Help make our jam sessions less "jamateur"
March 6, 2013 8:12 PM   Subscribe

My guitar pals and I have decades of playing time among us, though none professional. We're not entirely devoid of talent. We have a reasonable understanding of music and pretty good repertoires. And yet... And yet our sessions are always meandering, improvised, "ok sounding" affairs. We have a fun time. We play a wide range of songs ... But the overall quality of sound produced leaves a lot of room for improvement. Not cacophonous, per se, but not fit for public consumption either. I'm wondering what we can do (aside from practice, practice, practice) that might improve our musical output, to take it to the next level. What are the things real musicians would do - in approach or arrangement - that we should try?
posted by ecorrocio to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
How are you keeping time?
posted by empath at 8:14 PM on March 6, 2013

Keeping time... Tapping Feet most of the time. Sometimes a drum machine.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:20 PM on March 6, 2013

Because I was just wondering if not having a rhythm section driving the songs would be a problem for a group of guitar players.
posted by empath at 8:22 PM on March 6, 2013

The professional musician I used to live with had pretty structured practices - they'd go in working on their current performing repertoire, run through the same songs a couple times each, add new songs very slowly. And the band all knew what songs were on that list and band members were expected to have practiced their parts enough to be pretty tight coming into it. (How the parts were sorted out is much fuzzier to non-musician me, but it happened when a song was introduced and then everyone had some sort of scratch recording to work off of.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:38 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

How many people do you have playing together and what's the breakdown of instruments? Especially if you have multiple guitars, you're going to want to think about crafting a "role" for each instrument so that you're not overlapping and stepping on each other's toes. You want to create layers and texture in your music so that it has some vertical structure, rather than the muddiness of a big jam session. Giving each person a musical role also gives them room to grow and develop. They know what they're supposed to be doing, so they can get really good at that one thing, and then, if they really want to, explode it. Or, you can trade roles around the group if you don't want any one person to get pigeonholed, but try to be explicit about what you're looking for in each song.
posted by Polyhymnia at 8:42 PM on March 6, 2013

How do you envision a finished product sounding with a group of guitars? In my estimation, unless you have a very structured and deliberate arrangement, a bunch of guitar buddies are going to sound like a bunch of guitar buddies. And there's nothing wrong with that, necessarily.

I guess what I'd do is pick a song, sit down together without the guitars, and hash out exactly what you want it to sound like. Are you going to emulate the horn section in the chorus? How? Who is going to play that part? Is somebody going to be responsible for the bass line? What about the rhythm section? How many guitars do we have? How can we create as full and complex of arrangement as possible with what we have to work with?

In my experience, that kind of thing doesn't typically just fall together from jam sessions. It requires a dedicated and focused effort from everyone. It often requires a leader, a visionary, a task master -- unless you have a very special group of musicians. It requires everybody to buy into the process. It means nobody gets to coast through the songs by just strumming chords when they feel like relaxing. Everybody has a very specific job to do, and the real art is in making it sound like everybody is just relaxing and doing their own thing. And then you start to get into conflicts with people who want it to be more fun and less work, and people who want to play the leads when the arrangement as a whole is better served by them holding down the rhythm in that part, but who are you to say? And all the fun stuff that makes bands break up.
posted by Balonious Assault at 8:48 PM on March 6, 2013

Some tings professional musicians do:

1. Have focused discussions when you're not playing about what sound/effect you're trying to achieve.
2. Critique each other bravely. Don't always be nice. You have a goal, the goal is X, and anything interfering/hindering the goal needs to be dragged out and talked about. It's not always about being nice and having fun, it's about producing a very particular, agreed-upon effect and what it takes to get there.
3. Give somebody the power to direct and control. You can trade it off, but try out different people. Somebody needs to be the decisionmaker, and ask for "more from X person, less from Y, and cut out that weird shit, Z."
4. Have a goal. A recording, a gig, whatever. Jamming doesn't move you forward and at this stage it probably doesn't excite anybody. Move out of the comfort zone and focus on playing in a specific way for a specific event.
5. listen to stuff together. Ideally, go to live shows together of really good bands that you like, and then sit down after it's over and break down what worked and didn't, and gather up some lessons learned. If you can't do that, use recordings or DVDs. Have everyone bring something in and talk about what you did and didn't like.
6. Start a jam with a goal, or a loose structure - even if it's as vague as "start dreamy/mellow, then drive it the third time around, then pick it up and change the key." Take it somewhere, otherwise everybody will just noodle around the whole time.

