On The Cover
There are very real ghosts that haunt every drummer’s subconscious: Am I really grooving? Do I sound confident enough at the kit? How well am I pushing or pulling the time?
One of modern drumming’s premier educators and performers thinks that, with a little research, ingenuity, and good ’ol elbow grease, anyone can bust those dastardly thoughts permanently.
Story by Michael Dawson
Photos by Gerhard Kühne
If you ask German drummer/composer/educator Benny Greb, who’s spent the past seven years researching, testing, and producing the ideas and exercises that comprise the monumental educational DVD The Art and Science of Groove, the answer is unequivocal: Yes, all drummers can learn to groove. The caveat, however, is that if you want to play with a great-feeling pocket, you have to practice. And, more important, you have to know what to practice.
Using his drum camps and private lessons as the litmus test, Greb set out to bust the myth that some people can groove while others cannot by applying concepts that he developed to improve his own feel. This extended experiment was set into motion before he began working on his previous award-winning educational book/DVD, The Language of Drumming, which distills the essential vocabulary required in all musical styles into chewy yet very digestible bite-size portions. “I didn’t feel ready back then,” Greb says in regards to why it took nearly a decade to make The Art and Science of Groove. “These were ideas and exercises that helped me, but I hadn’t field-tested them with students, so I didn’t know whether they worked for everyone or if I knew how to explain them exactly.”
The hard work and thorough research certainly paid off, as Greb leaves no stone unturned in his quest to reveal the “secrets” to confident, consistent timekeeping. The drummer divides his discussion of groove into five key elements: time, feel, sound, body, and mind. Each chapter contains a detailed explanation of a given element, plus exercises, practice suggestions, and very clear demonstrations, either by a drum machine automaton or by Benny playing alone at the kit, with a click track, with bass-playing counterpart Frank Itt, or with his new experimental electronic/jazz trio, Moving Parts. (The group’s self-titled debut album, which was released in November 2014, is a great real-world demonstration of all of the elements of groove at play.)
The Art and Science of Groove is an impressive achievement for Greb and is one from which all of us “non-blessed” drummers can reap rewards. Just be sure to have your remote control handy, because you’ll undoubtedly want to pause the player often and pick up your sticks to put the exercises into practice. (Spoiler alert: You will develop a stronger and more confident groove by doing so. Myth busted!)
We caught up with Greb a few weeks before the official release of The Art and Science of Groove, as he was preparing for a three-day Master Session drum camp at the Full Moon Resort in scenic Big Indian, New York, where he planned to continue putting his ideas into action with a fresh crop of able and willing test subjects. Our conversation, which was conducted between Germany and New Jersey via Skype, begins and ends with—you guessed it—groove.
MD: It’s a pretty bold challenge to take on the topic of groove. Did you have naysayers who said it couldn’t be done?
Benny: Yeah, I had colleagues who said, “I wouldn’t do it,” or “I wouldn’t take the magic out of it.” But I don’t see it that way. For me, knowledge is nothing that takes away from the magic—it enhances it. For us drummers, understanding the elements of groove makes things reliable and not a matter of luck. If it’s magical, then sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. You might play four bars in the first chorus that feel great, but you have no idea how to do that consistently. For that, it takes knowing the inner workings. That’s the challenge I, and many drummers, faced.
MD: One of the aha moments I had with the DVD was in the time chapter, when you demonstrate how to elongate phrases by changing the subdivision. It was great to have the notation on the screen to show the basic subdivision. It made it so simple to understand: It’s just triplets and 16th notes.
Benny: Right, and to be able to pinpoint that is what’s important. The most important thing with this DVD is to make people great at diagnosing problems, so when you don’t like something, you know why and what you can do about it. That’s why I created practical exercises for some of the phenomena that weren’t necessarily put into exercises before. If you want to create that tampering-with-the-time effect, which I call the hand brake, it’s a matter of subdivision. But before that, I go into defining what subdivision really means and what it sounds like. I tried to look at all the aspects of groove that are hard to describe in a book or are often left up to being a “gift.”
MD: Many people have said that in terms of groove, you either have it or you don’t. But what is “it”?
