Master bass educator Patrick Pfeiffer helps build every element of your playing with his Beginner Bass Base column
If the groove skeleton is responsible for giving a groove its genre-defining outline, then the groove apex is responsible for giving it its character, or attitude. The groove apex is subjective, meaning that you may hear a note as the essential groove apex, while I may hear the same note as not quite important enough to qualify as such; that’s okay.
Generally speaking, a groove apex is the note, or notes, that stick out and help you define a groove when you hear it again — the part that you would give special emphasis to if you were singing the groove to someone. It’s often the note that is the largest interval from the root of the groove, like an octave or a 7th. A good exercise for mastering the groove apex is to subdivide a measure into 16 16th-notes, play an octave on the first 16th-note and move it to each subsequent 16th-note in the following measures. Group four 16th-notes at a time in your head to keep track of the beat. Check out Ex. 1 and give it a go.
Once you have a good handle on accenting the individual 16th-notes, some real-life examples are in order. First up, the single groove apex.
As John Paul Jones’ bass part enters the chorus of the iconic bass anthem “Ramble On,” by Led Zeppelin, he rocks the song into high energy with a distinctive double-octave E on the “and” of beat two, which becomes a consistent reference point in the groove and a beautiful example of a very effective groove apex (Ex. 2a).
A similar groove apex is employed by Willie Weeks in Donnie Hathaway’s live version of “Everything Is Everything” (Ex. 2b).
The groove has to hold everything (pun!) together and still sound interesting for long stretches of static harmony. Weeks does it superbly with this groove, which sports only a single groove apex right on beat two. (This particular performance is also famous for its excellent bass solo, but that’s for extra credit.) Then there is Jaco Pastorius’ recording of “Opus Pocus,” shown in Ex. 2c.
You’d expect Jaco to cover the sonic spectrum with a vast array of complex notes, which he does. However, when it comes time for the B section, he lays down a funky groove with a single groove apex on the “e” (2nd 16th) of beat two — although the two hits on G preceding it could be considered groove apexes, as well, albeit to a lesser degree. Finally, there’s Louis Johnson’s easily identifiable bass part on Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” (Ex. 2d), with a groove apex sliding into a 9th of the chord on the “a” (last 16th) of beat two.
A lot can be accomplished with a single groove apex. The same is true for two groove apexes within a groove. The masterful part by James Jamerson on Stevie Wonder’s “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” is a beauty. The part is highly improvisational, but in the excerpt Ex. 3a you see a couple of groove apexes on the “and” of one, as well as right on beat four. Paul McCartney’s bass line for the Beatles’ song “Rain” has two clear groove apexes — on two and on the “and” of three — right as the vocals come in (Ex. 3b).
Something to keep in mind is that the groove apex is not limited to any style or region. Example 3c is an excerpt of Bakithi Kumalo’s very recognizable part on Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” It has groove apexes on the “a” of one and the “e” of two, quite a feat to plant those on secondary off-beats and keep them unwavering.
Last, Ex. 3d is the main bass groove on “Give It Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, played by the incomparable Flea. He plants a couple of powerful groove apexes on two and the “and” of two.
The final section of grooves all feature three groove apexes each. Will Lee is a master of finding the perfect bass part for each song, and his groove in Gary Burton’s “Reunion” is no exception. Uncle Will lays down one of the smoothest grooves, which you can admire in Ex.4a. The groove apexes are all lined up at the “a” of two, the “e” of three, and the “a” of three. Now, there’s a challenge: playing consistently on secondary off-beats — and doing so effortlessly.
Example 4b is a real sleeper that deserves much more attention: Chuck Rainey’s ridiculously busy and powerful playing on the remake of the Beatles’ “Get Back” by Shirley Scott & the Soul Saxes. The groove apexes consistently appear on beat two, the “a” of two, and the “e” of three, even though the part is highly improvisational.
Then there is Snarky Puppy’s “Atchafalaya,” which features the highly consistent three-apex groove shown in Ex. 4c, first played by the brass at the beginning of the tune and then taken over by Michael League on bass. The groove apex hits are lined up on three, the “e” of three, and the“and” of three. The 16th-note on the “a” of two is not a groove apex; it merely serves as a set-up for the apex hits in beat three.
The final three-apex groove (Ex. 4d) is one of the most recognizable in popular music. Tony Levin’s bass part on Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening” is a classic, and a clear example of what happens when you place your groove apexes so perfectly — magic! The hits are on two, three, and the “a” of three. It’s like Levin is lulling us to sleep with two predictable hits, only to jolt us with the third groove apex on a secondary off-beat, the last 16th-note in beat three. The result speaks for itself; the bass groove is synonymous with this song (and the exquisite drum part by Steve Gadd certainly helps).
I’ve included a groove apex étude with each groove example and placed it in front of each groove so you can prepare for them. The “x” in the études stands for a dead note, which you may or may not choose to play, but dead notes help with the count and placement of the groove apexes. If you need to review the first part of this series about the building blocks of the groove, please check out Issue #6 of Bass Magazine, and please listen to the full versions of these songs. They’re sublime, fantastic examples of superb bass playing and grooving, and should offer you much inspiration for your own grooves. –BM
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Patrick Pfeiffer is a professional bassist, bass educator, clinician, composer and author, having published several classic bass books, among them Bass Guitar for Dummies, Bass Guitar Exercises For Dummies, Improve Your Groove: The Ultimate Guide For Bass and Daily Grooves for Bass. Besides performing and recording, Pfeiffer teaches bass guitar worldwide and often conducts clinics alongside such bass luminaries as Will Lee, John Patitucci, Gerald Veasley, Michael Manring and many more. Pfeiffer’s most recent CD Soul of the City was sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts. He holds a Master’s in Jazz from the New England Conservatory