Charlie Watts, Jazz Drummer and “Pocket King”

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

I was wanting to take a break from the ongoing ongoingness, and I had blown away all my cookies in YouTube, so my K-Pop biases weren’t showing up, but what did show up was music by Charlie Watts (1941-2021). So now for something completely different, since the topic of this post is entirely serendipitous and has nothing to do with anniversaries, or anything like that.

First, I will tell my favorite Charlie Watts story. Then I will introduce a concept central to his musicianship, perhaps most musicianship, certainly all danceable musicianship (“the pocket”). Here is the story:

Keith Richards is the source of the original story and tells this anecdote in his 2010 autobiography ‘Life’.

‘There was a rare moment, in late 1984, of Charlie throwing his drummer’s punch – a punch I’ve seen a couple of times and it’s lethal; it carries a lot of balance and timing. He has to be badly provoked. He threw one at Mick.

‘We were in Amsterdam for a meeting, Mick and I weren’t on great terms at the time but I said c’mon, let’s go out. And I lent him the jacket I got married in. We got back to the hotel about five in the morning and Mick called up Charlie. I said “don’t call him not at this hour.” But he did, and said, “Where’s my drummer?” No answer. He puts the phone down. Mick and I were still sitting there pretty pissed – give Mick a couple of glasses, he’s gone – when about 20 minutes later there was a knock at the door.

‘There was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed…I could smell the cologne! I opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said “Never call me your drummer again.”

‘Then he hauled him up by the lapels of my jacket and gave him a right hook. Mick fell back onto a silver platter of smoked salmon and began to slide towards the open window and the canal below.’

‘And I was thinking, this is a good one, and then I realized it was my wedding jacket. And I grabbed hold of it and caught Mick just before he slid into the Amerstdam canal. It took me twenty-four hours after that to talk Charlie down. I thought I’d done it when I took him up to his room, but twelves hours later he was saying “Fuck it, I’m going to go down and do it again”.

‘It takes a lot to wind that man up’. Why did you stop him? My jacket, that’s why!”

(Note that the jacket does not appear all versions of the story, and that “meeting” no doubt exposed serious differences of opionion over business matters.) However, it’s the detail of the Savile Row suit that gets me: Clearly, Watts came to slay. (And also to underline his own autonomy as an artist, not simply a mercenary, the real moral of the story. That watts are also a unit of power is not at all inappropriate.)

Now to the concept: “the pocket.” Here is a guileless use of the term from the Portland Press-Herald:

Ginger Cote of South Portland, who has been drumming since childhood, became a fan of the Rolling Stones when she was 5 years old because her mother and uncle were huge fans. Within a year, she was playing along with Watts on her first drum kit.

Cote said that Watts has “such a nice crack to his snare” and is the “pocket king,” meaning “he lands right in the right spot with just the right feel.” She also praised the personality in his playing.

And Watts does have a “a nice crack to his snare”. And so he ought to. But what is meant by “the pocket”? Most explanations by musicians amount to, well, handwaving (lots of “groove” and “feeling,” which amount to swapping one word for another and calling it an explanation). Here — and if we have musicians, especially drummers, in the readership, I hope they will chime in at this point — is a more historically grounded and technical explanation:

Historically speaking, the term “pocket” originated in the middle of the last century [for our younger readers, that would be the twentieth] with the occurrence of the backbeat, and implied that the backbeat, the Snare Drum striking the beats 2 and 4, is slightly delayed creating a “laid back” or “relaxed feel”.

If the downbeat is exactly when the Kick Drum is struck, then the Snare Drum was very often played slightly later than the midpoint between two consecutive pulses from the Kick Drum. Musicians (and music listeners) were often times unaware of science behind this, but they had a term for it: “the drummer is playing in the pocket.”

Today, the term “in the pocket” has broadened a bit, suggesting that if two musicians (usually the bass player and the drummer) are feeling the downbeats together, feeling and placing beat “one” at the exact same time, they are said to be “in the pocket.”

Whether you are playing ahead (front) of the beat, or behind (back) of the beat, or right on top (middle) of the beat, as long as two musicians (i.e., bassist and drummer [Sic. Should be “e.g.”. See below] feel the downbeat at the same time, they’ll be in the pocket.

Many people feel that the question is not so much what the pocket is as much as how you know when you’ve achieved it. To the musician, it feels like the music is playing itself, as though everything has merged together — all the rhythmic parts being played by one instrument.

(“While the music plays the band,” <em>The Music Never Stopped, The Grateful Dead.) But here we have hand-waving as well: what does “at the exact same time” mean? From Tidal Magazine:

[A]s former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman explained to me in 2007, for an article that would appear in Guitar World’s Bass Guitar magazine, the band’s rhythmic axis is built on the relationship between [Keith] Richards [the guitarist] and [Charlie] Watts [the drummer]. “Charlie follows Keith; Keith doesn’t follow Charlie,” he said. “Charlie follows Keith, so Keith’s always slightly ahead. And I would lay back behind Charlie, so I’m always slightly behind.” Where each player is within the beat is crucial, Wyman added. “When everybody tried to play like us, it didn’t sound like us,” he said, “because they all played dead on the beat.” In other words, their imitators were playing in time, but the Rolling Stones were playing in the pocket.

