So I was browsing videos this morning and came across this nice little backstage jam session between blues maestro John Popper and indie rocker Craig Struble, of Bronze Radio Return. Listening to it, I began to think of the many other jams I’ve watched and played in that didn’t flow as well as this one. You know the ones – the beat never gets solidified, you step all over each other and it never seems to end. Well, have a listen to this video and you’ll hear a few fundamentals that will make almost any jam session a success. More after the video:
1. Rhythmic foundation: The first thing I noticed is that John lays down a simple blues lick and repeats it over and over again with very little change until it’s his turn to lead. This gives Craig an instant understanding of the song’s structure and tempo and he is able to go to town with it. John is acting as rhythm section while allowing Craig to take the lead
Sometimes players want to lay down a lick to start a jam but then they change what they’re doing 4 or 8 bars in. This can be really frustrating for whoever you’re playing with because they don’t hear the music the same way as you do in your head and they need some time to get settled in to what you’re playing. If you’re starting a jam, pick a simple chord and a simple rhythm then just stay with it. Allow the other person to shape the song past that. Hopefully, they will play over you for a short time and then hand it off. And on that note…
2. Handing off: Do it. Don’t be stingy. Sometimes you get into a jam with someone who wants to play a virtuosic lead the entire way through. This, also, can be frustrating for other players because it’s very difficult to form a song out of two simultaneous melodies. Play nice and remember that it’s both players shaping the song, not one player making music while the other plays along. Take your turn and make some nice music… don’t be in a hurry… but if you’re leading, be considerate and hand it over to the other player after you’ve had a chance to play 12 bars or so. Hopefully, they will play for about the same amount of time and then hand it back to you. (Like John does at 0:54)
When you’re ready to hand it off, give the other player a signal ( a tap on the arm, a wink, a knowing look, a nod…) or shape your song in such a way that it becomes evident you want them to take over. My favorite handover when I’m leading is to wrap up a musical phrase and then drop down to pick up the rhythm, myself, letting the other player know that I’ve got the support and he can take off on the lead. This is pretty much exactly what Craig does at 0:30 in the video. Good hand off. https://harmonicaloveaffair.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post
3. Ending: I think I have more trouble with this part than anything else in a jam. It is difficult to coordinate an ending between two musicians in an unscripted jam. The biggest key is to listen to the other player. Many times I want to wrap up a song and so I change my musical phrasing to indicate a significant change leading to an end… but often this can go unnoticed and the other person simply keeps going. John and Craig, however, are watching and listening to each other closely and at about 2:07 in the video, they both quickly shift from the main body of the jam into their own variation on an ending, culminating within seconds in a nice little ending flourish. No trailing notes. Nice.
So the next time you’re in a jam session, be it with another harp player or a guitar or piano or whatever, try laying down a lick and sticking to it. Let the other person build the song and somewhere in there pick up the lead from them. Play a short while and then hand it back. Wash, rinse, repeat until that glorious moment when you both decide the music is complete and you end gracefully together to much applause and many smiles.