All About Groove – How To Practice Backbeat Placement

(Demo videos coming soon! ….)

First thing to realize is your groove will never sound exacly like Keltner’s or JR’s or anyone else’s. That’s what’s beautiful about playing an instrument. I feel it’s ok to imitate your heros if it helps you learn a new skill. Eventually, with enough practice, you’ll internalize this feel and be able to access it automatically when your musical intuition tells you to go there.

But first you need to paint the fence, wash the car, do whatever else Mr. Miyagi tells you to do. It will make sense later. You need to train your body to be comfortable with it and with enough practice you’ll notice the subtle seasoning in your playing, and so will others.

Before you start, record yourself playing a simple “Billy Jean” type groove with 1 and 3 on the kick and 2 and 4 on the snare with an 8th note hi hat to a click. Don’t try to lay anything back, just aim for the middle of the beat. Record 8 bars or so of this. You’ll use this as a baseline to mark your progress.

To help you get cozy with a late backbeat I’m going to use a familiar rudiment, the flam. Your goal is to be able to control just how late your backbeat lands and keep it from shifting.

  1. Grab your practice pad and a metronome. For right handed drummers, play left hand accent flams on 2 and 4, resting on the other beats. The practice pad will help you hear the click better. Find a volume for your metronome such that your left hand accent is about the same volume as the click. This is crucial. Make the grace note land on the beat and the accent follow it. Play around with the tightness of the flam. Start with a unison flam (both hands hit the pad at the same time) and gradually open it until the accent is all the way to the &, then gradually move back to a unison flam. Do this over the course of 16 bars or so. Find a slow tempo that’s comfortable.  Use an 8th note click if it helps you stay in time. Be careful not to let the grace note shift from the click.
  1. When you’re ready add ¼ notes on your right hand on 1 and 3. Keep them low like your flam grace note. You want to be able to clearly hear the relationship between the click and the left hand accent. You now have a quarter note groove emerging with a backbeat on 2 and 4. Again, vary the tightness of the flam all the way to the & and back over 16 bars.
  1. Now go to 8th notes with the right hand. Notice that when you start the 16 bar phrase, you have a unison flam on 2 & 4. Around bar 8 when your left hand accent reaches the & you’ll have a unison flam on the & of 2 and the & of 4.
  1. Once you’re comfortable with the above exercises, pick a flam tightness that feels good and try some different tempos, keeping the flam tightness consistent. Listen to how the accent lands just after the click on 2 and 4. Get comfortable with this. Be careful not to let your right hand get behind the beat.
  1. When you’re feeling good on the pad, move to the kit. Do the above exercises with your right hand on the hi hat and left hand on the snare.
  1. Now, with the click running, stop playing the hi hat. Just play the snare with your left hand. Notice how you can consistently play your snare just behind the click. See how long you can hold it there. When you get off, put your right hand back in to help guide you.
  1. Here’s the thing, this flam business is just an exercise to get you cozy with the late backbeat. You don’t really want any flaming between your hi hat and snare in your groove. Experiment with shifting your right hand a little later on beats 2 and 4 so that it lands in unison with your left hand. You’re effectively stretching beats 1 and 3 slightly longer than a ¼ note and shortening beats 2 and 4 to slightly under a ¼ note to catch up to the next downbeat.
  1. Record yourself performing Step 8 and compare with your initial recording. Do you hear a difference in your pocket?

All About Groove – 6 Drummers That Inspired Me To Work On My Beat Placement


In my last post, I posed the question, what is groove? Now that we’ve identified the key ingredients in a great groove, I want to explore one of these ingredients in more depth – beat placement. On a few occasions, I’ve had people ask me, “Hey can you lay that backbeat back a little?”  To which I thought, well…I don’t know.  Just the backbeat?  And leave everything else on the beat?  Sure, on a good day I can play ahead, on the beat, or behind if I want, but I’ve never tried doing more than one at once.  And how the heck would I practice that?  That sounds hard.

This comment changed how I think about Groove.  Up until then, I’d always practiced with the goal of burying the click on every quarter note, making sure my quarter notes were quarter notes and my eighth notes were eighth notes and every kick and snare note lined up with my hi hat, like I’d been taught.  I never realized different voices in the kit could be on top, on the beat, or behind relative to other voices in the kit in the same groove.  I started listening to some of my heros, and I found this common thread in their grooves.  In many cases, there was indeed a slight anticipation before the backbeat!

