How to Play “In the Pocket” — 4 Exercises to Get Better At Playing In Time (For Non-Drummers)
“Playing in the pocket is the opposite of playing intellectually.”
Developing your sense of pocket is one of the most important things you can do as a musician. It’s what makes someone’s music captivating — even when they are playing by themselves. It’s the glue that makes a good band hum with energy. It’s the good rhythm, and that goes for any instrument — sax, guitar, piano, drums, violin — you name it.
If you are frustrated by your playing and feel like you’ve learned all the classic licks or phrases in your desired genre/instrument but still aren’t happy with how you sound, take a close look at your rhythm chops.
I did some digging and found some really cool thoughts on what playing in the pocket really means and how we can develop it. There are some really cool exercises at the end, so make sure to check those out.
What does it mean to play “in the pocket”?
“Good grooves are made from the place of the pocket, there is no compromise to this.” [*]
“Pocket” is often used in reference to the rhythm section, but it applies to every musician, instrument, and genre. It’s what studio players are renowned for, and it is the clear mark of a pro.
Have you ever heard a line, lick, or chord rhythm and thought, “Man, that’s not hard but it just sounds good.”
Pocket is loosely defined. Sometimes people restrict it to the rhythm section, other people associate it with playing “behind the beat”, others refer to a sense of swing. I think a broad definition is best:
Playing in the pocket is the intuitive and palpable “locking in” to the rhythmic integrity and feel of the band and/or the piece of music you are trying to play.
It’s the ideal blend of rhythmic accuracy and soul. It’s the push and pull that feels both practiced and human. What that means in practice depends on the genre you are playing.
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I remember being at a club in Nashville and listening to a guitarist warm-up for a funk set. He plugged in a strat and just played a string of 8th note E9 chords at a moderate tempo — maybe 100BPM. Nothing hard. Nothing technical. But it was instantly enthralling. The integrity of his timing was just on, and I knew it was going to be a great set.
I get the same feeling when I hear B.B. King or Louis Armstrong play something as simple as a major triad.
Nuance in tone, phrasing, and context aside, the simplest melodies and riffs sound good if they are played with conviction and good timing.
A great example of this is Music is Win’s video with Victor Wooten. At 10:31, Victor says: “If I groove hard enough, I can play any note and you will like it. I will play in the total wrong key, so well, that I’ll make you sound wrong.”
Check it out:
Legendary Pocket Players
“Make sure that where your notes end is as precise as where they start. The space in between your notes is just as important as what you’re playing.”
Almost all renowned and famous musicians have a deep sense of rhythm and pocket, but pocket is easily identified in funk and soul music.
James Jamerson is the undisputed king of pocket. He was the lead bass player for The Funk Brothers and a big part of why Marvin Gaye and classic soul records sound so timeless. This video by Jack Stratton does a good job of highlighting his incredible timing and nimbleness.
Gadson played legendary groove after legendary groove, including Bill Withers’ Use Me.
Michael Bland played for Prince for years and is such a clear pocket player. Things don’t have to be complicated if they’re in. This video is proof of that.
D’Angelo’s Voodoo is a study in pocket. The looseness and groove throughout this entire record are incredible.
4 Exercises for Improving Your Pocket
“Counting a song off can be musical if you’ve got pocket.”
You probably guessed it, but it’s mostly metronome work.
The big picture is this: we want to get so good with a metronome that we can eventually stop needing one. You should be able to loop a riff or play a set of chords to a set BPM, have someone walk out with the metronome, come back 5 minutes later and you still be pretty dang close to that original tempo.
Exercise #1 Victor Wooten’s Halving Metronome Technique
Victor breaks it down in this video, but here’s how it works:
Step 1: Set the metronome to 160BPM and play a simple groove or lick (one that you don’t have to think much about. Play it until it feels “locked”.
Step 2: Drop down to 80BPM but play the groove at the same speed.
Step 3: Drop to 40BPM. Same deal.
The idea is to wean yourself off of the metronome by reducing the frequency of clicks while retaining your rhythmic integrity. If you notice yourself off, go back up until you can nail it.
How to make it harder: Switch up the meter or start your lick on different syncopated beats of the metronome (e.g. start the riff on upbeat of 2).
Exercise #2 Meticulously Study The Greats of Groove (via Michael League)
In this Scott’s Bass Lessons video, Michael League separates good timing from groove, arguing that feel can only be learned by playing with players who have it or by learning the songs of players who do. That’s because for League, groove is all of the tone, inflections, and rhythmic leanings that humanize timing. Groove is spiritual. Timing is technical.
In our definition of pocket, I think both groove and timing play a part. So via League, the only ways to get better at pocket is to play with people you want to sound like or transcribe the greats, specifically James Jamerson and Jaco Pastorius (assuming that’s who you want to sound like!)
Exercise #3 The “Drop Out” by Paul Davids
Paul Davids has a clever technique he employs in this video, and it’s essentially an alternate version of the Victor video above. By using a track that purposely leaves measures of blank space, he tests his ability to play on his own and then land back in with the band.
Exercise #4 The Time Experiment
Another good way to practice pocket is to loop a simple progression or backing track and “mess” with your timing. Try playing as far ahead of the beat as possible. And then try to play as far behind the beat as possible. Play slow. Mix it with fast. Take a lick and see how differently you can make it sound while still maintaining the same rhythm.
Step 1: Set a metronome to 100BPM or find a backing track with harmonic context.
Step 2: Pick a lick you don’t have to think too hard about.
Step 3: Set a timer for 5 minutes
Step 4: Try and play the lick as far ahead of the beat / make it as musical as possible.
Step 5: Restart timer and try to play the lick as far behind the beat as possible.
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