Time and The Pocket.
1st March 2016
Ok, so what exactly does it mean to play in the pocket?
I had read an article recently in a well known monthly drumming publication where the correspondent loosely described it as simply ‘playing appropriately’.
Well, I don’t profess to have all of the answers but for me there is rather more to it than this. I felt compelled to write my thoughts down as, if this is the information circulating, and this is the level of understanding of this concept then really, there is something fundamentally lacking in the knowledge of time playing, and something missing that is a really beautiful component.
As you may have guessed, as a drummer, I am passionate about time.
Captain Steve Gadd on board a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-900
Last summer I was privileged to work alongside one of the most legendary drummers of all time - Steve Gadd. Steve doesn’t say too much, and certainly doesn’t play too much either. Of course as a base line in his approach, he is always appropriate. Everything he does is appropriate but for me, that still has little to do with playing in the pocket.
When you delve a little deeper and really listen, I get a feeling as well as mental picture or image of what the pocket really is. I am not talking about a Pro Tools grid here but more an angular perfection that moves me emotionally. Yes it has a little to do with that element that makes you want to move or tap your foot, to an extent but there are lots of non commercial musical genres where the drummer plays and understands the pocket concept.
Steve Gadd made a very informed and wise statement whilst playing with the band with which we were playing. He was playing along with the band but noticed, possibly due to the nature of the natural reverb in the rehearsal room a tendency for the musicians to push and pull. As it happened, some musicians were tending to lay back just a little too much on a slow blues feel. Yes, it was one of those tempos that was in the cracks as we say. One that needed concentration, not to measure it mentally but to internalise it mentally.
Steve, ever the session professional enquired whether he could be heard? Or, to paraphrase what he was really saying, “are you guys listening to me?”. The first thing that Steve did was settle physically on the tempo and then count it off again. This time he did the unexpected, but actually the obvious thing. He did not play louder in order to be heard, he actually played softer in order to demand that he was heard. His follow up comment was all telling - “Guys, the tempo is only one tempo and it is only one thing. You can’t bend it, speed it up or slow it down. It just is. Let’s play the same tempo together”.
I saw an interview with Paul Simon in which he said that Steve always waited for the bottom of the beat.
Ah, now we are getting warmer…
I grew up playing big band music and I owe an awful lot to one of the great champions of youth music in the United Kingdom, John Ruddick MBE. I played in his big band, the Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra. It was a privilege for me to be involved in this group as it spawned many great musicians previously including Chris Dagley, Mark Nightingale, the Arguelles brothers, Neil Bullock and of course the great Pete Cater.
I am not sure if John would have ever described it as ‘the pocket’, but to my reckoning I believe he was talking about the same thing. He was forever demanding that the musicians wait for the bottom of the beat.
With the exuberance of youth, this band could have a tendency to rush. John was someone who recognised the importance of the concept of time being a major ingredient in successful musicianship. The buck does not stop with the drummer either by the way. Time is everyones responsibility but do you know what? If a band plays great time, it sets the drummer up beautifully to just add that thing called ‘The Pocket’.
Now we start to flow and now we start to move people emotionally on our instrument. I remember the first time I really got this concept of pocket. It was one of those concerts where it just clicked and everyone felt the time at the same point precisely. I remember bassist Dave Lynane referring to a groove that we were playing one night. He gave us another positive but all telling gem. “If you get in the way, you’re gonna get run over!”.
Ah, we get warmer again…
I am fortunate that I get asked to play in the studio probably more than in a live environment these days. 99.9% of the time I am required to play with some sort of click facility. I favour a rimshot sound if I am asked to play with a click. I generally like a click with the greatest amount of attack in sound quality.
A lot of the time these days I record by a concept of file sharing where I will be asked to play drums on a piece of music remotely in the comfort of my own space, where my drums are set up and to my ear are optimum in sound for me. My drums go a long way in helping me create ‘my’ sound…
If it is a file sharing session where I am required to record to a click, I much prefer to put the drums down first and then allow the other musicians to play their instruments to me. In my experience, this is the only way to get the music to feel right without compromising the feel.
