Everybody loves a good bluegrass music session, whether it is a band performing for a large audience or a tight jam with good friends in the banjo player’s living room. Some of these sessions are pretty durn good and they make everyone smile and dance but to be honest, there are some performances… well let’s say they just leave you scratching your head instead of tapping your foot. Maybe they were playing jazz?
Now on the other hand, a special group of pickers gets together where the jam session just clicks, and the experience rises to an incredible groove. The groove is sort of a holy grail in our music – it can be very elusive and hard to achieve but it is something that each and every one of us is trying for in our performances.
The groove. Nothing is more important: not the fancy notes you play, not the vintage of your instrument, not the cleanliness of your picking. The groove can be achieved by rank beginners but yet it can be lost by very advanced players. The groove is almost impossible to talk about, but you know it immediately when you feel it. Without a groove, Bluegrass music can become a headache-inducing barrage of notes; with a groove it develops into a synchrony of sound that makes people happy and want to dance.
How do we find this elusive groove? To start, we are going to stay with the basics – the fundamental elements of groove. Careful adherence to these three “T’s” can lead to a good groove; ignoring any one of them is sure to kill it.
Perhaps the most important “basic” in achieving the groove is perfect timing. To net it out, perfect timing is when everyone stays fully and exactly aligned to the same ‘beat’ and not speeding up or slowing down. And if you think the timing is off, just blame the bass player (no matter what, this ploy will always work and everyone except the bass player will agree with you, trust me). Actually, the subject of timing and syncopation and manipulating the beat is far more complex and important than one might imagine – there are lots of subtleties to be explored in the timing realm, and we will do so later in this blog post. But at the end of the day, you simply can’t have good Bluegrass without perfect timing.
Being in tune is, of course important. If people are not quite in tune, then obviously the resulting music won’t sound very good and there will be no point in searching for any kind of groove. With today’s high-tech tuners, there is simply no excuse for being out of tune, but it can and does happen. Negative things occur when people aren’t in tune. Nobody knows exactly why the music seems to suck and people start blaming each other. Friendships are ruined; marriages end, and people can die. Just kidding about the people dying.
TONE (AND CONTROL OF VOLUME); DYNAMICS
Another important basic is getting great tone out of your instrument. Professional pickers tend to always get excellent tone, and this is a function of mastering all kinds of complex factors such as pick angle, attack speeds and good right hand technique – these things can take a lifetime to perfect. However, even if you haven’t got your 10,000 hours in on your instrument yet, one of the most common and easily fixable things that can ruin good tone is always playing as-loud-as-you-possibly-can. This will tend to make one’s performance choppy and inconsistent with hard-to-execute phrases becoming impossible to perform. Unless of course you are Arnold Schwarzenegger with a pick, and you remembered to take your steroid pill. Matching your volume to the capabilities of your instrument is easy to do and will pay big dividends in your next jam session.
One other observation regarding volume: when one person is playing too loudly, the tendency is for everyone else in the session or performance to raise his or her volume as well. Pretty soon, the entire group is playing at full volume, and with the subsequent degradation of tone, the groove will have left the building. When people in the audience start turning down their hearing aids, it is probably a bad sign. This volume “war” can be avoided by keeping loudness at a reasonable level.
Furthermore, playing at moderate loudness allows one to emphasize particular notes and phrases by temporarily increasing or decreasing volume. This will add important dynamics to your performance – if you are taking a break and already playing at full volume and want to add some drama to your already excellent series of notes, it is impossible to do. This can be highly frustrating and lead to mental health issues.
Finally, the “control of volume” factor operates at the ensemble level as well – excellent band-level dynamics is often a characteristic of a great performance and can impart expressive feeling to the music. People in the audience will weep out loud and roll in the aisles with emotion and your banjo player will be moved to tears. Good thing his “parts banjo” is made of stainless steel and won’t rust. With everyone in the jam playing at full volume like they usually do, this wonderful opportunity to make the world of bluegrass a better place is missed.
Well there is a fourth “T”. For obvious reasons I won’t cover it here. This is best left as an exercise for the reader.
Let’s move on to a more detailed description of perfect timing (arguably the most important building block for a good groove) and associated factors such as syncopation.
PERFECT TIMING: MORE THAN JUST SPEED
Speed is one important element of timing. There are fast songs, slow songs, and medium speed songs. Note however, that perfect timing is one hell of a lot more than just speed – individual musicians can be ahead or behind the beat and still be performing the song at the same speed. Think about the concept of a timing light when tuning up a (very ancient) car. The spark can be placed when the piston is at TDC (top dead center), behind TDC or ahead of TDC. The engine is going at the same speed (RPM) in all three cases.
Similarly, with music, notes can be placed on the beat, ahead of the beat or behind the beat without changing the speed of the song – and with dramatically different consequences. Generally speaking, placing one’s notes at TDC is a sure-fire way to a great groove and is to be encouraged. When you are practicing your solos, make sure that each note lies directly on top of the metronome “click” and chill bumps will arise on your spine. Oh, you don’t have a metronome? Unless you are one in a million of us that has an atomic clock buried somewhere deep in your hypothalamus, you should get one.
