Many years ago, I got my first pro session call. A&R Studio, NYC. Full band and six horn players. Some sight reading, mostly rhythm playing.
I did OK. Everyone seemed happy, and I was relieved to just survive! At the end, packing up my gear, the horn guys start talking to me, saying they dug my playing but I could use some help playing “in the pocket.”
There really was no way they could truly explain it to me except by picking up my guitar and showing me. The groove the horn player laid out was deep and authoritative. It showed command and confidence. It was like hearing an English accent after hearing a New York suburb accent your whole life. I got it.
So what is the pocket and how can you learn it? You can’t learn it without hearing and feeling it. You can’t understand it in a vacuum. It exists and shows its teeth and beauty while playing live with other musicians. Once you learn it, your life will never be the same.
Esoteric? Maybe. But still very real. Here’s another description. Ever see a pro basketball player handle a ball? The bounce is firm. With authority. Command. How about a pro quarterback? His pass is perfect. Spiral. Placed where he wants it.
The pocket is like that to me. It is an understanding of exactly what you can do on your instrument. It is perfect timing. You do not step on other players' shoes. You know where you live, and it is good and right and groovin'.
Playing guitar means not only learning from guitarists. You MUST listen to other musicians to truly learn. With that in mind, I asked a few friends who I DEEPLY respect about their take on playing "in the pocket."
Here's what bassist, solo artist, producer Les July, one of the grooviest people on the planet, says about the pocket:
"Generally, the pocket is the perfect synchronicity of the bass drum and the bass guitar. When applied to an entire band, it's about everyone playing in perfect time, with attitude." Les has played with Nile Rodgers, Dr. Dre and The Bus Boys, to name a few. He lives the pocket.
How about drummer extraordinaire John O'Reilly? He plays with The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He's also done time with Ritchie Blackmore, Alan Holdsworth, Zakk Wylde and Steve Morse. Here's John's take on "the pocket":
"What I find very disturbing these days is that many younger drummers have no idea how to produce "The Pocket," let alone know what it is. They tend to think of it as something they have to search for; in other words, it's out there somewhere. When, in fact, it's inside of their very soul, searching for a way to express itself. No, it's not in your monitor mix, my friend. It's not anywhere outside of you. Quick question: Have you studied the great masters of the past? Start with Hal Blaine, Al Jackson, Bernard Purdy, Panama Francis. Google these greats. Listen and learn because success will leave clues every time."
One more buddy, guitarist George Marinelli. George has played with Bonnie Raitt for quite some time. He's also a founding member of Bruce Hornsby and The Range. Living in Nashville, he has played on countless sessions. George gives us some advice on how to lock in to the groove:
"One way to stay locked with the groove is to keep the right hand pumping 1/8ths or 1/16ths and mute with the left hand, only un-muting for the desired notes. Works great for single-note funk parts."
Take from this blog post what you may. But remember, if you are not in the pocket, you may not get a second chance.
Till next week …
Ron Zabrocki on Ron Zabrocki:I’m a session guitarist from New York, now living in Connecticut. I started playing at age 6, sight reading right off the bat. That’s how I was taught, so I just believed everyone started that way! I could pretty much sight read anything within a few years, and that aided me in becoming a session guy later in life. I took lessons from anyone I could and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful instructors, including John Scofield, Joe Pass and Alan DeMausse. I’ve played many jingle sessions, and even now I not only play them but have written a few. I’ve “ghosted” for a few people that shall remain nameless, but they get the credit and I got the money! I’ve played sessions in every style, from pop to jazz.