How to Play in a Jam Session

How to play in an informal group setting

Jam sessions come in all shapes and sizes, from siblings belting out pop hits to sit-ins at a jazz club or Irish pub. Good jams are all about having fun and building camaraderie, and a beginner should be welcome to join in.

It can be hard to find or start a jam session, but once one gets going, it is even harder to stop. Prime places to scout for jam sessions include music classes, camps, and festivals. A music shop might have a board where you can post a notice about your interests and ability level. Local publications sometimes have active “musicians’ exchange” listings, and many websites also feature musician classified ads and referral services, although they cast a very wide geographical net.

Open-mic nights can be a great place for making connections, even if you are not taking to the stage. In many communities there are small organizations of musicians and aficionados, such as songwriters, folkies, and blues fans. Ask around; you might be surprised at what you find in your town.

When you do meet someone, it’s a big help if you can detail your musical interests. Make a short list of artists and records you love, and start collecting songs you play or want to play in a notebook. Think especially about jam songs others might know, straightforward country music or rock songs, and songs on the festive rather than reflective side.

Write down the song’s chords and lyrics; jam sessions often have awkward moments when everyone is trying to think of the next thing to play—a songbook can really keep things moving. And if you can come up with that fourth verse that eludes everyone else, you will be a major asset!

A guitar capo is a very handy jam-session accessory, allowing you to change the key to better suit people’s voices or instruments without having to play different fingerings. If another guitarist slaps on a capo at the second fret and starts playing something, match that capo position and watch his or her fingers—that’ll make it much easier to join in. Drummers should make sure to bring along all their brushes and other “toys” to adapt to the mood.

Effective jam session preparations vary, but there are a few universal truths. Most important, rhythm rules, so work hard on nailing the chord changes to keep a steady beat. Also, train yourself to listen and be flexible with the arrangement of a song—you might need to let an intro chord sit there for a few extra measures, while the singer is trying to think of the next verse. And finally, stick with a winning theme. If everyone is having a blast singing The Beatles, try to come up with well-known songs in the same vein, by The Kinks or The Beach Boys, for instance.

—Adapted from the Beginning Guitarist’s Handbook, by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Spring Letter Publishing, 2001.

 

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