I guess the main thing I would say about the difference between jamming and being a group of professional musicians is that pro musicians aren't always focused on liking each other and having a good time. It's often kind of an unpleasant drag as you get the working-up and rehearsal part done. Pro musicians are more outcomes-oriented (as they need to be) and they'll do what it takes to create the sound experience they're after, up to and including changing the personnel and telling people to shape up or ship out.

To improve a jam session without turning into a band and getting more serious, maybe ask individuals to bring 1 new piece to each session to teach the others, so you are moving outside the comfort zone and not getting stale.
posted by Miko at 8:58 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I was in bands, we:

Had a set repertoire to work on that we'd all practice separately so we could get over the initial faffing around and focus on making it sound good and who played what. We'd add things in slowly.

Have fairly structured practices. Not hardcore, but we had a few songs we'd play to warm up (easy stuff everyone knows and can play with their eyes shut), then work through our repertoire. That's not to say we didn't have lazy jam sessions, but those came at the end once we'd worked through everything we wanted to work through.

Recorded it as best we could. I'm not talking about a professional setup by any means and, obviously, recording something on your iPhone with whatever kit you have floating around is enormously variable compared to pro gear...however, the way you sound and the way you think you sound is, often, very different from how you actually sound.

Came into each practice with a goal. Again, it wasn't hardcore milestones, it was "Okay, on this song, we're going to figure out the solo, and on this one, we're going to see how it sounds when we do this instead of that."

I'll warn you, though, it is not a lot of fun doing it that way.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:37 PM on March 6, 2013

An interesting exercise might be to pick a song and have everybody learn to play it 100% identically. Every single note, every single fingering, every single strum. Get it to where all of you can play the song together and it sounds like one guitar. I'm always amazed at all the differences in the way another guitarist and I will approach the exact same thing, when we play it together.

That doesn't sound like much fun, does it? But it can be a good tool for really hearing what your fellow musicians are hearing, and understanding a piece of music in a way that maybe you wouldn't otherwise. It's similar in concept to what some really good vocal harmony groups do, spending a lot of practice time just singing a new piece of music in unison, so that everybody has the phrasing drilled into their heads the exact same way. That provides a rock solid base on top of which an arrangement can really shine, because you've preloaded it to eliminate 98% of the synch and timing errors that can make things sound a little bit off but can be hard to identify in the midst of a complex arrangement.

I've never actually tried it with a group of guitars, but I'd be willing to bet that if you learned a song like that and then jammed out on it from there, it would sound a heck of a lot better and tighter than a bunch of guitarists all jamming out together with slightly different interpretations of the same song. Or maybe not. Something to try, perhaps.
posted by Balonious Assault at 9:40 PM on March 6, 2013

Everyone play less.
posted by bongo_x at 11:43 PM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Record yourselves, then listen to the recordings as a group two days later. If there's a part that stands out, talk about it. Why did X like it, while YY and Z wanted to kill? Take notes, and refer to the notes during subsequent practicing and the next jam.
posted by disconnect at 7:19 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is the ultimate goal to sound better as a group, or is it to have more fun when jamming? These are two different things, and depending on how you approach this, you may not be able to do both.

Depending on how many people you have in your group, the main thing you can probably do to make everyone sound better is to work out an arrangement where no one is stepping on someone elses toes musically. That means if you have 2 people, one person is going to be playing lower chordal or bass line parts, and the second person is going to be playing higher up on the neck for some lead/rhythm parts. This way you should be able to hear everyone clearly, since you are in different registers playing different things. Good arrangements are one of the things that separate great sounding bands from mediocre sounding bands. The main problem here is that you can't always do this if you just want to jam out and have fun, since it requires practice.

If you all sing, you can also try doing a jam where whoever is singing puts down the guitar, so there are fewer guitar players playing at the same time. If you have a lot of people, you could also have designated pairs of people who switch off after each riff, and play some percussion in between their turns.

If your main goal is to just have more energy and fun, than you could try to add in more songs to your list. This keeps things fresh, and a new song will usually be more fun and have more energy than one you've played a hundred times. Just let everyone pick a new song each month, and if you have 4 people, that's a new song each week. Even if you don't keep 75% of them, that will still get you about a dozen new songs by the end of the year.
posted by markblasco at 7:42 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone! To answer a couple questions: sessions can be anything from two guitars to more people and a few more instruments - bass, mandolin, harmonica... Even keyboards a couple times. I don't think we have concrete goals- but it always nice to improve and sound better.

All the suggestions above are great! Thanks. I'll be suggesting some.
posted by ecorrocio at 7:50 AM on March 7, 2013

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