It’s no coincidence that one of the most common pieces of advice given from veteran players to developing musicians is to start playing music with others.
And there’s good reason for that. Not only can playing music with others be one of life’s greatest thrills, but it’s a wonderful way to practice and improve.
Jamming will not only make you better at playing music with others, it’ll make you a better play all the way around, as it develops aspects of musicianship that playing on your own doesn’t.
Yet, all too often those early jam experiences end in disappointment, if not outright embarrassment.
The music starts and….your brain melts down completely. The banjo feels like a foreign object.
Not only can you not remember how to play the songs you thought you knew, but you can’t even remember their names!
Rather than coming away invigorated and inspired, you end up feeling discouraged, and that you’re a lot worse than you thought you were.
But it really needn’t be that way. It shouldn’t be that way.
In fact, by understanding why this happens, with a bit of smart preparation we can easily prevent it.
So, in this article, you’ll learn both why jam meltdown happens, the keys to preventing it, and common mistakes that first time jammers make, so that you can ensure that you come away from those initial jam experiences filled with excitement and inspiration, not disappointment and embarrassment.
It may seem obvious when plainly stated but, in order to learn how to jam, you must practice jamming.
Why is this?
Because jamming is an entirely different animal than playing music by yourself. While there is overlap in the skills needed to play music on your own and with others, there are also skills that are entirely unique to jamming.
Which means that if you show up to your first jam experience having never practiced those skills, it would be absurd to expect things to go well!
It’s as if you perfected your baseball swing by doing nothing but hitting off of a tee, and then wondered why you struggle to hit your first 90 mph fastball.
You may have learned to swing a bat, but the small detail of hitting a ball whizzing past you at blinding fast speeds you neglected.
Of course, nobody in this situation would find this result surprising, yet this is the same kind of thing that happens after folks go into their first jam experiences unprepared. And in that instance, folks often are surprised by the result.
The reason so many first time jammers crash and burn is a direct consequence of what’s formally referred to as “cognitive overload.” Simply stated, it’s when we try to get our brains to do too many things at the same time.
But hold on a second.
Aren’t the brains of expert jammers having doing the exact same things? If that’s too much for the brain, then why don’t they crash and burn, too?
Let me clarify our definition: cognitive overload occurs when we try to do too many NEW things at the same time.
Our brains are magic and wonderful, capable of changing themselves according to our needs throughout our lives. Yet, this change happens in specific ways – if we understand how it occurs, we can use it to great advantage.
If we don’t, learning will be a long and frustrating struggle.
(RELATED: Part 1 of the video series below on the Brainjo Method for Fingerstyle banjo outlines how we can use the science of how the brain learns to design much more effective ways of learning the banjo).
In a nutshell, the process of learning involves the development of complementary and automatic skills of increasing complexity.
In the brain, this happens through the creation of new circuits – physical structures in the brain that contain the set of instructions for how to perform the new skill we’ve learned.
Once that circuit is fully formed, it can operate independently of our conscious mind. The skill has become automatic.
We can tell this has happened when we’re capable of performing the newly learned skill without focusing on it, while we’re focusing on our attention elsewhere. David Eagleman, in his book Incognito refers to these subconscious circuits as “zombie subroutines,” sets of instructions that can control our behavior even when our conscious mind is offline (i.e. like a zombie).
The ability to perform any complex skill depends on us creating, through practice, a huge library of these zombie subroutines (and if we want to continue making progress on the banjo, not only must we build them, but we must take care to build the right kinds of subroutines, build them well, and build them in the proper sequence).
Driving a car, for example, is a complex skill, dependent on multiple sub-skills.
For the first time driver, the experience is overwhelming, because every one of those sub-skills is brand new. There are no zombie subroutines that can help out.
For the experienced driver, however, the act feels effortless, and he or she is entirely capable of driving a car well even when their conscious mind is otherwise engaged, be it daydreaming or carrying on a conversation with a passenger.
Why? Because all of the component skills of driving – from operating the pedals, to shifting gears, to securing seat belt, to apprehending traffic signs, etc. – have become automated. They are all mediated through the operation of zombie subroutines, ones that were built through the initial months practicing driving a car, and which now allow you to drive without thinking.
