I can’t think of any three terms that are so used but so difficult to articulate and pin down quite like “playing in the pocket”, “playing behind the beat” and “playing ahead of the beat”.
To a beginner, these terms likely bring about some feelings of head scratching and head-scratching impulses. To an intermediate and seasoned musical veteran, by contrast, are just understood.
They guide musicians, they guide songs and provide a rudimentary structure to something inherently without any structure and reason the same way we might think of structure in math or chemistry.
But do veteran players really know what these terms mean themselves?
Is playing in the pocket just something you “get” with time or is it something more?
Can it even be identified relative to playing behind or ahead of the beat and can those conditions even be identified with certainty?
It’s a question that just about every musical forum’s membership has asked including Talkbass, Drummer’s World, Harmony Central, jazz forums including All About Jazz and even Stack Exchange’s music section.
Each forum has their own take and their own interpretation and, like music itself, none are wrong and all are relative.
This week we’re going to examine pocket playing, playing ahead of and behind the beat. We’re going to look at:
- What do these terms mean?
- Provide some examples of different songs and genres that provide a baseline for what these kinds terms sound like in real time and
- Address personal playing aspects like the tempo factor and pushing or pulling the beat unintentionally
Playing in the Pocket: Think “Center”
Regardless the setting you’re in, what genre of music you’re playing or the instrument you play in, what you’re playing has a “musical center” that is referred to as the pocket.
In essence, the music is centered. Nothing is moving ahead of anything else or behind anything else; everything is moving along together.
Talking about the pocket is one thing, but much of this all comes into focus when you’re actually playing – especially for drummers and bassists because for them, to be playing together and keeping that musical foundation secure means the rest of the band has a place to fall into place.
In essence, it’s the drum and the bass that define the pocket for the rest of the band, outline it, support it and essentially indicate to the rest of the band, “Hey – the groove goes like this” (usually).
Now, if you’ve been reading along up to this point, you might already notice that I’m throwing the word feel around quite a bit.
Unfortunately, like many concepts in music, music itself and the fine arts, feel is one of the only ways to convey certain phenomenon.
Sometimes, things can best be described in terms of feel and going back to the point I made before, talking about pocket playing doesn’t mean much unless you go out, play and actually experience what that synchronicity is like and what it isn’t – relatively speaking.
Though science has yet to come up with one perfectly encompassing term to describe pocket feel, producer Les July, has one of the best descriptions of “the pocket” around – if not one of the only ones on the Internet:
“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.”
Now, we’ve been talking a lot about the pocket, now is the time to dissect some music and see what makes a pocket and what it means to play in it.
This post wouldn’t mean a whole lot unless I provided something to listen to to help illustrate what exactly the pocket feels like – relatively speaking of course, wouldn’t you agree?
Faith No More’s “From Out of Nowhere” is a good example of pocket playing.
Bassist Billy Gould and drummer Mike Bordin are the main movers in the song and here’s why.
The song’s driving eighth notes over a classic rock beat is what helps to establish that feeling of “centerness” throughout the song and the drums are the one establishing the eighth notes on the high hat and the bass is supporting the eighth note’s high hats with it’s own eighth notes that follow along with the chord changes of the song.
Arguably, the song does not have any parts that “wind or weave” in and around the drum beat. All the parts of the song, harmonic and melodic, are supporting quarter notes, eighth notes or another subdivision of that.
The entire song, for the most part, is in lock step with all the instruments contributing harmonic support like around the 1:20 mark or melodic drive like throughout the verses of this song.
Typically (and that is a very general typically) rock and pop songs will have a strong pocket feel, but this statement of course is not rule.
There will always be exceptions to the concept, but as a good benchmark for “pocket playing”, rock acts, pop acts or generally any acts that use the eighth note as their main driving force is a good example of playing in the pocket.
Here’s another example: Toto’s “Can You Hear What I’m Saying”.
A little bit more 80s-ish than Faith No More, this is another example of pocket playing in practice, especially when the snare comes in at around the 1:00 mark.
Like before, the instruments feel to be playing within the drum’s snare and kick patterns. No instrument is weaving or winding around the groove instruments in a way that might fight, pull back or push forward the groove in an unsupportive way:
Lastly, we have AC/DC’s “Thunderstuck”, a fantastic example of all things rock and roll all rolled up in a neat little song.
Rock music – that real guitar-heavy rock music – for the most part has a very defined center usually established by the eighth note and instruments supporting it throughout the song.
The pocket here is neatly drawn out by drummer Chris Slade’s kick drum hitting on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4 of each bar throughout the song while Angus Young’s famous guitar line dots around it with a flurry of 8th note hammer ons:
Playing Behind the Beat: Think “Drag”
Well, just like the term would suggest, rather than playing “center” of the music, it’s now being dragged back.
In my opinion, bassists looking for examples of playing behind the beat will come up with more results than any other genre of music because much of the music we as bass players draw inspiration from comes from music that leans back on the beat.
