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What makes a good jammer?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by lat, Mar 25, 2019.

  1. lat


    Dec 30, 2014
    Lower Basstonia
    Hey all, looking for some guidance on the skill set needed to be good at quickly picking up songs when playing at a jam.

    I first got the itch to pick up a bass when I was photographing bands as a sideline. I would go to jams and take photos, building up my clientele by giving them free samples of my work from jams they played at. Listening to the players on stage gave me a real appreciation for the skills it took to be able to get up there and lock into an unfamiliar song after just a few bars.

    After I got a bass and knew enough to be dangerous (15 months after starting to play), I managed to get into a band. A year after that, I was in two bands, both doing classic rock covers. But, four years after starting with the first band, I still have a desire to go to jams and improvise my way through a set of songs I don't know.

    I have been going to a jam recently, to try and ease into the scene as a player, and my shortcomings are really apparent. Some songs I can lock into almost immediately and play with confidence, but others are just painful. I can't get the groove, I don't know the right note choices... then, I get some eye-rolls from the guys on stage and I start feeling like I shouldn't even be up there. Here are some of the skills I think I am lacking:

    • I need to have a better understanding of theory, in order to know what note choices are appropriate in a given key.
    • I need to have immediate recall of the arpeggios for various chord types. If you have to think about it, it's already too late.
    • I need to have more songs under my belt, so that I can draw from them to improvise with unfamiliar songs that are similar to ones I know. Between picking up songs on my own and playing with the two bands, I have probably 200 or so songs I am familiar with.
    • My ear needs improving, so I can know the key changes as they come, since some folks expect you to keep up without them calling out the changes.
    • I need to have a better understanding of where to play the same notes on the fretboard. I am not bad at this, but too slow to be able to react and improvise real-time to a song I'm not familiar with.
    So, for me, it boils down to more time in the shed and more time studying/learning...

    I would like to try and prioritize and focus on the areas that are most important. What other skills are valuable to players to allow them to be good jammers? And, what are the more valuable skills? Where does theory fit in the ranking of important skills to have?

    Or, should I just suck it up and throw myself on the stage, knowing that I am going to be 'that guy' for a while until I get my poop together?
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2019
  2. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    1. Learn the songs
    2. Have a good ear
    Charlzm, dfoehr, Rob Leonard and 2 others like this.
  3. lat


    Dec 30, 2014
    Lower Basstonia
    Yeah, but when you're jamming, what if you're thrown a song that you don't know? You can't say "Wait. Let me go learn that song first." lol...
  4. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    It's okay to say "I don't know that song" and give another bass player a turn. Then go home and learn it for next time. ;)
    Old P Bass Guy, eJake, And I and 6 others like this.
  5. lat


    Dec 30, 2014
    Lower Basstonia
    Yeah, I usually come away from jams with a list of songs to learn, whether I'm playing or just listening.
    You're comment brings up another point, though. It seems that different areas have different jam etiquette. Around here, there aren't a huge number of bass players that show up at jams. So, if you're up there, the expectation is that you do your best with a song you don't know. And, I see guys up there that obviously don't know the song at all, pick it up after only a few bars and by the end of the song are soloing it. So, it is done...
    djaxup likes this.
  6. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Supporting Member

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    If your goal is to jam in a classic rock setting, I would make this a long term goal, not a short term goal. It's likely going to take years to learn enough theory and more importantly how to apply it on the fly to be useful.
    Useful, but again, long term. No reason you can't get started right away.
    Very important. The more songs you know, the better off you are.
    This is the most important thing, AFTER you learn the notes. You'll never be a good jammer if you can't hear and even anticipate chord changes.
    This is bass playing 101. You HAVE to know where the notes on your instrument are. If you don't, here's where I'd get started. It doesn't matter if you know the chords or can hear them if you can't find the notes on your bass.
    I'd be careful. There are two things to think about - first, you won't get better without playing with other people; second, if you play with other people and stink up the stage, that reputation will follow you.

    Most important - figure out where the notes on your instrument are. It doesn't matter what else you know if you don't know that.
  7. lat


    Dec 30, 2014
    Lower Basstonia
    Thanks for all the great feedback lfmn16.

    I do intellectually know the fretboard, but that knowledge still needs to be better ingrained in my muscle memory. More time in the shed.

    Yeah, I've seen it happen where guys get a rep in the jam scene and are never really able to shake it... Caution is warranted.
  8. JimK


    Dec 12, 1999
    See #2...

    Jamming, to me, may mean something a little different.
    When I first opened this thread, I was thinking of the stuff that goes on after the verse/chorus, etc...and then somehow comes back together so everyone can end the song at the same time. ;)
    This was expected from many a Classic Rock band (Santana, Allman Brothers Band, Deep Purple, etc). More recent example would be the DMB.
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2019
  9. nightchef


    Feb 4, 2005
    This points to one of the key skills: being an efficient, analytic listener even while you're playing.

    Here's a strategy that might help with that: open up Pandora and ask for a playlist based on a song or artist that's similar to the kind of music you often encounter at jams. You'll likely get a mix of songs you know and songs you don't know, just like at a jam. Practice playing to all of them. With the songs you don't know, you'll be a little lost at first, but you'll gradually pick up the structure and feel of the song. Every time you do this it'll get easier--and nobody will be eye-rolling at you in the meantime.

