Session Guitarist Explains Problem With Bassists ’Inserting Their Personality Too Much’ in Music, Discusses ’Playing in the Pocket’  

While appearing in an interview with Philip Conrad, session guitar legend Tim Pierce discussed some of the most important things a professional studio musician should always bear in mind. Among other things, Tim — who has worked with some of the biggest names in the world of pop and rock music — touched upon playing “in the pocket.”

Just to clarify, “playing in the pocket” has a somewhat broad definition. But it generally refers to a setting where two or more musicians are hitting perfectly on every first beat. In other words, they’re perfectly synced while also keeping a solid groove.

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Going into the matter, Pierce discussed what it’s like to work in the studio and find the “pocket” with other musicians (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“Hopefully, there’s nobody in the room that has a problem with their pocket. But let’s imagine that there is, and it might be innocently — it might be the songwriter because they play acoustic guitar in a rush. So in that situation, you really are going to want to turn them down in your headphones.”


Of course, things aren’t ever that simple. Sure, you can always use the headphone mix in a professional studio. Then again, Tim also points out how “the guy sitting across from you might be really famous, and that might be hard too.” He then continued:

“And I think it’s really important to make sure that you get your monitor level kind of perfect — not too loud, not too soft — so that when you actually establish your pocket for the first time, you’re not hitting it too hard, you’re not rushing.”

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Explaining what he does, Tim said:

“In my particular situation, I watch your fingers, I look at your body language, and I go, ‘Oh, they’re slightly here, or they’re slightly there.’ Now, what also happens is, you sit down and play and there’s the first few minutes going, and you’re going, ‘The pocket, we’re not gelling, what’s wrong, what’s going on here?'”

“Then I look at myself and what I do is, I go, ‘Okay, the first thing I’m going to try is playing less.’ I leave more space, so I have a chance to discover what about the pocket I need to know to make this gel, right?”

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Sharing an example, Tim recalled a couple of drummers he worked with:

“There’s a famous drummer I’ve worked with a lot, named Jim Keltner. He’s an absolute legend. But when he plays a fill, he leaves… It’s free time, it leaves the click, it ignores the click when he plays a fill.”

“Now, when you listen back to that, it’s magical. Same with a guy named Kenny Aronoff, when he plays a fill, he ignores the click a little bit. And when you listen to it, it’s the most emotional, magical thing in the song. So it’s a benefit.”

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And things could really get complicated when you’re coming up with arrangements on the spot and adding some minor semi-improvised changes. In that case, one musician’s fill can sometimes sound good but make the other guy sound as if he made a mistake:

“But the problem is, if I’m strumming acoustic guitar, it makes me sound like I’m out of pocket when the corner happens and he does that fill. So I discovered with Jim Keltner on one session, that when it comes to the two bars before the chorus, instead of strumming I go [strums slowly twice]. And when he lands on the course, and I start strumming again, so that I don’t make a mistake by staying in the pocket when he purposely, emotionally jumps out of the pocket.”

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At the end of the day, it all comes down to adapting to the group of guys that you’re playing with. Tim continued:

“So these are examples. You need to listen, you need to leave space, and then gradually bleed yourself back in. But most of the time, you can go, ‘Oh, this guy’s a little more on top of it’, and you’re right there. Or you can go, ‘This guy’s really laid back’, and you’re right there. With a little bit of experience, it gels no matter what.”

“But there are situations where I would suggest it always sounds good to stop playing basically [laughs], it always sounds good to play a whole note and just rest. So you do that, you listen, and you realize what it is that you have to do to adapt to this person’s lifetime of idiosyncrasy that they’re bringing here. And it might be playing a little on top, a little behind, a little too busy. Whatever it is, you can adapt.”

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During the interview, Pierce also reflected on some of the potential problems that come with bass players who tend to add “too much personality” in the music. Now, this is in no way a jab at bass players. Instead, Tim pointed out that, in most conventional settings, bassists should be serving their designated purpose. As he explained:

“I would say all of us, in a situation where we’re recording a song for a singer, we have to use our instruments in service of the song and the singer. And the thing that would make me not trust a bass player is if they really were concerned with inserting their personality too much.”

“That’s the thing, it’s about orchestration. So trust would mean making me feel at ease, making the drummer feel at ease, having the confidence to actually get it right quickly — which all you guys [bassists] do — and not overplaying.”

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“But that being said, because of the frequency of the bass, you guys [bass players] can overplay as much as you want, and I love busy bass.”

When then asked how you should decide what’s the best for the song if you have 10 great musicians all suggesting great ideas that are supposedly serving the song, Tim replied:

“Everybody offers all the ideas they can, and then it’s usually the artist and or the producer who decides what it should be. And sometimes that is completely hands-off.”

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“I mean, a lot of the great producers I work with are completely hands-off, they let the band grade the parts. There might be a suggestion about guitar tone, changing a part in a section of a song, but the reason we hire you and they hire me is because they can actually trust that we’re going to come up with the right thing, without any worry.”

Photo: Cyberuly (An electric guitarist)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.