If you want to be a successful band, you can’t overlook the groove. It’s what every musician should always be after and, although the groove can be elusive and mythical, there are various tips, tricks and tools that can help you catch it. So in the famous words of Sam Cooke: get in the groove and let the good times roll.

The Groove: What It Is And How It’s Formed

Clearly Felt

We’re sitting down with Lené Te Voortwis to discuss the concept of groove and related themes such as timing, which is essential for developing a feel for the groove. Besides being a bassist and a double-bassist, Lené teaches courses at the Amsterdam conservatory and works with various big names in the Dutch music scene.

“Groove is hard to describe yet easy to feel,” says bassist Lené. “It’s subjective too. You might feel the groove in one tune, while another musician feels nothing.” As elusive as the groove can be, it remains one of the key ingredients in pop music. In the words of American bassist Ed Friedland: “If a band doesn’t have a groove, it has a problem.”

Energetic Force

So what’s ‘groove’? In his book ‘Bass Grooves’, Ed Friedland writes that “groove is the energetic force created by a solo musician or a group of musicians through the way they play.” While Lené agrees, he also feels the description is a little broad: “Groove is something you can sense, or physically feel. The groove and the way it’s described involves the rhythm. The energetic force that Friedland refers to is the result of the rhythmic performance of one or more musicians. However, what exactly happens in this performance before you’d call it a groove, is hard to put into words.” If groove was measurable or came with a simple equation, things would be a lot clearer. Sadly, or fortunately depending on the way you look at it, that’s not the case. At the same time, every musician wants to know the secret to getting a crowd to feel the groove in their music. Happy to help everyone on their quest to capture the groove, Lené claims there are various conditions that need to be met before you can catch a proper groove, some of which are even mathematically definable to some degree. The most important elements are timing, rhythm, note duration, phrasing and interpretation. Get these sorted and you’re well on your way to getting in the groove.

Timing and Interpretation

“Timing is literally the most strict, almost mathematically precise rhythmic performance of a piece of music,” Lené says. “In other words: timing is all about when your notes begin and end, and it’s a determining factor for the quality of music. Besides an objective side, there’s a subjective side to timing that’s linked to the song, the style or the setting. These elements demand an interpretation by the performing musicians, which eventually translates into timing. This can be a driving feel, a laid-back feel or an exactly-on-the-count feel. Here, driving and laid-back are actually both enigmas in and of themselves, not to mention topics for debates among musicians. There’s a risk of speeding up too much if everyone in your band starts driving the rhythm up. Conversely, the same goes for playing more laid-back. Thankfully, there’s always a point of reference. “That reference point is the pulse,” Lené says. “Every song has a pulse that’s determined by its time signature and the tempo. While playing off-pulse is a no-go if you want to catch a groove, what you can do is play along with the pulse. What’s equally important is that everyone in the band feels the same pulse, especially the rhythm section. This’ll improve your timing which in turn helps you get into the groove.”

Steady as You Go

If you’re all feeling the same pulse and interpret the song the same way, you’ve come a long way but you’re not quite there yet. The next step is to stay consistent throughout the entire song, unless of course you want to take the chorus in a completely different direction compared to the verse. Whatever you do though, be sure to do it consistently or you’ll never get into the groove. Lené continues: “The pulse we were just talking about always comes with a subdivision, like eighths or sixteenth notes. Say the song has a sixteenths-type-of feel. What this means is that you must stick to sixteenth notes at all times, so don’t change to eighths during the bridge because you feel like it. In addition to the feel of eighth notes and sixteenth notes, there’s the feel of triplets, which is particularly common in jazz where it’s called ‘swing’, but can also be heard in pop and blues where it goes by ‘shuffle’. Needless to say, as a band, you’re in trouble if the bassist plays triplets while the drummer lays down a beat based on sixteenths.

A Shared Feel for the Pulse

Developing a shared feel for pulse is incredibly important for band members, Lené explains. “That’s why I have my students do certain exercises sometimes. Usually, feeling the pulse and playing accordingly isn’t every first-year student’s main priority. They’re generally more concerned with their notes, chords and virtuosity, so they have to be taught to lock onto the same pulse when they play together. At the same time, their way of thinking needs to be based on the same subdivision, which is why I will sometimes play a metronome through the speakers. This is often pretty confronting, and while playing with a metronome isn’t the goal, it does help to illustrate what pulse is and how to work with it. Doing this exercise in groups also helps everybody lock onto the same pulse.”