It can be problematic when trying to play drums to a guitar track or bass track played with ‘the’ click. Maybe I am a little OCD regarding time, but to my ear it is a little like constructing a body without a skeleton where the drums have to go on track after the other instruments. It is a compromise ‘generally’ to record in any other process when file sharing. I feel that if you are recording music that requires a strong time feel when file sharing, then you must record the drums first.
Back to the pocket…
The pocket, to sum up, is that point for me where the beat lands. It gives the drum track the emotional factor where we start to move the musicians and listener. It is one of the most passionate experiences to play a piece of music, and find ‘The Pocket’. Find the sweet part of the beat and you really anchor the time that glues the other musicians.
Why is it called the pocket?
Well, imagine a pocket on the back of your jeans. The top part is the opening where the beat starts and the bottom for your pocket is where we aim to land so that we really anchor the emotional “Yessss!” factor to the track.
There are some great drummers that you can hear who really understand this concept. Check out, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Steve Jordan,
John “JR” Robinson, Ricky Lawson, Zigaboo Modeliste, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon, Keith Carlock, Rick Marotta and Bernard Purdie.
The pocket for the drummer really does require that all musicians listen. It is that mental picture for me in modern music time feels where angles are acute and punchy, that the confidence is super high in the time felt by all, that everyone is waiting for the beat to land, that everyone is feeling this emotionally, that it is like a drug that you cannot resist, that it really makes you feel like the richest person in the world. When you start landing in the pocket, you know it.
With reference to file sharing sessions when other musicians are not present, I love the hypnotic trance like quality of the click when you are super locked in. Sometimes the the click can have a sponge like quality where you can really wait for the bottom of the beat. This is where I really attempt to feel it, and seem to get the best results.
You see, it is rather more than simply being emotionless and ‘appropriate’. It is about being present, emotional and sensitive. It’s about moving people and being immersed in the groove and then really probing deeper into that groove and anchoring the time down.
I hope this makes sense as I certainly know it can be an obscure concept.
Other factors on play back do come into play such as balance, but for me this is the beginning of understanding that concept called ‘The Pocket’.
Go and immerse yourself in the groove, anchor it down and make sure you don’t get run over!
The Maturity Continuum.
1st January 2016
OK, the year is 1976, but in fact we could pick any date around the mid 70’s and early 80’s. 1976 will do though as not only was it one the hottest summers on British record, it was also the year in which I was born. Yes, I was born around the time that the session musician “designer label” came into being. By session designer label I mean those musicians that played on your album and immediately made you, “the artist”, cool. In fact the whole darn idea of being a session musician became cool. I recall a drummer from London who has recently enjoyed a mighty rise to fame, particularly in the States with his “prog” band continually raving about Ben Sidran’s ‘The Cat in the Hat’. Others had guitarist Lee Ritenour’s ‘Feel the night’ under their arm, and who could not mention Chick Corea’s masterpiece ‘The Leprechaun’. Of course I hope drummers did enjoy the vocals of Ben Sidran, the guitar virtuosity of Lee Ritenour and piano compositional genius of Chick Corea but something more was beginning to happen and always tends to happened when idolization takes effect. Drummers globally became Steve Gadd. They saw themselves as cool because “they” could play the funky little lick from such and such an album. In fact they played this funky little “50 ways to leave your lover” lick whether they were playing Glenn Miller’s In The Mood with a Big Band or Eddie Floyds’ Knock on Wood with a pub soul band.
This to many a musician in the band became a situation that at best could be described as ‘excruciating, painful and wholly inappropriate!’. Many jokes have circulated about the lead singer, sometimes the guitarist, rarely the keyboard player but increasingly the drummer jokes were borne of the frustration from the masses of those grateful musicians who intent on doing their best, faithfully reproduce the music that their beer swigging groupies wanted to enjoy.
“How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb? The answer? 50! One to change the light bulb and 49 to discuss how Steve Gadd would have done it! Told before? Sure… But none so relevant as to highlight the point as now.
I am a great fan of a multi million selling book written by another of my non-drumming heroes the late Stephen R Covey named The Seven Habits of Highly of Effective People. This book has become one of the definitive self-help texts to which I highly invite you to investigate if in fact you haven’t already. In this book, we learn of something called the maturity continuum. I came to realise that this is something that is very relevant to musicians. For me it translates roughly to something like this:
1. We get inspired to ‘pick up sticks’ by watching something that triggers something we relate to whether visually, audibly or via influence.
