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May 15, 2021 - 12:33:18 PM
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2 posts since 6/25/2020

I have been playing banjo for about 3-4 years now and have recently been devoting my time to playing old-time clawhammer. However this has all been alone in my room. This past week I attended my first jam, and while I was able to play the handful of songs I know pretty well, when it came time to play a song I didn't know (which was most of them), I would just strum the chords in a bum-ditty and couldn't really contribute much else. I am curious, how do other clawhammer players play in a jam setting, and is there anything I can practice when I am home to get better at playing in a jam?

May 15, 2021 - 2:08:14 PM
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Bill H

USA

1596 posts since 11/7/2010

That's pretty much what I do. Nothing wrong with strumming along as you learn and expand your repertoire. I find it useful to jot down the name of the tunes I don't know. After a while you'll find you will join in more and more. The weakness I discovered after years of playing on my own before I found a jam was my timing was terrible, and I needed to simplify my arrangements to be able to get up to jam speed.

May 15, 2021 - 5:04:11 PM
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4130 posts since 10/13/2005

Write down the name/key of the tunes you hear and look them up and practice at home. It's OK to sit out tunes and listen, particularly for the first time you hear them. OT for the most part is not chord oriented, particularly D key tunes. Play quietly off to the side, try not to step on anyone's musical toes. Timing is more important than notes. Catching tunes on the fly is a skill that comes with time and practice, play tunes you don't know on a CD/record/whatever and practice flying time at home. Accept but work on improving your limitations. Watch and listen to the more skillful banjo players, you can learn a lot by keeping your eyes, ears and mind open. Enjoy the learning process because it doesn't have a finish line. banjered

May 15, 2021 - 6:34 PM

Paul R

Canada

14498 posts since 1/28/2010

Practice is the key to improvement. Listening is the most important part of making music in a group. Don't be obtrusive, don't be afraid to ask questions (at the right time, and maybe not too many). A lot of players are willing to be helpful.

The type of session makes a difference. I was part of a "Bluegrass" jam for several years ( I put that in quotes 'cause it seemed less and less so over the years), so song leading and taking breaks was routine (but not mandatory). Often it was best to just play rhythm, maybe just "chunks" (especially on nights when guitar players who could do proper rhythm weren't around) to maintain solid timing, until my break came along. (But I could get away with that at that jam, having been one of the committee.) I found it interesting that playing a tune as I'd learned it was sometimes too much. Simplifying was better for backup. I attended a Celtic session that was more of a free-for-all. A tune would end and someone would start up another. No announcement, just jump in. But you had to know the tunes and be very competent to take part. Very intimidating. The Bluegrass sessions were friendly, helpful, and relatively easy to take part in. They were also more and more haphazard and attracted people who came to do their own thing, some who should have waited until they could play better, and some who didn't listen. The Celtic jam was clearly for a select group of very skilled players.

There are many different kinds of jams. Some have a hierarchy with inner and outer circles, some are more open, some are song oriented with breaks, some are tune oriented with everyone in unison (more or less). Just what kind of jam is yours?

May 16, 2021 - 2:31:39 AM
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m06

England

10022 posts since 10/5/2006

quote:
Originally posted by zacw44

I have been playing banjo for about 3-4 years now and have recently been devoting my time to playing old-time clawhammer. However this has all been alone in my room. This past week I attended my first jam, and while I was able to play the handful of songs I know pretty well, when it came time to play a song I didn't know (which was most of them), I would just strum the chords in a bum-ditty and couldn't really contribute much else. I am curious, how do other clawhammer players play in a jam setting, and is there anything I can practice when I am home to get better at playing in a jam?


This is the issue and sudden realisation that so many banjo players, even like you 3-4 years into playing, face if they want to successfully join sessions. It is typically a stark confronting of an apparent shortfall of the necessary skills that can come as a shock to the adept solo player. This reality can demoralise perfectly good solo players. Many diligently sit-in, play what they 'know' but are lost and adrift in the main current of sound beyond their own repertoire. They never really find their session legs or reach their full potential. But it doesn't have to be that way...

