4 Musicians Institute Drum Teachers Talk Groove

Groove Roundtable

Groove is arguably the most important word in a drummer’s vocabulary. Unfortunately, trying to define it is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Metal drummers almost certainly perceive groove differently than funk drummers, who see it much differently than punk or rock or jazz drummers. To make matters worse, used in its most common constructions (“get into the groove”; “feel the groove”; “get your groove on”) the word gets so loaded down with retro kitsch baggage it can be hard for anyone born after the Carter Administration to say it with a straight face.

But like it or not, it’s the only word we’ve got to describe that sublime synthesis of time and feel, that magical moment when sound molecules click into perfect alignment, when every member of the band locks into the exact same frequency, and what was merely meh suddenly becomes Whaaaaaah?! And just like that it makes you its slave, willing to play with anyone, anytime, anywhere for another chance to capture that fleeting feeling. You need to, because for drummers, mastering the groove is an absolute prerequisite for greatness.

Hey, don’t just take our word for it — four out of five drum instructors agree. Well, at least the four we talked to anyway. To help us get a clearer picture of this crazy little thing called groove, we herded Tim Pedersen, Bernard Galane, Ernest Tibbs, and Charlie Waymire into a practice room at Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, California one evening in December to hear what insights their years as M.I. groove oracles have garnered. And while each man hails from a different corner of the groovosphere, their experiences as players and teachers have left them with only one possible conclusion: You ain’t got nothin’ if you ain’t got groove.

Dig it, daddy-o.

Groove Roundtable

(Left) Charlie Waymire

DRUM!: Do you think it’s the drummer’s responsibility to keep the groove alive, or is it the job of the whole band?

PEDERSEN: I think it’s definitely the drummer’s responsibility. And it’s funny, when I was a kid, I didn’t think so. I thought everyone should keep time. But if the drums are in time and they feel good ... We joke all the time: If you’ve got a good drummer, you’ve got a good band. You just do. If you’ve got a great drummer, you’ve got a great band. If you’ve got a great band and a bad drummer, you’ve got a bad band. It’s the bottom line. You can have a lousy band and a great drummer and it’s going to feel good. It would be nice if everybody was just keeping time for themselves but ...

WAYMIRE: ... But if you get four different people trying to keep time, it’s like, who’re you going to follow? Like, Ray Luzier’s got the thing with Army Of Anyone where the bass player’s the timekeeper. But most of the time I look at it where we’re like the field general. If we can’t get the thing pointed where it’s got to go, who else is going to do that?

GALANE: But you still try to adjust.

WAYMIRE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Always. You have to.

GALANE: And you can make it better.

DRUM!: Do you think the emphasis on having perfect or near-perfect time can take away from the emphasis on groove and feel?

PEDERSEN: No, I mean, I tell my kids — and they’re really trying to be careful with this more in the last few years, because this thing where they taught like that before, you can really crush people, really fast, for years. I mean you could ruin someone for playing. Like, if they have something kind of cool and you make them focus on [timekeeping] too much, it ruins them, you know, breaks them. Then you have nothing. You’re just another lousy drummer.

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TIBBS: But if a guy’s time is really lousy, like lousy ...

PEDERSEN: ... There’s not much you can do.

TIBBS: Yeah, I mean, obviously we’re all human beings, nobody’s perfect like a machine, and we shouldn’t be, either. But I think that it’s a different thing, having great time and great phrasing and a great feel. They can all work together, but if you’re just like, “Your time, your time, your time,” at the end of the day it’s like, Okay, you play great time, but there’s nothing else there.

PEDERSEN: Yeah, you can forget it real fast, can’t you? A guy with great time doesn’t mean you’re going to remember his playing. But everyone’s going to feel it in a different way. We’ll talk about groove and time, and they are together to some degree, but there are some great drummers who rush like mad. I mean Stewart Copeland changed the face of drumming, because of the passion for the instrument and the cool things he played, and there was no time going on there whatsoever. But yet it was fantastic. But that’s where we learn about our time playing, too, because we’re trying to find a groove position. And we have our own thing, but the search for something else is where you gain that constant in time, because it’s understanding it. And that’s what we try to give to the students. But that takes time. You know, they get to see it; they get to suddenly go, “Okay, now I know what groove is.” But then, often, that busts your confidence for a little while and you have to get it back and go, “Oh, I’m not great. I’m not perfect.” You’ve got to be real careful as a young player, to be able to look at that and go, “Okay, that’s not great, but while I’m working on it I still have got to keep bashing it out with the same confidence I did before.”

