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Thread: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

  1. #1
    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    After several years of lessons from different teachers, I find I’m clueless when it comes to participating in a jam. I’ve read articles on the subject of jam etiquette, and, of course, have read opinions in the Forum, such as “Speaking of etiquette, I should point out that no one in the musical circles that I run in likes to see folks bring a music stand and a pile of sheet music to an informal jam! It's just not done, sorry.” Helpful as such comments are, I find I need to organize my learning in a way that will help me develop good jam(ming?) skills. I’m hoping others can learn from this thread.

    I don’t know what I don’t know, but here’s what I’m thinking is possibly a list of skills, in a logical order, to start the conversation. Most musicians starting out probably don’t need this kind of structure, or possibly they have teachers that instruct them in the proper order. Having had no structure for 6 years, I find it’s time I do.

    Please give your comments in the context of advising a beginner, who would be attending a “friendly” jam. That’s all I’m looking for in compiling this list, not that I should find a different teacher, etc.

    1. Keeping the beat, whether playing melody or chords
    2. Playing (melody/chords) from memory (or seamlessly from written music???) when you have the lead
    3. Movable chords
    4. Interesting strum patterns
    5. Tremolo
    6. Improvise
    7. Double stops
    8. Crosspicking

    What changes to this order would you make and what skills would you add? I find I’ve done some of all of this but have only (possibly) mastered #1. Going forward, I’m thinking I should be more focused in my learning.

    If I’ve inadvertently embarrassed myself with this post, it won’t be the first time, I’m sure!

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  3. #2
    not a donut Kevin Winn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    I would add being an active listener to the list. Lots of times I see folks that get entrenched in their own head/instrument and miss a lot of what's going on. One of the wonderful things about playing with others is that connection.

    Here's a list of the "Ten Jammandments" from the Taborgrass program:

    https://hughcan.com/taborgrass/exerc...mmandments.pdf
    "Keep your hat on, we may end up miles from here..." - Kurt Vonnegut

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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Lot of good info here from a jamming group in Portland, OR. http://www.taborgrass.com/p/music.html - Check out the 10 Jam Commandments.

    Many of the things in your list are technique things (Tremolo, Crosspicking, etc). Those things are great to spruce up your playing but are not essential to playing with others. Keeping the beat and knowing Chords and chord changes is more important than having fancy playing. And if you can just play the melody even with single notes that will work!

    Here is an online slow jam lead by Tyler Grant a great guitar player. You could practice playing along and he gives some tips. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnBUU4GCjvQ

    There are also some jam along DVDs put out by Homespun where they teach you some of the rules. I also saw a zoom class offered here in the classifieds, so there is some opportunity for "formal" education around jamming.

    Slow jams and beginner jams you will see people with music books or sheets and it is not a cardinal sin. You just need to poke around and see what feels right. If you look and no one has music and they are playing fast in keys/chords you don't know its probably not the right jam for you for now.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin Winn View Post
    I would add being an active listener to the list. Lots of times I see folks that get entrenched in their own head/instrument and miss a lot of what's going on. One of the wonderful things about playing with others is that connection.

    Here's a list of the "Ten Jammandments" from the Taborgrass program:

    https://hughcan.com/taborgrass/exerc...mmandments.pdf
    Beat me to it.

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    For beginners, keeping the beat is a great starting place, then getting the right chords (three chords will get you through many tunes without annoying others -- and I'd include double stops with the chording, even if they're not literally chords). In a jam, when they offer you a solo (usually by giving you a nod of the head or saying "Mandolin!"), if you're not ready, just shake your head, "No." When you've jammed enough that you're comfortable with the basics, then start concentrating on other issues. Listen to the folks around you. When you've got the beat, ask what's the rhythm? It's acceptable, even appreciated, to drop out of the playing and listen, when you're not getting it, even to join back in again as you catch on. The order of the rest of your list depends greatly on what you know already. You'll learn as you jam. You'll get used to how others solo or use tremolo, and then you'll be able to experiment. If you're in with a good crowd, they won't mind a train wreck now and then. You can even jam with videos on YouTube and imitate the solos to get a sense of how they work. I told a woman who was very shy about singing at a Traditional Songs gathering to watch what happened when others made mistakes. Usually people sat quietly and respectfully, waiting for the singer to recover. When we did tease people, it was a compliment, showing that we'd often heard the particular singer do much better, and we accepted that they make mistakes. This helped her relax. You're going to the jam to have fun. Don't be overly ambitious at the beginning. Experience will enhance your skills. (I'm taking here about a friendly jam with players of varying abilities, not pulling up a chair and joining a group of elite musicians.) By the way, I'm close enough to being a beginning jammer to remember the process.

