Jamming is an essential part of American musical tradition, and should be part of yours. Here are some bass-centric tips.
Jam sessions have been an essential part of the history of American music, going back at least 120 years, to a time when “live in person” was the only way audiences could experience music. In those days, one might attend informal house parties, social clubs, or basement speakeasies, where liquor flowed plentifully as musicians provided entertainment. Sometimes, musicians would arrive with a preset show. But quite often, and especially in the case of jazz, the music would be completely spontaneous, and that was the whole point. There might be a house band, but what they’d play, how long they’d play for, how they’d play it, and who might show up and join would be completely unscripted. This gave birth to what many now regard as the beginnings of jazz.
The spontaneous, unknown element, where literally anything can—and very well might—happen, has made jam sessions the ideal space for developing musicians. Artists from Slam Stewart to MonoNeon cut their teeth, honed their skills, developed their sounds, and built their first audiences at jam sessions.
The terms “jam session” and “open mic” are not interchangeable, though many confuse the two. There are many differences, but one that stands out is the band’s role in the affair. Open mics are mostly about the singers, and sometimes about amateurs who simply wish to sing popular songs backed by a band. At jam sessions, musicians and singers—though there may be no singers at all—have equal status, and every participant needs to have honed their ability to respond spontaneously on the fly.
Many of my formative years were spent at jam sessions. First in London and later in Philly, NYC, or whatever other cities I visited while on tour. In those days, I practiced a lot and gained much from that controlled environment. But the things I learned at jam sessions like Philly’s Black Lily and Back2Basics, the annual jam sessions at North Sea Jazz Fest, and so many others, would be hard to learn anywhere else. After witnessing many jam-session trainwrecks, I learned that no session could withstand a bad bassist or drummer, let alone both at once!
"At jam sessions, musicians and singers—though there may be no singers at all—have equal status, and every participant needs to have honed their ability to respond spontaneously on the fly."
A much younger me made it my mission to always be the bassist who elevates what is happening onstage—and never the bassist who brings everything crashing down! The following advice, I believe, will help the jamming bassist avoid the latter. I’m going to assume that we’re all already practicing and getting our basic skills and sounds together, so no need to reiterate those areas.
Tune up. The bass you’re handed at a jam session probably won’t be in tune. Nobody cares about anything you play if you’re out of tune. Tune before you get on stage, before the song starts, or better still, learn to tune as you’re playing.
Avoid becoming a fixture. There are lots of people who also want to play. Do what you have to do and then get off stage.
Master the changes. Understanding and being able to play common forms and tunes will greatly improve your chances of dealing with whatever is thrown at you. A good place to start is the blues and rhythm changes. There are an inexhaustible number of songs that are based on these, so learning to play both in all 12 keys will go a long way.
Learn common jazz standards like “Donna Lee,” “Cherokee,” “Autumn Leaves,” “All the Things You Are,” etc. Even if your goal is not to play jazz standards, learning to play them is like an entire course in advanced harmony, melody, form, and the way that things move. Learn the common Motown classics. So many of them, especially songs by Stevie Wonder, are the blueprints for many songs you might encounter.
Actively listen while playing and figure out what everybody else is doing. A bassist with great ears will be able to learn any song by the second rotation of the form, and should be able to fake it well until then. I find that an excellent way to work on active listening at home is playing along with the radio, or in any situation where you don’t know the song and have to learn as you play.
So, where can one jam? If you’re in NYC, a great jam session to check out right now is Producer Mondays at NuBlu, which happens every Monday and is run by my good friend, keyboardist Ray Angry. If you’re not in NYC, ask some of the players on your local scene.
There are a lot more things I could mention, but one of the most important is attitude. Jam sessions are social events. Be courteous to everybody you encounter. Enjoy the atmosphere, and have a great time—without ruining anybody else’s!
Every time I play guitar in public, my internal critic is performing a coup on my self-esteem.
