So you’ve never played a musical instrument in your life but on a sudden whim, you’ve just ordered a 5 String Banjo - Now is the time to attend your first jam.
Or you’ve been playing all alone in your bedroom for 6 months and would like to hear what you sound like in a group - Now is the time to attend your first jam.
Or you’ve been sitting out in the garage playing that banjo throughout your marriage, you’ve had children, watched them grow up, go to college, receive professional honours, and have their own families. - Now is the time to attend your first jam.
Or you took up the banjo a year ago because you promised yourself that you would only learn to play when hell freezes over, and there are ice storms down in Houston - Now is the time to attend your first jam.
Whatever your reason, whatever your age, whatever you want from the banjo, whatever your skill, abilities, or motivation - Now is the time to attend your first jam.
In fact, even if you’ve been to many jams in the past and always had a less than satisfying experience, read this article carefully because - Now is in fact, the time to attend your first GOOD jam.
No matter what your experience with the banjo, and no matter what your experience with jams, you can have a successful and satisfying jam, or a life of successful and satisfying jams, just by paying attention to some musical principles and following the normal social graces you learned (or should have learned) in kindergarden. I shall not spell them out now, but you boys in the back row know who I’m talking about.
What Kind Of Jams Are Out There?
& Which Jams to Attend
If there are no instruments visible other than unique designer guitars, If all the songs are twenty minutes long and have titles like 75 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Have Broken Up With Me - First, or the evergreen You Are Selfish, Complain Too Much and Are Too Damn Judgmental, Rag. You had best find an excuse to leave early, because you have found a singer-songwriter jam and they ain’t going to play Cripple Creek or any tune you know. Not tonight - Not ever. If this is the only jam in town - Now is time to start your own jam! (more on that later)
Bluegrass Jams - can be very polished or pretty loose. If on some other night there is and Old Time or Folk Jam you could forego the Bluegrass Jam. However, if you find you like bluegrass better than what you’re doing now, you can always switch to playing bluegrass banjo - any five string you currently own will do until you are pretty polished yourself.
Irish Jams are very demanding musically and in my experience tend to view the 5 string banjo as an instrument of the devil. I doubt anyone reading this book is really ready for an Irish Jam, and recommend that you attend only as audience, if at all.
Folk Jams tend to be the easiest, with songs like like John Henry, John Hardy, John Occupied, Johnny Cope &; Leave ‘Em Johnny Leave ‘Em. You can play along at a folk jam if you know 4 to 7 chords in one or two tunings. The rest is knowing where to put the Capo - You have to have a Capo for folk jamming - believe me - you gotta have one.
Folk Jams can also go terribly wrong. The singer/songwriters can show up at any time. Without gigantic, looming, tattooed, vegan folkie bouncers the singer/songwriters are always circling folk jams. Let down your guard and they will swoop in before the last chord of Don’t Get Drunk Johnny fades, and start a song about a subject they find infinitely more interesting - themselves..
Blues Jams can be a lot of fun and easy, once you understand the 3 basic chord forms in both G and Double C tuning. Between those two tunings you can play along in just about any key. It really helps to have some understanding of guitar chords since so many blues people are guitarists. Banjo fits in well with blues, and a little help from a friendly guitarist you can have a tremendous amount of fun.
Jug Band Jams are really a subset of blues jams. I’m very fond of Jug Band. Expect to see some people with “odd” instruments, like washboard, jaw harp, kazoo, and kitchenware. Be prepared to barrelhouse all night long - until the joint closes. If you’ve been to three singer/songwriter events in a row and find yourself considering suicide, seek ye out a Jug Band and be transported to a much better place.
Old Time Jams are the best of all jams, (for Old Time Musicians - everyone else -- beware). Here you will find other banjo players, fiddlers, guitarists who don’t think the planet revolves around their feelings, a smattering of other instruments like mandolin, dulcimer, harmonica, and occasional percussion players. The musical bill of fare will be mostly the same type of tune you’ have been learning in Rocket Science Banjo - string band instrumentals, old time songs, some folksy or even protest songs, and the occasional local oddity like the Amish looking guy who plays Satisfaction on hammered musical saw. This is the place for you - at least it is probably the place for you if you are reading my book. So come on in and get your learning tools out.
Learning Tools. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no party. You are here to learn, and the first thing to learn is:
The Tools To Bring To A Jam
A BANJO Well, of course you need a banjo - but if you literally have not yet bought one, that’s okay, go to a jam first. Meet a banjo player or two, see a banjo or two, hear a banjo or two. You can learn a lot about playing banjo without a banjo. And you might meet someone who can help you purchase that first banjo. Perhaps you will even meet someone who will help to learn how to play it!
