As a drummer, I have heard this phrase time and time again. Now, this phrase can apply to bass, guitar, and piano players as well, but the general basis of this saying may be especially relevant to drummers. As a musician, it is important to be able to play in the pocket. But what exactly does this mean?
Over the years, I have not been able to find a consistently precise definition of what it means to play in the pocket, but I have been able to come up with an overall understanding of the subject. The pulse of music that we almost always refer to as being the beat contains a certain amount of interpretation. Most humans (whether we believe this to be true or not) are hardwired to “feel” a pulse. Think about our heartbeats, or the way we walk from one location to the next. There is a steady, somewhat even pace to both of these motions, yes? Yes there is. Now, before you think I am calling everyone robots, there is something else to consider: almost every human executes these motions differently from one to another. So who is to say that Joe “feels” 60 beats per minute the same way that Sallie does? Let’s leave that job to our trusted instrument, the clock. We humans have a responsibility as musicians to conceptualize and feel a pulse of music, and pardon me for continuing to reuse the phrase “feel”, but there really is no other way to communicate this natural phenomenon. Playing in the pocket could simply mean to play the rhythm of your instrument, whether it is syncopated or not, as close as possible in the tempo, pulse, or motion we “feel”, also known as the beat.