...some of the skills are there but need to be identified and brought to the fore. And other skills and, vitally, session thinking and awareness can be imparted, practiced and developed to make that transition from solo to group much kinder and more efficient. The skills need to be nurtured.

Ideally an experienced teacher/mentor will start developing those skills almost from the outset when learning to play the banjo; basic skills and sensibility that then become second nature and natural well before that first session ready to be honed and improved in sessions.  No sensible person would attempt to canoe in a fast moving current - white water - without an awareness of balance, posture, life jacket, paddle technique, recovery manoeuvres, and water/hazard sense. It's about being equipped. A session is, at its best, in effect musical white water.

Sure, slow jams exist but too many banjo players get 'stuck' in them under an illusion of 'progress', don't get equipped or skilled-up and never progress past their backwater safety to sessions where the dynamics of full speed and the fun and freedom of picking tunes up on the fly is to be enjoyed.

Here in North Somerset we undertake exactly that equipping and nurturing. And it works.

My #1 recommendation is to find a good fiddle player and get well accustomed to playing in duet. Let him/her throw in some tunes you don't know in that intimate setting. Drop the pre-packaged 'bum-ditty' disengaged noodling and learn to listen - start to let your internal solo focus move external to you - use the fiddle player's rhythm and phrasing to create your way in and gradually hear and build melody from there. That is the rudiments of engaging; the real key to session playing.  Doing it, in safety at first, will give you enough skill and confidence to transfer that learning into a session setting.

Edited by - m06 on 05/16/2021 02:47:51

May 16, 2021 - 3:01:10 AM
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m06

England

10022 posts since 10/5/2006

Note: ‘Enough’ skill is what we need at first to join a session and have it be a happy and positive - if a little enervated - experience. Not a whole load more. Because the only place that we become fully confident and adept is by building on and developing that initial just 'enough' in those sessions.

Another important factor is our choice of where we put ourselves. Recommendation #2: head to quality sessions where the experienced session players are. We learn more and better and ironically there is usually less ego on display among experienced session players than at 'sessions' that are really little more than gatherings of insular solo players.

Edited by - m06 on 05/16/2021 03:18:17

May 16, 2021 - 3:21:33 AM

4078 posts since 12/6/2009

Many years ago while at a country music show I had the honor of meeting one of the Famous Harmonicats. A fabulous harmonica group (3) who had some big hit songs in the 40s and 50s +, (Peg Of My Heart) and were always a demand on TV shows. I forgot the name of the man I met but we were talking about playing with others. At the time I had been filling in on guitar with a local country band part time but was having difficulty with the rhythms they used. (Not typical 4 4 beat so sat out of a lot of their songs. He had noticed the trouble I was having and suggested I stay sitting in and just thumbing my way through in the background and I would eventually catch on to what they were doing. Although one could hardly play bluegrass to their beat I got so I could keep up with guitar chord backups. So I would say, don’t give up, keep going, keep trying, keep a low presence and practice practice practice. You’ll catch on. Guaranteed

Edited by - overhere on 05/16/2021 03:29:14

May 16, 2021 - 4:53:31 AM
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3547 posts since 4/29/2012

quote:
Originally posted by Bill H

...... simplify my arrangements to be able to get up to jam speed.


Lots of good advice here. But I think this one is key. You don't have to be playing anything that would even be recognisable as the tune in an ensemble setting as long as you are playing something that goes with the tune. This could be something as simple as playing just the first note of every other bar. I know lots of session tunes - And don't know even more. But I can often play along with the ones I don't know even if I'm not strictly speaking playing the tune (if I can't it's an opportunity to go to the bar for the next beer) . I like to think that even this adds to the overall mix as long as somebody (usually the fiddle player(s) ) has the tune covered. Quite often I start with a simple background pattern and add more notes as the tune progresses and I can 'catch' more of the tune. That's the upside of the '97 repetitions of AABB' that typifies our music. Sometimes by the end of the tune I'll have another one in the repetoire.

I'd even go as far as to say that if everybody was playing a fully gussied up version of the actual tune it would sound terrible.

