“EVER BEEN TO THE EXPERIENCE MUSIC Project in Seattle?” asks Dean Brown. “You gotta go. They have that big Hendrix exhibit, and one cool thing you can do there is listen to famous Hendrix tunes with the different tracks isolated. You can solo Jimi’s individual guitar parts. For a guitar player, that’s heaven.”
What mesmerized Brown most about being able to put Hendrix’s tracks under the microscope in this manner was not so much the note choice and tone, but the guitar god’s incredible sense of groove; his powerful pocket. “Each time I listened to just his part with all the other instruments muted, I was amazed,” says Brown. “It didn’t need the bass, the drums, or anything. The whole tune was there in his playing.”
By now, you’re probably wishing you could hear exactly what Brown heard, but don’t worry— if you can’t get to Seattle anytime soon, here’s the next best thing: Pretend you’ve never heard “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” before, get out your favorite set of headphones, close your eyes, and listen to the song’s famous guitar intro.
“The wah-wah tone is amazing, but for me, the real magic of that part lies in how Jimi carries the groove within his strumming,” says Brown. “Before he starts playing actual notes, he’s strumming the muted strings, hitting accents, like he’s a drummer. The crucial thing to notice here is that when he switches to the melody part, he’s still playing like he’s a drummer. He might fret only one note, muting the other strings, but he’s still striking all the strings, keeping that groove going, never falling out of drummer mode. That’s a blues thing that goes all the way back. Listen to old recordings of acoustic blues players— they rarely, if ever, strike just one string at a time.”
If you can judge a guitarist by the company he keeps, then it’s obvious Brown takes groove very seriously, because many of his world tours—as well as his new solo album, DBIII: Live at the Cotton Club Tokyo [Abstract Logix]—feature powerhouse drummer Dennis Chambers and top call bassist Will Lee. That duo wouldn’t step on stage with anyone possessing less than awesome time. And when he is teaching at GIT, the guitar program at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, his educational passion is clear:
“My whole mission in life is to get guitar players to buy into this thing about delivering the complete groove, whether they’re playing a melody, a solo, or a rhythm part,” says Brown. “The guys who do this naturally are the ones who get all the work, because they make it feel good for the artist and the other musicians. A guy can have all the chops in the world, but if the pocket doesn’t feel right, it’s no fun. Don’t be that guy.”
Over the years, Brown has developed some very handy exercises that can help you avoid ever being “that guy.” To get started, mute all the strings, perhaps using the comfy, muted E9 grip in Ex. 1. Then, get out your metronome and strum the muted strings in sixteenth-notes— that’s four strikes per downbeat—using an alternating down/up strumming attack [Ex. 2]. Whatever you do, do not overlook the two accent marks.
“The most important thing is to bring out beats two and four,” says Brown. As he loops the example, he really whacks those two beats. “Those two accents have to be strong and stand out. Those are your snare hits; your handclaps.”
In the next few examples, you’ll actually fret E9 in places. While maintaining your sixteenth-note strumming pattern, fret the chord wherever you see a solid note head. In Ex. 3, that means you fret the chord on beats one and three, and mute the strings for the other 14 pulses in the bar. “But don’t accent E9 in these examples,” says Brown. “You still only accent beats two and four. E9 shouldn’t be strummed any harder than any other pulse in the bar except those two accented strikes. Two and four should pop.”
Clear on the concept? Now, apply it to Examples 4, 5, and 6, always keeping the accented strikes on beats two and four much louder than the others. “Now we’ve covered every pulse in the bar,” says Brown, “and each pulse has its own signature in how it relates to beats two and four—its own rhythmic DNA.”
It may take weeks, months, even years to truly master basic building blocks of groove such as these, but as you work on them, remember two things: Even though your strumming hand “plays through” every pulse in the bar, you don’t always have to make contact with the strings. (“If you do, you’ll eventually drive your drummer crazy,” cautions Brown.) And when it comes to written music, it will rarely be presented in this level of sixteenthnote detail. “You’ll probably see stuff written more like this,” says Brown, referring to Ex. 7, which shows how Ex. 6 would appear in a typical score or lead sheet.
The ultimate goal is to apply this level of alternating-strum groove not just to rhythm parts, but also to riffs and melodies—everything from simple, one-bar hooks to more elaborate phrases, such as the B section to Brown’s song “Beatin’ Silver” [Ex. 8]. “Keeping the strumming hand going through everything is about something way bigger than rhythmic precision,” reflects Brown. “It’s about music—particularly backbeat-oriented music, like funk, jazz, blues. American music.”