I can’t cite to the book, since I read the book standing up in a Borders in Philly, but it described the Rolling Stones pocket as being as large and soft as a catcher’s mitt. Back to the unexamined “at the same time.” The key passage for me:

In popular music, time isn’t as rigid or absolute as the pok-pok-pok of a click track. Although there are some genres that embrace metronomic regularity — EDM springs to mind — others take a more flexible approach to getting into the groove. Musicians often speak of where the beat falls as “the pocket,” precisely because it flexes to both sides. For example, jazz bass players, particularly in hard bop and straight-ahead styles, tend to play ahead of the beat, adding urgency to the pulse, whereas bassists in blues and soul play slightly behind, lending a relaxed lubricity to the groove. Drummers can exhibit even subtler levels of rhythmic shading. Listen closely to Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” and you’ll notice on the verses that Al Jackson Jr.’s snare lags slightly behind the rest of the kit, so the feel is more languid than on the chorus. It’s a matter of milliseconds, but it makes an enormous difference in the emotional dynamic.

There’s also the mistaken belief that bands are driven by bass and drums. Certainly there are plenty of drummer/bassist teams that clearly powered their bands: Al Jackson Jr. and Duck Dunn in the M.G.’s; Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood and John McVie; Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. But there are also plenty of rock bands where, as with the Stones, the guitarist leads and the drummer follows. Think of Jimmy Page and John Bonham in Led Zeppelin, Eddie and Alex Van Halen, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich of Metallica or the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook.

I find this concept of time that isn’t “rigid or absolute” very appealing, because here at NC we often speak of layers of time which have different rhythms: Market time, political time, military time; perhaps institutional time, Jungian archetypical time, and so forth. I think, however, it is fair to say that elites, operating in all these levels of time er, simultaneously, are by no means “in the pocket.” Quite the reverse.

I’ll give the final word to Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich:

Lastly, Ulrich mentioned that in watching footage of Watts’ final performance with the Stones – a set they played in Florida on August 30, 2019 as part of the band’s No Filter tour – he learned a new reason why Watts was so imperative to the band’s dynamic.

“I was looking at a couple of the clips from [that show] and even seeing Mick Jagger up there swaying,” he said. “He’s swaying to Charlie Watts’ drumming. People sit there and go, ‘Yeah, I’m dancing along with Mick Jagger.’ No, you’re dancing along with Charlie Watts in the same way Mick Jagger’s dancing along to Charlie Watts’ drumming.

Let me now present a few videos of Charlie Watts, jazz drummer. There are not all that many on YouTube — a deluge of Watts interviews and tributes makes any actual music harder to find than it should be — but then YouTube’s search function is notoriously poor, so maybe I’m missing a trove (and why can’t the search brain geniuses at Google, which bought YouTube, fix it?).

* * *

Vol Pour Sidney (Aller)

This one is a little hectic, indeed hecticker and hecticker. A wild solo begins at 0:53, and you can see why a good timekeeper would be needed. Be sure to listen to the end!

* * *

Boogie woogie in Barcelona

Much more boogie woogie here; good, perhaps to listen to while cleaning the house?

* * *

Route 66

Plenty of swing in this one, with interplay among the band members; Watts is very happy. At 2:31 it at first seems like Watts has, for once in his life, gotten flashy, but it turns into a great segue.

* * *

Perhaps jazz-oriented readers can come up with better songs (I avoided band performances on Letterman and so forth; I though clubs would be more a propos.)

Let me close with a return to rock. From the Rolling Stones 1995 (i.e., post-Mick Taylor) show at the Paradiso, Amsterdam, 1995, a positively oceanic version of Gimme Shelter.

I’m sorry for the visual quality, but I’m using this version because it includes two great moments: At 3:06, Keith Richards’ sly, amazed smile at Lisa Fisher’s pyrotechnics; the second at 5:59, when the crowd starts to chant “Charlie! Charlie!” Talk about being in the pocket![1]

* * *

I have to say that this old codger is encouraged that Charlie Watts kept doing what he loved until he dropped; I think that’s a good example to follow, and something to hope for. And what Charlie Watts loved was his work, because drumming is work; ask any guitarist. Work, as opposed to a job. “the augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life,” as LeGuin puts it.

More broadly, our society needs many more Charlie Watts’ and should do what it takes to create them. Fewer thieves, militarists, spreadsheet jockeys, influencers, celebrities, administrators: More musicians, painters, photographers, world-builders, model railroaders, knitters, gamers, welders, winemakers, and “for the love of the game”-types generally. I firmly believe our socially single-minded focus on distilling accumulated capital out of human labor power produces a ginormous “angel’s share” of lost human creativity, and the joy that comes from creation. We have, of course, the wealth to address this, but there are… control issues.


