The Essence of Feel, Part 1


Tony Williams

Tony Williams was an elemental force that changed the way drummers viewed their instrument. Efrain Toro once said to me “modern drummers fall into two categories: the Steve Gadd school, and the Tony Williams school.” Check out his recordings Lifetime and Believe It, or his classic recordings with Miles Davis for a taste.

Groove, pocket, feel… as musicians, we regularly use these terms to describe that certain something that we call by these names. How well can we really define this quality? What is it about it that we really respond to? Is it universal, or as individual as each of us? Over the years, as I work to refine my own playing, I find that I end up coming back to questions like these again and again. Essentially, I keep asking the question, ‘what IS feel, and how can I improve my own?’ While I feel the answer is ultimately a very personal one, talking with other musicians about the ways they think about feel has helped me ask myself more productive questions.


With respect to drumming, this would seem to be a no-brainer. Good feel starts with great timekeeping, it’s true. However, there are some ‘sub-categories’ here that often get overlooked. For example, is each voice you play (hi-hat, snare, kick, etc.) keeping equally good time? Sometimes simple straight eighth-note patterns don’t get the attention they deserve because they’re simple, or maybe a certain syncopated bass drum pattern will cause the hi-hat and snare to drift slightly – there goes the groove! For these type of things, my teacher and I have used ‘fatback’ exercises from Gary Chaffee’s Patterns to great effect. The keys here are two: repetition; we’ll practice it from 40 bpm to the limit of our chops, in increments of 5 (or 1 if it’s difficult.) The other key is commitment; play each and every exercise as if you were playing it in the studio. Don’t just go through the motions – make 40 bpm groove like it’s your live drum solo on the Grammys. If you can do that, it will change your playing profoundly.


This brings me to a sometimes-overlooked aspect of timekeeping: playing space. This is crucial for drummers to understand: good time is not just consistent timing of notes, it’s consistent timing of space as well. You don’t have to be a human metronome to be a master of playing space; listen to Don Henley or Nick Mason, and you can hear that playing metronomic time would kill the groove of their classic hits. But never doubt that they could. In their heyday these boys could put it wherever they wanted to, so they did. Don in particular has legendary ears, ask the guys that play in his band. My point is, play the spaces as if they were notes, give them their full value. It makes placing the notes correctly that much easier.


It’s hard for me to think of a famous drummer that plays tentatively. Playing with confidence is an elemental part of playing musically, but where does that confidence come from? I find it actually comes from enjoyment. If you’re not having fun, it’s likely to show up in your playing. Ask yourself, ‘why am I here? If I enjoy playing music, why am I not having fun?’ Don’t accept the answer ‘I don’t know’ – chase this question down until you have an answer. You can actually find a way to have fun with music in the most unbelievable circumstances, even while you’re completely terrified. To be a musician is to embrace uncertainty in every way, so when you’re actually playing, let yourself enjoy it.

Advanced Concepts

Okay, so you feel pretty good about your timing, playing space and confidence. Still feel like there’s room for improvement? So far we’ve discussed some well-worn topics. Now we’ll get a little deeper, which will have a lot more of my personal observations involved, so remember this caveat: it’s your life, and your music. You always have a choice. Ask questions you don’t know the answer to (thanks Mr. Ferris.)


If you are still having problems with your groove after mastering the above concepts, honesty could be an issue. Record yourself. Listen back and try to imagine you are listening to someone you don’t know. Learning to be honest with yourself is crucial to growing as a person and a player. Want to instantly make your life simpler and more stress-free (which is great for your groove, by the way)? Stop telling lies, even small, seemingly insignificant ones. If you are rigorously (NOT ruthlessly, use some awareness please) honest with others, self-honesty will follow. This has the effect of highlighting areas that need improvement, and whether your practice is as effective as it can be.

Emotional Response

I used to try this with bands at clubs: in between songs, I’d play 2 and 4 on the hi-hat, and see if I could make someone start dancing, and how long it took. If people are moving their bodies, somebody in your band is grooving. Try to connect with the audience, but in a generous way, not a needy one. Try to find the joy in being generous – give them something, some fun, some joy. It helps if you are playing music that makes you feel the way you’d like the audience to feel. If you totally hate country, why play it? Play what you like and the grooving gets easier.


In this context, surrender does not mean ‘to give up’, but ‘to stop fighting’. HUGE difference. Don’t force your opinions or ideas on anyone, even if you are sure they are right – talk about killing a groove. Listen and open up to what’s happening around you, and let it spark ideas in you. Don’t be attached to having things happen like you think they should, but be open to other points of view. Go with the flow, not against it. Try to play with people who operate like this as well; it’s amazing what playing with cool people can do for your groove.

Once I asked Sonny Emory how he’d worked on ‘assimilating” the styles of certain famous players he’d studied in school. His response was to pick a song by that drummer and transcribe it to the letter. Then memorize it. Then play it with the recording until the drums disappear. Then record yourself, fix the issues and record again. I found this practice to be so labor-intensive that it usually worked after only one or two songs. Of course, nobody would ever mistake me for Steve Gadd. But if there was a certain element of Gadd’s groove I loved, I could feel at least the essence of it with this method and incorporate it into my own playing. I think that is another key to learning to groove: getting comfortable with exploration. Some will explore the great players; some will explore the nuances of human time perception; some will explore their own hearts and minds.

In general, I find that there are lots of problems that can be fixed with technique. But how do you cultivate the technique of something so personal? There are some easy answers, and some difficult ones. As in sports, some are born gifted in the groove, some have to work for it. Use what you’ve got and work for what you don’t, but most of all, enjoy the entire process.

Ganesh Giri Jaya