Recently a new fan who found me on YOUTUBE asked me if I used a metronome to develop my sense of groove.
Not a simple question, or topic, I am sure I’ll say some things here that will raise some eyebrows.
That being said – “there is more than one way to do it” . I can only tell you what has worked for me, and I still have a lifetime of learning ahead!
I have never, ever, ever practiced with a metronome. I do not recommend it at all. I’ve tried a few times, but shut the damn thing off after 5 minutes, for real. No joke.
Let’s start wayyyy back with these questions: What is groove? What is rhythm? What is time? What do you think you’ll get out of practicing with a metronome? Why do it?
I was lucky enough to have the greatest teacher around – pianist Mike Longo – teach me rhythm, and he learned from Dizzy Gillespie.
There is a big difference between “head rhythm” and “body rhythm”. Also – there is a difference between mere “time” and a “pulse”. To play music with an AFRICAN rhythmic concept is very different from a European rhythmic concept. The experience that led me down the right path was learning how to play African rhythms on a simple hand drum (which Mike learned from Diz).
What happens is a law of physics gets activated when “the drum” is played properly. It’s a 12/8 rhythm where all the 3’s 4’s 6’s and 12’s subdivide – but this is not intellectual at all when you’re doing it! A European rhythmic concept can have all these poly-rhythms and subdivisions, but the “accents” which are unique to the African concept are buried in the drum rhythm.
When you are playing it or hearing it properly – you experience “body rhythm” and your body starts moving like James Brown or Count Basie- without effort, without “trying to look” like you are grooving for the sake of appearances. Nope, this groove is the real thing. You can feel it, and everyone else can too. It’s an “US” thing – with the performer and audience, not a “ME” thing.
I’m not judging one or the other as better. What I am saying is that just as Einstein “uncovered” E=mc squared, African drummers and musicians “unlocked and uncovered” certain musical aspects of rhythm that to my knowledge, no one in Europe did. Likewise, the great composers- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven,Chopin, Ravel, Stravinsky – to name a few – unlocked realities regarding harmony, melody, rhythm, counterpoint and form that African musicians did not.
Once you experience this groove it on the “drum” the choices you’d make on your instrument regarding dynamics, fingerings – everything – start to shift to accommodate the new rhythm concept.
Here’s a fun tune where I get into a groove, and let me just say – I am still a servant and a student of music!!!
Groove starts at :42
Let’s imagine things in life that beat to a “pulse”, and that could not be set to an external clock: jumping rope, spinning a ball on your finger, juggling, dancing, the human heart beating – to name a few. None of these things could be set to an external clock, nor would that be the point! Imagine trying to jump rope to a metronome!
The misconceptions in “practicing to a metronome” are 1) that time is linear (it’s not, because it’s one big NOW moment) and 2) that these pulsating things – (African rhythm, juggling, jumping rope) produce perfectly measurable and evenly spaced pulsations. They don’t! There is a natural correct ebb and flow – and speeding up or slowing slightly is LEGAL and correct, depending on context.
Hitting beats at even time intervals has NOTHING to do with groove or body rhythm. Click tracks can KILL the groove.
I have played with many musicians with “perfect time” and no groove. As well, I have played with groovers whose time is not the greatest, but their groove is happenin’!
I recently played in a band where a musician was not pulling his weight groove wise. Sometimes he sounded too fast for the band, sometimes too slow. He was thinking “metronome time” and the band was thinking African time – so we had apples and oranges as far as rhythmic concept. It was a far deeper problem than what musicians call “rushing” or “dragging”. It was 2 different universes!
Grooves can get faster or slower and still be right. Put on an old Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire or Count Basie or John Coltrane. Did it speed up or slow down? You bet – but them grooves is 1000% right! On the flipside, some of the most non-grooving crap I have ever heard is all the music done with sequencers and drum machines – with perfectly metronomic beats, which my mathematical standards (but not human heart standards) is played to ‘perfect’ time!
No words I can write here will give you the experience of what I am talking about. No matter what your level of talent is, you’d need to play with a more experienced musician whom you honestly trust groove wise (in your heart) to teach you. It’s a tradition that is handed down.
Alvin Queen – he is the greatest jazz drummer alive right now, and quick online videos can’t do him justice. He was Elvin Jones protege and played with Coltrane when he was 12.
Play a slow groove with him, and it’s so big, deep and in the pocket – it makes you feel like you are ahead of him. Play an uptempo – and watch out, it’s time to get smoked because he is so intense, and you feel like he’s pushing you. Look him up on you tube! He’s the greatest – ask anyone who has played with him.
According to Alvin, he himself never practiced with a metronome.
This definitely gets to be expensive when you have to pay for those lessons, so this is how I learned about the sound of the sixteenth note, the eighth and the quarter note.” Alvin Queen
What can you do to deepen your groove?
1) Go with your gut more than your head.
2) Dance!!! I don’t care how good someone says their time is. Git on the dance floor and let’s see what your feet and body say. I love dancing. Feel funny dancing? Well, than you’re just as funny playing music. No excuses – dance!
The sad reality is that I have seen MANY regular people at disco’s exhibit a greater sense of body rhythm with their dancing than many musicians dowith their playing!
3) Play with the heaviest groovers around. Go right into a situation that feels intimidating and go up against any fears or insecurities you may have.
4) Play the blues, play with soul. It’s easier and more natural to get more complex with harmonies and melodies on a basis of blues and solid groove than it is to play complicated music and try to go back and find the groove.
5) Know that people like grooves. Get your audience to participate,and not just watch you. It’s not about you – it’s about the vibe and the magic.
Most people don’t realize that when I am playing complex lines I am focusing on groove. As well, staying “in the pocket” has offered me numerous technical solutions I would have never come up with otherwise.
Rhythm is the basis of music, so treat it as such!!!!!
“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” – Duke
“Just because a record’s got a groove don’t mean it’s in the groove” – Stevie
“Never trust a drummer that can’t dance” – Art Taylor (I think)