Anyone who has picked up the electric guitar (and a good number of exclusively acoustic players, too) has experienced jamming. It’s part of what makes an electric guitar player an electric guitar player.
Sure, that statement applies to significant numbers of other musicians playing different instruments. But it’s particularly true for us guitarists.
More than 90 percent of people who play the electric guitar picked up the instrument because they wanted to play an incredible, lightning-fast-yet-expressive guitar solo. (Fake editor’s note: That is absolutely a completely made up statistic.)
The whole culture surrounding electric guitar is about soloing and bravado. So, it makes sense that many players would gravitate toward improvisational jam sessions on a regular basis. It’s a good way to test out new licks and see how your lead playing sounds compared to another person.
Part of this jamming is the understood swapping out with someone else. That is, if I start off strumming chords (or otherwise playing rhythm), and you’re noodling around with some sort of lead melody, it’s understood that within a reasonable amount of time you will switch places with me and take over rhythm duties while I show off and have fun doing lead.
Of course, this gets a little more complex when you have a whole bunch of guitar players congregated together, and also you can sometimes develop a rapport with another guitar player so that you can switch mid-line, so that you’re essentially playing the same solo together (ala The Allman Brothers Band). But the general principle remains true.
I’ve been playing guitar for about 20 years, (which for some people seems like an eternity and for others seems like a drop in the bucket) so I’ve jammed with a guitar player or two in my day.
There are a few different types of guitarists in jamming scenarios:
- The Lead Hog – This person wants to play lead the entire time, leaving others to simply strum chords for minutes on end, and when they tire of their lead playing, they stop altogether and normally make a comment like, “wow, that sounded really great.” This person is definitely the person you’ll have the least fun with, whether they’re really skilled and deserving of that much time as the lead player or (as is more often the case) they actually are not very good and just repeat a couple of pentatonic licks until their fingers get tired.
- The Tentative Player – The polar opposite of the Lead Hog. First you take the lead, and you experiment with your favorite licks while this person plays rhythm. Then, you give them the nod, to let them know for sure that you’re ready to swap with them, and then it happens. Either they just continue to play chords alongside you and never actually take the lead, or, if they do in fact take the lead, they play a couple of notes here and there, maybe make a long bend or two to take up more time, and then back off and go back to chords. I used to be this guy, and often when I’m either uncomfortable or think I’m playing with someone leaps and bounds better than me, I’ll revert back to this. Still, this isn’t fun for the other musicians. Music isn’t about how talented you are, it’s about having fun! Let loose! Your friends will be grateful, trust me.
- The One Who Stays Out of Tune/Key – This one is mostly beginners, but occasionally you’ll get a more experienced person who will fall into this role. With beginners, it’s sometimes tougher to discern the sound of being sliiiiiiightly out of tune, whereas long-time players will pick up on it almost right away. The way more experienced players let this happen is related to the Tentative Player – they know they are out of tune, but they’re too embarrassed to tune, if that makes any sense. Either they don’t have a chromatic tuner on hand and don’t want to embarrass themselves by making everyone else hush so they can tune by ear because they worry it will take too long or they do have the tuner but they’re in their own heads because they’ve been called out for turning to the tuner every time instead of going by ear (many guitarists I’ve worked with over the years have greatly enjoyed ribbing their fellow guitar players, but I suppose your mileage may vary).
- The Guitarist Who Won’t Stop -This one is mostly harmless (unless you’re a drummer whose arms are growing tired). This guitar player either doesn’t pick up on the cues from the other musicians–whether they are subtle musical cues or outright verbal cues–and refuses to end the song. At some point, everyone will stop playing, and he’ll still be shredding. You try to avoid that by winding down the tempo and building toward a logical conclusion for the song, but he tries to force the issue and build things back up in the other direction because there are still a few licks he wants to try out, or because he thinks the other guitar players got more time to shine than he did.
There’s one very specific type of guitarist I have found I greatly enjoy jamming with, however: Guitar players who also play the drums.
I was in a band where the drummer was actually a hell of a guitar player, and for quite some time I thought playing guitar with him was just fun because he was a fun dude to play guitar with. Eventually, I found out another friend of mine who I liked to jam with on guitar was also a drummer. And another. So, maybe there’s a trend there.
They all have a few common attributes as guitar players. One is obvious: They never screw up the rhythm or tempo of the song. It’s easy to mess things up when you’re just jamming with another guitar player and no drummer and/or bass player.
Another attribute is that they’re unselfish. For the most part, drummers are not going to get the limelight in the band. They’re used to being in the background, still playing an absolutely critical role, but not being the main attraction. This translates in my anecdotal experience with a handful of friends who made the jump from drums to guitar. They don’t mind deferring, but will take the reigns when you want them to.
Also, they’re aware of their limitations, and they have fun within those boundaries. The guy I mentioned above who I was in a band with was actually an incredible guitar player, but he still fit this description. Sometimes I have a tendency to get to shredding and trying to pull off moves I’m not quite capable of, just because I get caught up in the moment and my mind wants to go to a place where my fingers can’t take me. This really did not happen in any of my jam sessions with this friend.
So, while all jam sessions with other guitarists are varying levels of fun, there is one specific type of guitar player I happen to enjoy jamming with the most. Perhaps I should consider taking up the drums so I can eventually be a more fun jamming partner for my other guitar-playing friends.