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Trouble with Jamming + Chord Changes

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by rabbitfighter, Sep 18, 2019.

  1. hennessybass

    hennessybass Supporting Member

    Oct 11, 2008
    Houston, TX
    For me, knowing some basic (and common) chord progressions is very helpful.

    Like if a guitar player is playing a G chord (and especially if I know the Key is G),,, I'm gonna guess that the other two chords in the jam are gonna be a C and a D in some order. Because I know that the most common progressions are I-IV-V - or some combo of that. Like G-C-D,,, or A-D-E (in the key of A),, or C-F-G (key of C),, etc.

    If the jam is is in G, and there is a "funny" chord in there that is not C or D,,, I'm gonna think - this is kind of bluesy sounding, maybe that funny chord is an E minor, because the VI minor chord is very common in blues sounding songs (also very common in a lot of country). Or maybe it's a B minor, cuz a III minor is pretty common.

    Look for common pattern in songs. The more you know them, the more you will start to hear them- and then you will stat to hear them all over, recognize them, and be able to play them.
    ---- ALSO, you can start incorporating those common patterns into the songs you are making up. Like 1-3minor-4-1 would be a great jam, and a common pattern. And if you want to add a chorus on that jam, 1-5-4-1 might work, because it's a common pattern - and it's all works in the key of (what ever). You are making stuff up, but there are rules and conventions to help guide you.

    I will say, that there are just some songs that don't follow rules, or do their own things - and for those song, sometimes there is just no substitute for knowing the song.
    I go to open jams sometimes and it drives me nuts when a guy calls a song that has a tone of changes, and stops, and arranged parts... It's a jam!!! Play something people can jam on. For me, that reflects more poorly on them for their choice of song than it does on the players not able to follow them.
    Good song leaders will say what key, and give heads up for (whatever) might be tricky. They will also do things like flash you numbers if there is a funny change coming or say "here we go to the 2" to let the band know to go to the II chord.

    You ultimately want to be able to recognize those common patters when you hear them. --- that's the "ear training" thing.
    My other advice is to learn "standards". What ever that means for you - it doesn't have to mean jazz standards like it used to. It means standard for the kind of music you are into. If you go to jams all the time and guys are always playing Little Wing, then learn Little Wing.
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2019
  2. ElMon

    ElMon Supporting Member

    May 30, 2004
    Oklahoma City, OK
    This should be a sticky it was so good and clearly-worded. He got every chord chain.
    Mushroo likes this.
  3. OogieWaWa


    Mar 17, 2013
    Oak Harbor, OH
    1. Ear Training is an actual thing, check it out. Helps you recognize what notes are how far from the root.

    2. If you are a visual learner, knowing where each of the notes in chords are in relation to their roots on your bass always helps, not just the rules regarding them. Same for the progressions, if you are playing the key root, the fourth is on the next string, same fret; the fifth is on the next string two frets up; that hits both visual and mechanical/muscle aspects.

    3. Use the key circle of fifths thing once someone tells you what key you're in. You're more than likely playing one of the chord roots on either side of it; the further away something is, the less likely someone is to be playing it. Unless it's modern jazz, then good luck.

    4. If it's in a minor key, play sad notes, pick happy ones for a major key. If you think you're a little low (sad) by the sound of it, slide up a fret; and the opposite when your note is too happy. Hey, it's not as silly as it sounds (oh, was that a pun?)

    5. The patterns will very likely repeat, so once you get a few notes in a row just play them again when you get back to that passage, and build from there.

    6. Concentrate on finding stuff less, concentrate on the song more; learn about what folks are suggesting to where you're not actively thinking about all that as much as just doing it. Just don't get too wrapped up in what your fingers are doing as much as what they could or should be doing.

    7. Quit worrying so much and just have fun with the simplest line you can.

    Edit: Here's a link to a good circle of fifths reference: The Circle of Fifths Explained | LedgerNote
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2019
    poopshoot and Bassman Spiff like this.
  4. bassman10096