2. We learn to hold the drumsticks, we learn to play a rhythm and we learn to play a fill. In other words, we learn to bash! But we know it feels good, to us at least!
3. We learn a concept called “time”. To execute this smoothly and accurately we begin to realise that we have something valuable that will enable us to perform with other musicians. We even realise that we may be able to earn “a little money” from performing with this relative basic skill. Following “time” we learn that the placement of our beats enhances the music or equally destroys the music! This we come to know as “feel”, or to put the two together “time feel”. A part of the Holy Grail.
Now, for many of us, this is as far as our drumming musical desires/interests progress. Some of us continue on this maturity continuum however.
4. We (a little like babies!) begin to mimic the sounds and styles of drummers that we now begin to enjoy. This is fine and an important part of the “musicians” maturity continuum. We take this to varying lengths. Sometimes we merely steal a groove or a fill. I do this now both consciously and sub-consciously I feel. I do this in and and out of the micro second of a performance as my performance draws memories and ideas of drumming heroes and conveys sound, textural ideas drawn from this. I do however say this with the proviso and that is that I call this an influence rather than a steal as I will always try an make it my own by inputting "my" very own take on it – you begin to enjoy the process of taking someone’s idea, kicking it around, making it into different shapes, turning it on it’s head and making it your own. Some drummers steal to the extreme with no modification however. Buddy Rich had one jazz drumming idoliser who he constantly used to berate for copying his style. I hasten to add that it wasn’t my Uncle Carl however. Carl did take something Buddy, something jazz, kicked it around ‘a little’ and made it rock, or in his terms made it his own. In the early 1980’s everyone wanted to be Dave Weckl. His drum layout with the 8” and 10” rack toms must have been the most common of all setups around this time. Musically great for Chick Corea’s Elektric Band. A musical disaster for almost any other commercial musical style! There were elements of mimicking that got a little dark too. I have known drummers copy rhythms, fills, set ups etc and all fine in the learning process, however I have seen drummer then mimic the hairstyle, the dress sense, the accent, the alcoholic tipple of choice and even the Class A drug addiction. Yes, I have seen all of this. Maybe you have too… It is in one word “disturbing!” to see. Extreme yes, but it does happen.
5. We develop things along the maturity continuum and come to this stage; the stage where a beautiful realisation starts to occur and one discovers ones “own” voice on the instrument. This doesn’t “just” happen on the whole without the ground work. I say “on the whole” as there have been notable exceptions, or geniuses who’s first names Buddy and Tony may ring a bell? Even in these cases however, the perfect storm of artistic collision has to happen. I am now along the ‘maturity continuum’ that I call it as musician to a point where I am beginning to find my self as an artist on the drums. Why do I use such a pretentious term as artist? Well, I can honestly say that this does not come from the standpoint of ego. Ian an artist? What are you talking about! I say this as I see my work as that of an artist because my aim is to create emotion, colour and add in any way I can as a human being. My name is not Pro Tools/logic pro/sequencer/Roland or whatever and my business is not ones and zeroes, I don’t play the same on every gig and I don’t get packed away into a flight case at the end of the gig not able to share a conversation about music and in fact a range of subjects. I don’t appear on record behind the next trendy pop wannabe or even on stage and, and, and you probably get my point by now! I played in the band The Ghosts at one point and used a vast array sequenced paraphernalia I hope to a pleasurable degree, but as I heard Vinnie Colaiuta once say, “I’m not about one and zeroes”. I was advertently paid the highest compliment I have ever received when I played raw desk mixes from a recording session that I had just taken part in with legendary LA Producer Larry Klein and Guitarist Dean Parks for Norwegian artist Thomas Dybdahl. With a proud smile and I am happy to say no sense of sarcasm, he said “I can always sense when its you playing buddy”. If he was a drummer I would have been less moved but the fact is he is a talented pianist made that comment particularly special. It’s taken me more or less 30 years to get to this point where I truly know my playing. What he was saying was that he sensed me, my feeling in the music, my vibe. I connected with him and not by a fill or groove that he had heard me play before. So, as an artist, that is what I hope to achieve.