    If it's distracting to hear what the real bass player is doing, you could ameliorate this somewhat by cutting the lows drastically on your playback system.
  10. IMHO most of what I hear from classic rock is pretty structured.
    When I think jam music I typically think blues or country. Something without hooks/riffs in the instrumental parts.
    If I were going to go and sit in on a jam I would first want an idea of the kind of songs being played. There’s a big difference between trying to jam on a 3 chord rock/country song like Mary Janes last dance and trying to figure out how to play riff based song like good times bad times.
    So if you need to know riffs then you need to learn those riffs, but if it’s a simpler song then knowing some good diatonic theory can go a long way to creatively get you through the music and help you adjust to chord/key changes on the fly more easily.
    Then it’s just a whole bunch of practice.
  11. Bikingbasser


    Oct 2, 2018
    In my experience, the thing that gets grossly overlooked is musical vocabulary.
    Over and over again, I'm with musicians that think they've got an expansive vocabulary because they listen to "everything from Iron Maiden to Depeche Mode." And I think, "so everything from one type of rock to another type of rock?"
    Rock is only one universe in a reality of many other universes. Latin, for example, is just as varied as rock. Same with baroque. I hear both having an influence on rock music, yet too few rock fans find music beyond the last 50 years engaging.
    Nashrakh, interp, Kubicki Fan and 3 others like this.
  12. jerry

    jerry Too old for a hiptrip Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 13, 1999
    Keep jamming, it's the best way to get better at it.
  13. singlemalt

    singlemalt Supporting Member

    Dec 15, 2007
    White Salmon, WA
    If it’s a blues jam, whoever calls the tune should be able to give you a quick rundown on the form. If it’s got strange things happening, I would expect some hand signals. You should know your chord numbers, so you can react.

    Otherwise, you have an ear training exercise, and everybody suffers if the bass player is fishing for roots. If you don’t know the tune, just layout for a while and see if you can get it figured out.

    You can watch the rhythm guitar for bar chords and open shapes, or the keyboard player’s left hand, if you are piano savvy. Look for the structure of the parts, verse, chorus, and bridge.

    If it’s a jazz jam, charts are available for most tunes, and with today’s tech, something like ireal B can give the the chart in any key.

    Sometimes your just vamping over a chord, or two or three chords.

    Nothin beats knowing the tune. A long night of trying to grapple with unfamiliar tunes whilst in front of an audience is fatiguing.
  14. MattZilla


    Jun 26, 2013
    Learning chords will help when you're jamming with guitarists who only know cowboy chords and Santana/Vaughn licks and expect the bassist to just know that, contrary to sticking the chord changes to 1s for the previous three minutes, they're gonna randomly jump to a Bb on 2-n-and by the way that they wiggle their right knee.
  15. dalkowski

    dalkowski Supporting Member

    May 20, 2009
    Massachusetts USofA
    3. (Should be 1): Don't give up the one.
    larryatravis likes this.
  16. lz4005


    Oct 22, 2013
    How do you learn songs normally? Note for note or do you learn the changes and come up with your own parts? Do you always have written reference materials, or do you learn by ear at least part of the time?

    I ask because, if you know 200 songs you should be seeing commonalities and patterns within them that answer most of your "need to work on" issues. Things like keys, common changes, how arpeggios relate to chords, etc, unless the songs you know are in a very different genre from the ones being called at the jam.

    The first thing I would do is look at those songs and try to apply the things you're asking about to what you already know. Connect the dots between theory and the songs you're comfortable playing.
    taught, oerk, HolmeBass and 1 other person like this.
  17. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    Exactly; great point!

    When the top "jam bands" perform, they aren't just making it up as they go along. Rather, they are playing familiar songs they have played hundreds of times. The best "jamming" is rehearsed and has a structure.

    It's great to have the skill set to "fake it" on a song you've never heard before. But in my opinion, that is not the core skill that "makes a good jammer." Rather, I would say a good jammer is someone who can bring a fresh, improvisational sound to rehearsed songs that they know well. Being able to also do this with unfamiliar songs is icing on the cake. :)
    taught and wesonbass like this.
  18. lat


    Dec 30, 2014
    Lower Basstonia
    To clarify, the bands I'm in are classic rock bands, but the jams tend to be more blues rock songs that are generally easier to pick up on the fly, although there's the odd tricky one (for me at least) thrown in.
  19. lat


    Dec 30, 2014
    Lower Basstonia
    Ah, yes, good point. There is a distinction to be made between jamming and improvising, I think.

    I think of jamming as getting up and faking it on a song I haven't heard before (or playing a song I know with people I have never played with before), and improvising is making up stuff on the fly within a song that you already know.

    So, it would be possible to improvise in a song I am familiar with while jamming with people I haven't played with before.... lol

    Is that how others see it?
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2019
    hieronymous likes this.
  20. lat


    Dec 30, 2014
    Lower Basstonia
    When learning songs, I normally play along with the song by ear and try to learn it as close to note for note as is practical. For example, I won't try to emulate all the fancy fills JPJ does in Ramble On, etc...
    Sometimes a bass line doesn't grab me, so I will modify it to suit my rhythmic style, but it still serves the song well, IMO. i.e. "Angel of Harlem"
    I rarely have written reference materials, only when the song isn't intuitive to me... For some reason, I needed to write down the bass line over the lyrics for "Take it Easy".

    Good advice. I will try and step back and analyse what I know in relation to what I don't know. There may likely be some dots to be connected.
    lz4005 likes this.
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