WAYMIRE: Well, confidence is the big thing, and I think a lot of our individual grooves, too, do come from our inconsistencies. It’s the things that are not perfect in the groove that make us individual more than what’s perfect.

Groove Roundtable

(Left) Ernest Tibbs

DRUM!: When you do manage to lock into a groove, how do you maintain it? What’s going through your mind?

WAYMIRE: Just enjoy.

PEDERSEN: Exactly. It’s like surfing. You just get to enjoy that time.

GALANE: It has to do with the band, too. No egos and no power trips in the band. At least for me, when I’m playing, I always hate that when the guitar player’s trying to show off and stepping all over the feel. [Group laughter] But when everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s serving the music, ride the wave, right?

TIBBS: Yeah, we’re serving the music. We’re giving to each other, not just taking.

PEDERSEN: And when you start thinking about it then I think it’s gone. Because the whole idea of a great groove is when you’re communicating. But as soon as you’re thinking then you quit communicating.

GALANE: I had this student, he was really struggling with [a shuffle], right? And I asked him, “What do you imagine when you play that?” And he said, “Nothing.” And I told him, “Say you were in a movie. What scene would describe that shuffle?”

PEDERSEN: Well, that’s very advanced — that’s very advanced thinking. Did he get it?

GALANE: And he said, “It’s kind of late, everybody’s tired. Like, maybe like a smoke-filled jazz club or something.”

PEDERSEN: That’s very cool, man.

GALANE: And then he tried it again, and you would not believe the difference. Just by imagining being in this smoke-filled club. I personally do that, you know? And if I can help a student that way, I try that too, but it really helped him.

DRUM!: How does your physical approach to the instrument, how you actually move, affect the groove?

WAYMIRE: If you change your position, it’s going to change the way you play. But some of the stuff that comes out, you just do it, you don’t think, “I need to move my body back to lay this back,” or “I need to lean into it,” you just kind of start to do it after awhile.

GALANE: It’s like walking, right? You do something since you’re two years old — and everyone walks different.

TIBBS: Yeah, absolutely. I always go back to Steve Gadd: You notice his body, and it’s in his body, and it’s a natural thing. He almost dances.

WAYMIRE: And he moves a lot, actually. His body is very involved with his time.

PEDERSEN: He was a tap dancer, wasn’t he? And so was Rick Marotta — a lot of those guys.

GALANE: Buddy Rich.

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PEDERSEN: Yeah, and Buddy too. So maybe that physical thing helps. I know as a drummer, it’s a very difficult instrument because you don’t touch it. So we’re really removed from it. It’s like a giant condom for an instrument. [laughter] You play it with sticks and you’ve got pedals with shoes, and unlike bass or guitar, you don’t feel it, so it’s hard to connect with it anyway. But then the times when you really feel like you’re really involved, and this is what I try to teach my students here — it’s not separate pieces. You’ve really got to be careful to look at the instrument as everything together. And the thing that drummers that don’t play well often don’t know is they do okay here [indicates snare and hi-hat] and then they go to here [indicates snare and ride] and the groove goes away.

TIBBS: Oh yeah, especially the younger guys, they start riding a cymbal and, oh boy!

[Group laughter]

PEDERSEN: But when you really can embrace the whole instrument and can feel natural behind it — you’ve got to learn to kind of be at peace with the instrument. You’ve got to find a way that you can sit behind it and you feel like you can control it, but you’re still involved. And that’s different for everybody. Some people sit high. But when I sit high I feel like the instrument is too far away from me. And then when I sit too low I feel like the instrument’s taking me over, so it’s a very psychological thing. And that’s why sound is so important to me. If it sounds bad, it’s very hard to make it happen.

Groove Roundtable

(Left) Tim Pederson

DRUM!: So how exactly does sound factor into the groove?

TIBBS: The sound is part of it, and how it feels. The sound of my bass, the sound around me, everything.

WAYMIRE: For me, that starts with the kick drum.

PEDERSEN: Absolutely.

WAYMIRE: I can deal with toms that don’t sound good or even cymbals, but that kick drum ...

PEDERSEN: And we notice here, a lot of the students, the worst instrument for them is the bass drum. If the bass drum isn’t strong and isn’t secure and always the same, nothing’s going to be good. Because if the bass drum is perfect, and everything else moves around, it’s still going to feel pretty good.