There are some tunes that I know well that I wouldn't dream of playing a fancy, fully ornamented version of in a session. Sometimes when a tune I don't know is being played I'll think 'That's a good one - I'll learn it properly in my own time'. Often I think 'Nah - just another fiddle tune - I'll bum-tiddy along with this one and then forget it'. 

Edited by - AndrewD on 05/16/2021 04:56:14

May 16, 2021 - 8:27:25 AM
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Bill H

USA

1596 posts since 11/7/2010

Andrew, I spent quite a few years mostly playing and practicing on my own until I met some folks nearby that play Old Time. I heavily invested my time into learning very difficult melodic versions of tunes that were a total fail at jam speeds. It is acceptable to play more chordal than melodic version of tunes. The banjo is primarily rhythmic and percussive accompaniment in OT music, though when I can go head to head melodically with a fiddler, it feels pretty good.

May 17, 2021 - 1:41:51 AM
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m06

England

10022 posts since 10/5/2006

The best sessions are creative and sensitive interplay.

I use the word ‘compliment’ rather than ‘accompany’. To me it describes a dynamic and active relationship to the fiddle.

That’s why holding rigidly onto versions of tunes that we know inhibits our development as a session player.

When we listen closely to others we are engaged and can adapt our own playing to compliment and make the whole sound more pleasing. If on a repeat a fiddler suddenly drops to play the A part low, that is an opportunity to respond and compliment. More subtly a good fiddle player will alter their phrasing. When we hear that we can anticipate next time around and change our phrasing/syncopation to compliment.

The OP asked what he could do to help him be better prepared. I encourage him to discover and explore that flexible, playful relationship to a fiddle player's real time sound. In duet that maximises his chances of hearing and noticing what is happening; it begins to attune his ears and awareness.

Recommendation #3: avoid too large sessions. Numbers does not equal a 'good' or 'successful' session. It equals a session that lacks intimacy and the scope to hear and respond musically. Large sessions are unresponsive, inflexible cacophony - a forced march - not intimate engagement. At worst one side of the session can even be out of time with the other.

Edited by - m06 on 05/17/2021 01:57:26

May 17, 2021 - 11:12:18 AM

2 posts since 6/25/2020

Thanks everyone, these are great tips. I've started working out some simple arrangements of some tunes I heard at the last jam and am looking forward to the next one!

May 17, 2021 - 9:49:53 PM
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Paul R

Canada

14498 posts since 1/28/2010

Mike makes the point I've always made: the most important part of making music is listening. When you are attentive to others you will figure out what fits. You may find this out when you hear some jammers who are clearly not listening and throwing everything at the music - noisy, jarring, showing off, and not complementary. And it's often when the jam gets too big that this happens. In my experience, things improved when some of us would retire to another room and have a small, calm session. And it was surely easier to hear.

You will, if you are attentive, find the listeners at your jam. Our Bluegrass banjo player was probably the best at this. She would hold back and not be intrusive. And she was attentive to vocal harmony and could find a line that fit - "You were singing there, so I sang here." But it showed in her character. There were times when she was absent because a friend had medical problems and she was being a caregiver. I think you'll see that in some players, if you look hard enough. Your character will show in your playing.

May 18, 2021 - 1:44:43 AM
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m06

England

10022 posts since 10/5/2006

quote:
Originally posted by PaulR
>When you are attentive to others you will figure out what fits. You may find this out when you hear some jammers who are clearly not listening and throwing everything at the music - noisy, jarring, showing off, and not complementary. And it's often when the jam gets too big that this happens<
 
>Your character will show in your playing<
 

True. Being able to hear and identify is the essential session requirement. If that fundamental requirement isn't there, then all the above advice and recommendations about engagement and complimenting are obstructed.

Too big numbers and even one blousy, brash and unaware person in a small group are session killers. Unfortunately session newbies due to their lack of experience seldom realise this and will often determinedly keep going to sessions that aren't going to help them gain the skills they need to really engage and have the most fun. I guess in some cases that may be all there is on offer in their locality. I wish the keen newbie facing that situation could peel away and create a smaller session that would provide what they need. 
 

