Is “Groove” On the Drums Just a Whole Lotta Nothing?

Posted on March 12, 2023


Sorry I missed last week — work has been very busy.

After my last Rick Beato response, I looked at some of the older posts I’ve written about his videos, and I have to wonder if I was a little too dismissive of some of the songs he puts on his lists, especially for the groove list.

My true impetus for this article actually comes from Drumeo — the website has a blog that shared an article in July of ’21 about the top 20 rock drummers, listed alphabetically. 

Drumeo has a few articles that recently got my attention, including the top 100 drummers and 60 albums every drummer should know. I’ve considered responding to them, but I’m not sure if I want to write those kinds of posts anymore.

That being said, I can’t help but mention this snippet from the top rock drummers article. I had quite the reaction to the inclusion of AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd:

[Phil] had a special knack for playing simple beats with deep groove, conviction, and a massive, thumping drum tone. Phil was the engine that powered some of the most famous rock hits of all time on Back in Black and Highway to Hell. During one of the periods when he left the band, his bandmates remarked that while the other drummers they had were great, AC/DC lacked a certain “groove” when Rudd was not behind the kit.

Now look, no disrespect to the authors, but… talk about waxing poetic!

Let’s have a look at the groove from the mega–hit “Back In Black”: 

Wow… the depth, the conviction — it all just leaps off of the page, doesn’t it?

To be clear, I’m well aware that you can’t notate everything that goes into a good musical performance. But you know what can be notated? Dynamics, articulations, embellishments, syncopation, unique orchestrations around the kit… stuff you’d be hard–pressed to find in the drumming of Phil Rudd. But I guess he’s one of the drummers of all time because it grooves, man.

Again, no disrespect to anyone involved here. Phil is a very successful musician whose playing has been heard by millions of people, and he has no reason to worry about what some schmuck on the internet thinks. And I’m sure he’s a lovely guy when he’s not trying to assassinate anyone

The obsessions that drummers seem to have with groove melts my brain sometimes. On one hand, you’ve got interesting timekeeping patterns, which I write about all the time.

And then you’ve got songs with a weird and interesting lope to them; you hear something conspicuous that’s not easy to notate or perhaps even describe. “Cissy Strut” is a classic example. For something more modern, check out “Bring Me Your Love” by The Barr Brothers.

But oftentimes, the kind of groove I heard drummers slobbering about is something like “Back in Black”; competent, satisfactory drumming that’s nonetheless lacking in true creativity or feel. 

There’s something recursive going on here: “groove” being used to retroactively justify a drummer’s success. I have to wonder: if AC/DC only sold half of the records that the band did, would Phil still be so admired?

Truth be told, it seems like groove is often used as a crutch. To me, this inchoate praise of groove is a musically unfulfilling thing. Yes, feel is important, but it’s also very one–dimensional. There’s more to the drums than timekeeping! This instrument is inherently boxed in, but it does offer many wonderful and exciting things. It seems like such a shame for someone to wave their hands and say, “I dunno about all that, I’ll just stick to muh groove.”

It’s very easy to become complacent with your own conception of groove. My favorite moments on the drums come from the players who can “walk the line”. That is to say, players who can push the envelope and take risks while prioritizing taste — adding some adventure to their playing without spoiling a track with indulgent nonsense. 

I hate to say this quiet part out loud, but I’m going to say it anyway: most of the “groove” that’s out there getting praise is nothing special. And don’t pull the “what, you don’t get it?” card. Do you get it?

Of course, many drummers have seen great success staying in their comfort zone. It’s a legitimate approach to be sure, but is it enough to earn you accolades as one of the all–time greats? Should it be enough? I’m not convinced. 

I’m going to end this little spiel with a quote from TwoSetViolin, because apparently two violinists have more insight here than the average drummer:

That’s such a big assumption, it’s like: drums just keep people in time. It degrades the percussion instrument as well... percussion has a lot more to offer than just going “dut dut dut”. Stay on time, guys. Every musician needs to have an innate sense of pulse, when they’re playing music.

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