If the cognitive and motor skills still demanded your conscious attention, then you’d be unable to simultaneously do both things. Either your conversation or your driving would suffer (this is why it’s a good idea not to talk to a first time driver!).
You get a window into the operation of those subroutines when you’re in a rental car and you find yourself automatically reaching for things (the seat belt, the mirror, etc.) in the wrong places. Those are your subroutines being triggered automatically when you take your seat at the wheel – now you must consciously suppress them to prevent them from controlling your actions.
You may have heard it said recently that humans multitask, or that multitasking is a “myth.”
This may seem like a contradiction. I’ve just said that you can drive, a behavior that requires you to do many things at once, and talk to a friend at the same time. How is that not multi-tasking?
The more accurate statement, and the one that’s most important in understanding jam meltdown, is that we humans can’t direct our conscious attention to more than one thing at the same time. Trying to do so results in cognitive overload.
And the more new things we try to attend to, the greater the cognitive overload, and the more spectacular the resultant meltdown.
3 Unique Skills of Jamming
Let’s move this back to the realm of jamming, shall we? You can probably see where this is going.
I’ve mentioned earlier that successfully playing music with others depends on multiple skills, many of which are not learned when you practice on your own (unless you deliberately attempt to learn them).
Going to a jam without having practiced those unique skills, then, is the perfect recipe for cognitive overload.
So when you crash and burn at a jam because you’ve yet to develop those skills, you’ve only proven something we already knew to be true: that humans can only direct their attention to one thing at a time.
Congratulations, you’re just like everyone else!
What this means, then, is that if we’re going to prepare ourselves for playing with others, it helps if we first understand precisely what skills we should first develop and, ideally, automate.
In particular, we’d like to know the skills that we’ll need that aren’t required for successfully playing by oneself. The ones that are unique to playing with others.
Here’s an overview of what those are:
Skill #1: The ability to play the banjo in time, at a tempo of someone else’s choosing.
When you’re playing on your own, you get to control everything. You are both conductor and musician.
You get to control the tempo, or the speed at which the song is played.
And if you’re like most everyone else, you have your own personal preference for how fast you like to play every song you know, and you likely play at roughly the same tempo every time you practice it on your own.
Yet, it’s quite likely that, in a jam, that won’t be the tempo it’s played at. And that means that, if you want to be playing in time with the other musicians, you’ll have to place at that tempo, not the one you’re used to playing it at.
So there are really two skills required for you to do this successfully. The first sub-skill is being able to listen to the other musicians while you’re playing (a common theme), so that you can actually hear what the tempo is.
The second is that you must then be able to adapt your playing to that tempo. If this isn’t something you’ve ever done before, you’ll find this quite challenging!
If you’ve been practicing playing the same song the same way, at the same tempo, over and over again, then the good news is you can probably play the song on autopilot.
The bad news is that you’ve constructed a zombie subroutine that has that tempo built into it.
And, just as you automatically reach for the seat belt in the wrong spot in your rental car, your brain will automatically drive you to play the song at that tempo. Playing it at any other speed will then require you to willfully suppress that impulse.
You’ve built a turntable in your brain that’s capable of playing this particular record at only one speed. What you must do to play this track in a jam is to re-construct a turntable that’s adjustable.
(RELATED: How we use tab in the learning process is another great example of how our learning process can unwittingly undermine our banjo playing goals. Click here to review the Brainjo 7 Step Tune Learnin’ Process for how to learn from tab so that this doesn’t happen to you.)
How To Develop This Skill:
The best way to develop this is to play with some sort of timekeeping device, at multiple tempos. A metronome works, but jamming tracks work even better.
Why? Because backup tracks replicate the jam experience.
When playing with a backing track, if you play the chorus too soon or switch to the D chord a half measure early, you’ll hear it immediately. With a metronome, that feedback is absent.
And it’s important to practice playing at more than one tempo so you can build your adjustable turntable.
Here’s an example of a backing track for “Long Journey Home” at moderate and slow speeds from the Jam Dojo in the Breakthrough Banjo course for fingerstyle:
Skill #2: The ability to play songs you don’t already know.
Unless you’re playing with a group where you’ve pre-specified the material, chances are you’ll be playing material you don’t know.
Sometimes it may be a song you’ve heard before but never learned. Sometimes it may be a song you’re hearing for the first time.