[1] Even more amazingly, the Rolling Stones had then been playing for 1995 – 1962 = 33 years. Clean living. It pays off every time.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. bassmule

    My moniker is bassmule because I play electric bass in a stinky little bar band. Because our shtick is “rock & soul for dancing” the drummer and I pay very close attention to the groove, whatever it might be. We make a lot of eye contact. Our goal (after 7 years together, we’re getting pretty good at it) is to make the bass and kick drum sound like one instrument. So yeah, playing in the pocket is everything.

    1. britzklieg

      The bass and the drum are always the backbone, the scaffolding if you will, of any great band. And speaking of the pocket, here’s a fine little explanation as to why John Lennon said that Ringo Starr was the “best backbeat in rock and roll.” Many disparage Ringo. He is too easily dismissed and for many remains a footnote to the Beatles success. Nothing could be further from the truth:

      and another:

      … and thanks for the Watts jazz links, L.S. Wowsers! Great stuff, a truly fine artist he.

  2. Glen

    It’s been a compelling mystery to me that in all the years of reading about or seeing about the Stones, that the real beating heart of the band has always been Watts and Wyman, and they just don’t get no satisfaction.

    No, no, no.

  3. lyman alpha blob

    As a drummer for some college/garage bands back in the salad days who was once summarily dismissed for not being able to keep a proper beat, I can attest that being in the pocket and staying there without losing the tempo completely is a lot harder than it seems. Maybe I just didn’t practice enough, but I always thought it was something like speed in sports – you can’t teach it, you just have to have it. That feel is a gift.

    Another one who had it, and another of your faves, Lambert, was Richie Hayward. One album I will never tire of listening to is Waiting for Columbus from Little Feat. Hookers and hustlers and bad cocaine – not sure if he was describing a bar or the US Congress –

    1. Sailor Bud

      If, by ‘you can’t teach it, but just have to have it,’ you mean that it is natural, I don’t think so. One can both learn and teach rhythm. You can do both at once, by self teaching. I’ve never failed to teach it to any long-term student. It’s like the old song, ‘All God’s Chillun’ Got Rhythm.’

      A great deal of it is concentrating only on the dominant measure-to-measure beat. If you’ve got a four beat with accents on 1 and 3, then 1 is the single beat you have to care about keeping tight. Measure to measure. You can put in all sorts of slop in between, and that will make it feel loose, but as long as you aren’t playing gibberish and the measures plop into place, it will sound organized enough.

      It’s not just drumming. The same is true of weird things like the opening of the Chopin B minor scherzo, which piano students often find difficult to count properly. It’s easiest to count the measures as beats instead of feeling the beats inside each measure all that much, and then it locks in just fine. Any student can learn that, and it’s instant improvement when you do show them.

      Various sloppy-but-tight drummers operated measure-wise. Notably, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, and even jazzers like Billy Cobham have all filled their space with loose rhythmic displacement, but always made it home. This is the essence of true ‘rubato,’ where the word translates as “to rob.” That means that what you steal from one part of the measure you restore to another by the end of it.

      All that said, and more on topic, I have never found Watts to be in any way special at all. Eye of the beholder and all that. I’ve insulted higher-skill drummers, though, and there are always surprises. Watts can at least swing a bit. Neil Peart, for instance, shows that he can’t on the ‘Burnin’ for Buddy’ tribute to Buddy Rich, while G&R drummer Matt Sorum (sp?) was surprisingly hot on the same album. Go figure.

      1. britzklieg

        Bingo. Always know where “1” is. Perfect explanation of rubato too

        On the other hand… I think Watts is just fine!

        1. Sailor Bud

          Thanks, and I think he’s fine too, but not my bag. I get a little weird when I know people from my own little circles whom I consider superior to lots of famous players, though, and nobody knows who they are, because the arts can go fog themselves.

          I mean no offense, tho. It really is like me not appreciating mint chocolate chip ice cream very much.

          My faves are all over the place, but mostly jazzers and proggers, even though I never listen to the latter anymore. I most appreciate Bruford, Roach, DeJohnette, Motian, Wertico, Bozzio and any Zappa drummer ever, Blakey, Bonham, Palmer, Cobham, Anindo Chattergee, and etc.. There are all sorts of Latin skin beaters whose names I don’t even know, too, and they are hot, hot, hot.

  4. Michael King

    Great tribute, thank you. NRBQ are still playing and releasing new music after 50 plus years. Their high tide was the Tom Ardolino (RIP) years and Joey Spampinato played bass. A quote from Bonnie Raitt: “There’s Charlie Watts and there’s Tom Ardolino. That’s it.”

  5. Anonymous 2

    I wonder if there is also a double entendre with the use of the term pocket. My wife and I were once in a restaurant when Charlie Watts and some friends came in and sat at the table next to us. What surprised me was how small he was.