Placing everything exactly at TDC, just like Earl did with every single note he ever played, will lead to great bluegrass music. However, this is not the only way to nirvana. Consistently and deliberately placing notes ahead of the beat can build tension and excitement in a solo. Bill Monroe used this to great effect in some of his mandolin breaks. A word of caution: if leading the beat is done inappropriately or to excess, it can sound like the soloist is rushing or pushing time and can ruin any sense of groove. Further, and perhaps more importantly, if the rhythm section (read: bass player) gives in to the tension and starts chasing the notes instead of holding a steady rate of speed, then the song will take off with no brakes just like the ol’ 97 did between Lynchburg and Danville.
Alternatively, deliberately soloing just a bit behind the beat can paradoxically add incredible drive to the music – listen to some of banjoist Sammy Shelor’s solos as an example. This guy has an amazing ability to retard his note placement just enough to sound like the coolest thing on the planet. However, if done to excess, or in the wrong song, being behind the beat can make a song feel like it is dragging, and everyone will fall into a deep REM sleep immediately.
Most importantly, before you can deliberately place notes ahead or behind the beat, it is essential to first develop the skill of perfect timing. To do this requires a metronome. And perfection in timing is never actually achieved – your perception of how perfect a timing machine you are 1) is probably wrong and 2) will change as you improve. YOU NEED A METRONOME (unless your name is Earl Scruggs). It is a never-ending battle to achieve perfect timing, and this battle needs to be waged continuously. Finally, I strongly recommend reading anything Ron Block has written on this subject.
I can almost guarantee you, if you are playing bluegrass, you have timing issues. I have had timing issues. I still do. I will in the future. And when you are rushing (or dragging) the beat, the odds are very good that you don’t know you are doing it. Here are a couple of suggestions:
- Focus on perfect timing all the time when you are performing or practicing. Become sensitive to the groove going in and out of focus. You won’t hear it as you are performing unless you teach yourself how to hear it.
- Ask for feedback from your bandmates. They probably hear you dragging (or rushing) on a particular song or difficult passage and won’t say anything. Opening up for feedback is important, and it won’t decrease your status in the band (in fact the opposite will occur, trust me).
- Make recordings constantly. Play back and listen multiple times, listen for how you are syncing up with the rest of the band. Listen for the space between your notes. Does the groove come into sharp focus when you start your break, or does it blur and dissipate when you step up to the mic?
SYNCOPATION AND LILT
An ultra-important factor associated with timing is the degree of syncopation or amount of swing (or lilt) that is being driven or placed into the music by the performers.
Syncopation is a highly misunderstood concept – strictly speaking it is the placement or emphasis of a note in an unanticipated fashion. This could be, for example, an unusually stressed note within a repeating series of notes. Syncopated timing refers to the consistent placing of select notes (e.g. every other note) ahead of where the ear expects to hear them. The degree to which this is done is called the amount of “swing” or “lilt”. For example, a “square” rhythm with no syncopation would sound like this: Da Da Da Da… Introducing a certain amount of syncopation or swing would be rendered like this: Da d’Da d’Da d’Da… (Musically this can be written as a “dotted eighth note + a sixteenth note.”) You can see that the shorter d’ pulls the immediately following Da ahead of where your ear would expect it to be. The relative length of the d’ when compared to the Da would be the degree of swing.
Note that individual songs can and should have dramatically different amounts of swing – even if played by the same ensemble. For example, the song Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms is usually rendered with a pretty square rhythm. On the other hand, a slower song such as Jimmy Martin’s You Don’t Know my Mind can and should be swung to some degree.
LINING UP EVERYONE’S NOTES
The consistency in the degree of syncopation among the instruments being played in a band is one of the critical elements of achieving a great groove. If every instrument in the ensemble is performing with the same degree of syncopation, and with the beat right at TDC, magic starts to happen as the notes line up. Pure and absolute beauty emerges. Which brings us to drive.
Inevitably, discussions about Bluegrass music will wind their way around to a discussion of drive. This is yet another concept that is hard to define in words, but you know it when you feel it. Drive is also one of the most misunderstood concepts in bluegrass. Drive is not (necessarily) high speed. Drive is not (necessarily) high volume. Drive is not thousands of banjo notes coming at you at the speed of light.
Drive is this feeling you get when the groove is just right, and everything is clicking perfectly. It seems like you are listening in slow motion and the music is providing this incredible force (even though the pace of the song might be moderate). It can only happen if the bass notes are perfectly placed, right on the money; the mandolin chop is precise and crisp; the guitar is fitting every aspect of the strum to the beat; the banjo is providing just the right amount of syncopated emphasis and the fiddle is tying it all together with consonant, long bow phrasing.
Time stands still. Members of the band enter a trance-like state accompanied by drooling and moaning followed by writhing on the floor. Well maybe not. But it is very much worth focusing on these fundamentals of timing and syncopation when performing Bluegrass music, as it will make it sound SO much better.