Pretty much every time I play music in front of people, the sound of what I play will at some point be drowned out by the imaginary criticism of everyone within earshot. I'll be having a great time making music, then hit a note I don't like, and it all changes. From then on, all I hear are the collective thoughts of the other musicians, audience, and engineers. Their unified minds join together in unanimous, silent chant: "You suck. You do not belong here." All are united by their disdain toward me … rightfully so.
Okay, okay…. I know most people aren't paying attention, and if they are, they don't care. Those with a positive bias and a kind heart will think I sound fine, maybe even good. The more troll-like, with their negative default-mode, will find something wrong with anything, regardless of what it sounds like. I know my dark thoughts are not entirely true. I also know these thoughts will undermine my work and general well-being/happiness. Yet I embrace this self-doubt like it is the ultimate truth.
Be it playing music, talking to strangers, or trying to write this stupid column, I suspect that I'm not as competent or intelligent as others might think, and I fear that soon everyone will discover the truth: I'm not particularly bright. I've faked my way in. Everything I've accomplished is pretty much a fluke. I don't know what I'm doing and shouldn't be here.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Imposter Syndrome, a wellspring of self-doubt and woe.
To be clear, imposter syndrome is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, probably because it's not a disorder. It's just part of being human. Everyone, at times, feels like they are unqualified and, therefore, faking it. In fact, the only way you learn anything is to do it without really knowing how. You've never driven a car until you've actually driven a car. Every president of the United States began his term in office by faking it. As terrifying as this sounds, surgeons are not entirely sure what they're doing the first time they cut into a person. We all struggle with this. That's why "Fake it till you make it" is a popular and effective self-help slogan.
Be it playing music, talking to strangers, or trying to write this stupid column, I suspect that I'm not as competent or intelligent as others might think, and I fear that soon everyone will discover the truth.
When you're agonizing over small mistakes, attributing your success to external factors, or berating your competence and skills, you're basking in the imposter syndrome. Every musician I know is a frequent traveler to this land of self-loathing and private shame.
This might help explain the popularity of alcohol and drugs backstage. I've worked with acts that have a three-drink minimum before walking on deck. Drunks are confident—booze being the bulletproof armor against self-doubt—whereas stoners are too deep in the music to think about how they're being perceived (unless their thoughts run to paranoia).
As torturous as imposter syndrome may be, some good comes from it. This fear can push you to accomplish your goals. "I'm going to put in a ton of work so I can nail this song so people don't know what a terrible guitar player I am." Fear has definitely pushed me to practice and improve. Although it can help you get where you want to go, you might not enjoy this anxiety-ridden journey. One thing the best and worst musicians have in common is they all oscillate between confidence and the fear of being found out.
Last night, during my regular/fun/no-pressure gig, I caught myself thinking, "That drummer hates me. Look at him, so smug on his throne. He's smiling at me because I'm rushing and he thinks it's funny, or maybe that's a look of righteous anger? Now he's bobbing his head, probably laughing to himself about how similar all my solos are. Now he's got his head down because I'm too loud or maybe too quiet…. Or maybe it's my terrible sense of melody or tone he hates?"
Yes, my thoughts really were that delusional. We never know what anybody is thinking, even when they're talking to us. I'd just met this drummer but he seemed like a nice guy and we played well together. While I was deep in my private, paranoid rant, he was probably thinking about his own performance, problems, and anxieties—not mine. Or maybe he was thinking about what he's going to eat after the gig. Regardless, he probably wasn't judging me. I felt wrongly judged because I was judging myself, and, apparently, I'm a harsh judge.
Now and then, I leave a gig feeling like I've not disappointed myself and others. The quality of my gigs depends more on my mindset than on my playing. Being onstage means you're inviting others to judge and, hopefully, enjoy your performance. But you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Quit thinking and just play. We mostly think about ourselves. If we only knew how little people think about us, would we be relieved or hurt? Honestly, it's very freeing when you realize that nobody is thinking about you.
