This article is all about jam sessions from a drummer's perspective. What is a jam session and how do you prepare for one? What can you expect, what do you bring, how do you behave, and most importantly, why and how you will benefit greatly from attending jam sessions as a drummer. You will learn all of this and a lot more if you keep reading.
Table of Contents
1. What is a jam session?
2. What sort of jam session are there
Open jam session – open mic night sort of thing.
Depending on where the session is being held, there may be an entrance fee or it might be free to enter. In the latter case the club owner earns his money from the drinks and/or food being sold at the session.
There may be a (professional) musical director present who is responsible for leading the session. He usually points out who gets to play next, what direction the jam should go (think of tempo, time signature etc.), and how long a jam should be. But it may also be more of an open mic kind of thing, where anyone who feels like it can just get on stage and play.
Open jam sessions can also be defined according to a musical style. There are jam sessions with an emphasis on rock, jazz, funk, Brazilian music, Afro Cuban, Reggae etc. So if you plan on attending an open jam try to figure out if it’s about a certain style. And don’t expect the Reggae guys to dig your 32nd note linear patterns too much…..
Privately held jams
It sounds kind of negative and snooty but there are lots of cool instances of privately held jam sessions. Think of a jam between band members. In these cases you sometimes don’t want anyone to be able to join in, simply because all the inspiration needed is within the band itself.
But it doesn’t have to be a band per se. It can also be two or more musicians coming together for the sole purpose of playing a jam. This is perfect for practicing on getting your vocabulary and grammar to fit into a story where there’s more than one person in it.
It’s also very cool to do jams with your drummer friends: set up two sets of drums and start playing. This is great for exchanging ideas!!
Also be aware of the fact that jamming can be a perfect excuse for wasting time which could be spent way more productive in lots of other ways. I’ve had some of my best and worst musical times so far in jam sessions. The best were when everything came together musically and beautiful new things were created. Or new songs were developed based on these jams. That to me is pure magic! But I’ve also experienced feelings of “what the hell am I doing here” while playing jams. To me as a musician there are few things as depressing as playing with people who don’t seem to be able to listen and truly create music without falling into the (baaaaaad!!!) habit of playing their licks every five seconds or so.
3. Why should you jam?
And there’s another very important reason to get involved in playing jam sessions. In many instances new relationships or even bands are formed at or after a jam session. These musical relationships can sometimes last a lifetime and form the basis for many new musical relationships coming out of this one. In other words, make sure you play well at the right jam session with the right people. This may be the spark to create the right musical network for you. With maintenance and a bit of luck this may provide you with a lifetime of good music making.
4. When should you (start) jam(ming)?
- Learn how to interact with other musicians
Jamming is awesome to find out what communicating with other musicians feels like. You'll feel what playing grooves is really about. It's about creating a nice vibe for others to play off of. And you'll find out how much influence how you play them has on that vibe. You can play the same groove for the entire jam if you want. As long as you play it at different tempos, dynamics, timbres, time feels etc. you may have all the variation the jam needs. This is one of those cases where you have to do it to feel it because nothing else will prepare you for this.
- Create new music with your band
Always record the jam, try to listen, feel free to explore and allow your fellow bandmate(s) to think outside of the box.
- Get to know the other musicians better in a band
I feel playing freely with others gets you acquainted with them much quicker than by just playing songs everyone has practiced at home.
- Practice playing on stage with other musicians
If you feel the time is right to get your musical ears tested by jamming and getting feedback from other musicians.
- Feel what it’s like to play another style of music without forming a band
Starting a new band is in most cases very time consuming. Getting a position in a band which is up and running takes a little bit of luck and can also be time consuming. An convenient alternative to try out your newly developed understanding and feel of a certain style of music might be to visit a jam session in this style. This way you’ll almost certainly be able to play with people who have been playing this specific style of music a lot longer than you have. As a bonus you’ll be hearing this style of music the entire night so you can listen, watch and feel it from up close.
- Meet new people (musically)
Visiting a jam session is excellent for meeting new people and expanding the rolodex. This could always prove to be invaluable from a musical standpoint, certainly if you’re a professional musician. Simply put, if they don’t know who you are, they can’t call you to do a gig. And as a bonus it might also earn you some cool new friendships.
