Learn to jam

And I don’t mean strawberry. Going to jams is fun and will make you a better player. Don’t worry about your playing ability. There’s a jam for everyone.

I want to especially encourage women. Most of the jams I go to have few women. It’s not that the guys are always great players, they’re just more confident. I find that with my students, too. Boys learn two chords and they form a band. Girls play alone in their room for a long time.

But I digress. Here are some things to learn about jamming.

Find a jam

Google your city and “blues jam,” “folk jam” or whatever you’re interested in. Look for organizations that specialize in a particular genre. Start your own jam – place an ad on Kijiji or Craig’s List. Start a group at your church or in your neighborhood.

Listen for a little while to find out the guidelines

Some jams are open to everyone, while some have beginners in the outside circle and more experienced players in the center, or maybe beginners at the start and more experienced players later on. Some organizations sponsor slow jams – perfect for beginners. Some will have the experienced players in one room and the beginners in another.

Tune your instrument away from the jam

 Nobody wants to hear you tune while they’re trying to play.

 Do you need sheet music?

I attend a folk jam where everyone brings the music they request and lead. I’ve been to bluegrass jams where they look at you like you’ve got three heads if you pull out music. Generally, at a jazz jam people already know the standards although it helps to call out the key. At blues jams you can call out the form (12 bar, 8 bar, etc) and the key. Singers may need lyrics. Again, every jam is different so observe before you jump in.

What if you don’t know the tune?

Fake it. Find someone who plays your instrument and do your best to follow their fingers. If you can only catch one chord, play that one every time it rolls around. If there’s time, approach one of the better players and ask if he or she can show you that tune. Even if you only learn part of it, that’s more for you to play next time that song comes up.

After you’ve been to the jam, take note of the tunes so you can learn them at home on your own or with a teacher. (If you live in the Ottawa area, please contact me.) There are standards in every genre that most everyone knows. Ask one of the more seasoned players or the jam leader for a list of songs.

Who calls the tunes?

Usually there’s a leader although sometimes, it simply goes around the circle. Again, if you watch for a while you can see how it works.

What if I’m not a solo player?

Become one. I know that sounds flip, but in a supportive atmosphere they’re cool with just about anything. It helps if you know a few basic scales. Minor pentatonic scales are great for blues and bluesy rock. Major pentatonics are great for most other music. If all else fails, and you’ve got an instrument that can play chords, simply play the notes in the chord. It won’t be the most creative solo ever played but heck, even Clapton had to start somewhere.

You always have the option to skip the solo. Just shake your head no when the jam leader points to you.

Don’t hog the solos

If everyone is playing a 12 bar solo don’t play 24 unless the bandleader gives you the go ahead. Likewise, don’t solo while someone else is doing their solo or singing. The exception is if you are figuring out your part before it’s your turn to solo. In that case, play very softly so no one else can hear you.

Old time folk jams are different. Usually everyone plays the melody at the same time.

When someone is singing or playing a solo, give them the spotlight

Play quietly or chord. You’re a back-up player now. Nobody cares that you know four different A minor pentatonic scales.

Don’t be afraid to jump in

Playing in a jam is one of the best ways to learn to play better.  It might be a bit scary to do your learning in public, but it’ll make you a far better musician.

Need help with any of this? A good teacher can assist you. If you play guitar, mandolin or ukulele and live in Ottawa, I’m your woman. Contact me here. I also teach in Durham, NC (usually for a month in the summer) and at some of the festivals that book me.

Now go forth and jam!


Want to know more? I teach guitar, mandolin and ukulele via Skype. Contact me here.


About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
This entry was posted in Country Music, Folk music, Music instruction, Playing the guitar, Playing the ukulele and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Learn to jam

  1. Pingback: Great New Year resolutions for music fans and musicians | Jamiebobamie

  2. Pingback: Include music in your New Year resolutions | Jamiebobamie

  3. peggybrennan says:

    Attended that mist awesome jam last night! Blisters under my callouses… jams are truly mind-blowing; you’re right!

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