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The Art of the “Jam”

August 7, 2012

Unless you’re Michael Manring or another aspiring Bass Solo Artist, a key ingredient in improving your playing is to play with others… preferably with musicians that are better than you. Be confident — you may be better than you think you are; prepare by jamming along with unfamiliar songs as well as the most common one. Finding — and diving into — Garage Jams, Open Mics and “Sitting In” opportunities can be a little daunting, at first. Mark, Chris, and I have collaborated on some thoughts to help you to get involved — and be successful.

Finding other players willing to tolerate your learning curve can sometimes be tough, but it’s worth the effort. Your local Craigslist ads and music store bulletin boards can be sources for posting Bass Player Available solicitations as well as finding Wanted signs. When writing or responding to these ads, be brief and to the point. It isn’t necessary to post The History of Me As a Bass Player, just make your clear points and get out clean.

Jams (not one of my favorite words) come in various forms. It may be a group of friends (and potential new friends) blowing off steam soaked in beer, an informal collaboration of players who came to an open stage night, backing up open mic singer-songwriters, a semi-rehearsal where you’re sitting in for the bass player who couldn’t make it at the last minute, and more. All of these can be valuable, can add to your experience and repertoire, expand your skill set, and challenge and make you grow as a player, with the side benefit of exposing you to other musicians who may be impressed. Planting these seeds can yield band offers and gigs, as well as invites to other events.

Be open to other types of music. I’m not suggesting you wear your cowboy hat to a death metal jam, just don’t make your focus too narrow. Playing country, classical, jazz, and rock has made me a better blues bass player, not to mention helped me to appreciate what’s universally good and in common with all types of music.

Jams are Musical Conversations. Be gracious, don’t be rude or controversial. It’s not necessary to continually inform everyone that you’re the smartest guy in the room.

Yes, it can sometimes be boring for the bass player, but don’t fall asleep. Besides, here’s your opportunity to contribute and grow as a player; play a variation on that repetitive pattern over the next twelve bars. Lay back a little, play some accents, engage the drummer (if he’s the listening type) and get funky if appropriate. He’s probably bored, too.

Know your role. We’re the bass player – accept that our role is usually one of support. In most acoustic situations we’re not only thumping low, we’re the percussion section — the glue that keeps all those guitar players tapping their foot to the rhythm we keep. Be solid and dependable, and play your part. If they happen to throw you a solo, that’s the time for showing off.

Be tolerant and supportive. If it’s an open mic and you’re backing up the Unknown Sole Musician Playing Bad Originals and Poorly Executed Covers (Using Incorrect Chords), expect and be prepared to cover their butt. Many players have learned by playing alone, where a steady rhythm (and the apparently “unreasonable” requirement of a consistent number of beats in each measure) are not required. Listen for their interpretation of timing and aim for the beginning of each measure; don’t try to be the Time Cop. If the venue regularly hosts these events, they know to have a member of their staff available to sweep up the dropped beats at the end of the performance (grin).

Know some songs, and bring some if appropriate. Be prepared to make suggestions, especially if you can do the lead vocal. Many impromptu “jams” end up being an annoying 2-hour long exercise in “blues in E.” Boring for everyone, to be sure (except maybe that lead guitar player) but especially for the bassist. Have some charts in your bag complete with lyrics, if it’s not too much trouble – oftentimes the “disorganized” jams can benefit from the gentle hand of “suggestive leadership.”

If you don’t know the song, don’t do your imitation of a deer in the headlights. There comes a time in one’s life when you have to truly fake it, and conquering the fear of being thrown into a situation fraught with The Unknown can be an excellent learning experience — as well as a helluvalot of fun. Various flavors of Jam are out there, but in this case we’re talking of those that involve players and songs you may not know; often we’re the sole bass holding down the bottom end for the Too Many Guitars Orchestra. Most songs follow a predictable pattern, use The Force and fake it.

Lay out/back if you’re unsure. While most originals will follow a familiar pattern of three or four chords, this is not always the case. Covers can also follow unfamiliar paths, especially if the player has substituted the chords within their own small knowledge base, or worse, gotten the chords from a tab site on the net. (BTW: It’s not up to us to educate the room by playing the “proper” bass note loudly, or by rolling our eyes every time it goes by.) If you’re floundering a bit for any of these reasons, there is a maxim I’ve observed for many years, as a musician and in life in general: If you’re going to make a mistake, don’t make it loud. Play confidently, but be prepared to musically mumble until you figure out the bridge.