Counting is Crucial

A lot of musicians will boast about the fact that they play based on feeling. They can’t read music, haven’t got a clue about time signatures and never count while they play. Lené thinks it’s fine that many musicians play instinctively but emphasises that growing your knowledge will only help you get even better at it. “A little knowledge of music theory is indispensable when it comes to communication between band members. Just remember that knowledge is a means, not an end. Doing rhythmic exercises together, for example, is a lot easier if you know a thing or two about time signatures and rhythmic patterns. Telling someone about the placement of a certain note is pointless if they don’t speak the same language. Being able to count notes is an essential skill in this regard,” says Lené. “Counting lets you mark the starting point and end of a bar. This sounds simple, but it’s trickier than you think. To learn to count well, you have to feel when the next measure starts while you’re playing. It’s about learning to feel that first count, which is incredibly important in pop music, especially for drummers and bassists since they’re managing the accented counts, so the first and the third count in the popular 4/4 time signature (aka common time). Here, the first count is king. Have a go using a metronome and throw in a fill every now and then. You’ll notice how easy it is to speed up during fills and end up missing the first count because you’re too early. You might despise your metronome and its merciless clicks, but believe me when I say that countless professional musicians – rhythm section musicians in particular – have spent hours and hours honing their timing with one. Metronomes are a great tool for developing your feel for tempo, your inner pulse. You could also practise with the help of a drum loop, it’s just that a metronome is a little more confronting.

Drum Machines

Lené suggests that once you start getting the hang of it, you’re free to set the bar a little higher by halving the tempo and having your metronome click on the afterbeat, so the unaccented second and fourth count. “This forces you to time count one and three, the accented counts. Record yourself and listen back to your performance. When you’re getting it right, you can increase the difficulty by setting your metronome to repeat nothing but the fourth count. This will help you cultivate your inner pulse.” In addition to using a metronome, it’s also a good idea to use a drum machine or any other bit of kit that produces drum loops. “That’s because metronomes don’t tell you whether you’re supposed to play eighth or sixteenth notes, while drum loops do,” Lené explains.

Note Duration

So far, we’ve mainly discussed the placement of notes, so the point where each note begins. “Where your notes end, so note duration, is just as important,” Lené says. “This goes for every musician who can influence the duration of their notes, so bassists, guitarists and keyboardists for instance. However, the notion of note duration is also important for drummers and percussionists, who can shape their parts more thoughtfully if they also focus on the notes their fellow band members are playing.” Before you can strengthen the rhythmic foundation of a song as much as possible, each member of the band must be aware of how long their notes are. There are various exercises to train this. You can, for example, play the same verse a number of times, subtly changing the note duration each time to see how it feels. Rinse and repeat until you feel things make sense rhythmically.

Practising Alone

In addition to the exercises explained above, you can also vary note duration in the following ways:

  • Create variation in a song by playing long notes for the verses and shorter notes during the chorus.
  • Adjust the duration of your notes so that a more transparent, rhythmic whole is formed.
  • Adjust the duration of your notes so that your fellow band members are given more room. For example, when the bassist leaves the second and fourth count open, the drummer will have more room for afterbeat.

“Whatever you do, remember that the duration of your notes is defining for the song, and also determines whether a groove takes shape or not,” Lené remarks.

Injecting Life

Everything discussed so far, so timing, interpretation, pulse, counting and note duration, are criterions for groove. That said, they’re mostly ‘mathematical’ parameters that you could probably enter into a sequencer and build something that would resemble a groove. “The problem is that it’s likely to sound too sterile or too mechanical,” Lené says. “It’ll lack the human element and expression. Compare it to uttering a sentence. It’s not just about speaking the words in the right order, it’s also about getting a message across. You’re trying to express a sentiment, an emotion. As such, every word has a different sound, pitch and intensity to it.” The same is true for musical phrases. Every note in a phrase has a slightly different timbre and dynamics when it’s played with expression. You always have to find a way to ‘express’ your bass line, guitar riff or drum fill so that it gets the message across. That’s where your sound, phrasing and dynamics come into play.


Picking and sculpting the right sound is always essential. Not only for your musical identity, but for the style you’re operating in. After all, a chunk of funk is going to require a different tonal palette than a country song. The same goes for your licks, riffs, patterns, beats and so on. It’s all about finding a sound that works for you and the band. Once you have what you need, you’ve taken the first step towards a groove.


Phrasing has to do with the way you play phrases, so quietly or loudly and in legato or in staccato, but also with how clearly you articulate and where you’re placing accents. If you’re on the guitar or bass, you also get options like hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and vibratos for phrasing. And if you’re playing the keyboard, you might have a pitch-bend and modulation wheel at your disposal. All of these phrasing options give you a way to express yourself musically. “Phrasing and the sound of your instrument go hand in hand,” Lené says. “Guitarists will opt for a different phrasing when they play a riff with a clean tone as opposed to when they’re playing with a distorted sound.”