- Get a new or better gig
This is key if you’re a professional musician! This is especially important if you’ve just moved to a big city where you don’t know many people yet. Once you can play, networking probably is about half of the work of getting a decent gig. This is your chance to show other musicians you can play and listen. But it’s also a chance to show you’re a decent and trustworthy person. And a nice human being to hang with. Remember that people who hire you have to like you. As a musician and as a human being.
So basically as soon as you can keep a pretty steady groove you're good to go. If you're just looking for some musical interaction to get to the next level of musicianship. But in all fairness it's good to have some reserves to be able to listen to the other musician(s) while you play. And being able to play a decent array of tempos and forms is definitely a bonus. This allows you to shake things up a little and not be too repetitive. It all depends on what you want to use the jam session for.
5. What should you expect from a jam session?
Then there’s the matter of the audience. Usually jams are held on slow weekdays so the venue has at least some people in. On these nights the audience will probably mainly consist of other musicians. But if it’s a Friday or Saturday night and not much else is going on in the neighborhood there may be quite an audience just coming in for the live music.
One thing to remember is that you may play at a jam session. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but you shouldn’t see it as your right to play either. It’s a privilege if the people organizing it allow you to sit in, and you should be grateful. Later on when you’ve torn the roof off the sucker they should be grateful to you for honoring their humble establishment with your Godlike excellence ?
6. What is your role as a drummer at a jam session?
Our primary, if not our only task as drummers always used to be to keep the right tempo. First let’s rephrase timekeeping to a more musical definition. If it was only about keeping tempo other musicians would just use a metronome. After all a machine is 100% metrically accurate and it doesn’t have to get paid! So from now on timekeeping means keeping the tempo feeling good, not just metrically correct.
2. Providing energy
Second of all, we need to do much more in any musical context. Besides the heartbeat, we need to provide the energy to the song. In a jam this could also mean the dynamic contrast between different pieces of form within one jam. We don’t necessarily need to shift dynamic levels the whole time, the music will start to feel nervous and shaky if we do, but we have to be sensitive to the dynamic needs of the song, and of the other musicians.
3. Guarding the form
All musicians have to play an agreed upon form. But as with most things rhythmical, if we as drummers mess up, music as a whole suffers. In a jam the music can become unclear, chaotic even, if we don’t play in clear form. This doesn’t mean at all we have to play a bar long fill every four bars. So for the love of everything which is musical please, PLEASE don’t. Just guard the form as a whole by playing accents where they are needed and fills and embellishment where they are appreciated. If you think someone is not clear of where he or she is within the form, kindly guide them back into it. You can do this either by playing a longer fill or by counting along or a combination of those to lead back to beat one of the next section.
Then we have a lot of other powerful tools to shape the jam further. We can for example change the groove or the melody of the jam by adding or moving certain accents by using syncopation, we can play half time or double time to play with the time feel, we can go to a cooling down by playing 2 and 4 on a rimclick and then build it back up again, we can speed up or slow down the tempo to make the jam feel differently, etc. Basically anything goes as long as everyone is digging what you’re playing and as long as you’re making the music and the other musicians feel good.
7. How do you cope with playing an instrument which isn’t yours?
If you don’t have the time to do all this you’re just gonna have to make the best of the situation. Simply omit things you would normally play and you might surprise yourself and others with the outcome.
The sound of the instrument(s) at jam sessions is something you have very little control over other than the way you play it. There may be types of cymbals which would normally disgust you, or the heads on the drums are not at all what you would prefer, or the sizes of the drums do nothing for you. Yada yada yada, it’s out of your hands, so focus on the music and make the best of it.
8. When and how do you know if you’re good enough to attend a jam session?
The technical side
You have to have some level of control over your instrument to be able to converse with others. How much control you need strongly depends on the level of musicianship of the jam session you’re attending. A professionally lead session requires much more technical proficiency than let’s say a jam with your buddy who also plays an instrument. And it also depends on your ability to communicate freely. If you can listen extremely well you might not need that much control over your instrument. But if you’re like most of us, and you first need to have an idea of what it is you’re doing, then I think you’ll need quite a bit of control over your instrument before entering in a conversation.
