Photo by Jens Wessling
Q: I’m having trouble grooving with the drummer in my band. My bread and butter is hip-hop and R&B, and he is coming from the world of straight-ahead jazz. We play in a very backbeat-oriented group, and the only time there is ever a pocket is if I put him in mine and carry him around in it all night, which is draining. The thing is he’s a wonderful band mate – always punctual, easy to be around, a hard worker – plus he has computer and programming skills that are invaluable to our project, as he maintains the website, social networks, writes code, etc. Do you have any suggestions to help remedy this issue?
A: I have two thoughts here. One can be viewed as positive, the other might seem a bit more negative.
First, the positive.
I play in a trio with a guitarist who comes from a place of groove and a drummer who is much more free. Both of these musicians are phenomenal and listen extremely well. However, the drummer is very expressive and often pays little attention to metronomic time.
The very first time I played with these two guys, I was in hell. I felt like I was trying to connect them and spent much of the night not knowing where to go. Lock in with the guitarist (who has great time)? Or flow with the drummer (whose space in between beats could flex like crazy)? It was like I was holding leashes for two large dogs who both kept trying to run in opposing directions.
It’s hard to explain playing with this particular drummer because I typically have little patience for drummers who can’t control their time and feel. The difference with this guy is that he’s 100% in control and 100% aware. He’s just coming from a different place musically and he’s intentionally creating rhythmic tension.
By the second gig, I had to make decision and decided to follow the ebb and flow of the drummer. I was amazed to find that I could treat the time not as a straight line but more like the flow of a river. And since we all three of us listen well and make micro adjustments on the fly, it actually sounds very cool. Again, it can be hard to explain how and why this particular trio sounds good in light of every reason I just gave, but it does. There may be a little bit of magic happening with this specific combination of guys, approaches, influences and tastes.
Now for the negative. The chances of this working in most instances is close to zero. The trio I mentioned is a more modern jazz group with a groove foundation (but it’s still a jazz trio). You specifically mentioned that yours is a groove band, and that means that everything really falls on the rhythm section to make it feel right. Since everything else about the drummer is on point, I would suggest that you ask him to go to school (stylistically speaking).
Most of the true “jazz” drummers I know have a funny pocket in groove situations. They just feel both the beat and the space in between the subdivisions differently. They also tend not to hit the drums in the same way (or tune them the same either).
If your drummer is amenable to the idea, maybe you could make him a list of tunes to internalize. Not only should he transcribe the grooves and learn them inside and out but ask him to pay attention to the sound and intensity of the parts.
I tend to think visually. This is subjective, and you can take it or leave it, but I feel jazz drumming feels circular while a funk groove drumming is more squared. There is most definitely a swing happening in most funk grooves, but it’s almost like an over-swing – less triplet-y and more of a 32nd note type of swing.
He should also pay special attention to the way in which he hits his snare drum. It needs to be with authority and with a little rim in there. That crack goes a long way, for the more emphasized snare hits anyway.
I would bet that if he just committed to listening to music that has the type of drumming you’re wishing for, it would go a long way. Once he feels it inside of him, he’ll have no problem expressing it properly on the kit.
A good groove band can’t have a squishy groove, so you’ll need to address it so you’re not wasting time and imposing a “quality ceiling” because of a weak link.
But, with time and attention, all issues can be addressed and remedied. Ultimately, it will make your drummer more versatile and he’ll thank you for it (hopefully).
Best of luck!
Your turn, readers. You all add such great insights to these columns. Feel free to light up the comment section with stories and ideas you may have!