How to not suck at a jam session

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Jam sessions are a great place to meet new musicians, but they can also be pretty scary. There are a lot of things (besides knowing the notes on your neck) you can do to make your jam session a success. This article contains everything you need to know to go into your next jam session with confidence.

Train your ears and hearing changes on the fly

Being able to recognize a chord progression on the fly is an essential skill for any bass player. Especially at a jam session. You should train this skill by transcribing lots of different music, but also by using apps and software that focus on recognizing progressions.

Check out my article “Complete Bass Player: Why you should stop using tabs” listing many reasons why having a good ear is essential for every serious bass player.

How do jam sessions work?

There are different kinds of jam sessions. At some of them, the players just improvise freely and the music is created on the spot. At most jam sessions however, the same popular tunes are played on a weekly or monthly basis.

While the first requires you to solely trust on your ears and communicative skills, the latter requires something totally different.

Bass players are expected to be there on the first beat of every bar outlining the chords for the rest of the band. This requires us to learn the harmony and know a lot of different songs by heart.

Of course it’s impossible to know every song ever written. Luckily most singers have a set repertoire that they like to sing every time they get on stage. Take note of what songs are being played regularly at your local session. Then spend some time at home figuring out how to play them.

Pro tip: At a lot of jam sessions you will play some version of a twelve bar blues. Be sure you know how to play a blues in different keys.

Communicating through music

Making music together is like having a good conversation. Don’t be the person only talking about himself and shouting random shit nobody want to hear. There are times in music when you speak and take room, but there are also times when you are quiet and make room for others to speak.

As bass players one of our tasks is carrying the band. We do this by playing a clear part that serves as the foundation or skeleton of the song. This doesn’t mean that your playing should be stale and boring. Just be sure you are dependable and every one can rely on your playing to be solid and in the pocket.

Don’t change your bassline every four bars and don’t play fills that serve no purpose. Respect the role you have as a bass player.

Fun fact: the purpose of a fill was originally to inform the band/orchestra that a song is switching from one part of the song to the next. Want to help the band along? Play a short fill or maybe just a slide before going into the next section.

Making eye contact

There is nothing worse than being in a band in which every musician just stares at their instrument or the floor. While you play, try to make eye contact with your band members. Especially when you switch from one section of a song to the other. Or when something goes wrong with the form.

When someone plays a solo, a visual cue can inform the band that the soloist is done with the solo. By using hand signals more advanced players can signal chord progressions, going back to the main theme, going to the bridge, different dynamics and many more thing.

Also body language can tell you a lot. When the singer moves towards to the microphone they will almost certainly start singing again. Look at your band members, and don’t forget to smile every now and then so they don’t think you want to hurt them.

Making eye contact is also very helpful in determining when a song ends. One of the worst things about jam sessions are the songs that have no ending. Drummers that just won’t stop. Make eye contact, play a ritardando and end the song like a pro before the venue empties.

Go to a session for the right reasons, leave your ego at home

If you go to a jam session, go there to have fun, to meet people, to experience a musical adventure and to learn as a musician. When you step on the stage with the sole intention of trying to blow everyone away with your skills, you are doing nobody a favor.

Going to a jam sessions to meet new musicians means that you have to show them that you can function inside the band/team. If you are completely drunk shredding 16th note metal riffs over Valerie by Amy Winehouse, this won’t be good for your reputation. Unless that’s what you want to be known for of course.

Check the tuning of the bass before you start playing

This seems like a no brainer, but I’ve been at countless sessions where the bass is horribly out of tune. You should always take some time to check out the tuning. Pro tip is to install a tuner app on your phone so you always have a tuner handy. Or put a headstock tuner in the pocket of your jacket.

Networking at a jam session

A jam session is a perfect place to meet like-minded musicians. If you like someone’s playing, talk to them. Exchange contact information and have a conversation (not a monologue) about stuff you are both interested in. Also talk to the other bass players.

They are not your rivals, they are your friends who love to geek out over basses and bass playing. And if it’s your goal, they can be the one to call you when they have a double booking and need a sub.

Bring your own instrument

At some jam venues there is a bass available for you to play. This isn’t the same everywhere so it might be good to bring your own bass just in case. Also, your own bass will play the way you are used to. Making you more comfortable which will probably make you sound and play better.

Be kind and helpful

If you want to be a good bass player, you should also be kind to the people around you. Be nice, even if you don’t enjoy someone’s playing/personality particularly well.

When you are on stage and standing next to someone who has a hard time trying to figure out the changes, help them. If you see another bass player struggling with his tuning, lend him your tuner. We are all just trying to have a great musical evening and we are all just human beings.

Also important to note, wait for your turn and don’t hog the stage. If there are many people waiting, don’t play more than 2 or 3 songs depending on what is customary at the jam you’re at.

How to nail it at a jam session

If you want to make sure that you don’t suck at a jam session. Be kind and communicative and overall just social. Use your eyes and ears, be prepared as much as possible and most important of all, just have fun.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy What makes a good bass player?

I hope you found this article helpful! Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are and if you have any questions or suggestions.

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