Play the Five String Banjo: Jamming
I have a simple test for any new musical skill: If I can’t pull it off at a jam session then I don’t really know it.
It’s one thing to be able to play a song at home for your own entertainment, but it’s another thing entirely to jump into the flow of a jam. At home it’s not a big deal if you drop a beat out of a measure or screw up the timing of a song, but if you do that in a group setting you will throw everybody out of rhythm and the song will just die.
The thing you have to keep in mind is that music is a discipline. There are rules and structures built into the basic language of music that must be followed if you want to play with other musicians. You cannot ignore the fact that 4/4 time must have four beats to a measure or that you can’t slow down the tempo of a song because of tough chord changes and then speed up when the easy ones come along.
These rules are not here to bog down your creativity or force you to sound like everybody else. They are here to enable you to communicate with other players. If there wasn’t a mutually agreed upon set of concepts to work with everybody could come up with their own definitions and the results of that would be chaotic.
Getting into a jam session and learning to play rhythm with a group is essential if you want to move into more melodic old time banjo techniques. Memorizing the melody or the tab isn’t going to cut it. You have to build up an instinctive feeling for chord progressions and rhythm in order for the melodic material to work. The only way to do that is to start jamming.
Don’t say that nobody in your neck of the woods plays an instrument because every community on earth has a couple of seasoned folk musicians rattling around. All you have to do is find them. Check out your local folk song society. Go to festivals. Support your local coffeehouse or house concert series. An ad in the local paper or a flyer in the local music store inviting people to jam can stir up some local pickers. You might also want to ask around at used record shops and any other place in town where old recordings, songbooks and used instruments might be available.
Once you do hook up with some like-minded folks just focus on the rhythm and the chord progression for a while. Start by playing a simple frailing rhythm like the third string-fourth string pattern from earlier in this book or play the chop and follow the chord progression as best you can.
Threat every new tune the same way we worked out songs with the I-IV-V progression. Identify the time signature, work out the chord progression and come up with a rhythm pattern to hold it all together.
The first few times you get together this is going to be pretty challenging, but over time things will start to click.
You will go from fighting through a song while trying to keep up with the chord progression to anticipating chord changes almost instinctively. This process takes a little bit of time, but if you are patient and look at each jam as a chance to hang out with friends in the spirit of fellowship this wonderful thing called music gets much easier.
Spend some time jamming and get a feel for rhythm and chord changes before you move on to the next chapter.