How To Find The Pocket
The famous “pocket”. You must have heard about the mythical “pocket” all bass players are talking about. It’s interesting that everyone has heard about it, but not many can tell you what it is. It’s something that you need to feel, that comes naturally as you play and get deep into the groove… There is a lot of mystery going around it and I’ll dare say - hype. I’m personally a fan of mysteries and legends, but the pocket has nothing to do with it.
This term is something that can often be hard to teach to beginner bass players, which is probably one of the reasons everyone finds it mysterious.
First of all, the pocket is related to groove and it all comes down to the rhythm aspect of bass playing. This in simple terms means when should a certain note be played. The pocket is the specific place in time when you should pick a note. As the name implies, the pocket has a certain “size” or should we say timeframe. When you play “in the pocket” it means that you are hitting the notes at just the perfect time to groove well with the drums and the rest of the band.
Is pocket real? Yes it is. When you are not playing in the pocket, the bass line feels weird. Although you are playing the right notes at the seemingly correct rhythm and groove, it just doesn’t sound so good. Something is off but it’s hard to pinpoint what. So the pocket is the product of practicing playing in time and really listening to other instruments.
How to find the pocket?
Let’s break the groove into bare bones to explain it. Take a metronome and let it beep in 90 bpm and 4/4 rhythm. Now, try playing one note on each beep forming a simple groove. Metronome beep marks a beat in music. The pocket is the place in time when you pick a certain note in relation to the beat. There are 3 ways you can play the single note in relation to the beat. You can do it ahead of the beat, on top of the beat, and behind a beat. We are getting close now. Imagine having two identical pictures printed on a very transparent paper. Have both pictures lined up one on top of the other. When they are perfectly lined up, forming a perfect, singular picture then you are playing on top of the beat. One picture represents the backing instruments (drums, guitar etc) and the other picture represents your playing. If you move the top picture to the left just slightly, and that picture represents a bass line - then you’ll be playing ahead of the beat. The resulting picture will be a bit blurry and you’ll see “double” lines and everything. Now, if you move the bass picture to the right, you’ll be playing behind the beat. It means that you’ll first hear for example a kick drum and then a bass note being picked just a moment later.
Where is the pocket then?
The pocket can be in those 3 places, ahead of the beat, on the beat and behind it. It depends on the song, style and a lot of other factors. If you want to try to find the general pocket, my advice would be to look for the one just behind the beat. That is the most common one and it makes your bass line sound really nice and laid back. When playing, try to be slightly late on purpose. Concentrate on the drums, specifically kick drum and the snare and try to find the pocket. Play just slightly after the kick drum to find your place in the beat and get into the pocket. Once you find it, the bass notes you play behind the beat will just sit in nicely and blend with the rest of the backing track. It’s important to note that we are talking about micro timing here. The extremely small time nuances separate playing on top of the beat and behind it. Practice makes it perfect, not talent or feeling.
To get better at finding the pocket, take your time practicing with the metronome and backing tracks really listening hard to all the elements of the drum kit and when each is sounded. Kick drum, snare and hi-hat are the most important timing wise.
Finding a pocket can make a tremendous difference to how your playing feels and sounds overall, both to you and others listening to you. A good bass player is able to adapt to a live band and find a pocket to play in, complementing the full sound of the band. Think of the pocket as the shadows. You don’t want to be in the spotlight, you want to sneak in the shadows. The bass player is a dark knight and the hero of the night. You don’t know his name, but he makes (or breaks) the band and sonic performance. Pocket is where he spends the most of his time.
Hope this helps at least just a bit of getting closer to finding the holy grail of bass playing - the pocket.