Sure, you could sit out. But that can get boring fast. Plus, you’ll be missing out on a golden opportunity to grow as a banjo player.
There are many ways you can participate in a meaningful way in this situation, and what you do, from playing some gentle backup, to playing a fully improvised rendition of the song on the fly, will obviously depend on your current ability level. But for someone relatively new to this sort of thing, here are the initial skills to work on:
1 – The ability to play and switch between chords in the common keys. It probably goes without saying here that you need to have learned how to finger and switch between your basic chord shapes.
In bluegrass and folk jams, learning moveable chord shapes, and becoming intimately familiar with how to use the capo, is hugely helpful. Here’s the video from the Breakthrough Banjo course for clawhammer banjo on how to use the capo:
How To Use The Capo
And here’s Part 1 in the 3 part series on “Essentials of Music Theory for the Banjo Player” on the topic of keys, scales, and chords, all of which are very useful to know when playing music with others (parts 2 and 3, along with the complete Essentials of Music Theory book, are available inside of the Breakthrough Banjo course).
How To Develop This Skill:
Practice playing backup with songs you know. Just doing this requires that you know the chord progression, are able to switch between those chords quickly and at the appropriate time, and have some kind of picking pattern to play while you’re fingering those chord shapes.
Practice doing this sort of thing with songs you already know – either using a recorded version of the song or a backing track.
2 – The ability to pick out the chord progression.
In some cases, you may have access to the chord progression of a song you haven’t heard before – in some jams, other players may provide a brief overview of the chord progression before getting started.
But more often than not, you’ll be in the position of figuring these out as the tune is going by.
Being able to find the chord progression for a song you don’t know has two benefits in this situation. First, it allows you to start playing backup right away.
Second, when you do start trying your hand at picking out the melody, or even playing a fully formed version of the song, the chord progression is an essential foundation.
For one, more often than note the notes of the melody are chord tones, meaning you’ll have narrowed down your search for the melody notes considerably.
And number two, should you happen to hit a note that’s not part of the melody, no worries! Chances are, since it’s a chord tone, it’ll still harmonize nicely (since the chord progression is what specifies the harmony notes at any given moment).
How To Develop This Skill:
Of course, if finding chord progressions by ear isn’t something you’ve done, then you have to practice at it! Unfortunately, the myth that you either are or are not capable of playing by ear still endures, and many people neglect developing this skill.
But the reality is everyone who plays by ear did so by practicing it, and so can you.
The best way to learn it is not try to tackle it all the once, but to break down the process of playing by ear into component steps. The ability to find the chord progression and the melody are both separate skills needed to play by ear, and each of those has it’s own subset of skills.
For example, here’s an exercise from the Ear Laboratory in the Breakthrough Banjo course (the “Ear Laboratory” includes a series of lessons and supplemental exercises designed exclusively to develop anyone’s ability to play by ear, from scratch).
In this exercise, your objective is to find the chords and melody for the song “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” but you’re given only 3 possibilities to choose from, and the points in the song where the chord changes are indicated by the color change in the lyrics – your job is to match the color to the chord.
Here, you must still use your ear to discover the answer, but the task is much more manageable than simply saying “find the chords to this song” – a directive that can feel impossibly overwhelming to the unfamiliar. Every complex skill arises from the aggregation of simpler skills, and this includes the ability to play the banjo by ear.
3 – The ability to pick out the melody
As mentioned above, if you’re able to pick out the chord progression, then you’ve already created a roadmap for where you’ll find the melody notes.
That roadmap is enormously helpful when you’re trying to create your own version of the song “on the fly” (plus, as long as you’re on the correct chord, even if you can’t find the melody, you can also “fake” a solo version by just playing various picking patterns, or licks, while holding down the appropriate chord).
How To Develop This Skill:
Once again, to learn how to pick out the melody we must practice picking out melodies. Doing so will be a slow and arduous task at first, and getting to the point where you can do this sort of thing while a song is whizzing by will require many repetitions.
But, this too is a process that is best learned in a series of smaller steps.
In the above video, the task of finding the melody is first simplified by breaking the song to be learned down to its basic melody (as opposed to trying to learn a rendition on the banjo that includes melody notes plus all the extra “banjo-ey” bits).
