Thumb Groove/Drum Groove – Pluck and Chuck is the 3rd style

There are three types of guitar playing that I know of that are intimately tied with styles of drumming. The earliest that I know of was the bass slapping style that Larry Graham invented, where he literally invented the technique because he was trying to make up for a lack of a drum set. The next style, or more of a complex trend in guitar playing, is the wave of percussive guitar playing that a lot of people trace back to Michael Hedges. There are a lot of ways to do it, but all of them involved finding any possible way to hit the guitar to make it sound like some type of real drum. The last style is pluck and chuck. This style is admittedly the least defined and also the least drum-like of the three. The fact remains that there is a huge advantage to understanding how drum grooves work if you want to do pluck and chuck guitar. The flip side of that is that there is a huge advantage to eliminating the need for a drummer if all you have is yourself and a guitar…

For a long time I had no idea where pluck and chuck guitar came from. I had some pretty good guesses but no concrete relatives in the family of guitar technique styles. Then someone commented on one of my YouTube lessons that what I was teaching was supposed to be called ‘frailing.” I had heard about frailing banjo before, but I thought it might be a good time to revisit the concept. The more I watched banjo lessons, the more I realized that this was the most likely cause of pluck and chuck guitar. There were a few banjo players that used identical fundamental strokes to what pluck and chuck songs use, and there is no closer comparison in the thousand years of plucked string repertoire that I am familiar with.

Still I had no inclination to change the name of the series to “The Frailing Guitar Series.” Why? Maybe because I have a huge ego and I think I’ve got a corner on the teaching market by using this name. I think a better reason is that ‘pluck and chuck’ songs really are different stylistically from frailing banjo. The fundamental difference is that pluck and chuck songs really adhere to mainstream pop vocabulary. One very striking characteristic of these songs (…reverse pun coming up) is how these guitar parts can act as reduction of drum parts…

…see what I did there? Who’s a snarky biscuit?

If you imagine for a minute that your thumb can be the rhythm section, and that your bass notes are kick hits and your thumb slaps are snare hits…does it make sense? Allow me to clarify. Most basic drum parts in pop music (anything from jazz to country to Michael Jackson) centralize their grooves on three pieces of the kit: the bass drum, the snare drum and the hi hat. It’s an inexact analogy, but you’ll find it works very well when you put it into practice. If you are trying to transcribe a band texture and reduce it for guitar, you can pick and choose between using bass lines, any possibly rhythm/texture parts and the most important drum hits to compose your reduction. Usually the bass guitar or bass drum have a very important rhythmic effect which can be imitated by the thumb plucks, and the thumb slap is the obvious analog for any back beat you might have in the snare or the hi hat of wherever else it may be (hand claps, foot stomps, finger snaps, etc). That leaves the fingers to do whatever else seems most relevant, but it puts a lot of importance on what you do with your thumb.

As I have learned more and more pluck and chuck songs, I have found it useful to categorize the most common thumb patterns into groups based on how deeply they are subdivided. There is a certain type of thread I call a pulse thread, which is anything that sounds on every pulse evenly. Although this may not be the most common thread in this music, it is definitely the simplest and it shows up in more than its fair share of songs. Thus it works well to use it as the basic unit of defining and practicing thumb grooves.

Imagine a pulse thread of a quarter note in a bass line in 4/4. That would just be one pluck for every quarter note in the bar. If you imagine that the back beat is important enough to replace the bass/kick note in the pattern, you can put the thumb slap on 2 and 4 instead of having bass notes on those beats. The resulting pattern looks like this…

||: Pluck Slap Pluck Slap :||

This pattern shows up a lot. As I said, it shows up more than its fair share. This is the first common pattern I noticed, until I started looking and found that 8th note pulse patterns would show up on occasion as well. Using a similar formula we would get…

||: Pluck Pluck Slap Pluck Pluck Pluck Slap Pluck :||

The pulse groove in 8th notes is not nearly as common as it is in ¼ notes, but you will often find thumb patterns that subtract just a few bass notes out of that shell of a pulse groove. As a result, I like to see if a thumb pattern can be fitted as a cut-up version of one of these pulse grooves. Because the back beat is virtually the only standard rhythmic cycle phrase in pop music, I am pleased to say that this prediction works out very well.

To expand the concept I thought I’d ask myself “how many common types of grooves are there?” The main thing you want to know is that is likely to happen in this type of music, and it doesn’t take much experience to see the common limits. Pop music really has a woefully limited rhythmic vocabulary, at least in comparison to most types of world music that I have seen. Still, I can narrow down a shortlist of patterns that I run into all the time.

¼ note, 8th note, 12th note (same as 6/8 or 12/8), 16th note, 24th note and 32nd note.

I can find gobs and gobs of examples for every one of these basic outlines if I include everything from early jazz to the dubstep that’s coming out right now. Some of you savvy musicians might ask “why not a half note groove?” I find it really doesn’t help to distinguish it from a ¼ note groove of half the bar length, so really it makes no difference to bring it up. The faster subdivisions of 24th and 32nd note grooves have been happening for a while in progressive styles, but they are also becoming really common in Hip Hop and Dubstep beats. Of course, most of those beats are being made on computers, so putting them on guitar was not in the original design. It’s hard, but perfectly reasonable to do those types of groove if you use a thumb pick and do alternate tremolo picking. That in particular is a technique I invented on my own, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else has come up with another way to do it. If you want to see specifically what I’m talking about, check out the video lesson to see the basic exercise I do to cover all the basic drum grooves. This stuff is way easier to demonstrate than it is to talk about…