The musical side
Once you have enough control over your instrument you’ll be shifting your attention to more musical things. It’s not so much about the what or how, but more about the when and why of what you’re playing. If you’re starting to experience the development of this side of your playing, I think it’s safe to assume you’re ready to go to a jam session. You’re at the very least more than ready to start jamming with your mates.
The mental/emotional side
This is a tricky one. Your character will determine if you have to develop this side much before entering the stage. Some people don’t mind to expose themselves, while others dread the fact of everyone looking at them. But this could also be related to what it is you’re doing. I still have trouble speaking in public, actually just having to speak to more than a few people can be really unsettling to me. But being behind a set of drums makes this much more comfortable for me. Having said that, we all get (a little) nervous before going on stage. It’s only natural. Even with the best preparation possible it’s still pretty normal to feel somewhat anxious. As long as you can also describe this feeling as being excited it’s okay.
So if you’re not sure whether you’re ready or not, consider these three aspects and determine for yourself in which area(s) you have some developing to do. If you’re sure you have developed the first two more than enough and you still don’t allow yourself to get up there, I really suggest enrolling in a public speaking course of some sorts. I have heard wonderful things about these, and I’m certain I’m gonna be attending one in the near future. Once I have, I’ll write an article soon after about if this course has changed my playing on stage.
9. How do you play with musicians who are much more experienced than you are?
10. How do you play with musicians who are less experienced than you are?
Don’t pay too much attention to their mistakes and certainly don’t play difficult rhythmic things you know are over their heads. Who’s benefiting from that? The music suffers, you’ll probably discourage the other musicians, and you’ll come across as an arrogant schmuck. Be as patient and respectful as you can but also keep them in check. Don’t allow them to mess the jam up, instead lead the jam where you want it go and allow them to come up with ideas. This way you get the best chance of having a cool jam, and everyone will feel good about themselves. If there are more seasoned players in the audience, they will know who made this jam feel good. So behaving this way may actually bring you more than you thought it would.
Always keep these in mind:
1. Wonderful ideas don’t have to come from the best of players.
2. In a few years the person you think is mediocre at best may be on top of the world because you happened to jam with him when he or she was just starting out.
11. The social side of jamming – do you have to play and mingle with everyone?
In the business world if a position becomes available and a few capable people turn up for the interview, chances are the most likable, outgoing person gets the gig. The same principle applies in music. Maybe even more so, because if you go on tour you’ll be seeing each other a lot. Having said that, you don’t have to play with someone just to be nice. If there are more people present it will be no problem if you kindly decline. If you’re the only drummer at the session then you’re pretty much stuck playing all night besides a short bathroom break. Meh, good for building endurance!
And how about talking? Do you have to talk to everyone at the session? Well, if it’s in your nature to do that it’s fine, but otherwise don’t. It’s basically about always being yourself. It’s okay to show your most pleasant side, but don’t ever try to sell yourself as something or someone you’re not. Before you know it you’ll be stuck having to play this role much more often and much longer than you bargained for.
Speak instrument, speak!
At a jam session, it’s probably best to let your playing do most of the talking. If people like what, and most importantly, how you played, you’ll be having a conversation about this after the jam automatically. If not, no problem, you’ll probably get lots of pointers from others. Listen to it all, don’t be overly sensitive about getting critiqued, and remember at all times that this is a good thing. Even if the critique is negative and basically not justified, it doesn’t matter because others will think this isn’t true either. Or the next day it may appear to be just in your mind. Whatever the case, don’t be tempted to explain yourself too much. It probably won’t do you any good and it will just cost you precious time and energy to boot.
This may be one of those instances where reacting counter intuitive may actually benefit you most. Accepting the criticism in a positive manner may boost your confidence because you’re capable of taking it on the chin and as such earn you lots of respect from your peers and teachers alike. First and foremost try to concentrate on getting better and better and show your progression in the next jam. Also remember that every one of us has had to learn to listen and play at the same time.
12. How to deal with mistakes while jamming?
A good mistake is one which unintentionally leads to a new thing. Your mistake may surprise yourself and others, but by accepting it as a new thing you can make this the next thing to play off of. This takes some improvisational skills, obviously some experience and most of all this takes self confidence. You have to allow yourself to be human and profit from it.
