When teaching guitar, I find that my students need the most help with groove. Students come to me expecting to learn chords, scales, riffs and ultimately entire tunes. I do teach those things, but after a little guidance, anyone can learn them on their own just as well from books, videos, web sites and so on. The harmonic and melodic aspects of guitar take time to master, but it’s just memorization. I devote most of my in-person time with students to rhythm.
Groove is harder to pin down in text and diagrams than chords and scales, so it doesn’t get as much written about it. That gives some folks the mistaken idea that rhythm isn’t as important as melody and harmony. The reverse is true. You can have a long, rich and satisfying guitar-playing life using nothing but the standard fifteen chords, as long as you can groove. If you can’t groove, you can learn all the chords and scales you want, but you won’t sound good.
Here’s an exercise that worked great for me when I was learning, and that I make all my students do. I call it the One Note Groove. It’s pretty simple, you just put on a repetitive beat and play one note over it. Since you don’t have to think about which notes to play, you’re free to devote your entire attention to your timekeeping, your attack, your whole sound — in other words, your groove.
Get some beats lined up
The ideal scenario for practicing groove is to have an excellent drummer or bassist handy. This isn’t too practical for most beginners, who tend to attract other beginners as jam partners. I’m all in favor of hacking it out with other newbies, but you want to develop good timekeeping habits too. Technology is the best solution for most of us.
I dislike metronomes intensely. They’re too cold and artificial, and they can be a disincentive to practicing. The only good thing about metronomes is that they prepare you to play to a click in studio situations. But then, I don’t like using click tracks while recording either. Both for practicing and recording, I prefer drum or percussion loops. They do the same job of keeping your time steady, but they also impart a feeling of groove and energy, and they result in something that sounds a lot more like music.
So where do you get good loops?
I programmed these, feel free to download and use them:
Programs like Garageband and Fruityloops come loaded with plenty of good loops. Using Ableton Live or similar software, it’s easy to make loops out of any song in your record collection. With a drum machine or any of the aforementioned programs, you can program your own loops. Learning how to program drums is a great way to get inside of the beat — it did wonders for my timekeeping.
I don’t recommend doing the one-note groove over complete songs. You don’t want chord or key changes, lyrics, sections or any other musical information to distract you from the groove. The less “interesting” your loops or instrumental tracks are, the better.
Here’s a Spotify playlist of nice grooves with few or no chord changes for your practicing pleasure.
Which single note do you play?
If you’re using a loop with pitched instruments in it, you’re going to have to figure out what key it’s in so your one note can be the root (or fifth, or some other note that fits well.) And how, you may ask, do you find out what the key is? Trial and error works fine. There are only twelve possible notes, and you can just systematically work your way up the low E string until you find one that sounds good. In fact, this exercise is tremendously valuable ear training in its own right.
If you’re playing to drums or percussion, you can play whatever note you want. After you get deep enough into loop playing, you might notice that even drum loops usually have a characteristic pitch to them, especially in the kick and snare drum. Try to find a note that blends well with the percussion tuning.
Getting the most from your one-note groove
Put your loop or instrumental on infinite repeat, and start playing your note. Find a simple pattern, nothing challenging. Focus on getting it in the pocket. Make it really sound smooth. Don’t push, just relax into it. See how long you can keep it steady.
Once you’ve really nailed your pattern down, try adding or removing a note, and see how long you can keep that going. Shift the pattern a beat earlier or a beat later. Try finding a pattern with an odd length and let it cycle in and out of sync with the beat.
Try to play only the downbeats. Then try playing any beat but the downbeat. Play long sustained notes and pay attention to the way they decay. Play short, staccato notes and see how percussive you can sound. Play louder and softer.
Focus on the drums. Try playing the same pattern as the kick drum, as the snare, as the hi-hats. You can learn a lot about rhythm by focusing on specific drum instruments.
If you’re struggling to keep up, slow the tempo down until it’s comfortable. In general, you should play as slow as you can stand. Focus on sounding better, not playing faster.
Make sure you aren’t rushing ahead of the beat — beginners always rush like crazy as soon as they start getting a little mastery. Try leaving a lot of space between your notes and hear how your silences interact with the groove. If your loop swings, make sure to match its feel.
The one-note groove is a highly meditative exercise. For the first few minutes, you might struggle a little to settle into your groove. Then you probably get bored. But if you keep going through the boredom, you can suddenly break free into previously unexplored regions of musical inspiration. The longer you stay focused on your groove, the more pleasurable it gets. Listen to Fela Kuti or John Coltrane stretch out on single-chord grooves for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes, and try to emulate their relaxed intensity.
Example: the Funky Drummer Bonus Beat Reprise
One of the best tracks you can use to do the one-chord groove exercise over is the this remix of “The Funky Drummer Parts One and Two” by James Brown.
Play on the open A string. Use your left hand and the heel of your right hand to mute the string to control your notes’ duration. Get ready to feel the funk!
Repetition is a great teacher, not just of music, but of everything. Let the loop ride and see where it takes you.