Archive for the ‘Jamming’ Category

Rant: The Most Dangerous Instrument…

Posted by Brian on 17th June 2011 in General Music, Jamming, Mildly Off-Topic, Playing well with others, Rant

Today I’m going to let off a little steam. I’m going to talk about what a friend calls “the most dangerous musical instrument ever devised”. And no, I’m not referring to Woody Guthrie labeling his guitar with “This Machine Kills Fascists”. I’m talking about the dreaded tambourine.

It’s a simple instrument, so it must be simple to play, right?

It seems that at every open jam, song circle, or folk festival, someone brings one along thinking that “it will be fun”. And it may well be – for the one playing it. But, for everyone else within earshot, it can be a song killer. The tambourine, by its very nature is a powerful rhythm instrument – and in the right hands can really fill out a song, but sadly it is rarely found in the right hands. It is a rare player that can maintain a steady tempo with a tambourine, and it is a rare musician who can ignore it when it is being played off the beat. At best, it is played a fraction of a second behind the beat, slowly turning every tune into a dirge. At worst, it is rhythmically “all-over-the-map” leaving everyone wondering where the next downbeat will fall.

I should clarify, tambourines don’t kill songs, people with tambourines kill songs. In fact, one of my greatest “festival moments” involved a tambourine solo. We were at The Lunenburg Folk Festival at a percussion workshop given by a professor of percussion from Acadia University. He came out on stage and sat down, pulling out a tiny tambourine with one lonely jingle on it. I’ll admit it, I rather sarcastically thought, “Here we go… forty-five minutes of this???” He then proceeded to bring down the house with an amazing tambourine solo and went on to enthrall us for the rest of the workshop.

So, in the hands of a trained percussionist the tambourine can be a wonderful instrument, but for the rest of us, we need to do everyone a favour and leave it in the store. And if it’s too late for that (as it is for me), then at least leave it at home.

How to: Jamming

Posted by Brian on 8th June 2010 in How to:..., Jamming, Performing, Playing well with others

One of the great joys of playing music is to play it with other people, but most of us don’t have either the time, the talent, or the courage to commit to playing in a band. So for us, the best reasonable option is jamming, but what exactly is jamming?

According to my 1980 edition of Webster’s Dictionary, a jam session is “a meeting of jazz musicians for the purpose of improvising together”. Most musicians I know would tell you that you don’t have to be a jazz musician to jam, nor does it necessarily involve a lot of improvising. I would more broadly define jamming as an informal gathering of musicians for the purpose of learning and sharing music.

The most basic jam occurs when one musician invites another to his or her house to play some music and they take turns showing each other songs and trying to play them together.

If you want to try jamming, find a couple of friends who also play and invite them over. Ask them to come prepared to lead a few songs if they are comfortable.  Sit in a circle and work around the circle taking turns leading a song – those who are not comfortable can just say “pass”. As host, you should go first. Show people the basic chord progression(s) first and then start into the song. Be prepared to sing to get the song going, usually people will join in and you’re probably not as bad a singer as you think (no matter what your older siblings tell you) and if you are truly terrible, it with actually help the other musicians loosen up a bit. Try some predictable 3 and 4 chord songs to get things going. By predictable, I mean that the chord progression pretty much repeats itself for the whole song or only changes for the chorus. For more complicated songs, it doesn’t hurt to have some lead sheets (melody and chords) or fake sheets (lyrics and chords) to help people along.

As people get comfortable, you can try soloing. Just before the last verse of a song with a predictable chord progression ask the person to your left or right if they want to try a solo and work your way around the circle, repeating the progression, until everyone who wants to try a solo has had an opportunity. It is good manners (and musicianship) for everyone else to play more quietly when someone is soloing. You don’t usually need to point this out, just set a good example.

If you want to make things more interesting, try to have a theme once in a while when you go around the circle: “Two-chord Songs”, “Love (or Hate) Songs”, “Story Songs”, and “Songs From Before You Were Born” are some good themes to start with.

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. These guidelines are a good introduction to jamming but there are many variations that you can try. Some regular jams develop a songbook that they use and add to over time, others will purchase several copies of a “fake book” and use that. Some are for guitarists only, others seek a wide variety of musicians. Still others focus just on blues, or bluegrass, or other genres of music. The main thing is to keep it fun.