Playing dynamically means incorporating subtle volume differences as a way to inject expression into the build-up of a song, for example by playing at low volume during the intro and the start of the first verse before slowly but surely increasing the volume so it peaks during the chorus. To up the expression even more, dynamics can also be applied to phrases, for example by starting a phrase off quietly and ending it loudly, giving the phrase an exhilarating feel. “If everyone gets the dynamics right, the whole thing will sound way more convincing,” Lené says.

The Rhythmic Framework

Lené recommends keeping the rhythmic framework of a song as basic as possible at first. “This way, it’s easier to tune into one another rhythmically and play in harmony. Getting to know each other’s timing and feel for rhythm is essential if you want to lay down a groove like a well-oiled machine.” Lené continues: “Also, try to stick to parts that you can actually pull off with your instrument. If a song is too technical for anyone in the band, it’s going to affect your rhythmic precision and, what’s worse, hurt your chances at catching a groove. Basically, the weakest link determines the strength of your chain, so be sure to only play songs that everyone can handle.” When it comes to tempo, Lené says there are plenty of songs that fluctuate in tempo but have a clearly present groove at the same time. “So don’t be overly strict about maintaining a certain tempo. The rhythm always comes first. Playing at the right tempo is just a bonus. You may also create deliberate tempo differences by playing the chorus at a higher tempo than the verses for a more driving feel.”

Good to Know

Practising with the Band

It’s not that common for a band to do specific exercises together, even though there’s a lot to be said for doing so, Lené believes. “Perfecting rhythmic patterns is vital if you’re looking to get into the groove. There’s a lot to be gained in this regard.” Pick a song and select a part of up to four bars. Rehearse those bars for fifteen minutes or so and try to be more precise with every playthrough while paying attention to your band members. “You’ll notice you’ll get into a flow at some point. Your timing, interpretation and sound will all fall into place and before you know it, you’re feeling the groove.”

Interpreting Covers and Original Songs

As mentioned earlier, the timing of every song is based on interpretation, and your interpretation has to remain consistent throughout every song you play, or else you’ll risk killing the groove. While you’re free to create differences between the verse and chorus, you still have to be consistent in your approach. If you’re part of a cover band, then listen carefully to the original material and try to find out the meaning of it. “If you’re playing self-penned songs, you have to pick an interpretation based on the style and the melody. It’s then up to the bassist to lay down a fitting bass line. The notes your bassist plays are largely determined by the chords of the song, but their rhythm and interpretation will be determined by the way the melody is sung. In other words, it’s vocals first, followed by bass and then the drums and any other instruments.”

The Crowd and the Groove

During live shows, the crowd isn’t simply listening to the music, but they’re experiencing it too. This applies to the sound and the overall performance, as well as the groove which, if it’s there, will make people want to move. The stronger the groove, the harder it is not to tap your feet to the music.

Write Down Your Rhythms

While many musicians can barely, if at all, read music, it’s definitely a skill worth learning, even if only so you can make out rhythm. Lené: “Putting the rhythm of a song in writing makes it easier to understand in light of the count. Besides, writing it down forces you to think about it, making your parts easier to remember.” In addition to personal benefits, written rhythms are an ideal way to communicate rhythm-based exercises with the band, especially since you get to accurately indicate where each note begins and ends.

Helpful Books

If you want to dive a little deeper into the concept of groove, then there are various interesting books you can pick up. Here’s two: ‘Bass Grooves’ by Ed Friedland and ‘Get Locked’ by Greg Hyatt and Stan Mitchell. While they’re technically written for bassists and drummers, they’re no less useful or insightful for other musicians.

Learn to Listen

Learning to make music, or learning to express yourself musically, is similar to a child learning to talk. As soon as a toddler is able to utter their first words, they want to be part of the conversation. From there, it’s just living and learning. The same goes for musicians who, by playing together with other musicians, only get better at expressing themselves and finding out where there’s still room for improvement. Sticking to the language-learning metaphor here, you could say that learning to properly enunciate is key for every musician. That being said, the ability to listen is just as important. No one could ever learn to talk if they don’t listen.

See also

» Rehearsing: The Power and Dangers of Repetition
» Musician-Related Injuries: 8 Ways to Avoid Them
» Two Guitarists in One Band: Who Plays What?
» The Blues Scale: Nail it in Every Key
» A Bassist’s Guide to Writing Bass Lines
» Want to Play Tight? Then Nail These Exercises
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises

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