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Digging Deeper: Practicing with Loops

Move past the metronome and improve your groove with these creative tips.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Create new and interesting rhythms by playing with percussive loops.
• Develop a better internal clock.
• Discover how to supercharge your practice time and make it more efficient.

Click here to download MP3s and a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Here’s a question: Why practice with a metronome when there are so many fantastic drum and bass loops available? As it turns out, there are many good reasons to continue practicing with a metronome. For example, the metronome doesn’t have the distractions of an idiomatic groove and you can choose how to interpret the click: Does it mark the downbeat or perhaps the backbeat on 2 and 4? So don’t toss out your metronome just yet. That said, I recommend augmenting it with some of the countless loops available today. Whether it’s the backing track-style you can find in many instructional books, the isolated drums of classic rock songs that keep popping up on YouTube (thanks to Guitar Hero), or the highly polished loops sold by a number of companies, this lesson will show you how to get the most out of your loops.

In this lesson we’ll focus specifically on standalone loops that come in a variety of formats (WAV, AIFF, or MIDI), and allow you greater tempo flexibility. Depending on your preferred DAW, the possibilities are pretty deep. The loops I’m using for this lesson come from Loop Loft and are pretty affordable, but there are several other companies out there that provide high-quality commercial loops. Even GarageBand allows you to customize different loops to suit your project.

Most commercial loops allow you to change the tempo without losing sonic quality. This is one of the best features to take advantage of when practicing because it essentially means your loops can be used like a metronome. Let’s say we’re trying to get a blues shuffle up to tempo. Normally, you’d be stuck with a non-grooving metronome (which obviously doesn’t indicate “shuffle”). But with a drum loop you can move that tempo around to your heart’s content. In Ex. 1 you can see a simple boogie pattern in E.

Note: Within Soundslice you can choose between several different audio examples by clicking the headphone icon in the lower-right corner. Also, download the PDF linked above to get all the loops and examples from this lesson.

Click here for Ex. 1

And what if you don’t want your blues riff to swing? Being able to play the standard blues riff in Ex. 2 (or any riff at all for that matter) with a straight groove or a shuffle groove is essential to your growth as a musician. I recommend playing all the blues tunes you know over the previous two loop examples—you’ll be shocked and delighted at how different the riffs can sound.

Click here for Ex. 2

One more note on the blues. When practicing with just a drum loop, with no bass or second guitar, you can easily change keys. Ex. 2 is relatively easy to play in the keys of E, A, or D, but how about in F? That’s one heck of a pinky stretch in Ex. 3! If this is new to you, I recommend starting this essential blues figure higher up the neck—say the 8th fret in the key of C (Ex. 4)—and moving down one fret at a time.

Click here for Ex. 3

Click here for Ex. 4

In this next set of loops we’ll take a seemingly clichéd chord progression and vary it in three different and creative ways by letting the loops dictate our direction. These will be quite rhythmically diverse—even exotic. I hope you’ll see the endlessly inspiring approach offered by the various rhythmic syncopations. In Ex. 5 we’re starting with a basic Motown-style groove—dig those finger snaps!

Click here for Ex. 5

Drum kits aren’t the only way to wrap your head around a groove. The next two African-inspired examples are based on a frame drum (Ex. 6) and an udu (Ex. 7). I never would have come up with these ideas using a metronome. Once you get the basic feel internalized, try playing some scales or arpeggios over these grooves.

Click here for Ex. 6

Click here for Ex. 7

We get to stretch a little in Ex. 8. Omar Hakim’s fluid sense of groove is amazing in this example. The chord shapes were inspired by Allan Holdsworth, so make sure you warm up before tackling this one.

Click here for Ex. 8

Continuing with this pursuit of groove diversity, Ex. 9 offers two different takes on the same melodic theme played over two radically different feels. Both examples are versions of the bluegrass standard “Sally Goodin’.” The notation will give you the basic notes and rhythms of the tune, but notice the slight interpretative differences when played against a country “train” beat and a more EDM feel. The two loops definitely encourage you to play in different ways. (Remember to switch to the different audio tracks in the Soundslice player.)

Click here for Ex. 9

Finally, I’d like to emphasize that these loops can be most helpful in developing your sense of time. Add in some rests or breaks within the loop and you’ll really get a feel for how solid your internal clock is. Ex. 10 is a Zeppelin-esque riff with rests thrown in for fills. A good test of your timing? Being able to play the riff, fill with a solo lick, and then come back to the riff on the downbeat.

Click here for Ex. 10

I hope this lesson has shown you some new ways to practice with loops. In addition to cycling just one loop, try to mix-and-match and layer loops. So grab some loops and get started—but keep your metronome handy too.