by Jason Steele
Last blog post about jam sessions was all about the ears and this week is all about the basics. Two of the most basic aspects of music is the speed (tempo) and volume (dynamics). Having control over these two things will bring your playing and jam sessions to a whole new level. The exercises below will help you gain greater control over each of them by group play and exploring changing up the tempos and dynamics of a song. It’s not that common for a song to change tempo within the song, but many songs most certainly offer up a variety of different dynamics within the same song.
Focus on the Basics: Tempo and Dynamics
If you’ve ever taken a formal music lesson you may have heard the term tempo. Tempo refers to the speed of the song being played and is measured in beats per minute (BPM). The best practice tool for working on tempo is the metronome. The old school ones look like a small wooden pyramid that winds up like a clock and has a swinging arm that sways side to side. Newer versions are digital or can be found in computer or phone apps. A metronome provides a reference click to the BPM and can be thought of as the drum beat. It’s not common to use a metronome when playing in a band setting so having some experience playing with a metronome on your own will be helpful in playing with others. For me is does not matter as much if the musicians are playing the right tempo or if it speeds up or slows down just a little; just as long as everyone does it together I’m pretty happy. Now that you have a better idea of what tempo is let’s go over how to use it at your next jam session.
In order to practice this skill I get the groups I lead to play the same song in a variety of tempos. First start by playing the song at the usual speed for that song to get the original speed in your ears. You may want to determine the BPM you are playing initially so that when you change the tempo you can go back to a metronome to figure out how big of an adjustment you want to make. Say the song you’re working on is originally at 120 BPM. I would then try that same song somewhere between 80-100 BPM. You should notice a significant difference and the new (slower) tempo may even be very difficult to maintain throughout the song. Next try playing the song between 140-160 BPM. Again you should feel a difference in the speed, but going faster is usually a little easier to maintain than slowing the tempo down. Getting used to playing the same song at different tempos will help you in so many ways and that’s the work.
Lastly, once you’ve experimented with changing the tempo by 20 or more BPM and if you want more of a challenge try changing the speed in more subtle increments. Initially this is an easier adjustment to make, but to maintain the adjusted tempo becomes much more difficult than a dramatic change. You can never be too good at understanding and adjusting tempos.
This aspect of music refers to the volume of the song. Being aware of your dynamics as an individual is more common that noticing the dynamics of the group. Everybody has probably experienced not being able to hear yourself in a group and then turning your volume up a bit. This can of course snowball into a volume war between guitarists and that never ends! This is not a good thing. In fact many instrumentalists complain that guitarists often play way too loud and don’t pay attention to the dynamics of the group. Hopefully you stand out as the guitarist who does not do such things.
Taking control of the volume of the song can be done in a very obvious way…turn the knob to the left! It does not matter if it’s guitar volume or amp volume, but turning it to the left will bring the volume down. That’s actually not my favorite suggestion in controlling your dynamics as it removes the awareness of your personal touch to the instrument. As a guitarist you can do so much with the level of force you use to strike the strings.
And let’s not forget that if you’re a drummer you do not have any volume knob. Drummers in general are very aware of their touch to their instrument. The harder you hit, the louder the sound.
Just like you played the same song at different tempos from the example above you can also do the thing with the dynamics of the song. Though keep in mind that keeping the same dynamic for the entire song is pretty difficult (unless loud is your only volume), so I’d suggest changing the dynamics of different sections of the song. That way can notice a difference along the way and create musical interest in the song and that’s a great thing to have.
Here are a few other suggestions that can get you thinking more about what causes your instruments to produce louder dynamics vs lower dynamics. Drummers can use the bigger floor tom, bass drum and crash cymbals together to create a very loud dynamic or a minimal tapping on a closed hi hat to get a quite dynamic. Guitarists can change dynamics by playing big chords on the low end of the instrument (loud) or single lines on the high end (quite). I think you get where I’m going with this. One of the most overlooked dynamic changer in a jam session is changing how many people are playing at once. You can imagine the sound of just vocals with an acoustic guitar vs distorted power chords with a driving drum beat and screaming vocals. See if you can pre-arrange a point in the song where one or more people drop out entirely for a period of time. This is what recording studios do best too. They can silence tracks, double tracks and all sorts of stuff in between that add texture to the song and that keeps the listener enjoying the music. Some of the best examples out there of dense and artfully crafted recordings are any of the later Beatles recordings.
In closing try all of these practices at your next jam session, but also allow for a good amount of just just good ol’ jamming that could yield some of these things organically. Again we are just creating awareness around these skills. That’s usually the biggest challenge anyways and once you are aware of them you will find yourself doing them often. Happy jamming!!!