How to Play “In the Pocket”
If you play a harmonic or melodic instrument, playing “in the pocket” will legitimize you in the eyes of any drummer. This element of your musicianship shouldn’t be overlooked because of a focus on scales, runs, voicing, or the desire to play fast.
In this post, we will suggest some practice methods that will help you develop that tight rhythm you’ve always wanted and be able to play “in the pocket”.
Get Yourself a Practice Practice
From beginner to master, every musician’s practice is a lifelong endeavor. There is always something to learn, always room to grow. Developing a practice schedule, or a “practice practice” will make the difference between an amateur and pro-level playing. Do you need to practice 8 hours a day, 6 days to be able to play “in the pocket”?
Thirty minutes to an hour of concentration, three to four times a week is all it takes to progressively (not linearly) improve. Obviously, the more you practice, the faster your progress.
1. Method One: Metronome subdivisions
Start with a slow tempo on your metronome, perhaps 50 beats per minute. Choose a scale, a chord progression, or even a single note as your language for this exercise.
Start by dividing the beat into 2, cycling through your chosen language, playing twice per beat. Soon you’ll be ready to gradually slow the tempo. The slower the tempo, the more difficult the exercise.
Next, try this with subdivisions of 3 per beat, 4 per beat, 5 per beat, and work your way up to 6 or 8.
Once you get to the larger amount of subdivisions, you may have to start at a slower tempo to be able to cleanly fit it all into one beat.
Pro-tip: Your mantra should be “listen, listen, listen.” Instead of trying to anticipate the click of the metronome, sit back in your seat and receive it. Developing this takes a willingness to be wrong! Soon, your intuition and your inner pulse will be able to synchronize with the click.
2. Method Two: Slow Down
Start by choosing a recording that has the kind of time/rhythm you like. Choose a player that specializes in your instrument that really has what you want. Take a section of this song or solo that you’d like to focus on. Maybe begin with just 4 to 8 bars of music or less.
Once you’ve learned the basic notes either by ear or sheet music, set your metronome to an incredibly slow BPM. Super slow motion.
If you need, you’re welcome to double the BPM so you can hear a click on the 8th notes instead of quarter notes. This will simplify the exercise until you’re ready to tackle those quarter notes without the training wheels!
Pro-tip: Download Seventh String Software’s program Transcribe. This amazing software will slow down any MP3 without changing the key, making it extremely manageable to learn any piece of music.
You’ll notice your own malleability, how you stretch and contract against the robotic metronome. Instead of considering this a weakness, embrace it as your humanity.
Of course, we have to practice that perfect time, but be careful not to expel your humanity from your playing.
This push and pull is where the pocket lives.
3. Method Three: Record Yourself and Spot-check
Either with these exercises or with a different project, perhaps an original song or an improvisation, hit record!
Play it through 3 or 4 times.
When listening back, take notes as if you were a teacher, spot-checking the mistakes, no matter how small.
Without getting discouraged, drill these spots, and hit them hard. Don’t settle for just okay. Your future self will thank you.
Pro-tip: When drilling your weak spots, incorporate the transition into and out of that moment. You may be hindering your progress by practicing moments in isolation.
4. Method Four: Anticipating and Back-phrasing
Start by choosing one chord or one note.
Set your metronome to 4/4 time at a medium tempo, something comfortable and manageable for you.
Practice playing your chord slightly behind the beat, on the 2 and 4 of the measure. Speed it up, slow it down. Play with the amount of lag between the click and your chord. Notice what feels hip, what feels strange. It’s a way for you to find the pocket.
Next, practice the same exercise playing your chord slightly ahead of the beat.
After, switch up the time signatures, choosing 6/8, 12/8, and maybe even 5/4 or or 9/8!
This practice formalizes your malleability, your personal push and pull. It allows you to do it consciously and use it when you choose.
Pro-tip: One of the best lessons in “pocket” is D’Angelo’s album “Voodoo.” Study up on this record to absorb the tools of back-phrasing and being ahead of the beat.
5. Method Five: Apprenticeship
Even though it may seem old-school, working with a master is a tried and true method of learning a craft.
Choose someone who has what you want musically, and either in the form of just jamming, or taking lessons, absorb all you can from them.
Don’t have anyone to meet with in person?
Use the amazing database on Youtube, Spotify, etc. to collect the discography and live recordings of your favorite musicians.
Go album by album, song by song. Listen, learn, mimic, and then use the exercises laid out here to absorb their craft into your hands and sense of time.
To sum up, in order to learn how to master having a tight rhythm you need a lot of practice. The following methods will help you to be in the pro league:
- Practice on a metronome but start with a slow tempo.
- Slow down (even more).
- Record, listen back take notes and criticize yourself till perfection.
- Anticipate, play slightly behind the beat, then speed it up and slow down again.
- Every master was once a beginner – learn from one of those who managed to succeed.
If you’re willing, your relationship with your metronome can get pretty deep.
With consistent work/play, it will feel like the click is happening on the inside. Soon, you’ll be able to feel it in every writing session, every rehearsal, every show.
You have everything you need to have a session today, right now! What are you waiting for? Start recording!