How to Be a Good "Jam" Musician




Introduction: How to Be a Good "Jam" Musician

About: I'm from California. I like free stuff, and making apps, music, and music apps.

Summer is the perfect time to hang out with your friends, start a garage (or park bench) band and jam. During recent jams it struck me how not all good musicians can jam well. If any of you have jammed before you have probably experienced someone who can pull out ripping licks, but they don't play WITH the band. They just kinda do their own thing, failing to see the big picture musically. It is the musical equivalent to trying to do a relay race with your eyes closed. You still run, but don't contribute to the team effort (plus your partner is like .............)

That being said, how does one become a good jammer? I will give my ideas and tips in this instructable, feel free to comment any additional ideas.

In my opinion, jamming is the art of faking, so it does not take a seasoned musician to jam (fake) well, a novice can do it.  Don't be afraid to jam because you have only been playing guitar for 2 months or because you dont play an instrument.  Anyone with any instrument can learn to jam, I will gear this instructable however to the guitarist.

Remember, everyone can play the washboard. ;)

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Step 1: The Truth About Jamming

The truth about jamming is that it is REPETITIVE.  This is a good thing and a bad thing.

It is good because that means in most jam sessions you will only need 3 to 4 chords.  This appeals to both beginning musicians and more experienced musicians because the beginning musicians can comfortably rock out with the chords they know and the more advanced ones can focus on the fun stuff like chord transitions, solos, and making good sounds (i.e. feedback)

If you get bored with playing the same three chords over and over again, add something new, be creative.  DONT, however, forget that you are a team player and not a diva.  I will cover this more thoroughly later.

If you are an artsy musician who likes time signature changes, modulations, and funky rhythms every other measure, jamming is not for you. Get some sheet music and join an advanced jazz ensemble.

Step 2: Get Yourself to a Jam Session

You cant jam without other people!  So get it out there that you want to jam.  Join a band!  Talk with local musicians.

Starting a jam session can be tricky if you don't know a lot of musicians but give it a whirl if you want.

Step 3: What to Jam To

The easiest, most universal, and rocking thing you can jam to is the 12 bar blues.

When you are jamming it is ALL ABOUT THE BLUES.   blues blues blues blues.  If you don't know the blues: EAEBAEB, there you know the 12 bar blues.

My point is that the blues chord progression of:
I    IV    I     V     IV    I     V (repeat n times)
is easy to pick up, but can be very technical, melodic, whatever you make it.

If you want examples of melodic, technical, fast, soft blues listen to:
Stevie Ray Vaughan (technical, fast)
B.B. King (melodic, slow)
Jimi Hendrix (melodic, technical)
Eric Clapton (a little bit of everything)

They are widely regarded as great bluesters.  Although there have been MANY others (see John Lee Hooker above)

Very few people can play a Hendrix blues note for note, that is not the idea.  Just listen to it for ideas what a blues master does.

Step 4: Expanding on the Blues Progression

The blues are above all versatile.  You can play a pentatonic scale above it (youtube minor pentatonic blues if you don't know what I'm talking about).  Many artists have expanded on these 3 chords (see Led Zeppelin's "Bring it on Home" off Led Zep 2)  Incidentally, the repeating guitar riff in the beginning of the afore mentioned zeppelin song is, in my opinion, the main guitar lick for starting off the blues.

Even if you are only playing the root chords ( E  A  E  B  A  E  B ), you can still vary things up between repeats.  Make one go real soft and the next one loud, for starters.

Up to this point I am assuming that you are playing blues in E, the most common blues jam key.   You are not limited to this though!  Give A a try!  ( A   D   A   E   D   A   E )

Step 5: NOT Being a Diva

What I mentioned before in the intro can ruin a jam session.  This is most common among electric guitar players.  Here is a list of DON'Ts that will annoy other musicians during a jam.

 -- dont try and do a tapping guitar solo , it is annoying, selfish, and annoying and chances are your not doing it right (I'm not bagging on fledgling tappers, keep it up, but leave it outside when you jam.)
 -- keep the tempo ! It is better to stop playing and regain your place than losing the tempo.  Also be on your guard against speeding up esp. on the guitar.
 -- if you're playing with beginners, dont outdo them too badly.  Its rude.

