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Hey folks, questions about a Bluegrass jam.

Discussion in 'Bluegrass [DB]' started by JoeDaddio, Dec 5, 2012.

  1. I just discovered a Bluegrass jam that happens a couple times a month that's relatively close to where I live. I'm very new up upright (about 5 months of playing) and totally illiterate when it comes to music (I've been playing electric bass for 11 years or so, I just [unfortunately] never bothered to learn anything about music).

    Will it be worthwhile to go to this thing? I'm nervous, of course, and I know for a fact I don't have the chops or understanding to really do much, if anything.

    I emailed the woman who hosts it and she said that experience level doesn't matter, just to come down. They need a bass player (seems to be a common theme).

    Because of this I'm assuming that they don't have a bassist who shows up regularly (or ever). Which I feel sort of feel, probably unjustly, that it would put a lot of pressure on me. And as a total noob who isn't even sure if he'll be able to participate at all, this has got me worried (I must lead a pretty good life if this is one of my main concerns!).

    Anyways, I guess I'm just looking for your experiences as new, know-nothing players going to something like this. What to expect, what not to do to look like an ass, all that stuff.


  2. scottbass

    scottbass Bass lines like a big, funky giant

    Jul 13, 2004
    Southern MN
    The most important thing you can do to avoid looking like an ass is to not overplay. Lock up with the drummer (if there is one!) and stick to playing quarter note I's and V's. Bass is REALLY a percussion instrument in bluegrass. Once you figure out the progressions - which are usually quite simple - you can do simple walks to help set up the chord changes. If they toss you a solo, you can start with eighth note scales. That's about it. Any more than that and you will be stepping all over the (hopefully) wonderful guitar/mandolin/banjo/dobro/resonator/fiddle work. For sheer joy of playing, I appreciate bluegrass more than just about any other genre.
    Max George and basspraiser like this.
  3. misterbadger

    misterbadger Supporting Member

    Sep 13, 2012
    Northern California
    They'll be really happy to have you. I took up bass partly because neither of the jams I regularly attend had a bass. The first jam's the hardest.

    In my area (NoCal), the "Fiddler's Fakebook" seems to be the go-to source, but if you can hear intervals decently, you'll catch on quickly without. Have fun!
    Max George likes this.
  4. BBox Bass

    BBox Bass Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2011
    NW Pennsylvania
    If you don't know the tunes, watch the guitarist's left hand for chord changes. Do that and keep good time, and you'll be golden.

    I spent 3 years attending old-time folk jams a couple times a week, and there were quite a few occasions when someone brought along a bass "just in case a bass player showed up". Sometimes it was a session leader who played fiddle and had no interest in or ability to play bass, and other times it was an individual new to folk music who was dabbling in a few instruments and had bought a bass because it seemed cool. Then they concluded that it hurt their fingers too much.

    I usually took a guitar or mandolin, but if I saw a bass sitting in the corner, I volunteered. My upright skills are pretty limited, but everyone was very appreciative simply because in my area, folk bassists are a rare breed.
    Max George likes this.
  5. TDAN


    Dec 15, 2011
    Seattle, WA
    Go to the jam!

    I found my self in the same situation about a year ago. Knew my way around electric but was new to the double bass and to playing bluegrass.

    All the jams I have gone to are a little bit different but the format is most often all acoustic and all strings, ie no drummer.

    The folks at the jam will expect you to play roots and fiths in a two feel. Find a responsible guitarist and follow his left hand to learn the changes. Really lock into to rhythm and keep good time. They will love you.

    I think these kinda of situations are a great place to lean because the style calls for a pretty basic style. This gives you a chance to focus on tone, time, and learning the tunes. There is plenty of to to add the fancy stuff as you progress.

    Most of the people at these jams are excited about playing breaks and appreciate someone who is willing to back them up and provide the foundation for their solos.

    Jump in head first. Bluegrassers are generally a great group of people and willing to share what they know.
  6. Jason Sypher

    Jason Sypher Supporting Member

    Jan 3, 2001
    Brooklyn, NY
    Did you just say "lock up with the drummer"? Just go to the session and listen. Pick up the bass when you think you have something to contribute and put it down when you don't. If you keep going week after week you will learn what to do. In the meantime listen to the music at home and pick up the bass and play along. You'll get it, it's not rocket science. The way to avoid being an ass is be humble and do your homework.
    Max George, bassfran and basspraiser like this.
  7. Lock up with the drummer? Pray tell; I've been playing bluegrass/old time for 30+ years, and I don't believe I've ever seen a bluegrass drummer. However, you CAN start modestly. Many bluegrass songs are in the keys of D, G, or A, which lend themselves to a lot of open string thumping, at least at first...
  8. I'm still a little new to bluegrass jams. As noted above, it's unlikely you'll have a drummer. However, mandolin frequently plays a chop chord on the 2 and 4 beats of a 4/4 tune. You can play mostly I and V notes on the 1 and 3 beat (of a 4/4 tune). I sometimes think of the mandolin chop as a snare drum on the 1 and 3.

    That will get you by. As you learn the tunes and the feel of bluegrass, you can add some walk-ups in chord changes, etc. I hope this makes sense.

