By Robert Callus
The first time I tried to jam with other musicians, I was still pretty much a beginner, and so where they.
In fact, I made sure I was around “musicians” who were at best on an intermediate level. Not only did I feel shy in front of advanced musicians, but they seemed to be interested in things like Aeolian and Dorian which didn’t make any sense at all.
Needless to say, nothing came out from our jamming sessions, except for a very basic Punk song, with no sense of melody and the same monotonous beat from start to finish.
However, that was the start of a learning process that led to the ability to improvise with other musicians with ease.
Playing with others actually has its own learning curve, even if you’re used to improvising with backing music.
The obvious reasons are that the backing track in C major you found in a Youtube search doesn’t make mistakes, is always perfectly on time and, better still, you can stop it and rewind it any time you want.
These are things you can only learn by doing. The more you play with others, the faster you’ll be able to comfortably play with others and make the chemistry work.
What I will give you here, are some tips to help you to reach that level sooner. I learnt most of this from mistakes I did (repeatedly I must admit) and see people doing all the time, especially when they’re inexperienced in playing with their peers.
Tip 1: Listen
Even if you can play better than the other musicians in the room, guess who they care about most?
Unless it’s an audition or an assessment of sorts, in most instances, it’s themselves.
The drummer is more interested in his drum rolls, then how many notes you put in your solo. And while you were playing a dazzling solo, the singer may have been reading the lyrics he’s about to sing.
This means that it’s hard to get people to pay serious attention to what you’re doing. However, since they’re mostly concerned about themselves what definitely gets their attention is by listening to them.
Now, what’s going to make you different from most people is that you will really listen and not just hear others play.
In fact, if you’re playing with a drummer, a bassist, a keyboard player or another guitar player, I suggest you start playing last. (If you’re alone with a singer this is not advisable since in most cases the singer will be playing the melody while you should be providing the harmony).
Listen to what they’re doing and get the feel of it, before you start playing. What happens when you do this is that when you play, what comes out is telling the others “I’m playing with you, not practicing on my own”.
The next tip will show you how to do this.
Tip 2. Play in context
One thing you should always ask before each improvisation is what key the song is being played in.
From then on, finding the right notes will be easy: If it’s in a major key, the major scale and its pentatonic will work well, likewise with minor keys. Read this article to learn more about choosing the right scales and using them in your guitar improvisations.
Thus, if you just know the major and minor pentatonic in one position each, you can start improvising with the majority of songs.
After making sure what scale to use, listen carefully to the drummer and the bass player. Get “in the groove first”.
Because when you do, and you’re using the right scales, it is very likely that what comes out will be something all involved are pleased with because it shows you cared about their music apart from your own.
Tip 3. Don’t be selfish/avoid selfish musicians
If you want the chemistry to work, an improvisation should never be “all about you”.
You’ve spent all week practicing and want to show what you’ve just mastered. I get it.
But keep in mind that the other musicians have probably spent all week practicing too, and would rather practice more than let you steal the show all the time.
It works the other way too.
If you’ve paid attention to what the other musicians came up with, you should also have your moments, when you shine.
Choose the right people to improvise with, treat them the right way and playing with others will be a fun, learning experience.
Now, armed with these tips related to the quality of your jamming sessions, you need the quantity. Experience.
Go out, and do as much of it as possible – without neglecting practicing guitar on your own, of course!