Tips For Achieving a Great Feel and Groove

I love listening to other drummers, to hear where they’re coming from musically and what motivates their choices. I often share my observations with colleagues while shooting the breeze. My questions framing the conversation are always the same; “What makes this drummer great?” “What separates him from the rest of the pack?” “What drives his musical choices and instincts?” Recently, a bass player colleague paid me a compliment by telling me that I play “right on the beat; not ahead or behind.” I was elated, until I realized I didn’t know precisely what he meant. Musicians often evaluate the worth of drummers with phrases like, “Behind or ahead of the beat”, or “Great time and feel.” But what do these phrases really mean?

Just because I can’t translate these expressions into specifics, doesn’t mean that others are clueless. What it means, is that I think of these traits in different musical terms. I’d like to share these with my fellow drummers and instrumentalists. Here are 5 musical tips for achieving a great feel and groove.

Feel Trumps Time
Don’t worry about your overall time. Instead answer the question, “Does it feel right?” There are countless examples of musicians speeding up or slowing down in relation to a click track, and yet the overall track still works. From a drummer’s perspective, I immediately think about John Bonham and Levon Helm. Getting the right feel will take care of everything.

Orchestration
Maintain focus on the part you’re executing and how it enhances the track you’re playing. Your choice of instruments of the kit; what to leave in, what to leave out and what to highlight will make all the difference. A drum track with little or no use of cymbals has a much different feel than one that leans heavily on them.

Weak Hand
Drummers–try leading with your weak hand. (Other instrumentalists may be able to apply this principle to their instrument.) Doing this places your stronger hand on the weaker beats. With practice, this can change the feeling of your musical phrases. An added bonus is that the strong hand will often be on the second-to-last stroke (weak beat). I refer to this as the “leading tone” of the phrase. Emphasizing the leading tone brings added life and energy to phrases. Articles have been written about this, and legendary timpanist, Fred Hinger, made this leading tone theory the centerpiece of his teachings. Implement it and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Remove the Drummer Hat
Plain and simple: take a step back and use your ears as a casual listener. How does your track sound now? Play to a wide audience and not only to fellow musicians.