“I just need you to live in that pocket.” “Feel that pocket, exist within it.” “God damn it, Jeremy, play in the friggen pocket JEEEEEEZ!” These are sentences we’ve all heard. This is one of those strange lexicon anomalies like when someone describes music as a colour (or describes a colour as a concept or feeling and so on) that kind of don’t mean anything. The way I’ve had people talk about “playing in the pocket,” preach about it, I would have expected it to have a musically specific definition.
It’s a real “to each his own,” statement, that contradicts its definition from person to person. For example, I just read a Reddit thread in which someone described it as, “like being a metronome,” whereas the following commenter equated it to “feeling the groove, allowing it to breathe, like not being able to exist within a metronome.” So obviously this article is over! How can I teach you, my dear readers, to do something that eludes definition?
Well, here I go, teaching you something that eludes definition.
Being in the pocket is all about perception.
A lot of definitions relate it to funk music and about being comfortable in the band – where you feel the beat rather than play along to it.
Fans of this definition are also heavy into Questlove, so I would recommend checking out The Next Movement by The Roots to take note of the real tight groove that somehow feels relaxed.
Bill Withers’ Use Me is another good example of feeling the groove and being “in the pocket”. The track’s drummer, James Gadson, plays a relatively complex groove with little to no variation. The lack of fills is something people point to when discussing “the pocket”, with the idea being that the groove is so together that any embellishments would detract from the overall effect.
What we’re discussing is very much a full band exercise, but if you know a bass player, this is a good one to loop for minutes (or hours) at a time.
Allow me just a moment to expand on that idea of keeping the fills to a minimum. I know that when you’re really feeling a groove, you get that tingle, a flash of inspiration or a compelling urge to bust out some really mad fills, but you’re going to have to try and suppress that feeling. This might be hard to accept, but successfully playing in the pocket is not about you or your septuplet ratamacues (not a real thing, probably). This is a band activity and it’s about looking good as a unit. If the rhythm section is holding down a groove as well as on the aforementioned Bill Withers track, they should be able to drift into the background and allow the vocalist or soloist to really take centre stage. Music snobs like myself might be thinking, “Damn, this dude is so in the pocket,” but it’s essentially a supportive role.
Though surely an argument could be made that speed metal – a genre in which, correct me if I’m wrong, metronome precision timing is required – has its own pocket that stems from being a well practiced unit. That definition would lean more towards you being a perfect time machine, in which case one would learn how to stay in the pocket with intense metronome practice.
If that’s how you choose to perceive this, here’s what I can tell you about metronome practice: some stuff. There are apps, as well as in built metronomes on electric kits etc., that let you control everything about your metronome. For example, you could set it to gradually increase in tempo, or set it to play 4 bars and rest 4 bars, OR do them both simultaneously. You wanna be a tempo master? Try some of that stuff out!
So basically, mastering this is about your perception, but if you’re asking me, I’d tell you to:
Know your groove – practice it with a metronome and be supremely confident on where the beats are falling in the bar.
Take a backseat – please, play with confidence, but remember that it isn’t about you.
Focus on unity – hopefully everyone in the band is on the same page, but take time to check that your key beats are all syncing up as they should.