AN ELECTRONIC TUNER\ I use a Black Snark which is also known as a Grey Snark. We live in that kind of world. It is dirt cheap and clips to the peg head to receive the vibrations directly from the banjo. This is important. Jams are noisy and no matter how good you are at tuning alone in your room, you are going to find it hard to hear at a jam when 10 or more people are all trying to tune at the same time.
A PEN You need to make lists, and will eventually want to get names and (if possible) email addresses. Don’t be pushy but if you strike up a conversation between tunes try to make the connection a bit more permanent - perhaps not on the first jam (unless you seem to be getting on really well). The social rules of jamming are always unwritten but are a lot simpler that the rules of getting a phone number at a bar - at least when you are getting numbers from people of the same sex. Don’t push. It is probably best to let others suggest exchanging emails or similar connections.
Even if you don‘t intend to get any names at your first jam or your 500th jam, you still need the pen to write in:
THE POCKET NOTEBOOK This is an important bit of kit, you need to make an accurate list of tune titles, and when (or if) the jam changes keys, you need to make that abundantly clear in your notes. Title and Key are both essential. You are making your first (of many) “To Learn” lists. When you get home, you will transfer the titles played tonight (complete with key information) to your computer. My wife uses an Excel spreadsheet for this sort of operation, but any spreadsheet or word processing program will work almost as well. You really should computerize the list. It takes only a few minutes and can help you a million times as you continue on your banjo journey.
I suggest you take your format from the.....
Big Tab Bonanza,
At a mere $25.00, how can you afford to be without it?
The TABONANZA is available at my website:
I published the titles here in 12/2012 and will add them to this if possible
Besides title and key, getting some identification on the person who called the tune is to give you an idea of what tunes they know - and therefore where you might find a usable version. You keep track of where the jam is because different jams may very well have completely different attendees - and therefore different tune lists. Mustache Guy could be mostly Round Peak tune enthusiasts while Bottle Blond Girl goes in more for hornpipes and rags.
Finally you will need:
A PORTABLE RECORDER. Tape, digital, whatever, bring something along to serve as audio storage. Titles are great, but you will be sitting in the catbird seat if you have real “memory” of the tunes too. Some tunes have multiple titles, some titles have multiple tunes, some tunes come in multiple versions, in more than one key, and some tunes might be identical to something you have in your home collection - but sound entirely different. Music, like language, has many accents, and dialects. You want to learn local variants, on all your tunes.
Most old time tunes are very short but they are played through many times. Try to get a title on the tape or file before they start, then record a few times (2 minutes or so) through the tune. If you don’t get a title before the tune, strive to get it afterward and put it directly on the tape then.
Even when you have the title on audio, write it down too - The list will be easier to use when you type the titles into your computer.
How To Comport Yourself At Your First Jam
There are unwritten rules for inserting yourself into a jam group you don’t know, but every group has different rules. Some groups like mine, are “Hail fellow well met” when a new player shows up, but others give strangers the “silent treatment”. Obviously you are going to have to play it all by ear. Remember you are joining a group that has been playing together a while - perhaps only 15 minutes, but that’s a while too. Indeed, some of the core members may well have been playing together since the Carter Administration.
My rule, no matter what type of early reception I get from other jammers is to play the “silent mouse”. I find a spot close to the main jam, but make sure I’m not inserting myself between players who insist on sitting next to each other. Try to never interfere with any established relationship or faction. However, do try to stay close to the main body, so you can hear the titles called out. Play along on tunes you know, but not very assertively. If you discover they have a very different feel to their playing, it is your job to catch that feel. You are the one trying to fit in here.
For straight Old Time Instrumental Jams one key probably will rule for an hour or more - perhaps for several months. It is important to get the name of the key and also get the name of any new key that might come along in the course of the evening and ask a banjo player what tuning he is using too. You’ll know the change - when everyone starts plucking their strings and the electronic tuners are outshining the overheads lights. If you brought an instrument with you but haven’t played along on a single tune, put your tuner on and re-tune with everyone else. Now you see why I insisted on an electronic tuner. With a good electronic tuner you could be completely deafened and yet end up tuned at least as well as you could do by ear. Yes Cricket, it is harder to tune in a noisy room
Never propose a tune until you’ve been at this particular jam a few times. Be content to play along with everyone else’s choices. Become a part of the scene by being part of the scenery for a while. Over time you will become a regular, and can watch others join just as you did. If you would have liked a more welcoming greeting when you first came, perhaps you could give the new guy a friendly “Hey” to let him know he is not trespassing.
