Quick and Dirty Ways to Improve Your Groove

Note: this won't help you express your art, or make your music more original. Rather, these are tried and true techniques--bordering on cheesy--that pop/rock acts have been using for decades to make audiences happy.

Everything from touring shows to church worship teams to bar bands can benefit from this stuff. I've seen these principles play out again and again. Just remember that it won't improve your creativity, and most importantly, remember that there are exceptions to every rule.

Technique #1: Match the Bass Guitar to the Kickdrum

If you forget everything else, remember this! If the bass guitar and kick drum play the same rythm pattern, the entire ensemble sort of locks into a groove. The band becomes a single instrument. You'll feel it as a band, and the audience will notice too. Try it and see.

It helps if the drummer creates a steady, consistent pattern for the bassist to follow. Watching some drummers' feet, you'd think the kick pedal was directly attached to some random, twitchy part of the drummer's brain. It's unlikely a bassist could follow that. For maximum groove, make sure your kick is solid and consistent.

Technique #2: Drummers! Don't Speed Up During Rolls and Fills

By rolls and fills, I mean those fancy things you do every fourth or eighth measure. (Think "Funky Cold Medina" by Tone-Loc.) Most drummers--and I mean a ridiculously high proportion of them--unconsciously speed up during fills. They succumb to the energy of the moment, get a little too excited, and play the fill too fast. It really knocks a song out of the groove. Don't excuse yourself from this too quickly. Unless you know for sure that you don't, you probably do.

The cure is a bit of conscious effort and discipline. As an experiment, consciously adjust the speed of your fills. Be able to choose to play a fill too fast or too slow. Learn to control it with your brain, not your gut. Next, practice using a metronome. Adjust your timing until you come out of the fills perfectly in sync with the metronome. Once you master this, your band's groove ability will increase drastically.

Technique #3: 200hz is the Frequency of Nastiness for the Kickdrum

Kickdrum miking is tricky. You need to use the right mic (i.e. a high-SPL, large diaphram mic), and move it around until it captures the right sound. Some drummers stuff pillows inside the drum, put duct tape on the head, and use different beaters to get just the right sound. If all of these techniques aren't enough, you'll probably reach for the EQ next.

When using the EQ on the kick, instead of boosting the low frequency, try doing the opposite. Try subtracting some sound around the 200HZ range. This tends to be an ugly frequency band for the kick drum, and de-emphasizing it can give the overall sound more punch and headroom.

Technique #4: Give the Drummer a Tactile Transducer

Also known as a drum throne shaker, or a thumper, this device clamps onto the upright post of the drum throne and acts as a monitor. But instead of sending sound waves through air, it sends bass vibrations through the drum throne straight into the drummer's posterior! Not only does this give the drummer a powerful way to "hear" rythmical cues, it reduces the need for expensive, gargantuan drum monitors. I've seen drum monitors that rival FOH systems. Eliminating these in turn reduces overall stage volume, creating a better mix and saving everyone's ears.

Technique #5: Nail the Very Last Note

When songs end with a single hit, for example after a long drawn-out ending where everybody pounds furiously on that last chord while the crowd cheers, everybody needs to do that very last note at Exactly the Same Time. I can't stress this enough. The wrong way to do this is to watch for when the guitarist dips his guitar a certain way, or when he stomps his foot. You'll almost certainly botch the hit.

The right way is to watch the drummer. The pre-arranged signal between the band and the drummer should be him drawing his stick back into the air, which should tell everybody to get ready. The hit occurrs at the precise moment when the stick strikes the crash cymbal. Doing it this way is visible, predictable and unambiguous, plus the drummer has the best sense of exactly when to do the hit.

Technique #6: When the Applause Starts to Die Down, Make Your Next Move

Applause follows a predictable pattern. It rises quickly, peaks and fades. There's a group psychology behind it, and you have to play by its rules. Don't start playing your next song or start talking while it's rising or peaking, or your audience will feel cut off. Instead, soak it in. They want to see you enjoying them enjoying you. But don't let the applause fade away too much, or else awkwardness will set in. Make your move after the applause peaks. If the peak is 100%, and total silence is 0%, make your move around the 70% mark. Even if it's just a visual indication like striking a preliminary pose, give them some clear signal that you're doing the Next Thing. It's what they expect and it makes things go smoothly.

Technique #8: Stay in the Pocket

This one's subtle. The pocket is 20% science, 30% attitude, and 50% pure Zen. Scientifically speaking, staying in the pocket means playing just a little too slow. But it's so much more than that. If you've ever cut wood with a hand saw, and somebody said "let the saw do the work," it's a similar concept. When playing in the pocket, let the song do the work. Don't push it or rush it along. Savor every note. The Eagles do it in every live performance. Metallica does it in their recording of "Enter Sandman" on the Black Album. Listen to that song and tell me you don't want to bang your head.

Another way to look at it is to imagine the opposite. Imagine Lynyrd Skynyrd, back when the original band was still all alive, playing "Freebird" live for the 74,852nd time. Imagine them tearing through the song, eager to finish and move on to something they haven't played more than a thousand times. That's the opposite of playing in the pocket.