It might seem a paradox for a newbie to create a session. But session etiquette can be learned and understood instantly and applied from the outset. And a smaller session would likely attract experienced players who tend to emerge from the woodwork when the  setting is right. It's also a myth that experienced players are unwelcoming of players who are new to sessions; bringing on people keeps a music community vibrant and healthy. That's what we all want. Unfriendly people are unwelcoming and that unfriendliness and arrogance can be found at any level of experience. With the prep and nurturing already described more can be achieved by sitting-in on intimate full speed sessions with good musicians. And because quality is prioritised and maintained that better session provides the real context for a newbie to acquire the skills he/she actually need. It's not the typical 'beginner' session that patronisingly holds newbies back, it's a full on session that respects and lifts and carries the newbie forward. Everyone wins!

If that original session risks getting too popular and losing intimacy, democratically create another session on the same model. Keep the quality high.

Edited by - m06 on 05/18/2021 02:00:36

May 18, 2021 - 2:13:22 AM
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m06

England

10022 posts since 10/5/2006

Zac, it’s a balance of what you put in, and what you get from others:

Taking time to practice, listen and explore rhythm, variation and simplification of melody in duet with a fiddle player first (without that prep sitting-in on a full speed session will likely be a fruitless rabbit-in-headlights experience).

Taking time to put yourself in a small, intimate session among experienced musicians where you can learn and build on what you discovered and acquired in your duet playing.

Edited by - m06 on 05/18/2021 02:17:04

May 18, 2021 - 4:03:15 AM
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m06

England

10022 posts since 10/5/2006

In a 1:1 setting with a fiddle player you can take time to adjust to each other, agree to change tempo and stop and suggest ideas and discuss any issues. All the while the main bonding task is happening; you are quietly getting acclimatised to playing in relation to sound and creative expression that is outside you.

It may seem an obvious thing to say (well duh!) but the reality of having that external ‘intrusion’ of sound 'cutting across' our thinking is often the single biggest ‘strangeness’ that completely throws an adept but internally focused solo player.

Your fiddle playing friend’s magic, almost mystical, role is to ever-so subtly change that passive sense of ‘intrusion’ into an active realisation of engagement.

Edited by - m06 on 05/18/2021 04:17:59

May 18, 2021 - 6:53:22 AM
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4078 posts since 12/6/2009

my most productive learning curve was when I had a friend who played uncanny rhythm guitar.....he with is playing made my fingers do things I couldn't do with others when he wasn't there.......add to Paul's remarks.....stay away from large jams.

May 24, 2021 - 10:01:38 AM

4695 posts since 2/24/2004

The easiest type of jam to join is a huge one where everyone is drinking.  Sit on the outskirts of the jam and play quietly along. If there are several fiddlers & banjoists that are solid in the middle--they probably won't even notice you.  

I was at a huge jam in NC where a man sat beside me with a beat up banjo--roughly tuned in G (it was out of tune) and he wildly frailed every tune in out of tune G --even though everyone else was playing in D & A most of the evening. 

I don't think anyone even noticed.  I just moved around to another section of the jam and said nothing of course.  But if you go to any big jams its a good idea to have a strap on your banjo--so you can just move around on the outskirts so you don't get next to someone who is way off key as it would be distracting--especially to a beginner. :)

Best wishes,

Mary Z. Cox

maryzcox.com


 

May 24, 2021 - 1:23:33 PM

4 posts since 5/24/2021

I've been wanting to find a jam since the day I picked up a banjo. Who knows when I'll feel ready.

May 26, 2021 - 6:04:01 AM
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4130 posts since 10/13/2005

Ha Mary! That is rich! Find a big jam where everyone (well most) are drunk. I think that is not bad advice at all even though it flies in the face of "small jams" recommended above. Such a jam would give the beginner a chance to understand what they know and don't know without stepping on too many musical toes with one's stupendous musical in-expertese. My beginner jam had about a dozen people. Unfortunately I did manage to step on a few toes now and then but such is the price everyone pays to learn. Carry on thumpers! banjered

May 27, 2021 - 9:01:22 AM

Big Ed

USA

23 posts since 4/12/2019

quote:
Originally posted by zacw44

Thanks everyone, these are great tips. I've started working out some simple arrangements of some tunes I heard at the last jam and am looking forward to the next one!