If those seated around you seem kindly disposed to you by all means talk to them but don’t talk through a tune. Everyone is here to jam, and while the occasion is social, the playing usually comes first. Try to learn the names of those siting nearby, but I don’t suggest you try to get much more during your early jams.
They don’t know you, and probably aren’t going to ever want to know any complete stranger who keeps pumping them for phone numbers, or email addresses. Try to remember the names people call each other, (perhaps even write them down along with some distinguishing feature (Bill, guitarist, Big Mustache) and bide your time for a few jams. People will eventually begin to treat you like one of the group. And - if you act like a well behaved, not pushy, not crazy, member of the group - eventually you will indeed become a member of the group.
WHY DON’T THESE JAM TUNES SOUND LIKE MY BOOK?
It might actually be a completely different tune with the same title, or just so changed from the one in your book that you can barely recognize a phrase here or there. Welcome to the world of folk music. You are hearing a local variant, or perhaps a very common variant - your book may have had the odd version. Whatever the case, your recording of the Jam version is your best chance to figure it out.
One big problem with book arrangements is that there is simply too much stuff in them. Jams tend to play tunes at a pretty good clip (dancing speed or faster about 140 to 180 on the Tabledit metronome) and there simply is no time for all the decorations your book arrangement uses. Listen carefully to the jam tape and see if you recognize short passages from the book. You might look around for simpler book arrangements, or try to concentrate on just other banjo players at the jam. Perhaps it is time to simplify your version.
Why Won’t Anyone Talk To Me?
They might suspect you are a singer/songwriter and they don’t want to give you an opening. Well, not really, although...
Musicians are odd people - normal people play the radio, not the banjo. Don’t feel slighted when the folks around you don’t act like your family. Most of them are more or less strangers to each other too. Take nothing personally. Unless of course someone says something directly to you. I think for the most part you’ll find everyone friendly enough. If someone really weirds you out, move to the other side of the room.
If however, someone says you are on the wrong chord - - Now that actually could be a problem. Don’t treat it as an insult to your manhood or an “I’ll never show my face in here again” moment. Ask him (it will almost always be a him) what chord you should have been on and he might end up being very helpful to you. You have made a connection.
WHY DO THEY PLAY SO FAST?
Whenever they start a tune, everyone takes off so fast you get the feeling they have to be reach Buffalo before the mail train. You knew jammers were going to play faster than you do, but this is ridiculous. The melody is flying by so quickly you can’t really hear it. How could you ever be expected to keep up?
Don’t sweat It. You aren’t expected to keep up, or even play at all (until and unless you have some idea of what to do). If it is all going faster than you can handle, just sit back, enjoy, and record it. You are here to get the idea of jamming. If you don’t play a single note, you are still getting valuable training in group dynamics.
You can also watch other banjo players and take note of where the highest note of the melody comes - the beginning, the end, the middle? How about the low note? Can you be there with them next time it comes around? Listen for repeated figures in the melody. Try them out - even if you do it silently. Try everything. But most of all, make sure you
Know the Title
By knowing the title you can find the tune later and learn it. Without a title you got bupkis. By the end of the jam you might have a list of twenty or more tunes played. This is your first TO LEARN list. You will make many more over time.
When you get home look up the titles and locate recorded sources for as many of the tunes as you can. Find youtube videos, internet URLS, anything that will allow you to hear the tunes in a less chaotic setting than the jam. Make a file for the key (or for each key played). Transfer cd versions of the tunes to your ipod or computer. Some of the versions you collect will not be the same as the jam version - try to stick with the tune as played in your community. - there are different tunes with the same title, the same tune in different keys, and variants on every tune you are ever likely to hear. Your jam recording is, in fact the most reliable indicator of how a tune is played in your area - transfer it to your computer too, listen to the tunes and keep it for reference.
Your notebook has given you a bunch of titles to learn, but take care, it might not be time to learn them yet. Some tunes are relatively easy, some are pretty difficult. In some cases it is easy to know which is which. A tune like Angeline The Baker sounds pretty easy and is in fact easy, which is why you find it as the first tune in many collections. Other tunes can be considerably harder. Go for the easy tunes first.
