Sitting on a Groove, and 'Chugging'


In this article I am going to look into an aspect of music that I think is fascinating - feel and groove. It is also an opportunity to try and explain a musical idea that has become a favourite of mine. It’s the idea of the ‘chugger’, or a song that ‘chugs’ (imagine the sound of a train).

If you haven’t heard the term then, don’t worry - reverse your blush, because I made it up. It is a homemade onomatopoeia that feels right. It’s a concept that drummers may refer to it as ‘sitting in the hole / pocket’ most would lump it into the ‘groove’ pile, but I think that it is something more.

Instead of abstractly trying to describe what is in many ways little more than a feeling, I will drop some songs into the article that represent what I mean, and explain what I think they do well.

First up is ‘Lost In The Light’ by Bahamas. It is a marriage of velvety vocals and one of the nicest guitar phrases ever to have happened. This is pinned down by a drumbeat that consists of only an alternating bass drum and shaker. The song sits back on this groove for the whole song and it’s perfect.

‘Feel’ comes in lots of different forms, and within almost every genre. It is important that we’re aware that I’m not taking about funk music, swing of blues. What I’m talking about is more of a feeling, the coming together of a few perfect elements to create a song with motion and drive. I would like to share the fruits of some light research that I did into why music can spark an emotional reaction, and why it can make us want to dance. There is an element of scienceiness to this, but I’m about as scientific as a born-again Christian, so it’ll be easy.

Before we get nerdy, here is a song to set the mood. It’s called Gallup NM by The Shouting Matches (2012). What I love about it is that the drumbeat settles-in early to a groove that stays the same throughout the song. It has a wonderfully warm sounding Hammond organ that whirrs from start to finish. This is given a little bit of colour with a mellow vocal line that sits on top of the music.

Back to the science. It is understood that humans are genetically designed to respond to, and feel, rhythm. Cave paintings, that are over a million years old, have suggested that humans used dancing as a method of attracting a mate. Once beyond the amusement of replacing modern dance floor divas with loincloth clad Neanderthals, I think that this is an important point. I really like the idea that the electric guitars, drum kits and keyboards of modern music are appealing to something very natural and humanistic – even primeval. Where this ties into what I’m getting at is that the ‘groove’ of a song is not linked necessarily to the melody of the song, and so its appeal is raw. It also means that with the right ingredients a song can tap into something primordial.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why humans are affected by the beat of music, but they are convinced that it is inherent. Babies have been observed to react to rhythm from as early as five months old. What we do know is that music stimulates the part of the brain called the cerebellum, which is associated with coordination and timing of movement. To me it sounds like our compulsion to boogie could be a fortuitous but accidental byproduct of a more primary bodily function. Thank god (literally?).

I will interject here with ‘Wakin On A Pretty Day’ by Kurt Vile. There was a stage in my life when I listened to it about 10 times a day. The song doesn’t really do anything, but represents the absolute epitome of what this article is about. The drummer plays the first beat he ever learned… all the way through, Vile sings a lazy sounding vocal line and the guitars wobble and wurr all the way through. Together these elements make a masterpiece. It could be twice as long and it would be engaging to the end. Maybe that is what Vile thought when the song was 5 minutes long. Speaking of this exact song, Vile said he enjoys “just playing riffs that are so good you could just bob your head and get lost in that sort of Neil Young way.”

Getting back to more musical ideas, I have to talk briefly about the performance of music with great ‘feel’. For me there is a real sense of the musical-whole being greater than the sum of its parts. This is where the artistic element comes in. A song with wonderful movement or groove could be very bland looking as a transcript, but once musicians interpret it in their way then it can change entirely.

This is the microphysics of music, and something that will never occur to most people (and why on earth should it) but it’s what makes a lot of great music great. It is taking a drum beat, and moving the beat of the snare drum 1/50th of a second early, or hitting the bass drum late by the same amount of time that gives a rhythm a feel, rather than feeling robotic. A drum section played slightly ‘before the beat’ will feel livelier than one played ‘behind the beat’ which will give a lazier feel. This principle applies to every instrument in a composition and when these are added together an organism is created that moves as one. This is where simple ingredients are put together to create something disproportionally good.

Can’t you see by The Marshall Tucker Band is a wonderful chugger, and an example of the drummer playing slightly behind the beat – so giving the song a lazy groove. Everything about the song is simple, and largely repetitive. Apart from the slightly over the top guitar solo, the whole song is understated and vibey.

All of these songs that I have included have one or two very strong but simple themes that are repeated and built around. This could be rhythmic, but it is often melody driven. There are a few key things that join these songs together, and what define songs of this group. Repetition creates comfort and understanding. Simplicity makes the music accessible and understandable. Tempo is important. All of these songs sit (roughly) around 140 beats per minute - a song speed that is incredibly easy to digest. They usually have a strong vocal line and rarely have more than one or two themes in the song.

I don’t think you’d expect Queens Of The Stone Age to feature in this, but I could have picked any one of about 10 of their songs. I’ve gone for ‘Make It Wit Chu’ because it brilliantly highlights one of the key things that makes one of these songs - repetition. There is something hypnotic about this song, and something mesmeric in them all. This repetition lets you bed into song, and become involved in the nuances that keep it ticking over.

My final song is a real gem. It is by Ryan Adams and called ‘La Cienega Just Smiled’. I think you’ll get it. This is a serious chugger.

I am comforted by the thought that there is music out there that can stimulate parts of the brain that are preset. A lot of what people listen to is very contrived and calculated. You wouldn’t be able to make a song with real feel without putting some real heart into it. I like that.