How To Groove at Jam Sessions

Jam Session

Photo by Kayla Xiang

Q: During jam sessions, I normally have a “hit and stick” approach to coming up with grooves. Essentially, there’s a lull between grooves where I end up peddling notes or playing the one. My keyboard player pointed this out and it bothers me. Is this something that I should be worried about? How do I lead a groove during these lulls as opposed to waiting for something to click?

A: The first thing I would encourage you to remember is that quite often the most important aspect of any groove is not necessarily the notes you choose but rather the rhythm and time. Some of the greatest grooves ever played only consisted of a root note, 5th and flatted 7th (or 6 and flatted 7).

I wouldn’t worry about coming up with a bunch of the “right notes”. While you focus on your rhythm and time, think about how to keep it interesting (or from just pedaling on the root). Try breaking up the octave or hitting the flatted 7th (assuming it’s a minor or dominant-type groove).

For example, listen to James Brown’s “Hot Pants”. The primary groove is nothing but a root and an octave. But it grooves!

Practice grooving at home with just a few notes – doing more with less. I often practice with nothing but one muted note, and I try to do it all with rhythm before adding harmony of any kind.

It’s really all about the “pocket”.

Now, in order to expand your vocabulary and help feed your creative abilities when you’re put on the spot, I would strongly suggest that you transcribe like crazy.

Start picking tunes that appeal to you on a groove-based level and learn the lines, note for note. Transcribing is a massive part of developing your vocabulary on the instrument. There’s no denying that learning dozens of grooves from various bassists will help you get a feel for developing grooves of your own (it also makes you more employable).

Here’s a good starter list of musicians to help inspire groove ideas and build your transcription list:

  1. Lettuce
  2. James Brown
  3. Stevie Wonder
  4. Chic
  5. Brother Johnson
  6. Al Green
  7. O’Jays
  8. Beatles
  9. Marvin Gaye
  10. Meshell Ndegeocello
  11. Etienne Mbappe
  12. Earth Wind & Fire
  13. Rufus ( feat. Chaka Kahn)
  14. Chaka Kahn

The list is practically endless. All of those musicians and bands have numerous tunes with fantastic bass lines which are fairly “meat-n-potatoes” harmonically but groove hard!

Readers, what do you say? Which tunes have you found most inpsiring for grooving? Which approaches have you taken? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Peddling notes?

    “Hey, anybody wanna buy this B flat? I don’t play in horn bands, so it’s in like-new condition…” ;-)

  2. Another thing to keep in mind is dynamics and overall volume. I’ve learned to motion to the drummer and he and I will just play really low, thus affecting the dynamics. Then, when we come in full volume, that’s a big change in dynamics. Guitarists usually love that stuff. And you don’t need to change your groove or notes to make this work. It’s simple and can be applied in most songs once get a hold of it. Pretty cool, if I say so myself.

  3. In Blues and Funk, often the best thing you can do is find a good, basic groove and beat it to death without change. An excellent example of this is Delbert McClinton’s version of Shaky Ground. Four notes, beaten like they owed the bass player money, and it grooves from one end to the other.

    While there are times, when I’m doing my own thing with my band, I’ll be pretty busy, as I’m a fronting bass player. But 95% of the time, I find the groove and I stick with it. Even on my own CDs, most of the bass lines seem pretty basic and simple. But they GROOVE!

    Hope this helps! And good luck!!

  4. Oh! One last thing: Bootsy! Listen to Bootsy!!

  5. I enjoy playing with a good drummer. If you make eye contact with the drummer, and you both start grinning, who cares what the keyboard player says?

  6. Kewl to see you listed Lettuce 1st… fantastic band and E.D. knows how to rock the house… he can bound a solo out of so few notes… my mentor had me work with the root and the root note muted (ghosted) to get my right hand groove down… Tommy Shannon with SRV lays those ghost notes all over the place :)

  7. keyboard player ???? sack the keys and get a harp man !!

  8. Damian’s answer nails it. Most important, groovewise, is time.

  9. The Lemon Song by Led Zeppelin is a great place to start. JPJ just lets all the groove fly off the handle after the guitar solo and he doesnt repeat himself once. (his finest bass playing in my opinion)

  10. Hey Damian! In your advice here, do you literally mean to notate the grooves and write them out? Or here do you mean to get them committed to memory and under your fingers?

  11. As sommeone say firstly take care about the rythm and later we loo for the notes