Unless you’re going to be an introvert solo artist (which I often am) you’re going to want to jam with other players. Jamming is a way to challenge your musicianship, hang with your friends, make new ones, even network into better gigs. And all you gotta do is show up with your instrument.
Some of my guitar students have approached me after an attempted jam, disappointed in realizing they had no idea what to play in such a situation. They simply made noise, played half of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” because they didn’t know how to play the whole song and got frustrated with their inability to play anything that could be performed in front of an audience to attract groupies and free beer (soda pop for you kids). The good news is I’ve been through all of this and have ideas on how to get you making REAL MUSIC with your buddies on the spot.
Of course, this depends on a few things. Everyone in the group should have a minimal grasp on their instrument. They have to be able to keep at least a simple beat. If they don’t have any knowledge of, say, chords and scales they’ll need to have learned some tunes in advance. There are different variables to jamming as well as what to practice, so I don’t know if this article will be comprehensive, but hopefully it will give you some ideas on how to get out there and do it. Also, jamming with players better or not as good as you will require changing your expectations, as you can’t bust out a jazz standard on a guy who can barely get through “Wild Thing”. Or can you? I’ve jammed with inexperienced yet motivated players who had different ways of thinking about their instruments that inspired me.
Let’s start with some tips. Beginners should learn some full tunes by famous artists. More power to you if you can write a bunch of songs the first day you picked up the instrument, but how do you know everyone around you will have the patience to learn them? Having some stock tunes ready to play could at least get the ball rolling. The following “standards” offer a starting point.
1. Green Day…as their songs are mostly power chords–as are most punk tunes.
2. Just about any Beatles song.
3. Countless AC/DC songs.
4. Lots of Pink Floyd songs, such as “Comfortably Numb” and “Wish You Were Here”.
5. “Purple Haze” (minus the solos) and maybe “Foxy Lady”.
6. Led Zeppelin? Something like “Rock & Roll” or “Kashmir”.
7. Rage Against the Machine, depending on what fx pedals you have (or just make up noises if you don’t have the same pedals Tom Morello does).
8. Ozzy Osbourne/Black Sabbath minus the solos, unless you can handle them.
9. Classic funk, such as, “Play That Funky Music”.
10. “Brown Eyed Girl”? I never got the appeal of that song, but darn if I don’t hear it at just about every public, informal jam at some point!
11. Songs by War, “Low Rider” in particular.
Some players will have these songs down as well as pro jazz players have their standards memorized. I’ve been to musician parties where groups of total strangers jam for hours, one hit after the next. I recommend your first band learn and perform a bunch of covers. In my own experience I avoided this for the longest time, so desperately wanting to reinvent the wheel with originals. But how much further would I have progressed if we’d STUDIED other bands and really learned how songwriting works? Not to knock creativity and going with the flow, but after teaching my students’ favorite songs for so many years I’ve realized how much analyzing structure is great for inspiring my own ideas…not to mention learning the power of simplicity.
Getting a fake book might offer some cool options too. Fake books are packed with songs stripped down to the essential chords and notated melody. If you find a song with a simple chord progression you can copy the charts for your jam partners.
Learn 12 bar blues, anywhere, any way. First of all, the blues is cool, the original hardcore music. Second, it’s a fantastic study of guitar’s history (or any instrument in the genre, but I’m writing this as a guitarist). Third, it’s such a widely used songwriting structure in virtually all styles of music you’d be crazy to not learn blues tunes. I’ve taught students entire Ramones CDs in one lesson, their tunes predominantly based on 12 bar blues–and they’re a punk band. Metal bands, pop songs…all of them patterned after 12 bar blues. Even if you’re not a die hard blues fan, why would you resist absorbing such information? Not to mention if you learn the structures and pick up a few tunes like “The Thrill is Gone” you can crash ANY blues jam at any club and fit in as if you’ve been part of the house band for years! Blues tunes are great for jamming because one guitarist can hold down the rhythm while the other one solos. Get yourself one of the countless guitar books on how to play the blues then move on to learning tunes by famous blues folks: Clapton, BB King, Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc.
Learn chord scales. This isn’t some wildly urgent thing you have to learn before you can even start jamming, but learning which chords fit into a given key will give you a massive pool of options to draw from. If you’re jamming on a two chord progression and you’d like to expand it into another section, understanding diatonic harmony/chord scales will instantly lay out options for the choosing. 12 bar blues is derived from diatonic harmony, which is why it’s so commonly used. Don’t know what a chord scale is? Then you need to check out my KRM Rhythm Guitar Poster!
Pick a chord and jam EVERYTHING around it. Say you choose an E minor chord. One guitarist starts playing it, the bassist jams on either the Em arpeggio or Em scale (or whatever works, based on his theory skills). Another guitarist or instrumentalist can jam either the same chord or perhaps an inversion of that chord on a different part of the neck. Chances are someone will want to solo at some point, so anyone who knows an E minor scale or E minor pentatonic can start wailing. Some of the coolest songs are built around one riff or chord…”Low Rider”, anyone?
Jam on scales as well as chords. Many guitarists treat scales as something used only when it’s time to solo and show off your chops. Smart guitarists integrate their scales into their rhythms, sometimes blending chord progressions and riffs into the same sequence or temporarily abandoning chords altogether for some scale based rhythm work. Remember, chords are derived from scales, so it makes sense that if you make up chords (such as “double stops”, two-string chords within your scales) within the scale it’s going to sound great in the chord progression.
REPETITION! Maybe it’s obvious to some, but locking into the same riff or chord progression can give a jam time to evolve. I remember some of my early jams where I felt I had to create complicated songs with many different sections. No way would I write a 12 bar blues type of song–everyone else was doing that! But if you spend time on those same three chords you could still invest an evening exploring all the different ways of exploiting it: Loud, soft, fast, slow, everyone plays together, just the bass and drums play together, everyone stays the same but the guitar riff changes, play the rock song as reggae, play the reggae song as metal and so on.
Enough talk…go out there and jam!