    Given that, on photographs I have seen, the Stones all look much the same height, I assume they are all quite small. I have never been able to think of them as rock gods ever since.

      1. Revenant

        Best fed generations, thanks to WW2 rationing (which lasted until 1953(?) for sugar!). ERII’s coronation banquet was a big deal politically for that reason…. It is not obviously a class thing either, what with the Clash being posh boys and the Rolling Stones grammar school pupils. Perhaps funk is always small but perfectly informed, e.g. Prince? Only James Brown comes to mind as a counter example!

        1. Revenant

          An aside: Charlie Watts was the honorary local squire of our village, having bought the local big house from the Furses, who had lived there for a thousand years. The line died out after WW2 in illness and death in battle and a tragic house fire. Charlie Watts would come and open the village fete, cut the ribbon on the rebuilt village hall, looking dapper and famous and also entirely at home. His wife has just died: she bred Arabian horses and so the local fields are full of lumpy bumpy dairy cows and the occasional spoon-faced bloodstock worth an entire herd of Daisies and Bluebells. She swore like a local apparently – the locals all secretly loved getting a tongue lashing if they didn’t pull out wide enough around the horses or if their Landrovers met in the narrow lanes.

          As a further aside, the Furse family were shot through with unlikely artistic sensibility for country gentry in a thoroughly backward place. Ralph Furse dated Margot Fonteyn in the 40’s and 50s. Our neighbour would pick her up from the local station in his lorry. One of the daughters married Rex Whistler, the art engraver and their daughter married James Ravilious, the photographer son of Eric Ravilious the printmaker. Another Furse married a Russian emigree, Elizabeth Furse, and I think her son is the NYC columnist Anthony Haden-Gurst. He is in the village school photo album as a young boy….

  6. Wes O

    Dan Charnas has elegant and accurate coverage of straight time, swing time, and the pocket in his 2022 book, Dilla Time — recommended

  7. B24S

    Never saw the Stones live, or CW, but did have the chance to see Lisa Fisher a few years back, in Philly, backed by her band and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

    She’s still got it. She left me breathless, speechless, I didn’t come down for days.

  8. Savita

    Thankyou. While I am not entirely sure what is so mysterious about the point Lars Ulrich is making, what IS mysterious is why it took him until 2019 to ‘get it’ ?

    I appreciate this is not a thread to simply applaud every single great drummer out there. But personal emotional connection counts for something.

    The band Tool has a magnificent drummer named Danny Carey. One of the bands better known songs is called 46 + 2. The lyrics are along the lines of, humanity evolving spiritually as species, shedding the outworn psyche and breaking through to a new level of being.
    There is an epic drum solo by drummer Carey towards the end of the song. Only quite recently I realised the purpose of this act. It represents, sonically, the epiphany moment of breaking through to a new level of concsiousness.

    Each single beat is heard more clearly on the studio recording compared to any live one I’ve looked up – but the live ones are exciting.

    There are a few excerpts on Youtube of Carey playing that section of the song, this is one of the clearer ones. 1 minute 40 sec.

    And, enthusiasts should scroll youtube for other examples of Danny Carey!

    The other little section of impressive drumming is the song ‘Song for the dead’ by Queens of the Stone Age. Dave Grohl wrote and performed the drums for the studio version. Check out the intro. ( Apparently taken from a Black Flag song)

    The drumming gets gnarly towards the end also. I prefer the ex-Mistfits drummer Joey Castillo playing it
    This is the best live performance of the song I’ve found – from Australias ‘Big Day Out’. Featuring Mark Flanegan on vocals and Joey Castillo on drums.

    The drumming is ferocious. But check the studio version to appreciate every single beat of what is technically very complex drumming indeed.

  9. Fred1

    I’ve been a drummer for a long time.

    The “pocket” was what I always strove for, but only reached coincidentally, and never as often as I would have liked. And even when I found it I couldn’t stay there for very long. Something would happen to break the spell.

    For me it was effortlessly without reflection playing every note that needed to be played exactly where it was supposed to be played.

    I never could give it a name but I knew it when I was there and hated it when I wasn’t. Really the search for it is the sole reason I both play and listen to music.

    Your link to “oceanic” is the first time I have ever heard that word of art. Thank you, it is a great description.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > I’ve been a drummer for a long time.

      The NC commentariat is the best commentariat.

      Christopher Alexander has the concept of “a quality without a name” in architecture: “The quality without a name appears … when an entire system of patterns, interdependent at many levels, is all stable and alive.

  10. ChiGal

    this wouldn’t be complete without something from the source: all these guys drew their inspiration from the blues. this is one of my favorite Muddy Waters recordings, with Calvin Jones on bass and the legendary Willie Smith on drums. James Cotton on harp and Pinetop Perkins on piano round out the lineup.