The late Heartbreakers legend shouldn't have deterred me from "hippie" Rickenbackers any more than Hendrix should've turned his nose up at a "surf" guitar.
It's always a kick in the gut when seminal musicians pass on to the great beyond. It's natural to reflect upon their lives and appreciate their contribution to the world as well as one's own life. But when Tom Petty died, it hit me harder than I thought it could.
I empathized with the people who adored him and his music. I felt worse for his family and fellow Heartbreakers. I felt robbed of what had become a steady beacon in my musical life—the constant distillation of vague thoughts in my head being coalesced into simple, understandable phrases. The guitars were great, too.
When the Heartbreakers first hit the national scene, I recognized Petty as a talent to be dealt with, but I was not what you'd call a fan. It wasn't really my main kind of music, but it displayed serious craft and just enough edge to keep me interested. “Great little tunes," I'd say to myself. I may have bought Damn the Torpedoes. Going to a Heartbreakers concert wasn't on the agenda, but I noted Petty's exploits in the magazines of the day. I read about how he'd thrown a temper tantrum in the recording studio over something the record company had done to raise his ire. The article painted a picture of a bullheaded young man breaking his hand by punching a hole in the studio wall. As much as I admired his passion for his art, I thought it was a pretty stupid move. Somehow, that's the image of Petty that hovered in my mind whenever I heard his songs. I'd pigeonholed him in a way that I would have resented, myself.
A couple of issues ago, I explored the idea of getting to know a guitar before passing judgement on it [“What Really Makes an Instrument a Best Friend?" January 2021], but we can take that a step further. What about the gear you dismiss out of hand just because of the associations you've formed in your mind? Many of us are guilty of labeling, rating, and ranking the people and things in our life. It makes it easy to understand the world around us. In our imaginations we might be metal or funk, but not Americana. We can be a Les Paul person, but not an Ibanez sort of dude. There are myriad ways to create our own personal Venn-diagram tribal map from the associations we attach to music and guitars. Within this framework, we search for like-minded souls and compatible memes to fulfill a sense of identity and belonging. In doing so, we shut out opportunity. It's like living in a world where there's no color blue, green, or gray—only black and white. Sometimes, you can't even remember why you formed your opinion in the first place.
When I examine my own prejudice, I realize that sometimes my opinions are based on long-held associations as much as experience. I've always favored early 1960s P basses, especially the sunburst version, and trace this back to my youth when I idolized P-bass icon James Jamerson. On the other hand, I was never a big Grateful Dead fan, so any guitar with a half-dozen different laminations of natural body wood was noted as a “hippie" guitar (or bass), and only worthy of derision. Likewise, guitars with upside-down headstocks were strictly for guitarists who played a zillion notes and wore makeup. In retrospect, I can see how these associations were made, but it wasn't fair or productive to ignore perfectly good guitars because of them.
History is overflowing with guitarists who upset the status quo of instrument compartmentalization. Jimi Hendrix bent the rules of rock using a surf guitar. Tiny Grimes played some of the most rocking jazz on a tenor electric. The Cult's Billy Duffy created a swirling vortex of post-punk goth rock on a hollow Gretsch that's mostly associated with country music. Today, you can see flame-topped collectibles onstage alongside pawn-shop throwaways from the 1960s playing some decidedly un-corporate music. Personally, I'd like to see Chris Stapleton rocking a Dean ML. The fact is that although an artist might be associated with a particular instrument, that instrument shouldn't be strictly associated with his or her style of music.
Eventually, I came around to thinking of Tom Petty as a much more three-dimensional person than my younger self did. I'm not sure if that made his songs more personal to me, or the other way around. There's no shortage of tunnel vision in the way we think, but if you remove your filters, there's lots of great stuff to discover. So, give that hollowbody a shot, even if you're playing metal. Maybe that star-shaped axe with the reverse headstock has some great jazz tones worth exploring, but … stay away from hippie guitars. And if you think Tom Petty isn't your beer, give him a second chance.