    bassman10096 Supporting Member

    Jul 30, 2004
    Agree. This is how I learned how to jam. The simplest place to begin is with the blues - simply because so much music follows on. Learn several blues progressions and variations. You can get this jamming to easily accessible recordings.
    In the blues even if you throw a few minor or diminished chords into a “straight” progression you may hear yourself play something cool to follow up on or at least inoffensive to the tune.
    Do learn the tunes you are trying to jam to and ask tons of questions. Don’t blame guitarists if they can’t accurately spell out chord progressions (it’s not a priority to many of them). Darkstar is a classic that reliably gets mangled by players who don’t know it (I generally turn attempts at DS into blues progressions to avoid this).
    Practicing songs along w recordings is incredibly useful. But don’t limit yourself to trying to learn the original bass part. You can also learn a lot if you start by following the chord roots. I learned this when I was not technically competent to do more than that. It’s probably sacrilege here to say this but it’s true: You will often get a better understanding of the song and rhythm patterns if you forgive yourself for not tracking exact phrasings and seek alternatives that also carry the song. Get the chord progressions down by finding the roots. You will find it easier to locate and learn the signature, crowd-pleasing bass figures if you do this first.
    Lastly - don’t stop yourself just because you get lost. It’s often more than enough to locate the root of the progression (typically the one note the seems less out of tune than others) and sit on it playing quarter notes or whatever fits the rhythm.
    ElMon likes this.
  5. Yep.
    poopshoot likes this.
  6. I'll give another vote for just ask what is being played if you can't pick it up.

    I'd much rather hear "What chords!" shouted in my ear, than someone stabbing in the dark trying to find a note.
    poopshoot likes this.
  7. Dave3

    Dave3 Supporting Member

    Sep 11, 2019
    I watch our arrogant guitar players fumble around tryingt to play "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree" and i try to follow along by watching which wrong chord they go to next. Lol.

    Ear training is helpful. Sadly many guitarists have a tin ear and play the wrong chords to songs (something that I cannot stand!).
  8. landrybass


    Oct 23, 2011
    Keep working at it, most importantly listen. Think of music as a language, when you speak you don’t really think about words but more sentences and ideas. Notes don’t really matter, and they’re certainly not the most important.
    poopshoot likes this.
  9. DirtDog


    Jun 7, 2002
    The Deep North
    Learn chord theory
  10. MVE


    Aug 8, 2010
    If the guitar player is just making up random chords... then turn up your volume and start playin’ a b!tchin’ slap solo.

    No, seriously, just ask, what progression are you playing? If they can’t answer, then they are the problem.

    I’ve tried to “jam” with plenty of people that just strum randomly. When I ask, “...how does that go?” And they say, “...oh I don’t know notes or anything, Im playing this....”
    Hmmm, G C F D, ok cool. Then I start following along and they start playing something else....
    That’s usually when I say, “Ok, Who else here wants to jam out on the bass???”
    Nevada Pete and landrybass like this.
  11. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    You're asking way too much of yourself out of a jam where you don't know the song. This is where having some facility on guitar or keys can help, because you can look over at their hands for an idea of where you're going next. We are not mind-readers and we all rely on instinct and fumbling around at times to get to the next part.
    poopshoot, Nevada Pete and Malcolm35 like this.
  12. I haven't read all the messages, but good grief! How is anybody supposed to play a bass line to a tune they don't know? I have a pretty good "ear", but I can't guess where the downbeat is going to be. I don't have ESP or psychic abilities. I have to know ahead of time what I'm going to play, to play it right. I want charts! I want musical notation! I want recordings, if nothing else.

    Personally, I have no interest in trying to play bass lines on the fly for tunes I don't even know. Maybe it's just me and I'm too set in my ways, but when I show up to play I want to know what I'm doing. The closest I would come to a "jam" thing (if ever) is to play something everybody knows, and hack through that. But that's as far as it goes for me. Maybe your being too hard on yourself. I wouldn't bother spending any time trying to learn how to play along with tunes I don't know.
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2019
    corndog likes this.
  13. Thumpin6string

    Thumpin6string Supporting Member

    Apr 25, 2013
    Redding CA
    I prefer to know the chords ahead of time, but if I can see what the guitarist is playing and if they are not unusual chord, I can usually follow. The only time this did not work was when jamming with a guitarist who detuned to C. I was completely lost.
  14. Rayjay

    Rayjay If that’s even my real name.. Supporting Member

    Sep 27, 2014
    Lahaina, Maui, HI
    I'd say you're overestimating how much people pull notes out of the air - jamming completely freeform is one thing, but normally everyone is hip to the song already and therefore know the changes or can instantly transcribe the changes from memory. It sounds like what you're describing is people spontaneously asking to to play songs they know and you don't, and that's unrealistic even for professional players. And normally, if there is improvisation, it's based on a melody or chord changes - unless we're talking about the hippiest, dippiest hippy dippy jam-band who just noodles (again, freeform), and at that point who cares what you play because you can't be wrong in that context.
    corndog and Nevada Pete like this.
  15. Medicine Man

