Sitting In: Just Say Yes

Bassist at a jam session

Photo by Josep Tomàs

There are certain things in life that require a great deal of courage… bungee jumping off a bridge, rafting through class five white water, snowboarding down a double black diamond mountain side, etc. Even the daredevil in me doesn’t have the guts to try those things. These are pretty extreme cases of having to muster up courage and it’s pretty rare that you’ll find yourself attached to a giant rubber band and hanging off the side of a bridge. You may, however, find yourself in a more realistic, yet equally terrifying scenario: sitting in.

Whether you’re just starting out as a bassist, or you gig on a regular basis, sitting in can bring out your inner scaredy cat. If you’ve never sat in before, be ready to cross your fingers and hope that your bass (and your brain), works well enough to get through the song. Okay, okay, you worry about the same thing even if you have done it before. But why? What is it about getting up to play with people that can be so nerve racking? And does it ever get any easier?

As someone who frequently goes out to play music, and who learned more on the bandstand than off, I’ve had my fair share of sit-ins. I can say that it does get easier, especially if you’re familiar with the music you’re likely to play. You get past the butterflies and you learn how to jump on stage, plug in, listen for the key, and play your first note. You realize that people are listening, but they’re more likely to listen for the good than the bad. And then, one day, you’ll be faced with an opportunity to sit in with people who are completely out of your league. So what do you say? You say yes.

I’d like to think that no matter how experienced you are, there will be playing opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, it’s the music… if you’re unfamiliar with the song or genre, you may have to hear your way through and hold on for dear life. Other times it’s the players… getting up to play with musicians you hold in high regard can be quite scary; you may take a moment to wonder “how did I get here?” And sometimes, it’s the audience. Ever look out into the crowd and see someone you didn’t expect? Could it be that one of your bass idols is sitting right in front of the stage? And does picturing people in their underwear actually work?

So, in the five seconds you have to say yes or no to the question of “hey, you want to sit in?” how do you sort through all of the thoughts going through your head? One way is to not think, just do. Get on the stage, take the bass, and play. The person that invites you to sit in already has confidence in your ability… they wouldn’t ask you if they thought you couldn’t hang. This is an opportunity for you to show the audience and the other musicians that you can play (who knows, you may get a call for a gig out of it). Don’t go out of your way to impress people with fancy techniques or too many notes, just make the band sound good, groove, and be watching when the song ends.

As the question is asked and you begin to doubt yourself, be careful not to get trapped by the Negative Nancy side of your brain. It’s easy to talk yourself out of playing, so why give yourself time to do it? It takes just a few seconds to realize that the other players are far better than you are, that you don’t deserve to be on the same stage with them, that you’ll mess up and everyone will notice, that you’ll make a complete fool of yourself, and that you’ll completely ruin your reputation. This is called “psyching yourself out.” Forgettaboutit. We are often our harshest critic and for some reason, we grant ourselves permission to critique music that we haven’t yet played. Instead of chickening out, give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Worst-case scenario is that you won’t do an amazing job but at least you’ll have the courage to try. That is what people will remember.

So, the next time someone asks if you want to sit in, just say yes. Jump off the metaphorical bridge, have confidence in the bungee chords and bass strings, and embrace the adrenaline rush. It will be over before you realize and once you’ve done it, you’ll walk away feeling empowered. Perhaps you’re empowered by your ability, or maybe you’ll be humbled by the experience and be inspired to practice. Either way, you’ve taken a giant leap of faith, and that is no small feat.

Readers, how do you approach this? I’d love to hear from you. Please share your experiences in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. It was actually easier for me to bungee jump than to sit in. Anyway tomorrow evening is my second jam session and I’m looking forward to it.

  2. I got a 15 year gig by sitting in. I took my nephew out to the local pub when he turned 21. The band was on break, and when the bass player (a good friend of mine) didn’t come back on time I stepped up and played the whole set. He didn’t mind, he wanted out of the band anyway. After the first song ended the band leader turned around and said “Hey who are you?” Sitting in takes a bit of balls, but it’s always fun and worth it.

  3. Playing with musicians who are WAY better than I am has made all the difference, but I have had my scaredy cat moments, and I regret every one of them. Thankfully, I did not say ‘no’ when Ray Mason asked me to replace my favorite bass player, Gerry Ellis (the guy who I would watch and think – someday, I’ll be as good as he is). 22 years and 9 albums later, it was the best decision I ever made. Thanks for a great article.

  4. I like the energy of sitting in. Over the years I have gotten to the point where I just say “yes” to sitting in. I have gotten a lot of gigs by doing just that. Every note you play with new musicians helps you grow.

  5. Great words. As a bassist stuck in beginner-ville, I don’t give myself much of a chance. Recently, I’ve said yes to play out, as you say. Nothing inspires like putting it out there. I play more now, which lends itself to practicing more. I hope all is well in TN.

  6. Once on a gig i received the charts from the (missing) guitarist, but only the upper chords of slash-chords were there, e.g. written was cm, but the real chord was cm/f, and I played at first a C –> I was in a lot of trouble and had basically to use my ears to get the right changes during the whole show..

  7. I have been in this situation a lot and yes it can be scary. I love it when its material I know, but when players start naming songs I dont know or never even heard, i get freaked quick! I do not wish to play your original with 20 changes and no charts. Some players will test your prowess by picking the hardest song they know, because they are nervous as well. I find what works is to talk over quickly what songs you all know and have fun. If you dont know the song, dont act like you do! I will ask for the key, a few of the note changes, and most likely if you screw up the audience wont even notice. Just dont stay in the wrong key please, shout out and ask if you have to. Its better than watching the rest of the band and yourself cringe on the one beat every measure, Dont be afraid to ask!! Kill all ego!

  8. Going out to jams is also a great way to do this and helps you get comfortable playing with many different people and styles. I do it as often as possible, sometimes several in a week. Not always great players but when they are you’ll realize you’re actually a better player than what you thought you were!

  9. I couldn’t agree more. Anyone and everyone who has played seriously has had moments of terror “playing up,” but that’s ultimately what makes you a better musician. Jams are a lot easier than gigs, though, because at a jam you can often “read” guitar chords as they are being played. That is much harder (or impossible) to do on stage.

  10. I automatically say yes. It’s that simple.

  11. I’m a pretty average bassist, can’t read sheet & can barely get my head around Tab. It doesn’t help that I’m never tuned to standard E either but I never turn down a jam EVER! Unless I’m just too drunk. As long as you hook with the drummer the rest is just gravy. I play completely by feel, my fingers just seem to know where to go (most of the time).