Video: Benny Greb on the Art and Science of Groove

Groove is an all-important topic for drummers. I spend a lot of time researching and practicing to strengthen my concept of groove, and to help my students boost their skills. It can be a challenge to precisely define this word because it is a very personal thing. If someone asks you to "make the music groove more," what do you change? Two different drummers might adjust different elements of the beat and still be able to improve the groove. Because this concept can't be notated on sheet music, it's necessary to learn from live concerts, audio recordings, videos, and teachers. The first step starts with acknowledging the utmost importance of good timekeeping, feel, and groove.

I am a fan of Benny Greb because of his musicality as well as his humorous and effective teaching approach in his instructional videos. His newest video is called The Art and Science of Groove, which is available online as a physical copy or digital download. Greb appeared on Drumeo's YouTube channel and summarized his new instructional video, answering questions and demonstrating his approach. Below is a list of the five main topics covered. I would highly recommend that you watch the YouTube lesson and order the actual video. He presents the concept of groove in a very clear method that is easy to understand and provides many useful ideas and exercises.

"My basic point is that time and groove is not a super advanced subject; it should actually be the first thing and the most important thing." - Benny Greb

Greb: these myths about groove are untrue - you have to be born with it, it takes forever to develop, and you can't change your feel.

1. TIME – "feel the quarter note pulse in parallel to what you are playing." The example Greb uses is to clap the "football clave" while vocalizing the pulse using a "chid" sound. He also recommends practicing with a "gap click" where the metronome is audible on the first bar and silent on the second bar.

2. FEEL – "everything that is lifelike has a certain pattern of breathing out, breathing in, like this exchange of downbeat, upbeat, in and out." He suggests thinking of a pendulum swinging side to side for regulating your breathing. "When something really grooves, it's an outgrowth of empathy."

3. SOUND – "just by the sounds and sound levels that you use, you can completely create new grooves." Greb demonstrates by playing a swung funk beat and gradually changing the balance of the bass drum and snare drum as well as switching from hi-hat to ride cymbal. This is a good example as the beat clearly shifts from a rock-type feel to something much more jazz oriented without changing the actual rhythm.

4. BODY – "if you have a weird posture or do something with your body, it can be that things you can do, suddenly you can't do them." In his example, Greb taps his foot at a normal 90° angle position, and then pulls his foot in under the throne to show that the foot tapping becomes impossible with the smaller angle. He also points out a common mistake where drummers breathe normally during timekeeping but hold their breath during fills. "Play a groove and pick a breathing tempo that's a fraction slower than you normally would breathe… You get into a very nice relaxed state by doing that."

5. MIND – this is the "most underestimated" part. "Your mind is the architect that makes musical decisions that guides what you actually do." Greb suggests changing your mindset by putting a question mark on any statement. "A fill has to incorporate tom-toms?" He says a player can come up with something fresh and exciting without spending hours practicing it. "A fill has to be something else than a groove?"

Q & A
How do you translate practice sessions to a live performance setting?

"First of all, make sure you record your practicing to see if it's really there and not an illusion. Make it's measurable. Do you have a recording? Did it sound bad or just feel bad?" If there is a definite difference between the practice room (great) and live performance (bad), "it is probably because you don't have enough headroom practiced." In a live situation, "you have less bandwidth available to execute things that you practiced."

Video: soloing concepts by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez

Have you seen the movie Birdman?  Jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez wrote the film's score and most of the soundtrack is solo drumset.  He has also been Pat Metheny's drummer for the past 15 years.  I recently watched his instructional feature called Creative Soloing & Freedom presented by Drumeo and was impressed by the clarity with which he explained and demonstrated his concepts.  While I think it's well worth watching the video, I'll list the most important points here.

Sanchez says that he tries to tell a story when playing a solo.  This means stopping yourself from operating on autopilot.  Instead of just letting your hands play your usual licks, you start with a motive (idea) and then develop it using techniques such as:

1. Giving yourself space to think.  The space could be silence or going into a holding pattern such as a groove.  "Give friends of silence."

2. Using repetition to establish the motive in our memory and the audience's memory.  Ending a solo with the same motive from the beginning is a very effective way to structure it.

3. Creating an answer to your motive's call.  As an example, Sanchez sings the opening 2 bars of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Allegro) to see if his interviewer could sing the response (he did easily).  Another example was the melody of 'shave and a haircut - two bits.'

4. Using the full dynamic (volume) range of the instrument.  "I cannot stress enough how important soloing dynamics are."

5. Creating contrast through rhythm, sound, dynamics, etc. to interplay with the motive.

6. Developing your vocabulary by copying others, then making the material your own by exploring new ways to play them.  Emulating great players in the genre you're studying is crucial to learning that specific language.  It's important to understand the historical context of the style.

7. "Practicing with a metronome is extremely important...allows you to get your ideas in to the grid that is time.  You have to be very certain of what subdivisions you're playing all the time."

8. Making sense.  "People start following you if you make sense...saying something meaningful."  An example of NOT making sense would be the statement "I love scrambled eggs, but the movie was terrible."  Those two things are not directly related.

Sanchez says that this kind of approach in which you are truly improvising is more challenging as it has more risk involved.  But "going into the unknown" is the way to explore fresh ideas and play differently each time.  Because the possibilities are endless, it can be intimidating to start with this "blank sheet of paper."  Sanchez says that these ideas can be applied at any level since you don't need a lot of technique to start practicing this way. 

To me, everything presented in the video is spot on.  Soloing and improvisation is a topic I'm often asked to teach in workshops and private lessons, and it was good to hear new ways of thinking about the topic from one of the most in-demand drummers working today.  I would encourage everyone to check out this video and then share your most memorable take-away points.