Author: Daniel, Bert

Jam Practice

Your first open jam session is an experience you will never forget. Boy, do I ever remember mine! I’d been practicing my instrument seemingly forever, but I was still very unsure of my abilities. My friend Tony, also a learner, told me about one of the CBA jams he’d been to in his hometown, and I was quite intimidated by his description. Tony had just gone to listen and had not even been tempted to take his banjo out of the car. These jammers could really play! It sure sounded to me like I could never fit in with musicians like that.

Well, one rainy winter day came, and I had nothing better to do than “listen”. I’d been practicing diligently, and I was beginning to feel like I could actually play some real music. I was dying to find out what my bluegrass neighbors sounded like. I figured I’d go check out the jam and take along my instrument, just in case (as in just IN the case, maybe). I called Tony, but he had to work. So I had to go it alone. I walked into Coffee Catz in Sebastopol trembling with fear and anticipation. A large group of players was present, and it seemed like most of them played MY instrument. Should I turn and walk away? I figured no; I’ve got to do this sooner or later.

I listened to the music while I got my axe ready and, while I was tuning, it became obvious that Tony was absolutely right. These guys were so much better than me that it would not be fair to subject them to my version of bluegrass. But the jam leaders were very courteous when I showed up, inviting me to take a chair in the inner circle. After all, I was a stranger. In their eyes, maybe I was just what this jam needed to take it to another level.

Alas, my downcast eyes and blush diminished all hope and I took a reluctant perch among the vacant tables. I tried to play very quietly along with the chords as best I could, and I wisely avoided all eye contact so that I would never be called on to take a solo, even though that was what I desperately wanted to do. But I was painfully aware that I wasn’t able to solo with these folks at this point. Maybe someday I could.
I looked outside the window and wished it weren’t raining. Under clearer skies, I could have rounded up some of my fellow bluegrass posers. We could all go out on the terrace and make a slow jam to strut OUR stuff, lame as it was compared to the musical vibrations of the experts we were “playing” with. From time to time, I’d look around and try to learn something of what this unfamiliar jam scene was all about. A few of the less peripheral payers were encouraged to take solos, and sometimes when their nod came, I noticed that “deer in the headlights” stare that would have been mine had I been in their shoes.

That eventful afternoon, I sat there bravely and hacked away, as best I could, to some really fine amateur music. It was a thrill to be just a small part of that. Maybe some of these guys and gals played professionally for all I knew. I was inspired and every time that crowd clapped I was proud that I had played quietly enough to be considered a part of the nice music we had all heard. Well, after a while I started to relax a little bit. I noticed that there were other misfits like me, just happy to be in a circle of new friends who loved the same music. And the experience taught me a lesson I would never have learned otherwise. All those tunes you thought you knew? You don’t know the first thing about them! Until you can play numerous variations and improvise on tunes you never even heard before, (based on note knowledge you’ve developed over many hours of playing), you don’t really know how to play bluegrass.

What’s the solution? What can you do to prepare for jamming? Someone once asked the legendary cyclist, Eddy Merckx, how he got to be so good. His answer was “ride lots”. Well, to get better at jamming you have to play lots. AND you have to play with others. Get out there and do it as soon as you can! Playing with others shows you just how incompletely you actually know the music that you THOUGHT you knew. All of a sudden, you have to adjust to the prevailing rhythm and you have to play through your mistakes smoothly, instead of just starting all over again. The tune has to be almost second nature to you, because there are so many other things going on at a jam (like your self-consciousness, for example).

But jam practice is more than just going to the woodshed and playing endlessly. You can tailor your practice sessions to the conditions you will encounter in a real jam. That means either actually playing with others, (i.e. your friends), or playing with recordings (i.e. professional musicians that you want to emulate). Many instructional materials are available with back up tracks, recorded on CD, for common jam tunes. Usually, the tunes are recorded at two speeds: learning speed and a faster speed.

Practice a tune at the learning speed until you are comfortable with it. Then start playing with the faster speed as well, to challenge yourself. Keep practicing along with the “slow” speed too. As you become more adept at the tune, you can use the slow version to practice improvisation. Try to play the slow version of the tune a different way every time. Change a few eighth notes into quarter notes. Play a few notes up the scale of the key you’re in. Try to get lost! That way you can practice digging yourself out of holes you’ve gotten yourself into. Once you’ve “suffered” at a few jam sessions, you’ll realize that digging yourself out of holes is exactly the sort of skill you need to cultivate. After you’ve rescued yourself from a few of these self imposed musical holes, you’ll appreciate that this sort of “thinking on your feet” musicality is one of the very things that makes jamming so much fun!

You don’t need an instructional CD to practice at different speeds. You can play along with any recording you like and eventually you’ll figure some of the songs out. One very useful aid is a guitar trainer. With a guitar trainer, you can adjust the speed of your favorite recording OR you can change the key. For jam practice, you usually will want to adjust the speed. Practice at a “learning” speed, about half the speed you will be playing in the jam. Then practice (when you’re ready!) at the full jam speed.

Read up on jam etiquette and try to participate to the fullest extent possible. Don’t be shy. What you put into it is what you get out of it. Most jammers will gladly slow things down for you when it comes your turn to call a tune. You may find yourself forced to take a solo that you know you’re going to botch. And you’ll enjoy the high five when you botch it much less badly than you thought you would! Most open jams are truly open, and you’ll realize that no matter how good you are, everybody is a learner, not just you.
One more thing, when you go to a jam, don’t feel obligated to play all the time. If the music is flowing, you can enjoy listening and you can learn just as much. Try to fill musical spaces that no one else is filling. Noodle around and try to find some harmony notes. Play some nice tremolo when everyone else is chopping. And above all, raise your voice in song! Every bluegrass jam can use a voice that can carry a tune and a singer who can remember all the words!

Now get out there and jam!

Posted:  1/5/2010

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email