Then, rather than having the entirety of the fretboard to choose from, the choices for where to find those notes are constrained using a visual diagram, with orange dots denoting the fretboard locations where the melody notes will be found.
Skill #3: The jam “etiquette.”
Almost every situation we find ourselves in during the course of our day comes with its own set of expectations.
You expect a dinner at an upscale restaurant to be different than a trip to McDonald’s, and those different expectations will be reflected in your behavior in each of those settings.
You have a set of behaviors for work, and a different set for home, all based on the unspoken rules, or social norms, that you’ve learned over the course of your lifetime. Once you find yourself in any of those familiar settings, those behaviors are called up from the deep recesses of your brain – automatically.
Likewise, you’ve learned these differences over time, and you’ll instinctively adjust your behavior to fit the situation.
Any context you’re familiar with, your brain will automatically call up a set of behavioral subroutines it knows it needs to successfully navigate that situation. Which means you’ll act in a manner that’s appropriate to the situation without having to think about it.
As a result, we don’t have to expend conscious effort trying to determine our appropriate behaviors in these situations, minimizing the overall cognitive burden.
Traveling in a foreign country, where recognize people operating under a different set of norms, provides us a glimpse of what’s normally taking place beneath our awareness.
Those social habits, and the neural subroutines that drive them, no longer work, and we are once again forced to focus our attention on figuring the new set of rules. Simply successfully navigating your way through dinner at a restaurant can feel exhausting.
Likewise, different kinds of jams have their own set of expectations, and part of a successful jam experience requires understanding what these expectations are. If this experience is new to you, simply navigating the social dynamics alone may be enough to steal away all of your cognitive resources, leaving nothing left to dedicate to banjo pickery.
How To Develop This Skill:
The first step here is to understand the type of jam you’ll be attending, and the associated expectations, in advance.
If this isn’t possible for whatever reason, then simply sitting back and observing the action before becoming musically involved can be a wise course of action.
Fortunately, for the majority of jam experiences a banjo player will likely find themselves, the expectations are pretty well established. As you’ll see, there’s a bit more to keep track of during a typical bluegrass jam than in an old time jam.
For a bluegrass jam, the tradition is for players to take turns calling out a song selection, usually from something in the established bluegrass cannon of material. Then the general procedure is as follows:
1 – The player who selected the song can kick it off the song with a solo on his or her instrument, or may select someone else to do so (solos usually stick to the melody of the verse).
2 – The song continues with the structure of verse, chorus, break, verse, chorus, break, etc. Again, the “break” (an instrumental solo) is usually going to replicate the melody of the verse (not the chorus).
Breaks are either taken in sequential order (based on location in the jam circle) or by the leader of the song nodding his or her head to the chosen break taker.
3 – If your turn arises and you’d rather not take your break, a side to side nod of the head indicates you’re “passing” on your turn.
4 – The song usually ends after a final chorus, and players are alerted that a final chorus is coming either by the leader raising his or her foot in the air, shouting out “last time” or some related phrase, or by another agreed upon signal. In bluegrass jams, the song is commonly ended by a couple of “shave and a haircut” licks.
The key of G is most common, but moving to other keys is also routine, especially in more advanced jam settings. Most bluegrass banjoists will keep their banjos tuned to standard G the entire time.
The key of a particular song is usually either determined by tradition – i.e. what the classic recording of the song is played in, if such a thing exists.
Or, it will be determined by the singer, based on what best suits his or her voice. Thus, knowing how to play in different keys (a capo goes a long way here) is very helpful.
It’s important to note that during the singing, and during the breaks, the objective is to support the person singing or playing, so what you’d be playing here (“backup”) is usually not the same as what you’d play during a solo break. Your primary role is to try to make the soloist sound better.
For an old time jam, the tradition is for the musicians to play in unison, meaning everybody plays the tune together. This doesn’t mean that everyone must play the same thing, but rather that the primary intent is on creating the best group sound possible.
The primary canon of material to be chosen from are fiddle tunes, which is the reason why old time jams will remain in one key for extended periods.
The most common keys in most jams are D, A, and G, followed by C. Most banjo players will play in double D (aDADE, which is double C raised two frets) for D tunes, standard A (aEAC#E, which is standard G raised two frets), standard G (gDGBD) for G tunes, and double C (gCGCD) for C tunes, with additional tunings sometimes used for specialty tunes with unique tunings.