A bad mistake is one which makes the music feel bad. The worst case scenario is a mistake which stops the music totally. You can’t recover from that one. In most cases a bad mistake is one which isn’t handled well. Of course there may be emergencies such as having to flee from a crocodile digging your right foot a little too much. Or another classic, having to defend your girlfriend from getting her purse snatched by an alien. But in my experience these things rarely happen during jam sessions. The bottom line is you have to learn how to make a bad mistake into a good one. Learn to embrace your humanness and enjoy a happy mistake every now and then.
You could try to do what Alex Van Halen does when he makes a mistake, although this is more difficult when playing an improvised jam than when playing a rehearsed song. If you make a mistake, try to play it again at the same place the next time round. When repeated everyone will think you meant to play it like that.
Lastly, if anyone else makes a mistake, try not to emphasize this by looking at them as if you want to vomit all over them. Like I said before, we’re all human so we will make mistakes. You can either not give any thought to the mistake, or give the person a reassuring smile if he or she is not bursting with confidence. This way the person who made the mistake will get back into the music as quickly as possible.
13. How not to overplay or underplay at a jam session
There’s a fine line between being respectful to other musicians in the jam by giving them room to develop an idea, and being overly hesitant to alter the direction (slightly) so the jam can continue to develop.
Open jam session
In an open jam session I’ve always found it helpful to watch the people attending. You can see if the jam is interesting to them. This will give you an idea if you’re playing something exciting and enjoyable. If not you can try to play something a little more involved if you think the vibe is a little stale. Or the other way around, if you think the jam is a little too busy you can alter the feel to something a little more basic and groovy. Just try to feel what works and experiment a little if you think it’s going nowhere.
Privately held jam session
In a situation where you’re jamming to come up with new ideas for songs, there’s generally a really different vibe. Now you’re much more into developing an idea instead of creating an overall cool sounding jam. More of a musical brainstorm session where anything goes. Form and dynamics could be much less an issue in this case, because together you’re looking for the next cool idea to base a song on. In my experience this is usually a bit more experimental and free where there’s no issue with over – or underplaying. It’s all about exploring and searching for that next cool riff.
Whatever the situation, you’re in the jam to listen but also to take part in the conversation and give direction where you think it’s needed. That’s where our role as drummers comes into play. We may not be able to shift harmonies or, to some extent, melodies, but we sure can give direction to the dynamics, form, rhythmic melodies and the rhythm in general.
Remember, as in any conversation, you can’t please everybody. And you shouldn’t want to. So don’t be afraid to step on someone’s toes every now and then. As long as you don’t do it deliberately or too often, people will probably appreciate your boldness and guts.
14. What do you bring to a jam session?
Bringing your stick bag to jam sessions is a good idea since you won’t be wasting anyone else’s sticks. As a bonus you’ll gain some level of comfort because you get to use your sticks, brushes, bundlesticks etc.
Always, I mean ALWAYS bring earplugs! You can decide if you want to wear them at the jam. But you should never have to experience ear fatigue because you weren’t sure how loud it was going to be. An accident with bad monitoring I had several years ago caused permanent damage to my left ear. Because of this I always wear ear plugs when playing or listening to loud(er)music. If I don’t, sound turns into lots of cracks and other rattling noises. But I strongly encourage you to do this before you damage your hearing. You only have one set of ears to last you a lifetime!
And always, I MEAN ALWAYS be in a good mood at jam sessions. The first reason is that nobody wants to play with a grumpy bastard. The second one is that if you feel good, you will sound your best. Try not to schedule your day so you have to rush to the session. Instead take a little time before you have to go to the jam and listen to some of your favorite music, preferably in the genre of the session you’ll be attending. This can make a huge difference in how you’re going to feel at the jam, and more importantly, how you’re gonna make the music and the other people feel!
In many instances new relationships or even bands are formed at or after jam sessions. These musical relationships can sometimes last a lifetime and form the basis for many new musical relationships coming out of this one. In other words, playing well at the right jam session with the right people may get you the gig which will develop into a lifetime of playing.
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About the Author
Music and drumming have pretty much dominated my life for the last twenty five years. I enjoy every facet of it, and I intend to keep doing so for many more years to come.
Fan of music since 1981
Drummer since 1989
Teacher since 1993
Professional musician since 1996
Composer since 2002
Owner of Skillz Drum Academy since 2011
Author since 2014
Blogger since 2018