Jam Session Survival

Bluegrass and old time session players rarely if ever use tab or printed music when playing, so what do you do if you don’t know the tune?


Question 1. "What key is the tune in?"

Keys are like little families of chords taken from the scale of notes in that key. For example; in the key of G the scale is G A B C D E F# G. To make identifying the chords in that key easy a numbering system (Nashville system) can be applied. Usually written in Roman numerals, the first or "root" note of the scale is assigned the number I chord, the second the number II and so on. In the key of G this leads to a G chord being called the "one" (I) chord, A the "two" (II) chord and so on..

Bluegrass tunes are often played using the I, IV and V chords, sometimes only the I and the V and occasionally the II or a VI minor may creep in. The following table shows the keys and the common chords used in each key.

G    G  A  C  D  Em
A    A  B  D  E   F#m
B    B  C# E  F# G#m
C    C  D   F  G   Am
D    D  E   G  A   Bm
E    E   F# A  B  C#m
F    F  G Bflat C  Dm


Question 2. "How do I find out the chord progression?"

Many bluegrass tunes use a I, IV, V or I, IV, I, V progression. With practice you will hear these chord changes.

If you don’t play guitar, take the time to learn some basic guitar chord shapes. By watching others in the same jam session you will see the chord shapes being used, playing quietly in the background will help, with practice you will find this quite straight froward.


Question 3. "What do I play?"

For most bluegrass tunes you will play backup most of the time. Each bluegrass instrument has its own style for playing backup, designed to provide different elements to the sound. For example; mandolins chop, fiddles chop and bow, guitars strum and banjos roll and occasionally vamp. Each instrument aims to fill a role within the overall sound (drive, percussion, counter melody, syncopation, etc) and stays away from the melody, letting the singer or lead instrument hold the melody line.


Question 4. "When do I get to play lead?"

In bluegrass, whether the tune is a song or an instrumental, someone will be leading the tune. If the tune is a song the singer takes charge, for instrumentals generally the person who started the tune. The leader will call people in to take a break, so try to maintain eye contact with this person, it might be you next!


Things to Remember

Try to stay in tune. Tune up before you start playing and check your tuning regularly. Clip on tuners are a handy tool for jam sessions, as the noise from other instruments may make a chromatic mic tuner unusable. If you play guitar or banjo practice using a capo. Playing with a capo is easy and allows you to quickly change keys without altering your picking patterns.

Try to have a basic knowledge of your instrument and maintain your skill level, it helps to learn some common jam session tunes too.

Expect tunes you don’t know, fast tunes, slow tunes, fiddle tunes.. Enjoy the music others play and if you don’t know the tune or you can’t keep up, enjoy listening for a tune or two.

Most of all be sensitive to other players and enjoy yourself.


Notes on tuning..

One of the most fundamental parts of playing with others is that all instruments are in tune, and this isn't as easy as it may sound. It takes some practice to tune your instrument accurately and then keep it in tune, so it's a skill worthy of lots of input.

There are essentially two parts to "being in tune." The first is to know what you are tuning to, which in most jam sessions will be the common tuning pitch represented by your tuner. Although, it is worth noting that when small groups of musicians play together they are often tuning to each other and may not be exactly in sync with a tuner. The second part is to know how to tune your instrument to itself, in other words, how to get all the strings to note correctly when played individually or together to form a chord. Different instruments achieve this in different ways, but the end result should be an instrument that sounds in tune when played solo and with a group of instruments.

For more information on tuning please talk with your MJC tutors during the camp..