    And a tip I learned from the Forum: if you don't get the key, ask the guitar player. If he or she widens her lips and seems to grin, the key is either B,C,D, E, or G.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Thanks for all these great comments and resources.

  10. #6

    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    I'm not totally sure where you are starting from, but I will assume you can play at least basic chords in common keys.

    This the progression I recall from learning how to survive in a jam:

    Phase 1: Playing along with the chords for simple(r) tunes. No breaks, no song-leading.

    If you can do this, you are successfully participating in a jam! The key to this is knowing what the key is, and what chords are being played. Generally the song leader should announce this, and at least point the basic chord progression. One extremely useful thing to do is position yourself so that you can see a guitar player and learn how to read from their hand position what chord is being played. Obviously this is easier if you already play guitar a little bit. If you don't play guitar, this is still a skill worth learning and you can definitely pick it up. You can also watch another mandolin player, although a lot of players use chord variations and due to the size of the instrument it can be harder to see what others are playing. Part of this is also learning what key you are in by looking at the guitar player. Capo second fret, playing G,C,D chords - ok that is the key of A. This little bit of music theory goes a long way.

    Developing your ear for chord changes, in addition to the visual cues, will start to happen as you jam more, and will make things simpler. There are also only a handful of common chord progressions that cover 80-90% of jam tunes and you will start to recognize these over time.

    In order to successfully play along, you need to be able to play in different keys. So this means learning the 1-4-5 chords at least in the most common keys (G, A, D to start, B,E,C, Bb next, other keys are less common in bluegrass/folk etc). You can do this with movable chords so it's a lot simpler than it sounds. If it's a bluegrass jam, the basic chop chords are the most useful.

    The only way to get better at this is to practice - I would encourage anyone to just go to jams as much as they can and just try to chord along and keep up.

    Phase 2: Taking a break

    For this, the key is to a) learn to play a scale and b) be brave Learn the basic scale in the keys mentioned above (G, A, D) and wait for a simple song in one of these keys. When it's your turn.... just dive in and play something. If you know and can play the melody, that's great! Otherwise, just stay within the scale, and try to end on the root note. It is totally ok if you suck at this the first time, or the first 50 times you do it. I still suck after 100s or 1000s of times Eventually though you will get better and better at creating something that sounds ok.

    Personally, I think it makes it harder (at this point) if you try to memorize a break for a specific song, however if you can do this it and it works for you, give it a shot.

    Phase 3: Leading a song or tune

    This is the hardest one and can be nerve-wracking. The advice to be brave also applies here! Pick a song you know well. Think a bit beforehand how you will manage other people's breaks in your song. If there are 10 people in the jam and 2 verses, then you can fit 5 breaks after each chorus, for instance. From the previous phases you should be familiar with the etiquette in your jam about how breaks are managed. Most jams seem to go around the circle and give everyone a chance to play it. The song leader is usually in charge of this - look at the person to your left and make eye contact just before their turn to see if they want to take a break.

    Practice playing the song beforehand and make sure you practice playing sections without words to allow other people to play breaks. Humming the words to yourself under your breath can help you keep your place in the tune.

    One tip for picking easy songs to lead are ones that have the same chorus and verse chords. This makes it simpler to remember which part you're on during other people's breaks

    There's no rule or timeline for these phases, and they might not apply to everyone of course.

    Good luck.. and the most important thing is to have fun !

    Edit: one point to the original poster, in terms of skills to develop - by far the best way to practice jamming is to jam. All of the playing skills are things you can use at a jam, but you only get better at playing with others by playing with others. Certainly practicing repertoire so that you can contribute to a jam is helpful and important, but that is really a means to an end.
    Last edited by hogansislander; Mar-12-2021 at 6:24pm. Reason: add a point at the end

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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Developing a good ear and being able to hear the song structure just by listening. It’s nice to listen to a song and hear the changes and know the structure without playing a note. So it’s the same structure regardless of key. Like listening to a tune and hearing that the structure is 1-4-5 or whatever, hearing a 2 minor or a 1-6-2-5 change. Most traditional, folk, bluegrass, blues tunes keep to a pretty basic structure. Like what Howard Roberts said “it’s just three chords and the truth”. Listening to music you’ll hear a 1-4-5 change, so key of G that’s G C D... key of A it’s A D E so on and so forth and naturally more jazzier tunes structures advance chord wise. Speak out each number while practicing your major and minor scales. That way you begin to hear and learn where the 1234567 notes are located taking you to the second octave and you start to see a sharp 5 or flat 9 isn’t as complicated as they may sound

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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Here is a YouTube video from pacificbluegrass.ca on how to lead a song in a bluegrass jam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doqTagfUafc

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    Registered User Jon Hall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Sherry, 1 and 2 are essential. 3 and 4 are preferred. Being able to play 3 finger movable chords, or even double stops from the chord tones, will enable you to play in a variety of keys. Varying the rhythm can be as simple as one and-a, two and-a is more interesting than one and, two and.
    5, 7 and 8 can be added as your skill set allows. Improvisation is a bit advanced in my opinion.