I have put “difficulty” levels (1-6) on the tunes in my collection. The number is there so you will have some idea of what you are getting into before you start. Many other collections have multiple versions of tunes at different difficulty levels. I occasionally do this but it is really not my way. I neither like to make simplified versions of difficult tunes nor do I like tarted up versions of simple tunes. I want the melody to be recognizable, and I want the tune to scan well. In general skinning a tune too much is better than throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it, but I’m not fond of either process.
The basic idea is to put together a large enough repertoire to have a hot time at the old jam tonight, be the banjo player of choice for local players, and have a great good time playing with others. You could spend months at a time polishing up a dozen tunes until they shine like the brightest stars in the sky - but a dozen tunes won’t get you through more than the first hour of a jam. You will need one hundred or more tunes (say 25 - 45 in each locally popular key D, A, G, Maybe C or even possibly F, rarely Bb or Eb) before you are fully jam ready, and even then they might pull out quite a few “weird” tunes that you’ve never heard before, at each and every event. What you need is a large enough repertoire that you begin to see pieces of tunes you already know showing up in the new tunes.
What was that?
PIECES OF OLD TUNES SHOW UP IN NEW TUNES?
Exactly. Yeah..... OH YEAH!
That is, in fact, the big secret. While there are a lot of tunes, the differences between them might be few. And even very different tunes may have much the same connective tissue as other tunes in the same key (or tuning). When it comes to songs you will soon discover that the same tune will do for many many songs.
Do you know “Sail Away Ladies”? if so you practically know “Sally Anne” and a dozen other tunes. A single 18th century tune “The Grand Hornpipe” has most of the elements of many surviving hornpipes like “Spotted Ponies” “Whiskey Before Breakfast” “Durang’s” and numerous others that, while they all sound different, can be “guesstimated” if you know just one of them.
I do have some “fancy” versions in the Tab Bonanza collection, but I generally don’t do multiple versions. I assume that you can put the fancy techniques you learned in other tunes into your new tunes, and you shouldn’t have to learn the same techniques over and over. If you are using other collections I suggest you learn the “EZ” versions of the tunes and let the more complex versions wait until you have learned a whole pile of tunes you can use at jams. You don’t have to play the complex versions at jams - you have to play versions that allow you to fit in with others.
In the past decade or two a new phenomenon has appeared - The Slow Jam. Now I’ll start by saying that I think slow jams do indeed have a useful place in the world. For many people the very idea of leaping into a regular jam is enough to freeze them in place, unable to move at all. For most of us the idea of playing a tune you don’t actually know, at full dance speed (or faster) is really daunting. But I’m still rather leeery of slow jams. I keep meeting people who have been going to the same slow jam for so long they seem to have forgotten that the original idea was to play in Normal Speed Jams! They live in the slow lane.
Don’t fall for the “If you play too fast you’ll go blind” school of excuses for slow playing either. There have always been and always will be people who claim to have some better understanding of the tunes because they play them at dirge speed “You miss all the subtle nuances if you rush through a tune. You have to let every note breathe, allow each phrase to bud, blossom bloom and fade before you move onto the next.” Right. What they mean is that they can’t play fast enough to keep up with the real players and are afraid to even try. This is dance music guys. You have to be able to play it at dance speed
You most likely own some old time or folk cds, mp3s mpgs, cp3s, whatever. You can play along with them. Now, some people (especially the old timers) didn’t tune to concert pitch and that can be a problem. However, you can probably play along with a modern group or performer, because the old pitch forks have been replaced with electronic tuners. Everyone plays at concert pitch now - or they play at some specific number of half steps above or below it. I rarely play my nylon strung circa 1893 Jacklyn with anyone, but I tune here exactly 3 step below concert anyway. The old folks tuned so the strings felt right to them and/or to play with friends. Us new folks tune to concert because we can buy any tension strings we want, and we’ve learned that consistent tuning is a direct aid to ear training.
So dig out some mp3s of a hot modern group and jam along. If you really can’t keep up with them you can always use software to slow them down. Really try to keep up though. You know that no software is going to work at your next jam, so don’t give up too easily. Home jamming against records was all I had in the early days and back then slowing down the record meant changing keys.
I know people who say jams are just an adult extension course in high school cliques. still others are absolutely certain fellow jammers are collectively plotting dire revenge against them. This might actually be true.
Don’t sweat it. Most people are at the jam to satisfy something inside them - unless you are truly strange they probably haven’t noticed you. Have fun, don’t worry about your “image”.