    Willie Smith was known for his laid back in the pocket Chicago shuffle back beats. Interestingly, he played a right-handed kit left-handed.

    just listen to them swing and it’ll put a smile on your face!

  11. Andrew

    I hear the Rolling Stones as one of those old hit and miss gasoline engines; It is spinning shafts and babbitt bearings, dripping oil and hot muffler pipe; and then theres the heavy flywheel, Charlie and Keith, with that infernal torque driving it forward.

  12. Tinky

    As opposed to rock, I grew up in the ’70s listening to funk, soul, and (later) jazz. If you want a taste of one of the finest drummer/bassist combos to ever ‘fill a pocket’, check out Mike Clark and the late Paul Jackson, best known for their work with Herbie Hancock in the ’70s.

    Here’s a link to a ~nine minute video of the two of them jamming together in 2010:

  13. Frank Dean

    I have no insight into drumming, but perhaps it’s worth noting that the Watts-Jagger punch occurred during the years (1983-86) when Charlie Watts was having his most serious substance abuse problems. He was absent for many tracks on Dirty Work, which may help explain the weakness of the recording. Anyway, Richards is always ready to take the piss out of Jagger.

    Those who haven’t read the journalist (not the bass player) Bill Wyman’s review of Keith Richards’ autobiography expressed as an imaginary letter from Jagger might enjoy a chuckle:

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > (1983-86) when Charlie Watts was having his most serious substance abuse problems

      Good point. But Jagger’s business dealings are pretty sketchy, too. Perhaps the two issues were intertwined; being a celebrity creates a lot of problems (which is why we need more artists and fewer celebrities).

  14. juno mas

    The entrance to Music/Drama building at my community college, where I play my music, says: The Arts are not a Hobby

    If you could see the effort and passion and creativity of the actors, singers, big bands, jazz combos, and instructors (some in their 70’s) you would be inspired, Lambert.

    Learning an instrument, even without formal music training, is a lifelong endeavor—Charlie Watts is the norm. Music is forever!

    Start now!

  15. Martin Oline

    Thanks for this piece on Charlie. I recently saw a film about the bassist Ron Carter on TV and really enjoyed the third clip with the extended bass solo. I think Charlie enjoyed it too. This is a link to a Zigaboo Modeliste clip on playing the drums that some may enjoy. He was a founding member of the Meters and was the drummer on Kieth Richards’ very short, ill-fated attempt to tour Canada. Zigaboo

  16. JBird4049

    Control issues? You mean that doing almost anything else but finance, real estate, politics, or the security state means living on starvation wages? Actually 90% of all excepting government bureaucracy, which has been cut to the bone, is BS make work paid with paper money, not taxes.

  17. ChrisRUEcon

    Thanks for this! Rekindling drummer of sorts here. I initially became a drummer in high school because the band my pals were forming already had a bassist … :)

    Thanks for the “in the pocket” definition. It’s one of those things that will differentiate AI music from human. Beato has a great video on this, where he talks about how it all began with Cher and autotune … LOL … which is something I actually believed myself. Electronic (and electronically produced) music is quantized and exact, a highly sanitized and exact affair. The “pocket” is about feel and nuance, the latter being something that from a vocals perspective, horrid autotuning has robbed an entire generation of be able to discern.


    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > sanitized

      Big stacks of Marshall amps. That is the way to go. Looking through the definitions for “pocket” I was stunned how many times the metronome was mentioned, and how the idea of a hand playing “in time” was everybody on the same metronome beat. As opposed to playing with time, which I suppose the musicians we’re all enthusiastic about are doing.

  18. El-Slobbo

    Funny thing, there are quite a few of those Lisa Fischer performances on YouTube and quite a few of those feature a version of the very same Keith Richards sly, amazed smile at Lisa Fisher’s pyrotechnics.
    They seem to out their performances in advance, in great detail.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, the smile is well-deserved!

      (I looked through a number of YouTubes for one that had both the “Charlie” chant and the Richards’ grin. There seem to be various cuts, some with one, some with the other, but this was the only one with both.

      Anyhow, nobody ever said the Stones weren’t consummate professionals (in a good way) except when they were loaded or wrecked. I don’t know why addiction is such an issue in the field; jazz musicians, too, obviously.

  19. tawal

    If you want the pocket drum, check out Hey Negrita. If you want 1st beat, instead of 3rd, the front beat, antithesis, check out Live With Me.
    If you want to know why Mick called Charlie his drummer, listen to both…

  20. tawal

    If you want mastery of pocket: Check out Lenny White and Stanley Clarke on Chick Corea’s, No Mystery album

  21. Monosynapsis

    Here are a few pointers ( I play African percussions and music since decades with serious commitment).