Benny: The gift! [laughs] As I say on the DVD, if groove is a gift, then I didn’t have it. I worked on it and improved over time. I don’t think groove is a gift; it’s a combination of learnable skills. It’s true that some people have a great feel intuitively, through experience. But not everyone has the luck that their mother was a background singer with James Brown, or they grew up in a vibrant music scene or had parents who listened to great records. Those are things that can teach you groove intuitively, but you still have to work on other stuff. I wanted to look at the full scale of phenomena within groove and what you can do to develop them, so that it’s not a matter of upbringing or other things you can’t change. I mean…I was born in Augsburg, Bavaria, so I had to come up with something to get those aesthetics going. [laughs]
MD: When did you discover that you didn’t have your groove together? Was it on a recording?
Benny: Yeah, it was the first recording. That’s when I figured out that things can sound drastically different from how they feel while you’re playing, to the positive and to the negative. Sometimes you can beat yourself up and then you realize it’s not that bad. But then there’s the other way around, where you’re thinking, This is great! But when you listen back to the recording it’s horrible. When that happens, you have to ask what’s horrible. Oh…the fills speed up. Why do they speed up? Maybe, like I say in the body chapter of the DVD, it’s because I hold my breath or I stop the motion of my body. Those can cause things to sound off.
What’s comforting is that these are not things that take forever. Once you think about them, you’ll sound different immediately. So I understand the respect that you have in regards to tackling this subject, but is there anything really more important? It’s funny that we sometimes give up on that, education-wise. Having a great groove is more than just playing steady time to a quarter-note click; it’s about incorporating your body, your mind, sound, and all that. There are different elements that play together.
MD: Let’s talk about how you present these elements in the DVD. You go from time to feel to sound to the body to the mind. Was that order deliberate? Do you have to have your time together before you can move on to feel?
Benny: It was the best order to teach it in, but I wouldn’t say that it’s important to learn groove in that order. People should start with whatever they want to start with. The time chapter has some definitions that I then use in other chapters to explain something, so it just made sense to establish the theoretical stuff, like subdivision and beat placement, in the beginning. Then we can look at how changing your feel, your mindset, or your body movement will automatically affect your groove.
MD: Is it possible to have a good groove without having all five of these categories under control?
Benny: I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to have a good groove without having worked on all of these elements and being super-aware of them, and that’s fine. But the question I wanted to answer was: What do I do if it’s not fine? You need to be able to diagnose what you can improve on now. Every drummer is at a different point, where they’re intuitively doing some things right. But there’s often something missing, or there’s something that can be improved on if you think about it differently.
MD: I discovered that I needed to spend a lot more time on subdivisions. I couldn’t play a beat with the click on the “a” or the “e.”
Benny: The point of those exercises isn’t to make things complicated or for you to be able to make deceiving displacements. You really start to feel subdivisions differently if you’re able to hear the click on the second 16th, for example. You become very aware of the space between the quarter notes, and you’re forced to establish your own confident downbeats and backbeats without having the click tell you, “Good! Well done!”
If we regard the quarter-note click as the cure for everything, then you’re just shooting at it like a target. That’s why when bands record with a quarter-note click and then you take the click away, it sometimes sounds weak. The flow doesn’t come from arriving at the quarter notes; it comes from the space between them and from the subdivision. And confidence comes when you’re certain that you know where the stroke belongs. It puts you in the driver’s seat, and you don’t have to ask permission from the click. You can say, “This is where it goes; I’m doing this.” That’s why some drummers sound a little bit weaker than others. But it has nothing to do with dynamics. You can play very quietly with authority. That’s what those exercises are good for: to help you play simple grooves with more accuracy and confidence.
MD: The first exercise involves having the click drop out for a measure every once in a while. How do you get better at keeping that space even? What do you do if you’re always off when the click comes back in?
Benny: The first thing is, do you realize that you’re off? And how fast do you realize that? The goal is not to play it perfectly right away. The exercise is to come closer to the click each time. That will sharpen your alarm system, because you hadn’t realized that you were changing the tempo before.