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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Another recommendation for Brad Laird’s Ten Jammandments referenced in Hank’s post in the newbies group...
    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/g...517&do=discuss

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    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jon Hall View Post
    Sherry, 1 and 2 are essential. 3 and 4 are preferred. Being able to play 3 finger movable chords, or even double stops from the chord tones, will enable you to play in a variety of keys. Varying the rhythm can be as simple as one and-a, two and-a is more interesting than one and, two and.
    5, 7 and 8 can be added as your skill set allows. Improvisation is a bit advanced in my opinion.
    Jon, you know me too well.

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    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Quote Originally Posted by NDO View Post
    Another recommendation for Brad Laird’s Ten Jammandments referenced in Hank’s post in the newbies group...
    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/g...517&do=discuss
    I had forgotten I bumped that thread just the other day.

  22. #13

    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Go to the jam without expectations of what others will expect - heck other than #1 I know people who have played for ages that don’t know most of the stuff on your list.

    Although some may frown on it bring music if you need it, you can always ditch it later on when you’re more comfortable/knowledgeable. If the group as a whole - or anyone really - looks down on you for bringing music then politely ignore them and look for another group.

    Numbers 3 and 4 are good to have in your skill set as they make things more interesting but be aware that some may say - that ain’t the way it’s done - and again, politely ignore them.

    You’ll find that most are happy to have new people, excited to watch you progress, and will probably learn a thing or two from you. Do bring a paper and pen - or use your phone - to make note of the tunes played and keys. Then you can go and practice some and be ready to participate more like taking a break or singing the chorus, etc.

    Check out the local music scene, inquire at the local retirement homes, music stores, etc for leads and have fun. Chances are you’ll meet others who would be interested in getting together for music. Before Covid I went to a regular jam and after awhile became friends with one of the guitar players and we would get together for about an hour a week on the side.

    There is a YouTube channel called Bluegrass Backing Tracks that is really nice to play along with, you can let the videos play in random order and practice chording along if you don’t know the tune...just like you will in the jam.
    Northfield F5M #268, AT02 #7

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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    When I was first getting into mandolin, I participated in some bluegrass jams by standing next to the bass player(s), and chopping the chords to the songs, getting the changes from watching the guitar players and not taking any breaks. Learned a lot of common bluegrass songs that way. Stood there for hours. My wife did the same on her guitar. Got up to speed with it quickly. Nothing like "real world" immersion.

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    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    These are really great comments and I've copied them to Word for future reference. It occurred to me I have Brad Laird's Jam Session Survival. Bought it when I first started, and, of course, it was Greek to me at that time. I've signed up for an "Acoustical Gospel Jam" taking place next Saturday. In addition to applying some of the suggestions, I believe I'll find some of Brad's selections on YouTube and play along using his chords. I'll use Transcribe! if I need to change a key. And I'll take his book with me to the jam.

    Question: Is it acceptable not to "chop" along with bluegrass tunes, but, rather, just play the chords?

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    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Quote Originally Posted by hogansislander View Post
    Here is a YouTube video from pacificbluegrass.ca on how to lead a song in a bluegrass jam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doqTagfUafc
    Just watched this and it is excellent. There's one word he said that may have been "break," but was maybe something else. He says it's important to say if it's over the verse or over the chorus. Any ideas as to what he's talking about? I listened several times, but it just wasn't clear.

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    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Most songs have a verse and chorus, sometimes the same chords/melody, sometimes different. Good to play over the right chord changes.

    A standard corny jam joke, when verse/chorus are the same, is to say ‘play whichever one you want’. It was bad once and doesn’t age well.
    Play it like you mean it

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    Mandolin Player trodgers's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Sherry, I've really enjoyed your recent adventure with your Weber and am glad you have found someplace to get out and play. We're rooting for you!

