never practice it too much, but these two decisions are what separate world-class bass playing from merely functional bass playing. It’s a topic I spend a lot of time talking over with my drummer friends, so if you are lucky enough to have a great drummer or two in your life, pick their brains and learn from their point of view.
Let’s talk about a couple of examples where these two building blocks of groove really matter. When rehearsing for any project, a very important task is to find out what tempos and keys the artist or bandleader has planned for performing the songs live (they may likely be different from those on the recording). From a groove standpoint, there is a specific scenario that happens often: Let’s say a band is playing a song at 120 bpm and everyone is playing professionally and right on the click. The singer is happy with the pace at which the lyrics are being delivered, but the music sounds a little sterile to the instrumentalists. A way to solve this dilemma, insofar as groove, is to bump up the tempo a click or two while the entire band plays lazily on the backside of the click. To a listener, the song will still have the pace it did at the original tempo, but it will feel more relaxed without actually being slower.
Paul Leim, the legendary session drummer who played on Shania Twain’s The Woman in Me, said that producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange made the bassist on that album cut his notes off right on the snare hits, almost without exception. This is a decision of tremendous importance. By extending the notes ever so slightly over the snare hits, a song will instantly get a more laid back, less bouncy feel. But when the notes are cut off right on the snare hits, you can add a little “pep in the step” to a song that isn’t necessarily funky to begin with. It just grooves harder.
Playing ballads is where this note-length decision is heard and felt most. Try playing a slow ballad, and then immediately play it again using different note lengths. Based on the note length alone, you will quickly discover that you are the captain of the groove boat! And all of a sudden, the direction and feel of everyone else’s playing will seem to be something you control too.
Most of your practice time should focus on the groove. Scales, modes, gear, and your hairdo all come in a distant second.
Nashville bassist and producer Victor Brodén has toured and recorded with more than 25 major-label artists, including LeAnn Rimes, Richard Marx, Casting Crowns, and Randy Houser. His credits also include Grammy-winning albums and numerous television specials on CMT and GAC, as well as performances on The Tonight Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.