    What is discussed here under the vague monnikers of ‘pocket’, swing and groove are essentially concepts of microtiming which are quintessential to african music and of which *some* rudimental parts have been inherited by the afro-american culture. More has been preserved in the other afro heritages of especially the Caribbean (Cuba!) and Brazil(Maracatu!). Also it could be argued that during the 80ies there has been an own idiosyncratic development in the US with the mpc and its decendents ( Roger Linns swing knob) leading to classic hiphop timings (which can be expressed as quintuplet based).
    To explain the background of microtiming would require fare more than this platform would allow, but here is the gist of it: african music is essentially polyrhythmic, meaning that both the binary and the ternary subdivisions are present at all times. It is like playing with two underlying timing grids at the same time. These two grids create a strong tension between them, a kind of rhythmic dissonance, which then is also resolved at some point in the rhythm. Basically the western harmonic concept of tension and resolution applied to rhythms. According to the tradition, the context, mood and artists endless timing variations manifest themselves in Africa, of which shuffle and Da Pocket are a US subset ( to us african musicians these feelings are crystal clear and precise, no vague termini needed).
    2 vs 3 is the source of this vast creative stream.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > two underlying timing grids at the same time

      This is extremely neat! The platform does permit reasonably long comments, but failing that, could you provide some links?

      1. Monosynapsis

        Seeing that there are quite a few knowledgeable pple and musicians(!) here I’ll try my best to be as succint and yet informative as I can.

        Lets rigourously distinguish the theoretical metalayer (western notation(= deficient in this regard) XOR mathematical models(computational analysis(=>reductionism) from the rootsy practical layer (=> how it is played,learned) and internalised(!!).

        binary and ternary grid present at the same time. The pulse (= ‘beat’) stays invariably the same. We arent concerned with the pulse but its *subdivisions*.

        Binary subdivision in 16ths would be: 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a (all events evenly spaced)
        Ternary subdivision of the *same space* would be counted as: 1ea 2ea 3ea 4ea (all events evenly spaced)

        These are the two grids. Both of them are present at all times.

        Theoretically one could now place any musical event on any of these gridlines. This is well known and present to some degree in western classical music (triplets/quintuplets/septuplets etc.). But what is now african is to merge both of these grids dynamically, creating a new hybrid grid which reflects both some binary and some ternary aspects. So, for example the ‘e’ of the binary grid gets pushed a bit towards its ternary twin (= delayed), the & stays the same (middle/half of the beat) and the ‘a’ gets also pulled towards its ternary shadow (accelerated/anticipated), all this whilst playing binary 16ths, but now every second 16th note is either delayed or accelerated a bit. This is now the ‘new’ grid on which every musician in the group places musical events.

        This is now a new subdivion grid. The one I’ve described is very common in gnawa music from Morocco and with slight variations in Samba and Maracatu in Brazil.

        See here for a nice theoretical approach/visualization =>


        In africa we have no theory. By this I mean that noone learns music by placing some MIDI notes on a grid, then moves them back or forth in a DAW by some mseconds, extrapolates it and then starts to compose. This is purely analytical and at best experimental. What you learn is the mircotiming grid of your geographical place and era by listening and playing with others. Like dialects. Nawlins second line push and pull, Memphis Drag, Mississipi Hill country shuffling, Nashville Train beats… these are all very precise regional microtiming patterns which can only be learned through exposure and absorbtion. Dialects. If we want to learn we need to listen and replicate. A million times over.

        But practicing irregular (often called ‘irrational’ in western music theory (!!)) subdivision patterns in a methodical way (you pick some gnawa or maracatu 16ths) is a very good approach to get into it. Just programm your DAW and start counting in this new weird way for some time. Then play all the grooves you now on it and see what happens.

        *****and then ****

        and then these grids are elastic:

        Tempo : as a rule of thumb, the faster it gets, the straighter it becomes (straight = binary)
        the slower it gets the more dramatic the shifts between ternary and binary tend to become, more tension, more weirdness.

        *****and more****

        in a pop/rock setting (coming finally to Charlie Watts now) subtle hints of this push/pull interplay can (must) be introduced: playing on top of the beat, in front of it , or behind it by a subtle amount introduce hints of this polyrhythmic approach. Usually called ‘in the pocket’. Rock/Pop aint polyrhythmic, but a little pulling here and some pushing there manipulate the spacetime , creating what we call ‘the groove’.

        Further Listening/reading from a US centered approach:

        Quest Love (D’angelo)
        Scott Kettner
        Stanton Moore

        Sorry if this is all obtuse and confused…it isnt easy at all to express.

        1. Janie

          I’m going to bookmark, forward and email this column, then put it on my home screen. (Amateur on piano and a couple of other thingies). Thanks for this and thanks to Lambert and to all.

    2. Lex

      I’ve been a fan of African music for a long time (though, man, using a genre term like “African” is so imprecise). The genres within it are incredibly diverse but polyrhythms seem to span them all, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is those polyrhythms that attract me. In a lot of cases even the melody instruments like guitars function as rhythm instruments, I find this particularly the case in South African music. It’s still there in Afrobeat, but true Nigerian afrobeat is so heavily influenced by English jazz that some of the polyrhythms seem to rounded off. Which is not to say that Fela couldn’t or wouldn’t go deeply into them.

