Learning to Jam

Bassist at a jam session

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. 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!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Awesome advice. Thanks!

  2. kico

    What helped me a lot in being able to jam was to learn the chordal notes af a scale…
    Every scale has their chords you can play to that scale. Then I would learn the chordal notes of of the chords of the scale. After a while I would look for a jamtrack in the scale I started learning and jam along. Helped me a lot in unlocking the fretboard.

  3. Ideally a jam should also be a very forgiving environment for mistakes. Above all you should be having fun with it. And if you’re in the middle of a jam and get lost, listen to what sounds good. I think the “trick” Victor Wooten mentioned in his book is great: if you play a note and it doesn’t sound like it fits in the current key, go one fret up or down and you’ll be in key again.

  4. René

    Very usefull to set the mind and to jump in the jam… Yeah!

  5. Atticus

    Great article. Thanks. Another thing I’ve found helpful when starting out is to learn basic guitar chord shapes. If you get lost it is fairly easy to get back on track just by watching the guitarists fretting hand. Know what a G chord looks like and hit the root. If your playing blues, rock, or country based music the song structure will become fairly obvious relatively quickly. Take notes, keep it simple, have fun, and stay out of treble.

  6. Some great pointers,Damian….I might add, the more playing/jam situations you are in, the more you become comfortable playing on the fly.Playing in different genres and with a variety of players,builds confidence and encourages one to become more versatile in their playing style.BASS ON ??

  7. John Bartlett

    Hey Damian, Great advise here as always. I’d add one more thing – learn some common feels. I’m thinking in particular for blues jams, likely the most typical public jam that most people encounter. The forms are often a simple I-IV-V 16 bar blues but often people will just say “shuffle in G” or “Bb rumba” or “slow blues in D”. Even if you’ve never heard the tune before, you can usually do a more than passable job with simple lines and the right feel.