Learning to Jam
Q: Okay, I am an old rookie bass player. I always wanted to play, but I just took a long time to get started. I am playing with the praise band at my church currently, which is great; it’s making me take it seriously, and is a very forgiving environment as I learn. So far, I’m learning songs, and in the process am learning the fretboard. I would love to get to the point where I could “jam” though. I know time and practice are the key, so my question is this: how best to focus my practice efforts to get to the point where I can sit in with other musicians and just play in a less structured musical setting?
A: I think that you are on the right path. While everyone may have a slightly different perception of this process, here is what I think helps me in “jam” scenarios:
- Ear training. Learn as many songs as you can by ear. Figure out lines and melodies. Find the notes on the fretboard and practice turning them into music. Every time you pick out a chord progression or melodic line by ear, you are developing your ear and your brains ability to listen and interact with music.
- Pay attention to shapes, intervalic relationships and common chord progressions, turn-arounds and endings. Many songs follow similar formats, chord changes and employ stock endings (especially in jam sessions). Pay attention to the shapes of lines and try and learn what those shapes sound like. This applies to intervallic leaps (what does the interval of a minor third sound like, what does a fifth sound like, etc.). Learn the sound of pentatonic scales as they apply to the shape on the fretboard.
- Try singing along with yourself. Try to tune your voice to the intervals that you play so you further associate those shapes with the sound. This is also great for ear training.
- Keep it simple! You will likely only start out with a tonal center or set of stock changes (rhythm changes, blues, etc.). Don’t worry about coming right out of the gate with the hippest line, just lock in with the drummer and play roots, 5th and other simple bass line notes. Then, listen hard! Pay attention to whatever the other chordal instruments are doing. Usually someone will start driving the train. If no one steps up, try and introduce some variety to your line. Be patient and let things grow organically while interacting with what’s happening around you. As it locks into something as a unit, explore the harmony and try and explore some hipper ideas. Don’t force it, though. Just be open, keep your head up, watch everybody and keep your ears open
- Whatever the genre, learn the “standards”. If you are in a gospel worship group, learn some of the tunes that everybody knows and loves. If it’s a jazz thing, learn some tunes out of the Real Book. If it’s a pop/rock thing, learn the repertoire. Whatever ever it is, learn as many songs as you can.
I never put a lot of effort in that last direction until I took a weekly gig with a funk band. We played mostly funk and R&B covers but it was very open and people would sit in, call tunes, etc. The band was great, and I wound up learning a ton of tunes. I soon realized that I was getting much, much better at hearing changes and anticipating musicians because my ears were developing. That’s when I really locked and loaded onto the process. Learning tunes, melodies, bass lines and chord changes is the only real way to hone that skill. And it’s fun! I often suggest that my students pick an album and learn every tune and bass line from top to bottom. Or make a playlist of your favorite tunes and start picking them off, one by one.
Readers, how have you been developing your skills? What have you learned through jamming with your peers? Please share in the comments!