      Your point about the African roots of American popular music is well taken. I’m fascinated by how African musical forms transited the Atlantic, mixed with other forms and then came back to Africa in the 40’s and beyond to be remixed. The African nature of Caribbean music (Afro-Caribbean) is pretty obvious to an interested ear, blended as it is with Spanish forms (themselves heavily influenced by North Africa) and then being reworked as Congolese rhumba and similar is fascinating.

      No popular music in America is free of african influence. After all, the banjo is an african instrument and is the rhythm heaviest of all the stringed instruments.

      1. Louiedog14

        I was a guitar player for a long time. Not a great soloist or singer, but I was a pretty damn good rhythm player. We played mostly ‘Americana’ with an emphasis on pre-war blues. I would simply “define” the pocket as that place where people stop standing around and start moving their hips without thinking about it. In my early days I would practice by playing along to Fela records. Deceptively simple guitar parts, but try nailing it perfectly for every second of a 12 or 15 minute song. Taught me a lot about finding and nailing the pocket.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > I would simply “define” the pocket as that place where people stop standing around and start moving their hips without thinking about it.

          That is an excellent operational definition! (Of course, I’m a WASP, so moving my hips without thinking about it is really not in my cultural repertoire, but I see what you mean.)

        2. Mikel

          As a guitar player, I found the time spent playing drums in the marching band extremely beneficial.
          With western harmony there are twelve notes, but infinite rhythms.
          And it’s the space between the notes that makes music and music genres what they are. It’s the space between the notes that even make melodies what they are.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Nigerian afrobeat

        I went through a phase where I was listening to a good deal of Nigerian “High Life” music, which was eminently danceable. I don’t know, however, if I was therefore listening to “microtiming.”

        1. Monosynapsis

          Of course, its just that all musicians sit on the same ‘micro’ grid and take their liberties whith it whenever they feel or adhere very tightly at other moments. As long as the whole ensemble stays coherent at all times. The whole group creates its own ‘microtiming’ space, and this sounds very coherent, not weird at all. Thats also the point.

          Now analyze Fela with a computer and try to place them on a rigid grid……

      3. Monosynapsis

        Indeed, as an african musician my whole life has been a continous virtual interplay with the americas and beyond; a transatlantic dialogue from the slave ships to the inernet. Fascinating, humbling, frustrating and euphorizing.

  22. Lex

    As a devotee of the One, I’d like to mention Clyde Stubblefield. That man made James Brown dance through arguably the most pivotal years of James’s sound (66-70). That man could pick any pocket with his ghost notes. And Hames was always dancing in the pocket. From hips to knees he was on the beat, but from the knees down was Junco pocket deep.

    1. Eureka Springs

      Thanks for that. Talk about neglected appreciation of the very best, Clyde! Everyone knows the Pee Wee, Fred, Maceo names, but who knew Clyde?

      I was fortunate to get to see Charlie play his last U.S. tour in Chicago and then the Stones in their first show (St. Louis) after Charlie passed. Charlies favored replacement (and surely Keith as well) Steve Jordan, knocked it in the pocket.

      Is it a bridge too far to say Ray Charles struggled madly to get the slow, deepest pocket of all out of his drummers? I mean Ray took it to another level. The Socks?

      1. playon

        I read that Ray Charles’ band would dread how slowly he would count off some of his slower material. It is much harder to keep time on an extremely slow tune than it is on music that has a quicker tempo. His band was so good that they could do it and still stay tight.

        Clyde Stubblefield was a fantastic drummer, but James Brown had many great drummers.

    2. Delta6149

      Glad you mentioned Clyde and the One, which permeated Browns and Parliament/Funkadelic, for whom Stubblefield also plays drums. Give the drummer some!

  23. Michael Fiorillo

    Drums, and time kept every which way?

    Elvin Jones, on Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland.”

  24. John Beech

    What a delightful story, and my thanks for bringing it to my attention, Lambert. Don’t know that anything like it would otherwise ever come within my ken.

  25. Phichibe

    Hi Lambert,

    I love the digression/diversion from the finance that is NC’s raison d’etre. Charlie and Ringo were/are consummate musicians who practiced an economy in their playing (and their kits – both played small jazz sets, despite drummers like Ginger Baker going to double kicks by the late 60s, Carl Palmer and Billy Cobham playing giant kits that look like a drum shop) that makes it immediately obvious when a drummer is in the pocket vs. when they’re not. I first learned of the Charlie Watts Big Band back in the 80s and found a CWBB CD back at Amoeba Music in California in the 90s. Sublime. Nothing was overplayed, just tasteful jazz in the Ellington mode. Also, Charlie’s passion was such that he used his Rolling Stone money to subsidize his big band, covering the salaries of his musicians.