    Medicine Man

    Apr 10, 2015
    Even in "hippie dippy" jam bands, improv is somewhat an illusion. Chord progressions and tight breaks are well rehearsed. What does get improvisation are the notes in between chords and to a certain extent, rhythmic feel. There may be sections of freeform "by ear jams" but they eventually resolve back to a predetermined formula. How you get better at this is practice and ear training, and getting used to the habits of your fellow musicians. Theory doesn't hurt.
  16. I’ve been in this situation as well. Without have a great ear and a grasp on some of what’s mentioned above (I didn’t), it’s tough.

    Just ask what chords he’s playing and go with that. If you can “read” his chording hand, follow that as well. I’m in the same camp as a few others, even for jams, plan ahead. It sure sounds better than a bunch of people trying to figure out where to go.
    poopshoot likes this.
  17. Dirk Diggler

    Dirk Diggler Supporting Member

    Mar 3, 2004
    Anytown USA
    I've got a tip to try, while watching TV just try and hang with the tunes. Play along and keep moving to the next not worrying about where you were. The other great thing is a lot of TV ads include modern pop tunes that you might not know or regularly listen to. It greatly expands your musical knowledge.

    It requires a lot to be able to hang musically in almost any situation, like everything, practice, practice, practice.

    Good luck and keep trying, it's not like someone's got a gun to your head or anything, just remember music is supposed to be fun.

    poopshoot likes this.
  18. micguy


    May 17, 2011
    What the OP needs is called experience. The way some of us learn the skill that's lacking (indeed, how I learned to play) was to put the radio on, and play with everything that comes along - essentially put yourself in the situation that you can't handle, but with only you listening to the resultant mess. At first you will suck at this, but over time, you will suck less, and.....improve. In my case, I don't do quite that exercise anymore, but pretty much every week I'm learning a new tune (several some weeks). So, I'm always working on something that I don't know (or something I do, but in strange keys), and as I have a gig on the weekend (usually in front of a decent sized audience), the incentive to learn it is high. I can do that, largely because I've been through the process of "ear training" I described above.

    After a few years at this (yes, it takes time) you will notice that notes start to "fall under your fingers" - you hear the start of a tune, and you just...join in, knowing where to go. It's really cool when it happens, but yes, it takes a lot of time and effort to look like you're "talented".
  19. Wissen


    Nov 11, 2007
    Central PA
    I think this is a communication problem, not a musical problem.

    I've been playing bass for quite a while and I am proud of my reputation as a musician, but I'd be lost too if I had to follow someone in a jam and I didn't know the chord structure ahead of time.

    My answer is to make sure the person leading the jam gets everyone on the same page with the intended chord structure ahead of time. It certainly helps to have the theory chops and vocabulary to catch on quick, but that doesn't mean it is all your fault to begin with.
    Whousedtoplay likes this.
  20. Oddly

    Oddly Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2014
    Dublin, Ireland.
    This is a bit like my current playing situation.
    I attend a session where each person takes a turn to play a tune they've brought along.
    Some of them will say what key they're in (if they know it) which is at least a start.
    I do know a few simple guitar chords by sight, so if I can see the player's hands it's a big help.
    Luckily, so far I've recognised most of the songs played so have been able to attempt a playalong.
    Where I don't, I keep quiet.
    Happily, this is a situation where nobody really minds either way so there's no pressure other than what I put on myself to help the song along.
    Obviously it'd be great if each person gave a quick chord run-through first, but these are folks not used to playing with others at all.

    I've been to this session 3 times so far, and in between each one I've been randomly playing along to songs that I think might help.
    For example, one singer is a huge Joni Mitchell fan, another favours Johnny Cash, another Christy Moore (it's really quite a varied group!).
    My ear is getting better, and I'm learning to anticipate progressions.
    As others have said, it's all about experience.

    @poopshoot , you say you'r working with a writing partner.
    Surely it's not too much to ask him/her what they're playing, even in it's simplest form?
    I get that you got humiliated when jamming with your brother, but not everyone is a jerk.
    Most will be only too happy to help out, after all, it's for their benefit too.
    Don't give up.

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