As stated, the jams will often remain in one key for an extended period, since the banjoists, and oftentimes the fiddlers, will need to re-tune when changing keys, given the overall preference amongst most for using key-specific tunings.
That said, it is still advisable to be able to move from one tuning to another with reasonable speed, and most players, for the sake of time, will use a capo when moving from C to D or G to A, even if their preference is to tune up the strings directly when playing on their own.
In old time jams, players usually take turns calling out the tune selection, though in some cases most of the selections will be made by the most veteran fiddlers (since they’re the ones required to carry the melody).
How To Develop This Skill:
As I said in the beginning, to learn to jam you must practice jamming. Here, the best approach is to replicate the jam experience as closely as possible while practicing at home.
Many songs played on bluegrass and old time albums are played in the same format those songs would be played in a band. So one option is to simply play along with an album or a playlist. Practicing with a musician friend can also be very helpful.
And, of course, jam tracks are tailor made for this purpose. Though there are different ways in which you can use jam tracks, one way to use them is to imagine you’re in a jam, and the song has just started, and you’ve got to make your way through it no matter what.
(RELATED: There are multiple ways in which you can use the jam tracks – click here to learn how to get the most out of the jam tracks for practicing various jam-related skills)
So these are the major skills that are required to navigate your way through a jam – skills that aren’t required when playing on your own.
And if every single one of these things is foreign to you at your first jam experiences, then your brain will be devoting conscious attention to figuring all of it out! Which is akin to rubbing your stomach while patting your head while quoting shakespeare while buckdancing while finding the least mean square in the error signal while….
In other words, it’s far too much for your brain to manage at one time. And the result? Meltdown.
Just like a computer that’s run out of memory, your brain will crash. And, like a crashed computer, even its most basic functions will cease to work.
It’s worth noting that you can use the jam itself to practice these various skills. In fact, that’s one of the main rewards of playing music with others.
The key here for avoiding overwhelm and meltdown is to be intentional about it, to have a plan and a purpose so that you get something out of it, and don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do everything and being successful at none of it. Remember, you can’t do all of it in the beginning, as doing so would be biologically impossible.
The point here is to set the proper expectation, and to do some things in advance that will allow you to make the most of your experience.
Jams, especially early on, should be primarily viewed as an opportunity to practice these component skills, rather than show everyone what you can do. And like your practice sessions at home, the resulting experience will be much more productive and rewarding if you go in with a plan.
5 Mistakes of First Time Jammers (and 5 Remedies!)
And with the preceding discussion as context, here are 5 common mistakes to avoid making – and 5 related tips to not only help prevent you from making them, but that will help you get the most of the experience.
Mistake #1 – Not having a song ready to play (or not calling it out if you do).
The most fun you can potentially have in your first jam experiences will be playing a song you’ve been playing on your own with others. Like a golfer who connects with their driver for the first time, it’ll give you a feeling you’ll want to revisit time and again. Don’t miss out on that chance!
REMEDY: Have a song (or songs) ready that you feel very confident about.
Make it a simple one – resist the urge to play one that’s more technically demanding because you want to show what you can do, or because you feel pressure to play something more advanced sounding. Remember, playing a dead simple song (or arrangement of a song) with good rhythm and timing is always better than playing something technically complex with poor rhythm and timing. Always, always, always.
(RELATED: For Breakthrough Banjo course members, level 1 and 2 songs are perfect for this occasion. Click here to read more about the Brainjo levels.)
And write down the song (or songs) somewhere.
Expect your brain to freeze up. Expect to forget the names of every song you know well. Expect to forget your own name.
So, not only go with a few songs you know and can play well, but write them down so that when it’s your chance to call one out, you’re ready. And know what key that you’ll be playing them (and make sure you’ve learned it in the key it’s commonly played in!)
Mistake #2 – Not adjusting your tempo.
As mentioned earlier, if you’ve been primarily playing a song on your own, you’ll almost certainly have a tempo you consistently play it at. Chances are, it won’t be the same as the tempo you’re used to playing it at.