TIBBS: Yeah, I had this one friend, he was like a college-educated percussionist-drummer, and every time we’d play it just didn’t feel right. And his foot was like a jackrabbit. [laughter] I said, “Just play a pattern.” And he was like, “Oh,” and it clicked in his head, and he did it, and it was like 20 percent better.

PEDERSEN: Yeah, they play like a bass drum solo. We see students here all the time and we spend all the time trying to get them to play like a one- or two-bar pattern for two minutes. All these bass drum notes — “But I got so much more I can play!”

WAYMIRE: The focus is different, though. Every four bars, “Oh, God! I need a fill. I need a crash. I need to open a hi-hat. I got to do something. Did I take out the trash? What am I going to do?” All this going on. It’s like, “No. Play the same groove for 16 bars.” That’s the hardest thing in the world for them.

PEDERSEN: It is. Well, it’s the hardest thing in the world to do, though! I mean that’s the thing. Playing great time for three-and-a-half minutes, that’s hard to do. It seems so easy when you’re young too. You’re like, “Really? That’s nothing, come on. Any joker can do that. I want to learn some cool licks.” And the cool licks are great. I mean, they’re fantastic, but they’re only fantastic if the other part’s great.

GALANE: The cream on the cake, man.

WAYMIRE: If you can’t come back to a good groove it doesn’t matter how cool your six-stroke roll is. It won’t make any difference.

DRUM!: Does it seem like these days kids are ignoring the groove and moving straight on to developing technique and speed?

PEDERSEN: Well, the instrument has to go somewhere if you’re young. This isn’t very exciting if you’re 13 [plays 2/4 backbeat on his thighs] because you can do it right away. You can teach anybody to do this in about a minute and a half. So they assume, “Great! I’m a great drummer.”

GALANE: Yeah, “I learned this in five minutes, I must be a genius. So, then I’m going to go on to playing something really fast.” And then they get the double pedal out. That’s just what happens, because, again, they don’t hear the groove yet. Because I think when you’re practicing your instrument, you’re practicing to become a virtuoso. You never practice the simple stuff!

WAYMIRE: Ninety-eight percent of our gig is 1 and 3, 2 and 4. While we sit and practice six-stroke rolls and paradidles all day, which I love, but ...

PEDERSEN: And, you know, drummers don’t realize how wonderful it is to play a great groove until they can. I mean, that feeling, when it’s happening, there’s nothing better. But until you can make that go, it does seem stupid. It just seems you can teach any knucklehead to do it. So it’s one of those weird catch-22s. And until you feel it, and know what it is, you can never see its importance, so you have to kind of search for it until you finally one day go, “Oh! That was cool!” And then it goes away. And then it takes you a few more weeks, and then you go, “Oh!” And then after a while you finally get to do it all the time.

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DRUM!: Do you think certain styles of music groove more than others?

PEDERSEN: To me, the metal thing, maybe this is just because I’m older, but I can’t say that music grooves. It’s just precision. And to me that’s what it’s about. It is the theatrics of drumming. It’s marvelous, but that is ultimate drumming. All that bass drum stuff, all that playing, you don’t have time to change position. You know, tempo has an effect too. As you talk about metal and other music, once the music gets to a certain speed, there’s no space for it to move, so it doesn’t really groove. It’s just time.

Groove Roundtable

(Left) Bernard Galane

TIBBS: Like, I see these young bass players, they’re freaking me out. They’re like 14 years old. I’m like, “Buuh?” [laughs]

PEDERSEN: It’s phenomenal! But it’s not magic. That’s the difference. A groove is magic. Most people, if they put 24 hours a day in for 24 years, they can get to some level of technique.

WAYMIRE: I agree.

PEDERSEN: So that’s not magic. That’s just hard work.

GALANE: Take a construction worker from the street — by the way, nothing wrong with construction workers of course — put him behind a drum set for 15 years, tell him, “You practice eight hours a day for fifteen years.”

WAYMIRE: ... “And you need be faster and faster and faster.”

GALANE: Right, “And go up with the click.” And it sounds exactly like that. A random person from the street. It has nothing to do with music.

PEDERSEN: Because the groove is the magic. How come one guy just can’t do it — and those unfortunately exist? The poor guy that wants to be a drummer, and even his time is good, but he just doesn’t have that. You know, he’ll get some gigs, and he’ll get to play, but he’ll never get to be — that. And you know it when it’s not happening, especially as you get to play a long time. And only a handful, a miniscule amount, will get that thing where they get to be [Steve] Jordan. And that’s a gift. That groove thing is a gift.