  9. Have to agree, in 45+ years the occasional bodhrán, spoons perhaps, even knitting needles but a drum kit or drummer never.

    As you stated:

    "they need a bass player"

    Sounds like they will be happy to have you.

    Go sit in, normally folks are very welcoming, start slow, have fun.
  10. Just go. You'll learn a lot. As mentioned:
    - there is no drummer (where did that idea come from anyway?)
    - For old-time at least, most songs are in D, some in A and some in G
    - watch a good guitarist if you can't hear the chord.
    - most tunes only need 1/4/5.

    This web page (and my commenting in general) is totally focused on old-time, but it might give you a starting point for some of the music. It's something I wrote for our little group to track the music we used:


    FWIW I use iRealB on my iPad or iPhone as a chord chart book. Helps a lot, especially on new songs and when I was just beginning. I don't have a super-good ear yet, but it's getting better and as it does I find I can figure out the chords just by listening.
    Oddly likes this.
  11. Jeremy Darrow

    Jeremy Darrow

    Apr 6, 2007
    Nashville, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Fishman Transducers, D'Addarrio Strings
    Listen to some Bill Monroe, some Flatt and Scruggs and some Jimmy Martin. You'll have some familiarity with three of the biggies. Also, go buy the Bluegrass Album Bands first record. Everything on that record is a jam standard, and you can't beat Todd Phillips' bass playing.
    Max George likes this.
  12. Bluegrass drumming here:
  13. Hey, JoeDaddio, I've been playing with a bluegrass group for a couple of years only, so I can still remember the feeling of uncertainty starting out. In order of importance:

    Rule 1: Time.
    Rule 2: 1s and 5s.
    Rule 3: Don't forget Rule 1.

    So it's 1s and 5s in solid time. And I'm stingy with the 5-6-7-8 walkups, too. I try to restrict them to introducing a new section--and certainly not every time or in every tune, either. Otherwise, it gets to be too much and sounds corny. I do fairly often get away with injecting approach notes into chord changes, though. In fact, the group seems to look for them after a while.

    For me the trickiest part has been to keep a solid 1-5 two-feel time when the vocalist is "pushing" the number 1 beat of the measure. I don't mean that the vocalist is doing anything incorrectly at all. It's just a very common anticipation-type vocal style to begin singing the lyric on the eighth note (i.e., a half a beat) before the first beat of the measure--and they don't do it every time, either. (Many of them don't even realize they're doing it at all.) If you don't maintain your beat while this is happening, you'll back up to where the vocalist is coming in, which drags everything down and the vocalist will only do it again since they do this automatically. You need to listen to and trust yourself at least as much as you listen to the soloist. If you can stay rock solid, the vocalist will do his or her thing automatically and it'll sound fine to both of you.

    One complication that may arise--I hope it doesn't for you--is when another member of the band doesn't realize what's going on and thinks you're coming in late, and tells you so. You don't want to get into one of those: "No, I'm not." "Yes, you are." sorts of disputes. So you need to get the vocalist on your side ahead of time so he/she can explain what's going on to anyone else who doesn't get it. So if you bring up with your vocalist ahead of time that you recognize that legitimate vocal style, and are working on keeping your own time solidly on the beat--he/she might be able to come to your rescue.

    It's great that you're learning about music. It's hard to understand how you could play for eleven years--even rock--and not pick up something about it, though. I'll bet you know more than you realize.

    But, like I said, I've only been playing bluegrass for a couple of years, and with an amateur band at that. There are a whole lot of guys on this board with pro experience; you can learn a lot from them.
  14. MrLenny1


    Jan 17, 2009
    Just Do It.
    Bass players are rare at any jam.
    Steady root five and you'll be OK.
  15. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    Sorry, that's not bluegrass.
  16. Jeremy Darrow

    Jeremy Darrow

    Apr 6, 2007
    Nashville, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Fishman Transducers, D'Addarrio Strings
    At various times, Jimmy Martin and Jim and Jesse used drummers. Even Flatt and Scruggs have a drummer on the Ballad of Jed Clampett. And if Marty Stuart has a mandolin in his hand on Bluegrass Express, that's Bluegrass.
  17. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    Yes, and the Osborne Brothers had a drummer on many of their classic recordings, but they didn't have one on stage, ever.

    Earl Scruggs played in the Earl Scruggs Revue - also NOT bluegrass.

    Just because the band was on a show called 'Bluegrass Underground' doesn't make it bluegrass. We saw Vince Gill on it the other week - not bluegrass - and some 'Roots & Americana' band this week - also not bluegrass. The series started out with Del McCoury - definitely bluegrass!

    Columbia put an organ on some Bill Monroe tracks in the fifties (which he hated!) - doesn't make 'Organ' a bluegrass instrument. ;)
  18. Jeremy Darrow

    Jeremy Darrow

    Apr 6, 2007
    Nashville, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Fishman Transducers, D'Addarrio Strings
    Doyle Lawson played the cave recently. With a drummer.
  19. Jason Sypher

    Jason Sypher Supporting Member

    Jan 3, 2001
    Brooklyn, NY
    Well, I'm going to be on a little tour playing right next to Mike Compton. I'll ask him what he thinks about it ;)
    Max George likes this.