Locking Down the Groove with the Drummer
By Steve Goldberger
When Canadian Musician asked me to write a column about this topic , I felt a little puzzled and unworthy . I am certainly no expert and I can ’ t even read music notation . But I guess since I ’ ve been a working musician / bass player for fifty plus years , I do have some basic knowledge and experience with this subject . So , here goes …
Many people think playing music is so easy and all you have to do is learn some chords on your instrument and away you go . But really like any discipline , there are so many subtleties and nuances to all the different styles . Making beautiful music requires co-operation and compromise .
I don ’ t think it really matters what kind of music you play , the desired result is for the song to groove and move the listener in some way . The secret in doing so can often be the magical interplay between the bass and drums .
When there is no sheet music with the actual parts written out , the most important factor in my opinion is for the players to actually listen to what the other players are doing . Once you know the form of the song and the chord changes , it ’ s crucial for the bass player and the drummer to listen to what the other is playing in any situation . You cannot just be wrapped up in yourself .
There are so many different situations we will experience in our careers . It can vary from being in a rehearsed band , or just a group that gets together once in a while , or a totally improvised gig situation where the players meet each other for the first time right there on the bandstand . Sometimes there are detailed charts , sometimes just some basic rudimentary scribbles , Nashville number charts , or there ’ s nothing at all other than the leader yelling out , “ 12 bar shuffle in A , with a fast 4 and a 2-5 turnaround !” We as players must adapt to each situation without looking like an idiot .
For me , as a bassist , I look to the drummer . I want to hear what the drummer has in mind for the groove . If we ’ re on a gig I do my best to play what I think the groove should be at the start of the song and hope that the drummer is thinking along the same lines . There can be a bit of push and pull at the start but usually with great players , we can , without a word being said , lock into something we can agree on that is appropriate for the song . I usually will defer my opinion to the drummer . He is in control of the groove , that ’ s his power , whereas I am the link between the groove and the melody of the song . That is my power . I can create an interesting harmonic bridge sometimes just by changing one big note . ( For instance , playing the 5 th or the 3 rd instead of the root .) So despite having to co-operate and sometimes compromise on what I think the groove should be , if I defer to the drummer , I can still create something special for each song in my own way . The worst thing is for the drums and bass to be fighting each other . That will indeed destroy a groove .
The first step for me is to listen to and whenever possible , watch the kick drum foot . Trying to lock into what the kick is playing is a key factor . I like to stand on the high-hat side of the kit so I can get a good view of the kick pedal . That way , in a loud situation if I can ’ t hear the actual sound of the kick , I can actually see what he ’ s doing . I will try and lock in to exactly what the kick is doing . I find not only does this lock us together , but it forces me to play fewer notes than I would probably tend to play . We should all know the age-old rule that for bass especially , “ less is more ”.
A song or a groove has to breathe . Creating space between the notes is not easy , as the natural tendency for us is to try and fill every hole and space . But listen closely to any good song and you will see that on the ones that groove the best , the bass and drums are playing simple parts that fit together with air and space in between .
Listen to the singer or the soloist and the rest of the band and be sure to leave space for their parts to shine .
Since the early ‘ 70s Steve Goldberger has been a bandleader , songwriter and freelance bass player / vocalist . Today he is the leader of several bands , The Gentle Spirits , The Niagara Rhythm Section , The Old Winos and The Niagara Reefers ( Jimmy Buffett tribute band ), in addition to his other various freelance gigs in the Toronto & Niagara regions . Since opening the Shed Studio in 2000 , he ’ s recorded and / or produced dozens of projects . He can be reached at steve @ stevegoldberger . com .
60 CANADIAN MUSICIAN