The second step is to listen for how much you’re off. Are you getting faster or slower in that space? If you have that information, you’re almost there. The next step is to make an adjustment so that you’re not thrown off at the second click. Chances are your adjustment will be too big, so the last step is to make the adjustment a bit smaller than before so you land spot-on.
I have taught players at my drum camps who think this exercise is impossible, but after five or ten minutes they can do it. And they sound so different when they play a simple groove afterwards. It takes the trauma away from not knowing if you’re speeding up or slowing down.
MD: One of the other mystical topics you cover is defining what it means to play ahead of and behind the beat. You use a drum machine to demonstrate those ideas, and you make the demonstrations a bit extreme so that they’re easier to hear. Have you explored how far you can push these concepts or examined how many milliseconds it takes to go from being on to behind the beat?
Benny: I tried to stay away from making those types of aesthetical judgments. I wanted to give a clear reference for what these things are and how they feel. Many confuse playing ahead of or behind the beat with changing the tempo. So for me it was very important that drummers could hear the differences. Maybe I overdid the examples a bit, but you can find even more extreme examples in electronic music, where the snare is really flamming with the other instruments. But once you understand the concept, it’s just a matter of aesthetics and taste. It’s not for me to judge how you use it. I leave that to the player.
The other thing I wanted to do was play with my friend Frank on bass and show what happens when we change our beat placement so that we’re not perfectly on the click but it still works. That showcases that sometimes groove is a matter of democracy. Then we had fun showing what happens when we’re not playing together. [laughs]
MD: I liked that illustration. It shows how even when two people are playing the same rhythms, it can still sound off when they’re not being interpreted the same way.
Benny: Exactly. Everyone has different ways of phrasing triplets and 16ths. Again, if everything works, fine. But if you hear something where things aren’t aligning correctly, you need to know where the problem is so you can make the necessary adjustments.
MD: Is that something you would stop and discuss or just adjust on the fly?
Benny: On the bandstand, you just have to adjust. But I’ve had rehearsals where we’ve talked about being more relaxed or more up-front on certain accents. Both can happen, but it’s not something that has to be discussed. It’s just something you have to realize can happen.
MD: The next chapter discusses feel. The big lesson there is to record yourself so you can hear how your own playing makes you feel. In terms of understanding what a good groove is, I’ve heard some people say, “If you can’t feel it, then you never will.” But how do you discover what feels good and what doesn’t?
Benny: I don’t think you have to discover that. Everyone has it. But it’s not for me to say it’s blasphemy if someone doesn’t like James Brown, for example. Trust your own aesthetics. Focus on the stuff that you like, and get your playing to that level. Then maybe from there you’ll get to somewhere else. But this is the source of most of our frustration: when our expectation—how we want something to sound—doesn’t match up with how we actually sound.
But I’ve never said to someone, “Well, you just don’t feel it.” Sometimes it’s overshadowed when someone is only focused on getting their hands to play the right notes. But none of the concepts on the DVD are about what you play. It’s not about grooves; it’s about groove as a quality that you can have in everything. A fill can groove, and even rests can have that same flow. That’s why I included the section on the heartbeat in the feel chapter. If you have those ideas in your mind as reference points, you’ll start to produce something that breathes in and out, has tension and release, and is lifelike.
MD: At what stage of a drummer’s development does this stuff come into play? The drums are such a difficult instrument to play, physically, that it can be hard to get past simply playing the right notes.
Benny: Is it difficult? Compared to a trumpet, it’s much easier. Trumpet students make fart noises for weeks before a tone comes out that you can regard as music. But in the first drum lesson, you can have a student play a groove or clap a backbeat. So I think these things come in at the very beginning. We just always think that you have to start with Stick Control, but I’m not sure everyone has to do that. These elements are always at play, whether you know it or not.
MD: In the sound section, you talk a lot about inner dynamics and exploring the sounds of your kit. How does sound affect groove?