Remember that there are others at the jam who might be even more nervous than you. Some people, in fact, find the musical and/or social demands of a jam extremely stressful. They seem to fold in on themselves with worry. Be helpful if possible. You might not know much about music yet, but you can still encourage them get past the initial stress. You might even gain a new friend. My oldest friends are the ones I have been jamming with for decades.
Thursday, January 17, 2013 @11:06:26 AM
Thanks, OWB! I'm headed to a new jam (to me) next week, notebook at the ready:)
Thursday, January 17, 2013 @11:57:15 AM
You know I'm a slow reader....this is gonna take me a month and a half to read... :-D
Jane C Says:
Thursday, January 17, 2013 @2:14:54 PM
Thursday, January 17, 2013 @7:42:44 PM
Great post, got me thinking about going back to jams again
Friday, January 18, 2013 @5:22:59 AM
Damned good mate!
Sunday, January 20, 2013 @1:07:09 PM
THANKS OWC. Great blog. Super, fun read. I'm off to a jam this Tuesday. Was almost going to bottle out, but now feel better equiped than ever. Still unsure but will be there thanks to your blog advice
Sunday, January 27, 2013 @6:46:51 PM
I am really happy to see so many people taking my advice - of course next week you might all be screaming for my blood.
Remember there are good jams and bad - good jammers and bad, but you are going to take something new away from attending, so even if it is an exceptionally bad jam you are the winner for having gone - Unless of course it is a Singer-Songwriter jam - in which case I recommend keeping the number of your local suicide hotline on speed dial.
Monday, January 28, 2013 @5:06:23 AM
I went to a new jam last week, going again this week. It's just 2 other people, competent and relaxed, and very flexible. It's kind of practice, too; if someone wants to work on a section a bunch, or makes a mistakr, or whatever, everyone's into it. The other jam I attend is straight up unison OT, keep up and don't make the fiddler mad, but beginner's welcome. It's great to have that combination; I recommend it!
Sunday, March 31, 2013 @8:21:16 AM
Fantastic post Tony! Had me laughing a lot (especially about the singer-songwriters, cos we have plagues of them here in the UK too, our clogging up precious jamtime with the burblings of their private diary entries about heartbreak or omlettes (or both) to instantly forgettable tunes......)
I have already signposted other people to this blog in order to enjoy your wit and wisdom on this minefield of a topic.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013 @6:53:16 PM
Ha! Good breakdown and dissection of banjo mystique and "jam-ology". Buy an instrument you've never played before or only by yourself - go visit a group of people you've never met and play songs you've never heard, don't worry about being ignored and not fitting in, they have to get comfortable with you first and decide whether or not you are a threat....hmmm, sounds kinda like the pack mentality of wolves......anyway, be sure and take notes so you know what to practice for next week.......Your piece was well written and I enjoyed reading it, but there is a lot there I have experienced that encourages me not to seek out and attend jams where I do not know anyone.
Friday, July 5, 2013 @5:00:23 PM
Couldn't have said it better ... shorter perhaps ... but certainly NOT better.
Yours in BHAM,
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @9:06:51 PM
Yep, just about everyone can say stuff shorter than me. I tend to ramble on and on and on and on an.......
The real problem is my editor, who never removes a word. Of course I'm my own editor so......
I think you'll find that you aren't really surrounded by wolves if you give people a chance. Don't assume everyone else knows everyone but you and that they see you as a threat of some kind. Some people might only have a few minutes on you in experience with this jam bunch.
Re-read the part about insinuating yourself into the jam slowly and meekly, testing the waters, not overpowering others, perhaps not even playing audibly. Perhaps leaving the instrument in the case on your first trip or even two.
The big threat to Old Time jams comes from the singer-songwriter types and the people who want to sing John Prine songs. Nothing tics off Old Time players like being asked to change tuning to do your big arrangement of some dismal self pity ballad. That's what singer-songwriter jams are for -- and the best instrument for that kind of jam is a guitar - where there is only one common tuning, not a banjo.
Paul R Says:
Sunday, August 11, 2013 @7:23:01 PM
Came back to re-read this and the comments. I've been quoting your singer-songwriter info to other pickers. It reminded me of a young s-s back in the mid-seventies in Toronto. He introduced his next number: "Here's another sappy introspective song." I listened for a bit and concluded, "He's right!"
Keep your current editor, Tony.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 @3:01:18 PM
Thanks Paul. I've tried to fire him but like Bartleby he just won't go. I guess I better learn to live with the editor I've got.
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