    Plus I love the anecdote about Charlie’s right hook. I read Keef’s book when it came out and a friend gave me a copy, and it’s a total delight. Even though Keef had a ghost writer (I think) his voice comes through completely and he even explains his playing and composing techniques. Keef wrote that Charlie was his ultimate quality check on his song ideas: when Keef would bring a draft new song to the band, if Charlie couldn’t find a groove to it then it was abandoned. If Charlie couldn’t find a pocket, there was no pocket to be found.



  26. Watt4Bob

    I think it was Bootsy Collins that once said, about playing bass;

    “Hit the one, and after that, you can do anything you want.

    I’ve played a lot of bass, one of the joys of finding oneself in the pocket is the feeling of being perfectly in sync with not only the band, but every dancer’s butt in the room. The visual confirmation is quite impressive when you see it from the stage.

    I think that syncretism is a nice concept that can shed some light on the whole issue of poly rthyms and the various places musicians can choose to play within even ‘simple’ time signatures.

    I like definition 2;

    the fusion of two or more originally different inflectional forms

    One of the meanings of “inflection” being to bend.

    Good musicians can ‘bend’ time.

    1. .Tom

      Bootsy! What a hero.

      That album “Tha Funk Capital Of The World” disappeared from the streaming services. I wonder why. A copyright claim with one of those many samples, perhaps.

  27. Adam Eran

    JFYI, the bass drum hits the lowest notes humans can hear, then the bass directs the ear to certain harmonics, guitar, keys and vocalists surf along the harmonics with chords and a melody, and finally the cymbals hit the highest audible notes. When the entire auditory spectrum hits your ears with this kind of comprehensive direction, you have experienced what “in the pocket” means.

    My personal fave pop music “in the pocket” is Dr. John’s New Orleans music “Gumbo” with Freddie Staehle – drums, percussion

    Also, for more New Orleans music, don’t miss The Meters, with drummer Zigaboo Modaliste.

    Then there’s Nicholas Peyton’s tribute: Zigaboogaloo

    For Jazz in the pocket: Chameleon (Harvey Mason on drums, Herbie Hancock)

    Or George Duke’s drummer on “It’s On“. Holy Mackerel! (and I can’t find the drummer’s name, but the bass player is Christian McBride)

    Finally, Drummer Taylor Moore gathers some incredible New Orleans musicians to play Herbie Hancock’s Driftin’

    …and yeah, Charlie Watts was OK

  28. marku52

    Jeff Pevar (guitarist for Ray Charles tour band) told me a good one:

    ‘It takes a pretty dammed good drummer to be better than no drummer”

    The destructive power of a bad drummer can only be rivaled by the sound man (I was one….)

    Dave Grohl : “dude, if your drummer sucks, your band sucks.”

    True that.

  29. Mikel

    “Drummers can exhibit even subtler levels of rhythmic shading. Listen closely to Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” and you’ll notice on the verses that Al Jackson Jr.’s snare lags slightly behind the rest of the kit, so the feel is more languid than on the chorus. It’s a matter of milliseconds, but it makes an enormous difference in the emotional dynamic…”

    Listen to Al Green’s phrasing and the same sense of time is there. He’s the type of singer that knows how to let the music breathe.
    It’s a quality that’s missing from the pin it to the grid and edit vocals in a lot of current music.

  30. doily

    I think these two lads do a nice hands-on job asking and answering the questions:

    It takes two to create the pocket (even if the two are the drummer’s foot and his right hand). Somebody establishes the beat. To be in the pocket is to be tucked in behind the beat. It’s more powerful, heavier, than playing in perfect unison. In unison, some sounds are covered over, they disappear. Keith establishes the beat, and Charlie’s in his pocket. In the 80s, Irish fiddler kevin Burke used a digital delay to double up his fiddle melodies. He put himself in his own pocket. It sounded cool.

    Then there is the counter example of Stewart Copeland of The Police. When he pushed ahead ever so slightly, adding energy and urgency, he was not in the pocket.

  31. Savita

    I’ll share a general comment which will find its mark amongst the deep respect and love for music to be found here, of both emotional and technical interpretation.
    A book recommendation for you:

    The Musical Human
    Michael Spitzer
    (A History of Life on Earth)

    A link for visual reference:

    I must say its not light reading! It’s dense and requires a solid attention span!
    in the start of the book the author makes some great, and huge, distinctions between rhythm and melody in the West, compared to the rest of the world. And is utterly despairing of the fate of music in the West. Not because pop music is bad, or anything like that. He is viewing from a generational and historical lenses. Random observation, according to the author, hardly any indigenous groups in Africa have a word for ‘music’ as the West would define it.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Danny Richmond played drums with Mingus for decades, and played with greater subtlety and swing than any of the rockers mentioned in these comments or the article itself; he deserves a shout-out, too.

  32. Savita

    Slightly tangential
    What do you think about Meg White the drummer for White Stripes? Received a lot of aggro for her simple naive, childlike drumming. Constrat with the giant of Jack Whites musicianship. Did the critics complete miss the point? What do the better educated here think

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