    I'll share a few reflections on my experiences at jams back when it all was new to me. I had a passing familiarity with bluegrass, old time and the usual gospel standards. At the time, I was still very new to mandolin, and my ensemble playing experience was limited to high school band and fumbling around with 3 chords around a campfire. I only could play G,C,D and Em reliably. I started going to a BG/Old time jam at a local pizza place. I was lucky to sit next to another mando player who kept me up on what key the song was in. It was pretty clear I wasn't going to be calling any tunes, sing or take any solo breaks. I played on the songs that I could, quietly strumming, as I couldn't chop yet. With a capo at hand, I could capo up two and play along with the A,D,E and F#m stuff. I worked at just keeping the tempo, learning to recognize the chord changes as they came, and getting the feel of how players signal to each other while playing. It was an invaluable learning experience for me.

    My advice would be take what you need to play. If that means a music stand, notebook, song sheets; use them if it helps you. Lots of mandolin players will poo-poo the idea of using a capo, but at that stage of the game, it was helpful allowing me to play on songs I would have otherwise had to sit out. And don't be shy about sitting out if a song is unfamiliar or too fast. Better to watch, listen, learn and just enjoy than to muddle something up. Have fun!
    “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.” -- Aldo Leopold

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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Very new jammer here. I am fortunate enough to play with a very understanding group. I make it a point to lock on to the guitar player who keeps the best rhythm and sit across from him or her to follow their pace and chord changes. When I don’t get the chords, I use the universal chop, basically suppress the courses to be more snare drum-like and maintain the rhythm.

    Very early on I was told to never pass on a break. It was really embarrassing to not have a clue and just be playing scales in the tune’s key. Nobody cared too much.
    With time, I am playing breaks with arpeggios rather than scales but still don’t know many of the tunes called.

    Mostly, have fun. I don’t drink in bars and I never eat fried food. We jammed at a sports bar until the current insanity. A beer, comfort food and chilling with musicians is just a darn good way to spend an afternoon.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Sherry OMG if I could only find a jam where most folks had that skill set. Wow.

    Much easier than you are thinking. A jam is just folks playing music together, thats it.

    What I would do is to go to the jam you are thinking of attending, with your instrument. And introduce yourself to the folks and let them know you are just listening tonight, but plan to play in the future as soon as you feel ready. Then listen. What tunes do they play? How do they pass the tunes around? Is there a printed list? Is it organized by key? Is there printed sheet music? Do folks play from sheet music or by ear or both? Is there a leader, and does he/she lead for some reason (the host of the gathering) or maybe there is no leader. Just absorb information. Maybe ask if you can use your little digital recorder or your cell phone to record a tune or two to learn for next time.

    Keep coming back, (weekly, monthly whatever) with your instrument and keep listening. When you feel up to it, take out the instrument and play along. If not, don't.


    I think there is no way to be prepared and there is certainly few as prepared as you imagine. Have fun. Make new friends. All that stuff. Enjoy. At the end of the day it should be fun. Exciting, yea, perhaps some performance anxiety, but it should always be fun.
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    There is a great book about jamming and jam etiquette, "Play Well With Others: A Musician's Guide to Jamming like a Pro", by Martha Haehl.

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    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    The DrBanjo.Com site has lots of good jamming info.

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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Homespun has something for everyone.

    https://www.homespun.com/shop/produc...-complete-set/
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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  42. #24
    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    Quote Originally Posted by Sherry Cadenhead View Post
    I've signed up for an "Acoustical Gospel Jam" taking place next Saturday.
    I attended this jam today. I didn't take my mandolin since my husband had returned home yesterday from a short hospital stay and I didn't want to stay long. Was glad to make some observations.

    There were about 15 musicians: 9 guitars, 2 dobros, 1 each fiddle, ukulele, banjo, and my friend Laurie Baker with her mandolin. Half of them had music stands and appox half of them took a turn at the lead. Maybe a third played a solo. This group was not intimidating at all. I can play easily from written notation, and with others having music stands feel I can hold my own. One of my challenges has to do with timing - turning over the lead and taking it back.

  43. #25
    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning to Jam – A Primer?

    But back to my original post and list:

    1. Keeping the beat, whether playing melody or chords
    2. Playing (melody/chords) from memory (or seamlessly from written music???) when you have the lead
    3. Movable chords
    4. Interesting strum patterns
    5. Tremolo
    6. Improvisation
    7. Double stops
    8. Crosspicking

    Considering today's group (per my previous post), the only things on this list that would be important would be #s 1 & 2 (but not from memory necessarily). Movable chords would be helpful, but not required. Interesting strum patterns wouldn't even be heard in this group of 15. Everyone, when he/she had the lead, sang and played chords. If I, in the lead, played an instrumental instead, tremolo, double stops and/or crosspicking would make the piece more interesting, but not required. Improvisation would be useful when taking a break, unless the melody is known and can be played. Would love to get to that point.

    Basically, a person who has some, but not a lot of, skills, should get out there, find a group at his/her level to start, then move on when ready to test additional skills.

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