Benny: Although all of these elements work together, your groove will only be as good as the weakest link. Sound is one of those links. If something is nice, timing-wise, and you have the feel there, you still need sound differences to convey a phrase and that heartbeat feeling. And that has to do with tone length and other things. Tone length is time-relevant, and tone height—high versus low—causes your brain to organize sounds in predictable ways. So sound is ultimately how we transmit the groove.
MD: Is touch synonymous with sound?
Benny: Touch produces sound, but sound is where it all comes into action. You can think about something and feel it, but it has to be transmitted into sound, or else it isn’t music. That’s the difference between noise and music. Music has a certain organization and intent of sound. Otherwise, we hear it as noise.
MD: You’ve changed your sound a bit. What’s the new aesthetic?
Benny: The band Moving Parts changed my setup. We moved into more electronic soundscapes, and we have a huge dynamic range, from subtle jazzy stuff to nastier sounds. I needed sharper hi-hat sounds with different tone heights to get an electronic aesthetic, and I wanted a different trash sound. I realized I didn’t need three toms anymore, so I only use two. And I wanted to have a 20″ bass drum, because it allows me to travel back and forth between jazz and the heavier stuff.
MD: What about the deep side snare?
Benny: I always mess around with my snare. I like it tuned very low, and I can take it way up. I wanted to have both sounds, so I use two of my signature snares and tune them completely differently. The main snare is quite high, and the second drum is deeper for a more electronic sound.
MD: What was the concept behind Moving Parts?
Benny: The concept was to have a band that can evolve together, play live, and go on tour. I’ve always played with other people, but my solo stuff was more like side projects, and they ended up staying mostly in the studio. Grebfruit is an example of that, where I sang and played everything on it. My second album, Brass Band, was with a band that played a couple gigs, but we never went on tour.
I produced the next album, Two Day Trio, very differently. Instead of me being totally German about everything—controlling, planning, and writing every note—we went into the studio for two days with no preparation. We improvised and recorded, so whatever came out came out. I was happy with the result, and I played differently because of it. I could just be the drummer again, because I didn’t have to focus on the writing.
Then I was like, “I need a band that I write for but with guys that are great composers, arrangers, and bandleaders themselves, so there’s a level of understanding.” I found those guys in England, Kit Downes and Chris Montague, and the synergy was great. I didn’t want to do a jazz trio. I wanted improvisation in there, but I wanted to use more electronic vocabulary.
MD: How are you writing the material?
Benny: I do demos and send them to the guys, or I write the main parts and themes and we arrange things together. There are a couple songs on the album that developed during a jam, which was very rewarding. We came up with ideas as a group that none of us would have come up with by ourselves.
MD: How was the album recorded? Was it live?
Benny: Everything was done live in a small room with a lot of bleed and no editing. There’s one song that has a backwards guitar part that’s done with a loop pedal, but it’s created on the spot.
MD: Were you influenced by groups like the Wayne Krantz Trio to create this band?
Benny: Yeah. I’m very impressed with what the New York jazz scene has done in the last couple of years with the electronic aesthetic. What I love about what they’re doing is that they not only attack form, melody, and chords, but they also make tempo and subdivision a subject to explore in improvisation. That idea was demonstrated first in the electronic scene, but for drummers to incorporate those things is something I find super-interesting. That can be seen with guys like Mark Guiliana, Jojo Mayer, and Zach Danziger.
MD: Who are some of your other influences?
Benny: I like the band Troika a lot, which is a bit avant-garde. Their music makes you think differently and breathes freedom, in a sense. But I also love improvised piano music. Especially when I play a lot, I like to listen to stuff without drums.
MD: Bringing it back to the DVD, the next chapter is on the body. Do you find that the ideas discussed in this section, like posture and tension, are the easiest for people to understand?
Benny: I can’t say that one thing is easier than the others. But the ideas in the body chapter are the easiest to discard, because sometimes people think they’re so basic. But if you really keep your breathing in a loop through a fill, the fill will automatically be in the same flow as the groove. It’s miraculous. A lot of it is common sense, but if you put them into context with all the other concepts it can have a great effect on your groove.
MD: So it’s important to combine the exercises from all the chapters in the DVD.
