Banjo Jam Session Survival
So you’ve bought an instrument, have played for a couple of months, and are now asking yourself the important question, “Am I ready for my local jam session?”
Here’s a list of Essential banjo skills
- Know at least two forms of your major and minor chords.
- Be able to tune your banjo by ear or with an electronic tuner
- Know a couple of songs you can play with others-lead and backup
- Understand playing at the appropriate volume level
- Be able to read a guitar players hands for the G/C/D chords
- Know how to change keys via a capo or using closed position chords
- Be able to stay in time/rhythm
- Be Okay with Introducing Yourself and making others aware of your skill-level.
- Practice Playing along to recordings of songs you’ve never heard
DETAILED SKILL LOOK
KNOW YOUR MAJOR AND MINOR CHORDS
1) You need to know both major and minor chords on the banjo neck. Not all tunes consists only of major chords. In the key of G, an E minor is a popular chord (Think “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Earl Scruggs or “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crowe Medicine Show ). Furthermore, one chord shape of each type of chord isn’t enough because you don’t want to jump all over the banjo neck instead of making efficient motions. At faster speeds, knowing efficient movements between your 1, 4, and 5 chords is a must.
KNOW HOW TO TUNE
2) You should be able to tune your instrument. I recommend working on tuning by ear from the beginning, but you can purchase a clip-on electronic tune like this one for around $20 to $30.00. Check your tuning and check it often. A banjo is not known for staying in tune long 🙂
3) Know a couple of songs you can play in front of others. These songs don’t have to be complicated or polished, as long as you can make it through them staying in time. “Cripple Creek” is always a good place to start. If you need a list, go here:
I also have a Beginner Banjo Bundle that contains some easy songs as well as how to play slow backup.
BACKUP BANJO ETIQUETTE
4) Know the appropriate Volume levels for playing with others. Many people go to a jam and find out that they can’t be heard because they’ve practiced too softly. When you bring in two more instruments to play with you, it’s surprising how loud it can get. On the other hand, if you play too loud, more advanced players won’t like it as it is heavily frowned upon, especially if others are trying to sing or solo. Your goal is to blend in, not stick out. Playing along with records is a great way to help you develop this skill at home.
READING GUITAR PLAYER’S HANDS
5) While this is not a necessary skill I do believe it’s a good idea to be able to read a guitar player’s hands with basic chords (G/C/D). Here is a youtube link of someone demonstrating these chords:
In the case you don’t know the song or can’t hear the chord changes you can visually follow them. My only warning is don’t let it become a crutch you always rely on. Use your ears more than your eyes.
KNOW HOW TO CHANGE KEYS
6) Know how to change keys via a capo and chord positions. Keys like A and D are common at jam sessions, so you want to practice playing songs in different keys. In the beginning, a capo is of great use, especially for getting that traditional bluegrass sound. The banjo capo I use is the Planet Waves type, it is easy to find and very cheap.
7) Most importantly, you need to keep time & rhythm with the rest of the group. At any point you find yourself getting off from the rest of the group, watch their strumming hands to get back on. Practicing basic strumming patterns in groups of four with a metronome might be a good start. I personally like this online metronome:
COMMUNICATE YOUR SKILL LEVEL
8) If you’re a beginner, make others aware of it. If they know this, they won’t expect you to take a break on every song or call on you to do something you aren’t ready to do yet. Sometimes if people know you’re a beginner, they’ll offer to assist you in a jam session. They might call out the chords or make motions that make jamming along easier.
HAVE PROPER EXPECTATIONS
9) When you attend a jam, it’s most probable they’ll play songs you’ve never heard. By playing along with songs you aren’t familiar with, you start to get the feel of a jam session at home. Your goal isn’t to get it perfect or even 100% right. It’s simply to make it through the song and allow your ears to grow via error and correction. It’s like learning to drive a car, you get better the more you do it.
With all of that said, don’t wait until you can play something perfectly without mistakes before attending a jam. A jam session is a great place to learn, provided you understand the proper jam etiquette. Once you get to a certain level, a jam session is one of the best things you can do to quickly increase your skills. Always remember-it’s just music, no one gets hurt if you play a wrong note 🙂
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