How to Make Novice Jams Work - by Pete Wernick

Featured Article

First, what material works best in a novice jam? The instrumentals that most novices start learning? Clue: Novices usually don't know the same tunes. Clue: It's hard for novices to play memorized solos without stumbles, rhythmic errors, and even the inclination to go back to correct errors. Several people taking turns soloing takes skill beyond just knowing the solo: They all need to start at the right time, and stay in time, regardless of stumbles. They have to provide backup, chords and rhythm. That takes time and experience to learn. For novices, I generally recommend against learning instrumentals, because they don't tend to work in novice jams.

The alternative? If someone sings a good, simple song and strums the right chords, that's viable music. Simple but real and good music, and fun, too. In a group, it's the same: Play rhythm and change chords while someone sings the song. No need for instrumental solos. This is the easiest possible way to play bluegrass with others. Some songs change chords only two (Katy Daley, Tom Dooley) or four times (Little Birdie, Jimmie Brown the Newsboy) per verse. Why not start with those? While someone sings, follow the chord changes while keeping a simple rhythm.

This is an example of what I call "lowering the bar". If a student keeps colliding with the bar, reduce the challenge and establish some momentum before moving on to the next challenge. Taking care to raise the bar only gradually will keep the momentum of successful effort. Students will practice more, eager to reach the next step. Successful easy jamming is a breakthrough for any student. A bridge has been crossed. As I tell students, after this, improvement is a question of learning more songs, more techniques, more speed, and better sound. Learning to solo comes in according to a student's desire and ability. As the skills are learned over time, they can be added gradually, in the context of ongoing simple jamming.

Only when a person can jam a bit, do I encourage learning the first solos. Still no instrumentals. Song breaks are shorter, with simpler melodies, more interchangeable phrases, and are more likely to work in jams. Tablature can be a big help here. It's still hard, but now the student is better grounded. Success will come more quickly. The solos fit into a context that already works, and becomes more and more fun.

At my camps I've seen quite a few players who can cruise though a tune, but then don't know what to do when someone else solos. Often, they don't know the chords. More holdovers from the days when solos were all that was taught.

Organizing jams

Most students, if asked if who near them would be up for a slow and easy jam, would say "Nobody." But surprisingly often, there are indeed other novice players nearby. However, as closet players, they aren't visible to each other. True story: Two women who work together both attended my recent jam camp in Morehead, KY. On the first day, they were amazed to see each other. "You play banjo??" "You play fiddle??" They'd known each other three years!

A teacher can be tremendously useful to novices by inviting two or three or even ten beginner students to a little jamming workshop, and guiding them through easy ensemble playing on a few simple songs. What if this were a monthly or even weekly event? Could this include kids? Be all-kid? Why not? May I suggest some good repertoire? The list of well-known two-chord songs on my web site is up to about 40. There's another list of common jamming favorites, plus check out the list of favorite songs that use two or three chords . See's INSTRUCTIONAL section for a wealth of learning material.

Gathering students can be easy, by putting up notices at music stores and music events, and communicating with other teachers. Teachers and organizations might find such sessions a good source of revenue. Music stores would gain from hosting such sessions. Those motivated players will be buying capos, songbooks, straps, rosin, and someday a better instrument. Festivals and local concert promoters will see more of these folks this year, and in years to come. (More subscribers for Bluegrass Unlimited!) Some of these folks may one day become festival attractions. It's already happened with some of my jam campers!

Consider if this make sense:
Anyone learning bluegrass should first learn the chords to favorite easy songs, and a simple way of accompanying. Playing songs smoothly in real time while using a songbook (or a fellow picker) for the words, is easy, fun, and builds a rhythmic/chordal foundation and repertoire. Easy jamming is highly recommended and should be part of the learning program.

Good sounding rhythm techniques (bass runs, banjo rolls, fiddle licks, etc.) can be added easily as they are learned. Technique is expanded and the music sounds more interesting.

Once a group is working well, different types of soloing can be added. The easiest method is to "fake it" by just playing simple licks and rhythm techniques while following the chord changes. The next step up might be to play an exact tabbed basic solo, or (better) a self-composed one featuring melody. As more people try soloing in the group, others watch, learn, and build up the nerve to try it themselves. This phase is exciting to enter, and of course it creates motivation to really improve and master those solos.

If problems arise in a student's solo playing, help is available from teachers, play-along instructional recordings (both audio and video), and even computer programs. Using them can straighten out timing errors and problems playing in real time, while building confidence through repetition. Want more licks, more tunes? Lots of tab out there, best used with recordings of what the tune or lick actually sounds like.

When musicians are jamming together, using new skills, learning with and from each other, there's little chance they will give up playing music. I'd say they're hooked -- on bluegrass! More people spending less time in front of a TV, and more with each other. Wholesome fun. A bigger, thriving bluegrass community. A better world.

Good luck,
Pete Wernick

Return to LEARNERS
Return to CBA Home
Comment on this page

Copyright © 2002 - 2010 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email