Benny: Right. These are all things you can do with your own repertoire. It’s not restricted to specific exercises, like the paradiddle. You’ll find yourself on the drumset doing what you always do and then thinking, Maybe I should put my shoulders back, or Where is the subdivision? These things will come to mind after you’re alerted to them, and they’ll inevitably change what you’re doing. But it does work best to focus on one element at a time and then combine them.
MD: The most deceptively difficult exercises in the DVD are in the mind chapter, where you talk about pressing an imaginary mute or solo button to isolate what each limb is playing. How do those exercises improve your groove?
Benny: First off, it’s a very practical independence exercise. It’s important to remember that independence exercises don’t have to sound like you’re throwing the drumset down the stairs. [laughs] Independence is also being able to change the dynamic of the hi-hat pattern without affecting the rest of the groove. Many people think they can do that, but then the snare changes a little bit and the groove isn’t sounding exactly how you want. So it’s important to have the ability to do that.
But when talking about the mind aspect of groove, because we deal with muscle memory, we often do things on autopilot. Sometimes that’s great, but if something about the groove isn’t right, you need the ability to put yourself back in the driver’s seat and listen to how the ghost notes are interacting with the hi-hat, for example, so you can make adjustments.
Ask someone to play the beat to the Toto song “Rosanna,” but have them leave out every second ghost note. There are fewer notes, so it should be easier, right? It’s not, because your muscle memory has the entire thing saved as one piece of information. When you try to change it, it suddenly becomes a whole new thing. So to really become flexible with what you’re playing is very handy, and the first step to get that is to be able to listen to and isolate the parts one at a time.
MD: You conclude the mind chapter by talking about being able to run through an entire song mentally. How does that improve your groove?
Benny: Your musicianship and your groove happen in the now. But most of us think about things that are coming up in a few bars, or we get distracted by something we messed up that’s already passed. So who’s really playing at that moment? You’re not able to put everything you have into it, because you’re worried about the form, which takes a lot away from your psychological bandwidth to be able to groove and
to be emotionally present in the moment. If you’re able to sing through the entire set list of your band, your psychological bandwidth opens up so you can play to your fullest potential.
That’s why some people sound great in the practice room but don’t sound so great on the bandstand. That happens because different things grab your attention. Maybe the bass player is looking at you weird, or there’s a water bottle falling over, or the monitor sound is bad…. You have all of these other things taking over your focus, so you don’t have all of your capabilities available to do what you could do in the practice room. It’s important to pay attention to everything else on the bandstand, but you need preparation for that. One way is to really know the form of what you’re playing.
MD: It comes down to knowing the repertoire on an instinctual level.
Benny: It’s a matter of: What do you need your capabilities for most in that moment? If you’re unsure of the form, your resources will go down and your groove will suffer. Also, it sets you up for a more musical way of playing, rather than thinking about slipping in more ghost notes or whatever. You get out of the drummer mentality and into the musician state because you’re focused on arranging the song and pacing yourself to convey the right emotions, which is basically our job.
Greb’s Moving Parts Setup
Drums: Sonor SQ2 Vintage Beech in white pearl finish
A. 5.75×13 Benny Greb signature snare
B. 8×10 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 17×20 bass drum
1. 8″ Classics Bell (bottom) and 8″ Byzance Dark splash (top)
2. 14″ Byzance Vintage Sand hi-hats over Generation X Filter China
3. 18″ Byzance Vintage Sand Thin crash over 14″ Generation X Trash Hat bottom
4. 8″ Classics Bell (bottom) and 8″ Byzance Dark splash (inverted on top)
5. 20″ Byzance Vintage Sand ride
6. 16″ Byzance Vintage Trash crashes used as hi-hats (with hi-hat tambourine resting on top)
7. 22″ Byzance Vintage Sand crash/ride (with rivets)
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare batters, Coated Emperor tom batters and Coated Ambassador bottoms, and Renaissance Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter and Fiberskyn P3 Drumsigns.com custom logo front head
Hardware: Sonor 600 series stands and Giant Step pedals
Sticks: Promark 5BG Benny Greb signature model
Percussion: Meinl shekere, shakers, and tambourine