I feel i should explain the image.  The woman in it was an opera teacher while I was in high school.  I stood in the back row struggling to sing tenor 2 while she sang a big ol' aria.  Heh.

Step 6: Adding Other Instruments

Other instruments are.......INSTRUMENTAL to a jam. Ha.  But seriously, a harmonica, a sax, a violin, piano, string bass (rad), drums can really change the sound of your music.  Give it a try, but avoid the harpsichord and the didgeridoo.

I should say, however, that beginning piano players and beginning guitar players don't mix.  Pianists all want to jam in C and Guitarists prefer A or E.  

Step 7: Other Material to Jam To

There are a lot of songs that EVERYBODY knows (or should know) that, in my experience, are fun to jam to, and easy to pick up.

Riders on the Storm -- The Doors       (plus violin equals awesome)
La Grange -- ZZ Top
Smoke on the Water -- Deep Purple
Purple Haze, Hey Joe, Wild Thing -- Jimi Hendrix Experience
Wipeout -- The Ventures
Highway to Hell, You Shook Me All Night Long -- AC/DC
Money, Comfortably Numb -- Pink Floyd            (Comfortably Numb is a bit tricky)
Just What I needed -- The Cars
Hotel California -- Eagles

Stay away from Metal unless it is simpler (Black Sabbath, Anvil) because metal can get really insane really fast.  You really have to know what you are doing to pull off an Iron Maiden or Pantera Song.  Earlier I defined jamming as "artful faking."  There ain't no way to fake your way through "Run to the Hills"

The Idea with Jamming is not playing a whole song, that is more the performing side of things.  So dont feel obligated to play a bridge or even the complicated half of a chorus.  Just find something that works and develop it into something of your own.

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    4 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Great tips haha, especially about not being a Diva! Like in any "relationship", a jam session lives through mutual respect. I wrote a small article on jamming, too. Would really appreciate your feedback:


    8 years ago on Step 5

    On keeping the tempo constant, I have one caveat that makes sense for me: Likewise, individuals probably shouldn't resist "accelerando" (gradual tempo increase) if everyone is feeling it as a jam gets exciting. A staunch metronome fan can cause jam breakdowns and conflicts by denying natural changes in tempo/feel that routinely occur during jams. I suppose the same applies to "Ritardando" (gradual tempo reduction) in dramatic moments, but probably occurs less frequently.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 5

    its fine if you accelerando or ritard as is natural to the piece but the key is to return to the original tempo. i have this performance in mind that i did of a piece that had lots of natural accelerandos, but we didnt ever relax back to tempo 1. That and lots of coffee made the piece gallop away, kind of a train wreck. But i agree that metronomes are no good. it too electronic and robotic, doesnt feel natural at all.

    also for beginning guitarists, speeding up is a big problem. while more advanced musicians can use lifts in the tempo for expressiveness, for the beginner/intermediate musician trying to be expressive via tempo can be a wreck.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 5

    Hmmm. Not to be contentious, (as you suggest players have to collaborate and play in time as a combo) but I've heard some famous recordings that never return to the original slower tempo after an increase the studio musicians undertake naturally as a group. One can experience this by using modern digital players that allow an instant advance to the final portions of a song with the original slower tempo still ringing in your ears. Of course this works best with [usually pre-digital] recordings that were made without a click track. Skynrd's "Free Bird" maybe? Though I think it's clear in this case that the band planned the acceleration. Can't remember if it slows down again. But in the informal "jams" I've experienced accelerando has been mostly unconscious rather than a device deliberately used by "advanced musicians... for expressiveness" (though such experienced players routinely do so). Whether or not all unplanned accelerandos enhance or diminish particular tunes is open for debate.

    Really my comment is related to an experience with a bassist jam-partner (a metronome devotee) who would actually stick with inflexible determination to the original tempo while the rest of the room was feeling the excitement and speeding up, apparently because he had gotten the impression somewhere that tempo should be set in stone. The result was a pretty rapid crash and ensuing dispute about music theory...