Don’t play too loud, don’t dominate — that’s why guitars (or banjos) were invented. The key word is accompany, or support.

Two Basses is usually one too many. If another bass player shows up at an acoustic jam… What do you do? I can only tell you what I did in two specific instances. In the first, I reverted to high school tuba roles — “You go high and I’ll go low, and we’ll switch when we get tired of playing those two strings.” In the other instance I asked the other player to play my bass so I could hear how well the new Corelli strings I put on it projected. I honestly wanted to know, but in a pinch, it sure is a way to build alliance rather than a rivalry, and can introduce taking turns. On the other hand, most situations call for only one bass player at a time, so…

Don’t be afraid to sit out a few songs and take turns. Be the “audience” and offer encouragement to all the other players (where appropriate). There will be other chances to play these sorts of jams, especially if you’re gracious about sharing the bass chair (you’ll be invited back!) so you don’t have to be playing every minute of every song as if this were your last gig. Besides, it’s a nice chance to grab a beverage, chill out, and watch someone else sweat over the changes for a while. But disappearing, or just appearing disinterested, while you’re not the one with the bass in your hands, will come off as disrespectful and kind of rude.

Be social! Don’t just show up, play, and leave. These sorts of gatherings can be an excellent networking opportunity – you can meet other musicians who may have other, money-making bands; if you make friends with some of them, it can be an avenue by which you’ll start getting calls when their bassist is out of town, or double-booked, etc.

Even you were an amateur at one time. Playing with someone who’s a bit “green” can be taxing and unrewarding, but exhibiting tolerance and adding structure can help them grow, as well as help you learn the useful skill of musical manipulation.

Are you enjoying yourself? It’s taken me a long time to accept the fact that not every musical encounter, whether it’s a performance, rehearsal, or jam, can be a fun time. My new rule of thumb is if I am enjoying 51% or more of the experience, it’s a winner. Adopting the perspective of that attitude will open you to a lot more opportunities and enjoyment.

Be friendly – to everyone. The piano player might seem to you to have an attitude problem tonight, but unless he picks a fight with you, don’t pick one with him. If you’ve been solid all night, he may remember that when another musical friend of his is looking for a bassist for a gig or session. Likewise, don’t talk to others at the jam about his snotty behavior – circles of musicians are often tighter than they appear, and your comments will get back to him. It is a social event, after all.

Finally, think on your feet. This list of tips comes off like a set of “rules” – but as in life, in the jam sometimes rules differ depending on the situation. Just remember, above all: be flexible, be nice, and have fun – and the rest should just fall in line. Just keep on livin’ the low life!

–Bob

PS: Another aspect of “The Jam” can be Sitting in.

Chris lends some road experience with the following comments:Whenever I’m in a new city I try to catch a jam session of some sort, be it bluegrass, jazz, old time music, blues, you name it. Being a bass player, at multi instrumentalist jam sessions; it’s always a bit tougher for us to just jump up and go; after all, there’s not enough room on the bandstand for two bass players, regardless of the musical style. Here are some “sitting in” pointers:

  • Some sessions will have a sign up sheet for musicians waiting to play, so look for one when you arrive. But many have nothing, even though it may be billed as an open jam.
  • Usually, getting up on stage is as easy as hunting down the bass player on a set break and just asking. Don’t mind them being a bit grumpy about there being another bassist there; deep down they’re usually happy, because for the first time that night they’ll get to sit back and enjoy a beer. At an old time session on Asheville last year I asked the bass player if I could sit in for a couple tunes; she said nothing, handed me her bass, and walked away. I was up there for a full set! Bass players have a tendency to be nice people, especially to other bassists… we’re a rare breed, so we need to stick together!
  • That being said, remember not to overstay your welcome. Always make some eye contact with the other bass player to make sure you’re not stepping on his/her toes; some people will let you play five tunes, and some want their bass back after one. Don’t be offended, other people want to play also.
  • When you’re up there playing, (and for that matter, always!) remember your role; you’re a bass player, not a trumpet, not a mandolin. Hold down that groove and don’t look back.
  • Jam sessions are great places to get your feet wet with music you are unfamiliar with. If you have some confidence you’ll be fine; 90% of the songs in this world are four chords, especially in the pop and roots realms. Listening is your best skill as a bass player, and the more you throw yourself into unfamiliar situations, the more acclimated your ear will become to hearing changes on the fly.
  • Be respectful of other players, do your best, play with confidence, but most importantly have fun; it’s just music after all.
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