Funk music, anyone?
How about reggae?
Or some of that jazz funk or 80’s smooth jazz?
Funk, reggae and many kinds of jazz music gained their signature sound and feel from playing behind the beat rather than on or ahead of it.
Take a listen for yourself. Here’s Earth Wind and Fire’s, “Can’t Hide Love”:
Notice how your head immediately starts to bob and move to the song?
Notice how your movement is somewhat slow, dragged back, almost like it’s winding up to match the snare hit on beat 2 and 4?
That’s playing behind the beat in action.
Here’s another example, “Legalize It” by Peter Tosh with drummer Carlton Barrett to illustrate the point:
I mentioned reggae above but I’m going to take a moment to elaborate on it a little bit simply because reggae really is a whole other musical.
Reggae behind and on the beat entirely because the reggae groove is so unlike any other groove out there.
What makes reggae music reggae music is a drumming style called One Drop where the snare and the kick hit on beat 3 at the same time.
Moreover, reggae doesn’t accent the “one” like rock, funk, blues, pop or even bebop jazz does. Reggae focuses on the 3 beat and as a result the whole genre itself feels like it’s playing behind the beat:
versus the traditional rock beat where the one is accented:
Playing Ahead of the Beat: Think “Push”
The last point we’re going to cover is playing in front of the beat or what it means to push head of the beat.
The polar opposite to pull and drag, push is exactly what it sounds like: moving a song forward so it feels like its going beyond the provided tempo, barely holding as it drives forward.
The Police’s, “Hungry for You” is a good example of playing ahead of the beat and pushing the song forward to the point that it feels like it’s going to fall apart at any second:
(bonus points if you can understand what Sting’s saying)
Bebop jazz that moves at a very fast tempo with lots of instruments soloing and harmonizing together is another popular place to find music that pushes the tempo forward.
“Wait…I Still Don’t Hear The Difference”
I had a feeling you might be thinking this.
Like I said early on in this post, the idea of being able to concretely pin down what music is ahead, behind or on the beat is a very difficult subject and speaking in terms of “feels” might not satisfy as much as one would like it to.
Moreover, like many aspects of music, to really grasp this concept and to see it for what it is, feel needs to be considered if not outright acknowledged as the driving force behind it.
All that being said, it’s absolutely not impossible to learn to identify what pushes, pulls and centers a beat. If you’re a student of music or at the very least enjoy listening to music, there is a good chance that as you’re listening to some of your favorite albums you’re able to feel for yourself what seems to be moving along at a sensible, collected tempo, what seems to feel laid back and relaxed and what seems to push the tempo envelope further and further ahead.
In this context, if feel is the king then listening is the queen and music is their kingdom. All these ideas work together and no one is segregated from the other.
Though experience and playing music long enough will eventually grant you this ability by circumstance, I feel that for those curious on the subject, the best way to illustrate this is through songs and genres that are best exemplifying the concept.
Of course, each of use learn differently and hear differently so if the song examples above were not satisfactory, consider these videos instead.
2. Connor Guilfoyle demonstrating each of the playing styles from behind a drum set
3. Damani Rhodes explaining and demonstrating “the pocket”
The Tempo Aspect
Another point I’d like to make before I wrap up this Tuesday’s post is the aspect of tempo and how it fits into playing ahead, behind and on the beat.
Tempo is certainly a factor whether it wants to be or not.
Faster songs are naturally going to push the tempo forward more than slower songs.
It’s simply the nature of the beast – it wouldn’t make much sense if songs at a slower tempo pushed a song forward by design or vice versa.
But at the core, there are other aspects aside from tempo that help to establish whether the song itself will push, drag or center itself with the tempo as we’ve already touched upon in this article.
Sometimes we unintentionally push or pull the tempo. Ever caught yourself playing ahead of the drums or behind the drums? You’re pushing and pulling the tempo probably when you shouldn’t be.
But that’s fine – we all do it and it can be easily corrected just be taking a second and listening to where the rest of the band is and making the correct adjustments.
Tempo is certainly a factor, but it’s not the only factor involved – so it goes with most things in music.
Terms like “playing in the pocket”, “playing ahead of the beat” and “playing behind the beat”, in and of themselves can be pretty ambiguous and confusing terms but they are very useful for directing and communicating with musicians certain aspects of a song.
Feel is a large part of interpreting how you position yourself as a bass player and how the rest of the band positions itself relative to the rest of the song.
Though feel, again, is pretty ambiguous, it’s an important aspect of music and using feel as a justification for certain actions and descriptions is perfectly legitimate.
Though it might be frustrating to try to determine a hard and fast definition for the terms focused on in this article, my hope is that this article helped to dispel some of the ambiguity and provide you, the bass player with a better understanding of the terms and some frameworks for being able to reference what is and isn’t ahead or behind the beat and how to start communicating these ideas to other musicians and take instruction when they’re provided to you.
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