Groove, Pocket and Feel

Mike Sturgis at British Grove Studios with the Stacks Band

The vernacular of a musician (or those discussing music) is sometimes a bit mysterious, weird, comedic or just generally inaccessible to the ‘layman’. On one hand, there are terms like accelerando or many others that are part of widely accepted musical lexicon that have clear, textbook definitions. But there are other words or phrases that are less conventional and are open to an element of interpretation, even amongst hipsters in the music community. With this in mind, I would like to take on a challenge that makes solving the debacle of Brexit seem lightweight in comparison; that is, to look at the frequently used terms of groove, pocket and feel and to try to understand their full meaning.

For example, how many times you have you heard someone say something like this:

“He/she has a killer groove.”

“Man, that’s grooving like mother*%\$@!”

“That guy/girl was so in the pocket.”

“He/she has an unbelievable feel.”

I’ll put it out there at this point that I believe there is some subjectivity involved in what is meant by these terms and I’m not sure that there actually are universally accepted definitions. However, the brief bit of research I’ve done suggests that there is some common thinking; in my quest to decode and demystify ‘groove language’ I’ve done some interesting reading and have also had the opportunity to ask some great musicians what they think.

To define all things relating to groove I went straight to someone who seems to have stood in line at least twice when it was being allocated by a Higher Power. Van Romaine is one of my favourite drummers and is widely known for recording and touring as a drummer and musical director with amazing artists such as Enrique Iglesias, Steve Morse, Nena and many others. Here’s his take on what these three terms mean:

“From my years of experience, groove and pocket are general terms for playing in time along with the other musicians and/or tracks. “Make sure you play in the groove” or “he/she has a great groove/pocket” would tend to mean the musician plays in time, for the song and doesn’t overplay. Feel, on the other hand (in my eyes) relates specifically to the one-of-a-kind stamp and personality of a musician’s groove or pocket. It’s a view into their soul as well, from my experience. While drummers Steve Jordan and Stewart Copeland both have an amazing groove and pocket, their feels are drastically different. Also, from what I see the musicians who focus on these three things tend to be the people playing on the most records and tours.”

Van Romaine

Van Romaine

Another heavyweight musician I’ve consulted, one who has a deep understanding these concepts from the perspective of someone outside of the rhythm section, is composer, arranger and lead trumpet extraordinaire Kevin Robinson (Simply Red, Incognito, Tom Jones). When asked about this subject, Kevin responded with the following:

“I think maybe with the exception of ‘groove’ there isn’t one single definition or easy explanation to what these terms actually mean. The reason I say this is because I think they mean different things to different people and can be applied to several situations, which also means they are all intrinsically part of the same fabric of music production.”

“Groove for example can be straightforwardly defined as a rhythmic pattern, be it sourced entirely from a percussive instrument (e.g. drums) or as a collective entity, the result of several musicians all playing together.”

“That being said, it’s still not a simple case of a rhythmic/chordal pattern being played ‘in time’…there are subtleties of execution involved that link ‘groove’ to feel…e.g. a simple slight displacement of part of the rhythm that takes it away from the metronome that will result in the music being played ‘loosely’- but it can still groove.”

“Pocket is a little more difficult for me to define because for me it is based almost entirely on feeling…also, I think that tempo plays a very important role in determining pocket…certain songs, grooves etc work best at certain tempos, causing them to sit ‘in the pocket’. Of course, individuals can also be attributed as playing ‘in the pocket’ and it’s obvious when they’re not. So basically, there is a lot of subjectivity involved largely based on skill, experience and emotional maturity.”

Kevin Robinson

Kevin Robinson

Neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin is the author of This Is Your Brain On Music, a book which analyses how our brains interpret music and the subsequent neural impulses that result when listening to it. When Levitin talks about groove in his book, he aligns with Van and Kevin but also blurs a little bit into that loosely defined area of ‘feel’:

“Groove has to do with a particular performer or particular performance, not with what is written on paper. Groove can be a subtle aspect of performance that comes and goes from one day to another, even with the same group of musicians.

Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not strictly metronomic – that is, when it is not perfectly machine-like. Although some danceable songs have been made with drum machines, the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the drums, “breathe.”

Daniel Levitin

Daniel Levitin

Hearing from these experts has been helpful for me, and I’m pleased to say that my own thinking on this subject is fairly aligned with their opinions. For me, the terms ‘groove’ (when used as a noun) and ‘pocket’ are usually referring to the quality and consistency of someone’s timekeeping (both as an individual and/or in the context of an ensemble) and are virtually interchangeable in their usage. Therefore, we can say, “They have a great groove/pocket” and be fairly confident that this refers to their ability to play in time, both on their own and with others. However, a great groove/pocket can also be a collective experience (or ‘entity’, as Kevin Robinson suggested) that is created from an ensemble, usually from individual musicians who all have this quality in abundance. Strangely, we often use the term ‘groove’ as a verb but never so with ‘pocket’ (e.g. “Man, that was really pocketing!”)

That brings me to ‘feel’, which as described above seems to be an even larger concept than groove or pocket, although I still believe the terms are inextricably linked. When we talk about someone’s feel, it’s almost like we are using one small word to encapsulate the totality of their playing. While there may be more, here’s a few of the areas that I believe comprise a musician’s feel:

  • Timing (hence the overlap with groove and pocket)
  • Execution (the level of technique and the ability to actually play what is required, with pin-point accuracy not necessarily being better depending on the genre)
  • Dynamics (as appropriate for the chosen genre)
  • Content (the ability to play appropriately as each musical context requires)
  • Sound/Timbre (which includes tuning)
  • Intuition (the ability to respond appropriately to the music and other musicians)

I’ve just come up with DISCET as a mnemonic but I’m sure that there must be a better one!

There has been a lot more written on this subject that you can check out if you’re interested. As a starting point, I would like to recommend the following:

What is groove? (Ethan Hein)

Playing in the Pocket (Dave Martin)

Push, Drag and Center: What is Playing in the Pocket, Anyway? (Mike Emiliani)