6. Ok, so we are progressing nicely along this road of musical discovery. We are getting hired for professional gigs, we may now be part of a band that is receiving adulation and critical acclaim. Oh my goodness we may even be recognised in public! I am sure you can guess my thoughts on that red herring? Work through attraction and not promotion is the best way! Attraction to your artistic statement and integrity. You are merely the vehicle my friend, the music is the aim.
We still desire to take things to the next level though – because we are human and we need to grow. I mentioned that stage 4 for me was discovering our voice and we start to sound a little unique in a good way but to our dismay we may not be truly comfortable. The next stage in the musical continuum comes when we find that we are now not only able express ourselves musically. But, we now begin to truly serve the music… Rebecca my girlfriend sensed my playing and that was a great moment in life for me. She is a session vocalist and voice over specialist so she does know musicians well, BUT she got me. She understood. That was a special moment. I now try with as much gratitude, humility and humbleness to be a loyal servant of the music and this enables me to sit back and consider what is being asked of me musically. Asked of me Ian, with my tools and techniques that I dream and hope a master craftsman has to offer. This comes down to is taste and talent now. However much of either I have is debatable but not too debatable, as really it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I continue to grow as human being and fulfil any potential that my own personal concept of a higher power has blessed me with. If you truly come from a place of serving the music and helping create something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and by the parts I mean, the other musicians, you will find that the other musicians will grow and who knows what is possible? The possibilities are limitless, musical, tasteful and beautiful. The highest compliment is when someone hears your playing realises the taste and appropriateness, the desire to serve the music and then comes to you and says “Ian, I heard such and such you played on, it just moved me emotionally. It was a statement!” That’s what it is all about for me. That’s my dream… That’s what I strive for…
There are beacons who before us set our beautiful artform in differing directions to bring us to the point where we are today, and what a great place our artform has arrived at. Some drummers are pushing the boundaries. The majority are using identical one rack tom, big crash cymbal, big bass drum set ups which is not meant as a criticism in anyway, but my only concern is that once upon a time everyone tried to be Steve Gadd then everyone tried to be Dave Weckl now most are attempting to be Bonzo or Ringo! I was rehearsing in the summer at John Henry’s Rehearsal Complex in London, England and I got chatting to a drummer whose name I forget who performs with a well-known female pop singer. I just recalled him being slightly off hand in his attitude because he was using the the current fashion Ringo set up and I had selected more of what he described as a Gadd set up. He said “Gadd set up? Man I was doing that years ago! Got to be one rack tom now man”. I was using my Yamaha 9000 Recording Custom drumset that day, because most importantly they worked for the music, and they are also a little like an old pair of trainers. I certainly took no offence and smiled when the said drummer pointed this strange point out. I said something along the lines of “Oh, thanks for letting me know!”. I wasn’t unduly worried though as he probably got packed into a flight case along with the rest of his Fab Four drums at the end of the gig too!
Believe me drumming wasn’t invented by Chad Smith, Tre Cool or Ronnie Vanucci Jr great as these guys are… To develop your drumming voice, with integrity, ask yourself. Am I familiar with this brief list of drumming royalty in chronological order from history?
Baby Dodds, Big Sid Catlett, Gene Krupa, Papa Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Joe Morello, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Mel Lewis, Sonny Payne, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack de Johnette, Earl Palmer, Bernard Purdie, Clyde Stubblefield, Hal Blaine, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Ian Paice, David Garibaldi, Billy Cobham, Sly Dunbar, Lenny White, Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Neil Peart, John “JR” Robinson, Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Keith Carlock.
Yes, I am sure I have missed a few but if you are serious about out art take time to listen to these drummers and you’ll begin to see how so many influenced each other and little by little the art of drumming evolved. Be a great detective and really get involved in your art. I have had 30 years of music and everyday I feel truly blessed. I am continually learning new ways to serve the music and hopefully connect with those who are happy to listen to the music I create. I am blessed to have such an un wavering interest in music and hope to fulfil any potential that I have been blessed with in order to bring a little positivity to our world.