Learning to jam
December 14, 2011 1:24 PM   Subscribe

Keyboard players: A jam session might be in the cards for me soon. What is the best way for me to pick up a bit of basic skill on a synthesizer/piano?

My background: I've noodled around with keyboards since I was a kid. I'm good in some areas (chords, sheet music basics) and bad with others (improvisation, key theory, etc). If given a complete set of chords (such as D, G, Em7, etc) I'm pretty good at "faking" a song I'm familiar with, but if someone talks strictly in terms of keys or it's a song I'm not familiar with, I'm spinning tires in the mud.

I may get a chance to play a bit in a jam session with a few other people in a few weeks.. it will probably end up being a lot of standard rock, blues, or guitarsy type stuff. They're not musicians and are not in a band, so I'm not anxious about it, but I'd like to be able to get the most out of it if I bring a keyboard, be able to fit in better as accompaniment with everyone else, and get better at it for my own enjoyment.

So if you were in my shoes, where would you focus your efforts and how would you go about it, especially in the context that we're not going to be playing any classical music or anything really structured. Are practicing scales going to be important, and what other stuff can I work on too? Will I get a lot of mileage out of finding random songs I'm interested in and learning them, or does this tend to be a waste of time as far as building my skills?

One thing that's awesome is there's a ton of how-to videos on YouTube and other stuff across the Internet. It's a whole lot different then the days where I had to get everything out of Hal Leonard books. On the downside, it seems all the popular music tablature I used to see on Usenet is gone; if I search for that stuff all I get is spammy hits and lyrics sites.
posted by crapmatic to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Practice your ear training. And learn your scales.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:36 PM on December 14, 2011

Find some organ-based, bluesy jazz (e.g. Jimmy Smith) and copy what the organist does. They'll probably use a lot of pentatonic scales, which are also useful in rock. If you can manage to sound even somewhat like a jazz keyboardist, you'll sound amazing for a rock keyboardist.
posted by John Cohen at 1:52 PM on December 14, 2011

Arpeggiator is your friend.
posted by empath at 1:59 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

On the downside, it seems all the popular music tablature I used to see on Usenet is gone Yeah, it is gone. The publishing industry went after sites like OLGA pretty hard. But, they'll sell you crappy piano-guitar-vocal arrangement books of a small fraction of their catalog, so it's all good.

As to what to do to prepare, I wouldn't sweat it too much. You are going to a casual session with amateur players, after all. Maybe practice playing along to some simple rock standards, focusing on keeping your time steady.
posted by thelonius at 2:14 PM on December 14, 2011

If you don't know the basic 12-bar blues form, and the I, IV and V chords in any given key, try to figure those out as most basic rock and blues songs will hew pretty closely to those patterns.
posted by Clustercuss at 2:19 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

- Ask your friends for a setlist of songs to learn before the jam session. There's plenty of sites out there that list lyrics + chords. If you want to get fancy and you're sure they'll do a lot of standards, you can also find a Fake Book - though I think those are mostly jazz & blue oriented & not rock oriented.

- Bring a pen & some paper to write down chord changes for anything impromptu & ask for the chords before the song begins.

- Learn the pentatonic scale (major and minor forms) and when they're (for example) in the "key of G" then try some notes in the pentatonic scale starting on G.

- Basic music theory is pretty straightforward, especially for someone who can read music & knows chords already. Learn the meaning behind I, IV, V and ii, V, I.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:21 PM on December 14, 2011

- Learn the pentatonic scale (major and minor forms) and when they're (for example) in the "key of G" then try some notes in the pentatonic scale starting on G.

Definitely. Every guitarist is familiar with pentatonic scales and you'll be fine using them too. Lots of rock and blues in E, G and A since they're "guitar friendly" keys but if there are some horn players they might want to play in keys like Bb, Eb and F.

Relax, have fun and above all, listen.
posted by tommasz at 3:08 PM on December 14, 2011

Find a fakebook. Play some stuff out of it that you're familiar with. Look at the list of chords in one song, and try to identify what key it's in. That set of chords is pretty much always going to go together. If you can play okay when somebody says "this'll be a lot of D, G, and A chords" then all you need to know to play well in the key of D is that D has a lot of D, G, and A chords. After a while you'll probably flip through things you've played and identify a few keys you're better in than other keys - awesome! Now you can say smart stuff like "hey, can we shift that from F to G?" (or G to F, I honestly hav eno idea what a "good key" on piano is)
Next step might involve shifting from being reliant on the page in front of you to also working a bit by ear. Play through a song in one key. Now try playing it again in a different key, i.e. starting on a different note. This gives you a chance to know how the chords are supposed to sound relative to the melody, and practice finding them.
posted by aimedwander at 3:09 PM on December 14, 2011

Figure out how to vamp on chords in time with another player.
posted by gauche at 5:08 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

A few random thoughts:

If they are rock/blues players, and they are playing guitar/bass, then likely the jams will stick to a few "guitar friendly" keys: E, A, B, D, G, C, maybe F.

As someone mentioned, learn the blues progressions in all keys, but if you want to "cheat" - those keys would be the ones to learn first.

Because you'll likely be jamming on blues - learn blues scales in those keys.

And if you make a "mistake" - roll with it - if you hit a really ugly note, keep playing it LOUDLY and with CONFIDENCE until it starts to sound awesome.

I'm guessing you'll be a fully engaged jam participant, so maybe suggest some progressions that you will want to jam over. Check out a few modal jazz tunes and maybe grab some chord progressions from those: Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" has a really simple chord progression, but the beauty of modal jazz progressions is it really opens up the floor in terms of musical ideas.

Another easy modal chord progression is: 8 or 16 measures of chord, then 8 or 16 measures of chord one step above it. i.e. Em (x8) | F#m (x8)

Also, I think the most overlooked aspect in every jam session I have ever been to is dynamics and space. Everybody gets so excited to jam, that they forget about every other dynamic besides fortissimo, and they tend to fill every space with some sort of sound. [I'm as guilty of this as everybody else]. Try playing fewer notes - and play with rests/"negative space".

One last thing, and this might not be a good idea, depending on the jam participants: in the last band I played with, we started out every practice playing "DJ" - we would compose a "loop" on the spot. There would be a predetermined order of which instruments would come in when: one instrument would start by laying down a repeating 4 or 8 measure pattern, and they would repeat it over and over and over. Then the next instrument in the order would play something complimentary on top of that, over and over and over. Then the next instrument, until all the instruments have joined in, and you are playing a repeating loop over and over again. At some point you stop. It's not really a jam, but it's a really amazing experience being locked into a groove like that.

The other thing you can learn from that exercise is laying down a lick, or groove - which is really awesome for a jam. Many jams are just people "noodling" in key when they aren't playing their solo, and the backing can kind of lose focus. So, come up with a repetitive riff that you come back to when you aren't soloing, and it will give some focus to the jam.

Above all, have fun! :D
posted by baniak at 1:42 PM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you'd like to find some fake books or sheet music without breaking the bank, don't forget to check out your library.

Also, you might still be able to find some tablature (or at least chord charts) online if you play with your search strings a bit - for example, a search for "house of the rising sun" "am7" brings up a number of potentially useful results.
posted by kristi at 10:09 AM on December 16, 2011

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