I tried it.  I was hard.  And then, a breakthrough happened.

But. before we get into how, let’s explore who, what, why, and where.  I made a Spotify playlist with some examples of tracks where the drummer is laying the backbeat back and some comments on the drummers that popularized this feel.

Jim Keltner


I was recording with some people recently, and the topic came up of keeping the bass drum right on the beat and the snare behind the beat.  The producer told me people used to call this feel “California Swing” because of Keltner’s use of it on so many LA sessions that it became associated with the California sound during the 70’s and 80’s.  If you’re looking to study Keltner’s drumming, Sergej Randelovic-Runjo’s Jim Keltner Discography is an excellent resource.  For now, check out “Fool Who Knows” by Little Village, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan, and “Shangri-La” by Don Henley.


Steve Ferrone


I love Steve Ferrone’s playing with Tom Petty, especially on the Wildflowers album.  “Honey Bee” is probably the most drastic example of the late backbeat on the playlist, so it’s a good example to start with to identify what I’m talking about.


John Robinson


JR’s groove on Steve Winwood’s “Take It As It Comes” is great example of his unique lope.  When I listen to JR, I can’t help but picture an egg rolling end-over-end.  It’s asymmetrical, yet so consistent it becomes hypnotic.  Could this be why he played on so many dance tracks in the 80’s?  (Side note, isn’t in amazing that real human drummers used to play on dance tracks?  Human people like James Gadson, Tony Thompson, and JR.)

Speaking of James Gadson…


James Gadson


A master of the 16th note hi hat groove, Gadson set the bar for R&B drumming in the 60’s and 70’s.  Listen to the beat placement on Bill Withers’ “Use Me”, but also check out the pocket on “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”, which was a hit in 1981 off Bobby Womack’s album The Poet.


Jeff Porcaro


A busy LA session player from the mid 70’s to early 90’s who died young, Jeff Porcaro left behind a massive legacy of groove.  One aspect of Jeff’s playing I love is his ability to put the backbeat in exactly the right place for the song.  My favorite example is “Luck Of The Draw”, the title track off Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 album.  Jeff is 100% inside the song.  Also check out Springsteen’s “Human Touch” and Toto’s “Without Your Love”.


All songs mentioned:


Now on to the business of HOW TO PRACTICE THIS FEEL

All About Groove – What Is A Groove and How Can You Develop Yours?


“Groove” is a word we use a lot, but for a term that is supposed to define our main purpose as drummers, we sure have a hard time defining it.  Ask five drummers what a groove is, and you’ll get five different answers.  When I was starting out on the drums, I thought groove was mainly about choosing the right pattern and playing it with metronomic accuracy.  Maybe it’s because the importance of playing to a metronome is constantly drilled into us.  The more experienced I get as a player, however, the more I realize the click is just a reference.  And by no means does metronomic accuracy equal groove.  Otherwise we would have all been replaced by drum machines long ago.  I hate the term timekeeping.  Calling a drummer a time keeper is like calling a writer a typer.  Of course, timekeeping is a vital part of our job, but it’s just the beginning in terms of developing a groove!

Feel is another term that plays into groove.  To say a drummer has a good feel is, I think, to say he or she makes you feel something as a listener or feel the intention of the song.  Although, Groove and Feel are abstract “right brain” concepts, maybe there’s a way to approach them with the analytical left side of your brain?  Doing so could enable you to practice these little details that make all the difference.  While performing music is mostly an intuitive, subjective activity, practicing is an analytical, objective activity.

This begs the question, what is it we do as human drummers that makes us groove in a way a computer can’t?  Or, why can two different drummers play the same pattern and sound so different?  I think it comes down to the aspects of groove that don’t get talked about enough – beat placement, type of swing, sound balance, and sound choices.  In the next few blog posts I’m going offer my two cents on these topics and recommend some listening to hear these concepts in action.  Then, I’ll guide you through some of my exercises I use to practice this stuff.

(Side note, if you do any drum programming, you can use this stuff to make your patterns sound more human.)

And I’ll leave you with some inspiration…