Author: Campbell, Bruce

Not-So-Stupid Jam Tricks

How often has this happened to you? You get together with some friends, at someone’s house, or at a festival. You’re in a circle, the instruments are out, the lantern is lit, the beverages are ready, and it’s time to start the jam.

“OK, what shall we play?” someone asks. This often leads to one of two common results.

Result one: “I dunno. What do YOU wanna play?

Result two: “Let’s play [some song you always play together]!”

Neither of these results are completely satisfying, although kicking off the jam with a familiar number is a nice way to launch things. But generally, there is stultifying indecision, or plowing the same old ground. You know you know a lot of songs, so why is this so hard?

Here are a few techniques to get your creative juices flowing.

Pick a theme
I host an open mic/jam every month, and someone long ago came up with the idea of having a theme each month, and it really makes things stimulating and fun. We’re not sticklers for hewing to the theme, but a lot of folks really enjoy the challenge. We started with picking songs by (or even covered by) the familiar bluegrass greats: Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley, Jim and Jesse, the Louvins, etc.

Then, we moved onto more esoteric themes – songs with colors in them, songs with cities or states in them, songs about crime and punishment, songs about trucks, drinking songs, etc. I once attended a jam where we spent several hours only playing the weirdest songs we could think of, and that was a lot of fun.

Go off the page
My buddy Rick Horlick is a fan of trying songs in odd keys or in unfamiliar arrangements or rhythms. This is a time-honored tradition – after all, Elvis covered “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in 4/4 time on the B side of his first single! Switching up time signatures and keys will challenge both the singers and the instrumentalists – and you’ll discover some talents you didn’t know you had, and some beauty in the songs and tunes you never noticed before.

I think I mentioned this before, but one time at Grass Valley, I was in a jam circle where we decided to play each song or tune around the circle, and when it got to the person who’s turn to call was next, they had to choose a song in a key one step up from before, and announce the tune before it got to them, and we go to the next song in the new key without stopping. Talk about a challenge – playing the song around, while holding a conversation about the next choice, and planning out capo moves and solo strategies. We kept this up for at least an hour – I think we went two. There was plenty of moaning and groaning, and some hilarious missteps, but it was a LOT of fun!

Or not…
Of course, I fully recognize the joys of sitting with old friends and playing the songs you’ve been playing for years, too. That’s like a comfortable conversation that requires nothing beyond the shared experience. As the night grows dark and the beverages grow fewer, the sounds of animated conversations intermix with the picking and singing, and it’s mighty easy on the ears…

Posted:  4/18/2012

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