Now, you may have the opportunity to “kick off” (start) the song, in which case you’ll set the initial tempo. But, more than likely, you’ll start it faster than you usually play it (because you’re nervous), and the tempo will likely drift some during the course of the song. Which means that in order to stay in time with everyone else, you must listen and adjust.
REMEDY: With any song you plan to call out, make sure you’ve practiced it at multiple tempos, with a timekeeping device (metronome or, preferably, a jam track).
Mistake #3 – Not knowing the chords for the most common keys.
Playing some simple picking patterns while holding down the chords is one of the easiest ways to take part in the jam experience.
REMEDY: For the songs you know, including those you don’t feel confident enough to take a solo on, make sure you at least know the chord progressions.
Beyond that, knowing the I, IV, V, and vi chord positions for the most common keys is a big help. In a bluegrass jam, knowing at least these 4 chords in the key of G (G major, C major, D major, and E minor, respectively) is a must. If you understand how to use a capo, you’ll then be able to play in at least 4 additional keys (G#, A, Bb, B) by capo-ing up to the 5th fret (beyond the fifth, the banjo starts to sound a little tinny).
And if you learn how to use moveable chord shapes, then you’ll be able to play in any key.
Yes, being able to do this sort of thing requires understanding a bit of music theory (see the video above for an introduction to the relevant concepts). But it’s not at all complicated, and learning it will ultimately be well worth your effort.
And, be sure to have practiced playing backup. Know some picking patterns you can play while holding down the chords, and spend some time just practicing those.
The tendency here is to spend our time when practicing on our own just playing solos, or “breaks.” Once again, the best way to practice playing backup is to either play along with a backing track or a recording from an album.
Mistake #4 – Playing things that are too advanced.
Remember that while we can minimize cognitive overload in those early jam experiences, we can’t eliminate it altogether. So plan for that.
The natural tendency is to want to play your best stuff in front of others. But if there’s something you play on your own that’s right up against the limits of your ability, your first jam is not the time to play it.
REMEDY: Have material ready to play that you find easy when playing on your own.
And if you have something more challenging that you’d like to play with others, simplify it. Most challenging arrangements will usually only have a short section or two that are difficult (the ones where you tense up right as you’re about to play them). Simplify those challenging bits.
Again, remember that playing with good rhythm and timing matters more than anything else. It’s unlikely anyone will notice if you play a wrong note here and there, but notes played out of time are difficult to ignore (and they can diminish the group experience if they happen repeatedly, making it harder for everyone to stay together).
Mistake #5 – Not practicing jamming!
This horse may already be dead, but it’s such a common mistake that it bears repeating one last time: to learn to jam, you must practice jamming.
As should be clear from the preceding discussion, there’s a whole array of skills required for successful jamming that aren’t developed at all when playing on your own – unless you take time to develop them.
If you don’t, then cognitive overload, and brain meltdown, is a certainty.
You could of course just use the only the jam itself to develop those skills, but doing so will mean enduring some frustrating initial experiences, and those skills will take much longer to develop.
REMEDY: Dedicate time in your practice session to developing the specific skills outlined above needed to play with others.
Doing so will considerably reduce the cognitive overload of those initial experiences, greatly increasing the chances you’ll find those early jams rewarding and inspiring.
And spend some time trying to recreate the entire experience for yourself. Just as you’d prepare for a big speech, visualize yourself at a jam, put on a jam track, and do your best to simulate the experience.
Not only is this a great way to identify problem spots in need of further attention, but it’s also a way to reduce early jam jitters. Repetition is the best remedy for nerves.
And as I’ve talked about before, when we visualize an action or experience, it activates most if not all of the same regions of the brain as the actual experience. To our brain, then, even an imaginary jam counts as a repetition.
As outlined above, the name of the game when it comes to being successful in our first jam experiences is to reduce the cognitive overload from all the new things your brain will be trying to manage at the same time.
You won’t be able to eliminate it completely, but you can minimize it using the strategies discussed above.
A Final Perspective
On a final note, remember this: just like you are, in a jam, everybody else is focusing almost exclusively on themselves.
It’s natural to think that everyone else is listening to every single nuance of our playing, but the truth is almost nobody is.
They’re trying to hang on just like you.
Set expectations appropriately. Go in with a plan. And, most of all, just enjoy the chance to connect with other likeminded musicians.
Ultimately, that’s the only thing that really matters.