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.