How to Jam Part 2: Playing together
by Dennis Winge
In part 1, we talked about what easy and fun material two or more musicians can jam on even if they know nothing about each other’s musical preferences or styles. Now, let’s say for the purposes of this article, you start jamming together with another guitarist. What happens first? You start playing chords? You jump right into a solo? What about the melody of the song (if you’re doing a song as opposed to just a progression)? Is one of you going to sing it or try to pick out the melody on the guitar? How long should you solo for? How should we end the song?
This guide may not be able answer every question you’ll ever have about jamming, but it will be a good start.
Melody - First, you don’t necessarily need someone to play or sing the melody of the tune. After all, you’re just jamming and the focus should be on improvisation. I personally am not a big fan of someone singing during a jam session because then the rest of it seems like it simply becomes a backdrop to the singer’s vocal performance. If one of you knows the melody on guitar, then that is a great way to get you in the spirit of the tune and will fuel your improvisation on it. However, if it’s not easy for either of you to grab the melody, then don’t worry about it. After all, improvisation itself is spontaneous melody-making.
Soloing length – Obviously, you don’t want to carry on for hours in your solo, but you also shouldn’t worry about keeping it short and neat. This isn’t a wedding band where you are expected to take one short and sweet solo and that’s it. This is a format where you can stretch out, be creative, and try to implement the things you are working on. A good rule of thumb is, if you still have more creative ideas to explore or contribute, keep going. If you’ve run out of ideas and you’re just repeating yourself, move on.
Soloing tools – If you’re unsure about what scale(s) to use over a certain progression, you can ask your jamming partner. If you think they are a better musician than you, listen to what they say but don’t take it as gospel. Explore it for yourself, and then ask your teacher later. If they are not as good a musician than you, you can still bring it up but be very cautious about what they say. My dad used to always say “amateurs teach amateurs to be amateurs.”
Comping – This is an abbreviation for the word “accompanying.” It means you are supporting the soloist, usually with chords. Try to: 1) not be louder than the soloist 2) keep good time 3) have a good ‘feel’ that’s appropriate to the song 4) keep the ‘form’ of the tune – i.e. don’t get lost with where you are. (This is also very important while soloing.) 5) Explore different ways to buoy the soloist – play with dynamics, maybe change the voicings you use on your chords, or arpeggiate the chords, or play bass lines, or guide tones only, or muted power chords, etc.etc.
Trading and Form – The ‘form’ means keeping the total lengths of each section intact and playing them in the right order. It can be a tool by which you can have more interaction and more fun. For example say you are playing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” which is an 8-bar verse and an 8-bar chorus. You could each take solos on multiple times through the form. But then what about trading 16 bars each? How about 8 bars or 4 bars or even 2 or 1 bars each? It can be really fun to interact with each other this way and it really increases your ability to keep the form as well as transition from rhythm to lead playing without losing the form. What about soloing at the same time where no one ‘comps’? It can be very challenging, but hugely rewarding as well.
Endings – When you are both done soloing and trading, one of you can play the melody if appropriate. Otherwise you can just give some kind of body language that you’re ending (or look for similar queues from your jam partner), or you can simply say “last time” or something. You’ll end it somehow sooner or later so you might as well speak up if they miss your queues and you feel the song is done. Also, you don’t have to always make a big musical drama for each ending. Sometimes the simplest endings are the best.
Have fun, experiment, and jam with as many different people as possible. Keep a record of easy and fun tunes you like to jam on and it’ll get easier and easier.
About the author: Dennis Winge is a professional guitarist living in New York with a passion for vegan food and bhakti yoga. If you are interested in taking Guitar Lessons in Ithaca, NY, then be sure to contact Dennis!