I'm a clawhammer neophyte, but reasonably capable upright jammer.

This is EXACTLY the right approach.  Simplify, and don't try to move too quickly.  This week, work on ONE song that was played at the last jam.  Next time around, you can call that song (or when someone else calls it) go to town.  Unless the other jammers are complete a**holes (of which I've encountered precious few in jams) they'll be very supportive of your effort.  Then next week, work up another song.  6 months from now, you'll be playing along and contributing to the majority of the jam.  

That's the approach i took when I joined my current pretty high level jam about 7 years ago.  Just about every song was unfamiliar to me, and the speed was often incredible.  Within 2-3 years, it was hard to remember how challenging it was.  Today, I occasionally want to smack myself for taking these wonderful jam sessions for granted.  Every once in a while when I do something kinda neat on bass, my buddies will say something along the lines of, "I can remember when you wouldn't have even tried that!"

My buddies really appreciate what I contribute on upright, and encourage me to bring my banjo as well.  No matter how much you play at home, NOTHING makes you progress as much as playing w/ others - especially in public!  With my 3-piece string band, I've slowly been adding tunes on which I can not embarrass myself on banjo.  Mostly slower tunes, or pretty simple faster tunes.  I still find singing w/ banjo MUCH more challenging than singing w/ bass.

May 27, 2021 - 10:04:18 AM
Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

1196 posts since 10/15/2019

What I used to do at jams was to stay pretty quiet if I didn't know the tune. At the end of each section there is usually some kind of Dum-dum-DUM! where it returns to the root chord. Figure that out first, and really try to nail it. Next time through, try to pick up a measure or two before that. Now I have Beep-dadee-Boop-Boop-Dum-dum-DUM! Whoo hoo, I'm getting there!

At about this time the tune stops and they start an new one. I make sure to ask someone what the name of that tune was, then I go home, find a recording, and do my homework for next time. Let's face it, if they did Soldier's Joy this week, they'll probably do it again next week, and you'll be ready!

May 27, 2021 - 10:12:13 AM

Big Ed

USA

23 posts since 4/12/2019

Yeah - as other folk have mentioned - stay quiet, and focus on staying w/ the beat.
Learn to pick up chords from watching a guitar player - or another banjo, and expand your repertoire of chords.
Work on doing CRAZY things like drop thumbing or alternating the strings on you bum-diddy.

Pretty soon you'll be imitating playing well enough to be mistaken for actually doing it! :D

May 29, 2021 - 8:47:04 PM
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donc

Canada

6566 posts since 2/9/2010

I've been in and out of jams for about 12 years. Due to the pandemic I've been out of the loop for well over a year. I have been doing some automated play alongs with Youtube etc. but I'm sitting here wondering how strange it will be to get started again with real people. Good luck to the millions of others who are also climbing out of this rut.

May 30, 2021 - 7:27:48 AM

Kevin S

USA

14 posts since 12/9/2018

Timing was mentioned in a couple of the above replies. I agree for sure. I’ve found the Strum Machine app a big help with working on timing. It’s basically a metronome band and it makes practicing more fun and practical.

May 31, 2021 - 6:43:42 AM

1274 posts since 1/31/2011

Find the type of jam. Beginner, int or advanced. I've been playing a long time but pass on the advanced who are semi pro+.

The biggest thing I was told early on was don't play loud constantly. I was just real excited to be playing with others forgetting how loud the banjo is and likely I was pretty off. A guitarist I highly respected that was sitting next to me got up and moved.

There is a very successfull group lesson that my luthier puts on called The Turtle Jam led by a veteran banjo/guitar instructor who is a member here that is very well attended to teach people how to jam with others in a fun, no pressure environment.

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