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What You Need – To Jam

Welcome to the first installment of many on the subject jam sessions! In this series I aim to cover all aspects of the jam session including setting it up, what to play, what you can do to improve your jamming skills and so much more. Stay tuned for what is to be a jam-packed series.

This is a great place to start as most of you have heard about “jam sessions” and some of you have even participated in one. Just to cover all the bases, I thought it would be good to start with what’s needed for a jam session. Everything will fall into one the these categories:

  • Gear
  • Space
  • People
  • Skills

Gear

One of my favorite subjects in any context is gear. If you play an instrument you must own or have access to that instrument/gear. There are so many possible variations as to what instruments are present at a given jam session, but for simplicity I’ll stick with the traditional rock band setting of guitars, bass, drums and vocals.

Drums: I start with drums because they can be of any size and variety as long as they make noise. You’ll have to have some knowledge of tuning the drums (tightening the heads) to get a good sound, but as long as the drums themselves are functioning correctly you should have no problem getting them to do what you want. Don’t forget a few good cymbals with stands. Lastly be sure all accessories are functioning properly. Bass drum pedals are notorious for breaking/not working, so keep those in good shape as well. After that all you need are sticks and a few backups if things get crazy.

Guitars/Bass: Guitars and Bass come in so many varieties that it makes the head spin. Though for the purpose of the jam session,  I’ll put them into 2 major categories: acoustic and electric. Since you will be playing with a drummer it will be easier if you use an electric/amplified instrument though some acoustic instruments allow you to plug them into amps/PA’s. The main point here is that you will need to be loud enough to keep up with the volume of the drums. After that it becomes your preference as to what brand/color you prefer to play. Lastly all you’ll need are picks and a cable to plug the guitar into the amp. Cables go bad, so have a one or two extra on hand in case that happens.

Amps: Just like guitars these come in many shapes and sizes. For guitar amps you first have to decide old school vs new school (tube amp vs solid state) and all along the way you must consider power. It must have enough volume to keep up with those drums so you should get something with at least x watts or more. Again there are way too many options out there to give you a specific suggestion, but ask a sales rep or do some online research before buying anything. As for bass amps they are all pretty much solid state, so just get one that will keep with the higher volume levels.

P.A. System: Now for the singer. Now that all instruments are pumping a vocalist needs a way to keep up the face melting levels of music you’ll be making, so a good PA and mic is what you need. All though I have not been giving much in the way of specific suggestions, when it comes to vocal mics I’d go with the industry standard Shure SM-58. For around $100 everyone even remotely interested in singing should own one of these. For the PA it gets into the territory of the guitar amps, but biggest difference wod getting an “all-in-one” type PA or build your own custom set up choosing the head (power/controls) and speakers to your liking. The more cost effective route is the all in one, but if you’re going to be taking your show on the road you may need something bigger. Again ask a sales rep for assistance or do your research.

Space (Mom’s Basement)

I’ve spent many years playing in basements all over the place and all you really need is about 20 square feet and a willing host to make this part of the jam happen…the neighbors also have to be cool. If you have those two things covered consider yourself very lucky as for the city/apartment dwellers this aspect often feels impossible. You can get creative with this one by looking for general rental space that you can rent by the hour or month, but again be mindful of all neighbors. One thing for sure is that it’s going to get loud, so if you want to jam in the evening be ready for a parent of a small child come knocking at your door and it wont be to ask if they could sit in with you. Now things are starting to feel easier right?

People

Did I say getting easier? Sorry about that… now on to the people. If you’ve ever been in charge of setting up a meeting with 4-5 individuals with different lives, jobs and obligations then you’ll very well know how crazy this part can make you. If you already know the people you need then you’re almost there, but finding people to play can be hard. You can try Craig’s List or Facebook groups, but who knows who you will find there. Breaking into a community of recreational musicians can be very hard to do. Start with a place that you are already involved with to see who out there plays an instrument and wants to jam – churches, work, or your kids school (parent group) are all good places to start. Then on to the scheduling. You’ll have to use your savvy business skills on this one, but it definitely becomes easier the closer the individuals’ life situation or schedule is.

Skills

Learning an instrument takes time, so if you have some time/experience behind you then you are ready to get playing with others. However if you’ve just started playing/learning an instrument then getting the basic skills and confidence to play with others presents another challenge. Getting a private instructor is easy and there are tons of online learning sources these days, but from my experience I’ve seen people take off in their learning when put into real playing situations. That’s right…just jump off into the deep end and get your hands dirty. This won’t be easy for some and the other people you are playing with could get frustrated with your skill levels if they have been at it for a while, but don’t give up. Time and repetition are your two very best friends when it comes to building your skills. Practice every day if you can and try learning a song as a way to learn your instrument. I always suggest using the song itself as the vehicle for learning. I get people going pretty quickly doing this. A band needs to play a song together so getting a few of them together will get you jamming right away.

 

In conclusion this should pretty much get you going with your jam session. In future posts I’ll dig more into the specific skills you need  to sharpen your jam session skills. And if you are in the Chicago area come see me at Altered Stage (in the West Loop) as we provide all of the aspects mentioned above and can get you jamming right away!

 

In Music,

Jason Steele

Impromptu jam session at altered stage studio

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