The Anatomy of Groove

The word, “groove”, by its very definition describes something deep and earthy, like a trench.   When jazz or rock musicians talk about a rhythm section they will use the word, “pocket” to describe the groove; that drummer has a deep “pocket”.   Once again, it refers to something deeply rooted, something that has a timeless quality of inevitability about it; time that is timeless, a being in time.   Thyme. Wait, that’s a spice…

Time is like a Watermelon

A groove is partly a cycle that repeats with variations but it’s not just a cycle;  it’s the placement of the cycle in time within a relational context to other notes played by other beings in time.  Let us imagine time is like a watermelon: picture the oval shape of a watermelon and divide it up into a bottom, middle and top parts.   Now imagine that we have a metronome set at 100 bpm, which represents the middle of the watermelon. Let’s place a percussionist playing eighth notes a little behind the metronome on the bottom of the melon and a bassist playing eighth notes a little ahead of the metronome on the top of the melon.  Let’s add a pianist playing 8th notes right with the metronome down the middle. They are all feeling the time at 100 bpm but the percussionist is placing them slightly behind the metronome because that is where it feels right. The bassist is placing the notes a little ahead of the click because that’s where it feels right.  The pianist is placing his notes precisely at 100 bpm because that’s what feels right. By placing their individual notes in different places on the watermelon, they’ve created tension, a groove that is wide and alive. If the percussionist were to shift his placement to the top of the melon, the tension would change. The groove might become top heavy and rush forward creating frantic energy.  If the all musicians decided to shift their placement to the middle, the groove would lose its tension and width, becoming thin and flat or “stiff”. If they all decide to shift their placement to the bottom of the melon, the groove would lose both its tension and width resulting in low energy and the tempo would slow down or drag. If they were to all switch to the top of the melon, the tempo would rush.  The listener would perceive this splintering of the finite and infinite as frantic. The illusion of inevitability, lost.

Time vs Tempo

Time is a continuum, an infinite series of events without end; it’s also a tool used to measure physical space and help our finite minds make sense of the infinite.  Tempo is a tool used to divide aural space, dealing with the infinite in measured quantities rooted in our bodies. The modern concept of a groove is rooted in the mechanical industrial revolution.  Perhaps the notable beat in pop history is the rhythm of the Steam engine locomotive; Bernard Purdie, one of the most famous groove drummers of our time, grew up listening to the sound of trains and based his grooves off of them. One could infer that groove is repetitive muscle memory. The Groove happens where the finite meets the infinite, a tension of two worlds colliding and creating something altogether new. If you think tempo and groove are the same, there is a vast industry out there dedicated to quantifying groove that thinks otherwise.  With the advent of midi recording, anyone can quantize their performance and create perfect time. The only problem is that perfect time doesn’t groove. Every professional audio software manufacturer puts a “humanization” script into the quantize function code to attempt to simulate groove–and it doesn’t work. Why?   Because groove, like time, is a continuum. Imagine the beats of a metronome frozen in space; they would create a line reaching toward infinity. Imagine within this line we place a repeating cycle of eighth notes between each frozen beat. Can you see the vast space there is to play with? An infinite amount of variations with the place of these notes between these frozen beats and the placements all feel different.  The variation of one placement has a rippling effect on all the others before and after. Infinite and yet finite. Ephemeral. This continuum as a whole is Time.

Cycles, cyclic motion, circles are the human answer to infinity: a bite-sized measure of infinity, something without beginning, without end and yet made comprehensible in a cycle.  A groove is an infinity, a cycle, a river: the water is never the same water twice, the beat cycle is never exactly the same.  

How to practice: the metronome is not your enemy.

Before one can learn to bend time, one must learn where it is.  We practice with a metronome to understand our tendencies as performers and to become familiar with where the middle of the beat is.  Part of our practice should be to learn to relax our minds and bodies. If our minds are fragmented and our thoughts not present to the moment, our bodies will be tense; we will not be able to comprehend the whole.  Instead, we will be lost in the parts, only able to see beats as a fragment of a cycle and not the cycle as a whole.

In a relaxed manner with the mind fully present, play up and down the tree of subdivisions at slow, medium and fast tempos.  Eventually, the degrees between tempo can be subtle shifts. We are attempting to train our muscles, minds and nerves to react and feel subdivisions at varying degrees.  Tempo is muscle memory but it is not just muscle memory. We must train our nerves and muscles to respond in a relaxed manner at varying tempos. Next, practice putting the subdivisions in the middle of the beat as close to the metronome as possible.  When we can subdivide at varying tempos in a relaxed manner, we can move on to resolution points which will help us think in terms of longer phrasing and whole cycles.

Next, in 4 4 time, thinking in 8th notes and phrasing in a two measure cycle, create a resolution point with which to resolve a musical idea.  Start with beat 1 as the resolution point, then move to 1& then 2 and so on and so forth. We can use 16ths and triplets as well. Every resolution point will have a different feel. Learn about and memorize them. Get your body to understand them without having to think about them. The two measures can be increased to a 4 measure cycle and then to 8.  The longer the phrasing the more we can bend time. Once we have mastered this we can move on bending and warping time in a musical way.  

It does not help to play with a metronome and continuously chase the click.  We feel that, if we are not exactly with the metronome, we are wrong.   It’s not about being wrong or right, it’s about understanding our tendencies, feeling tension and learning to being ok with it and understanding how our tempo feel is affecting the whole.  The rest is about choice. Put the metronome on at 72 bpm. Improve at this tempo and try to groove with it. If you’re not feeling the 72 bpm let yourself go towards your natural tendency.  You will cycle through the metrome time and the world won’t explode or disappear. How about that? Keep the tension going and slowly you will start to hear the metronome as a part in a whole that you can choose to play with or against.  At this point your body will have relaxed and your mind will be at ease. If you’re tense you will never reach this point; instead you will think in terms of correct or incorrect; this is the death of groove.


Any tendency to tense up while playing a passage alters the continuum, causing the player to unintentionally move the position on the melon of time.  We can mitigate this by proper breathing and correct relaxed technique; practice must always be geared towards relaxing into the groove. Often a player will shorten their breath or even stop breathing altogether when they feel technically overwhelmed.  This anxiety results in a disruption of the time continuum, which, in musical terms, affects the feel. Additionally, if a player is overtired, they will have a tendency to rush the time to make up for a perceived lack of energy. When we become proficient at the groove, we will realize that, regardless of tempo, Time does not change;  it is our perception that changes. Time is independent of tempo. We move through time differently at different tempos because we have physical bodies but time never changes. Our training must be geared towards freeing our bodies of tension in order to play tempo in the time continuum.