Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Drumming in the Pocket

As drummers we hear a lot about the elusive 'pocket' and make a lot of claims about it as well. I was watching Stanton Moore's 'Groove Alchemy' and was inspired by his section on the DVD and in the book about the backbeat. It helped me realize that I spend most of my time learning complicated new grooves, but probably put too little work into the foundation that the grooves are built upon - the backbeat.

Most of the exercises I hear and read about with relation to feel and pocket deal with a metronome and learning to place the backbeat slightly ahead, right on, and slightly behind the beat. That's definitely a necessary step in understanding feel, but it's more of a technical exercise and doesn't quite give you the feel for what's happening musically. For me, after I understood backbeat placement a little better I wanted to study the masters of groove and see how they used these ideas in a musical context.

I started off by picking my 2 favorite groove drummers at the moment - Al Jackson Jr., and Steve Jordan, and creating an itunes playlist for each of them with songs they had played on. I listened to the tunes I picked and got an idea of how they felt, and then I played through them and paid particular attention to the placement of the backbeat. The key here is to play to the tunes in your headphones and get your snare notes on 2 and 4 to line up with the guys you're studying. That doesn't mean it's pretty close, or it sounds like a flam, rather it means that my snare drum note falls precisely where theirs does to the point that I can't hear the note they played. It's harder than you may think and it takes a good deal of concentration to really nail it consistenly.

Listening is an important part of this, of course. When is the backbeat on top of the beat and when is it behind the beat, and what is the music doing that makes it fit? Take Steve Jordan's playing on 'You and Me' by Solomon Burke for example. He is laid back in the pocket on a laid back song. On the other hand, there is Al Jackson's playing on 'Soul Man' in which he is pushing forward with all his might in a song that begs you to get excited and dance.

Once you've played with the metronome and studied where and how to sit in the pocket from some of your own favorite players, try adding a few simple fills to your grooves. As you go into a fill and come out of a fill, what happens to the placement of the backbeat? Can you stay right in the pocket and keep the feel of the tune through a fill, or do you tend to rush or hesitate? This is key, and to me this is the type of nuance that separates a good drummer from a great one. Give it a shot, it's harder than it seems, but you'll be a more solid pocket drummer for having put some work into your backbeats!