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Thread: taking a break at the jam

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    Default taking a break at the jam

    I've started attending a local jam. Many of the songs and tunes I do not know, and I am very happy to only play rhythm on those. Sometimes someone calls a song I do know, and I'd like to learn how to take a break on those. I'm looking for whatever advice you all might have about this.

    I should say that I have very limited improvisational skills. When I call a tune I mostly play a break I have fully memorized. When I "improvise," it's either because I get lost and have to find my way back to the tune (which I have managed to do to my great relief a couple of times), or it's a matter of adding some little touches to the basic melody (double stops, passing notes, a little melodic run up and down a fragment of the scale, shifting the timing a little). I'm doing two things to prepare tunes to call in the jam: learning solos I pull off recordings, and taking tunes I know and spending the week picking out the melody with a few little embellishments. Little by little my repertoire is increasing, and I am learning how to pick out a familiar melody more quickly (relatively, anyway: I can work it out in an hour now instead of it taking a whole week). I'm hoping this will eventually get me to the point where I can do it on the fly. But is there anything I should be doing other than just continuing what I'm doing?

    The one thing I do not want to do is be one of those players who just takes the pentatonic (or some other) scale and makes stuff up that fits the chord progression but doesn't really have anything to do with the song. I know that in some ways that's the quick solution, and that if I started doing that I'd probably learn how to swim better as time went on, but I just don't think I can bring myself to do it. It feels so unsatisfying (to me, YMMV of course), whereas even a very unadorned version of the melody is quite satisfying. Everyone at my jam is pretty respectful of the melody, and I'm very happy to stick with that style.

    Thanks for any advice from you more seasoned jammers!

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Keep it as simple as you can stand. Focus on being crisp and on time over lots of notes

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Hey there. I've got a couple ideas for you to try then apply. First of all keep learning tunes and songs...this will build a so called tool box of beginnings, fills, turn around and endings. After you learn a melody for a song or tune, try to play it in a different position on the neck, perhaps move it up an octave or down. Learn a harmony and other solos so you have a couple to pick from then you can mix and match a few of the variations you have learned. You're on the right track keep it up stay true to the melody. Oh yeah have fun and push your limits.
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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Practice improvising more at home. Jazz fusion guitarist Scott Henderson recommends focusing on learning lines in no more than 3 or 4 note chunks. He compares it to learning words rather than sentences. His example is if you learn the sentence "I left my jacket at the restaurant," it's going to be of limited value in conversation. If you learn each of those words, though, they're far more useful.
    "There ain't too many folks, who can play too many notes... on the mandolin"

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Learn the melody to those songs you know. You can't go wrong with a melody break and you don't need to be Sam or David to have success in local jams. Improvisation can come after you have the melody cold and you can experiment on the improvisation, good luck.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Just keep learning tunes and songs, I am working on picking out melodies in various keys to become more familiar with improvising but mainly more confident in my ability to jump on in and take a break. It takes time and having the freedom to experiment and make mistakes in real time and learn from that. Most of the pros will tell you they make lots of mistakes they just cover it up better.
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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Miller View Post
    The one thing I do not want to do is be one of those players who just takes the pentatonic (or some other) scale and makes stuff up that fits the chord progression but doesn't really have anything to do with the song. I know that in some ways that's the quick solution, and that if I started doing that I'd probably learn how to swim better as time went on, but I just don't think I can bring myself to do it. It feels so unsatisfying (to me, YMMV of course), whereas even a very unadorned version of the melody is quite satisfying. Everyone at my jam is pretty respectful of the melody, and I'm very happy to stick with that style.

    Thanks for any advice from you more seasoned jammers!
    What's wrong with Pentatonic scales if you are just starting out and don't know the songs? Many of the song melodies are right there in the notes of these scales. With the Pentatonic scale you will have more hits than misses, and with time you will hear when to add in the 4th or 7th if required by the melody.
    Being able to play the Pentatonic (and other) scales in ALL KEYS has helped me a lot.

    I have found that one of the most important points for launching a reasonable break is to know the first note of the song. Not all of them start at the root (but rather on the 3rd, 5th or other scale degree)

    Also, I don't know how much time you have?
    If I don't know a song, I just take one of my Jam Books and learn the melody in 5 minutes. Yes, yes, I know it's much better learning by ear ...
    This is advice from a not so seasoned jammer. I started out playing melodies alone for years.
    It was only 4 years ago that I attended my first jam. And now I go out to play almost every week.
    Last edited by Manfred Hacker; Mar-26-2017 at 12:24pm.
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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    I don't think of improvising as learning a set of runs, intros, or fills. If you approach it that way you will wind up doing what you say you hate which I also hate. I think of improvising as making up a break on the fly and the only way to do that is to know your fingerboard forward and backward. In my opinion the way to learn the fingerboard is just what you're doing, work out breaks based on the melody in your practice. You said that you are down to hours instead of days. That shows you are moving toward the goal. Can you pick out the melody on the fly? Or close? If so play that at the jam and work out 2 breaks on that melody when you are at home practicing. Soon you will know what each string on each fret will sound like adding to the melody without having to work on it for hours.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Chris Bowsman got it spot on - practice at home. Use the I/net or recordings as a source of 'pick along' music & practice making your own breaks up to a few of your favourite songs / tunes. Then,at your jam meetings,ask to play some of your tunes & see how they work out. It's really the only way until you know the fingerboard well enough to hit the right notes without thinking, so that you can come up with a break 'on the fly'. It's taken me 11 years to get to that stage & i've put around 14,000 hours in in that time. Unless you're a mando.prodigy,it doesn't come easy - but it does come !,
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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Thank you everyone for very helpful ideas. I can't quite pick out a melody on the fly yet, but I'm closer than I used to be just by doing it for a number of songs, so I think I'll pop Home is Where the Heart Is in the CD player today and give it a try. At least I know what all the keys are for that one.

  20. #11

    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Miller View Post
    I've started attending a local jam. Many of the songs and tunes I do not know, and I am very happy to only play rhythm on those. Sometimes someone calls a song I do know, and I'd like to learn how to take a break on those. I'm looking for whatever advice you all might have about this.

    I should say that I have very limited improvisational skills. When I call a tune I mostly play a break I have fully memorized. When I "improvise," it's either because I get lost and have to find my way back to the tune (which I have managed to do to my great relief a couple of times), or it's a matter of adding some little touches to the basic melody (double stops, passing notes, a little melodic run up and down a fragment of the scale, shifting the timing a little). I'm doing two things to prepare tunes to call in the jam: learning solos I pull off recordings, and taking tunes I know and spending the week picking out the melody with a few little embellishments. Little by little my repertoire is increasing, and I am learning how to pick out a familiar melody more quickly (relatively, anyway: I can work it out in an hour now instead of it taking a whole week). I'm hoping this will eventually get me to the point where I can do it on the fly. But is there anything I should be doing other than just continuing what I'm doing?

    The one thing I do not want to do is be one of those players who just takes the pentatonic (or some other) scale and makes stuff up that fits the chord progression but doesn't really have anything to do with the song. I know that in some ways that's the quick solution, and that if I started doing that I'd probably learn how to swim better as time went on, but I just don't think I can bring myself to do it. It feels so unsatisfying (to me, YMMV of course), whereas even a very unadorned version of the melody is quite satisfying. Everyone at my jam is pretty respectful of the melody, and I'm very happy to stick with that style.

    Thanks for any advice from you more seasoned jammers!
    Whats wrong with improvising, pentatonic or otherwise, when you dont know the melody?
    I do this a lot. And, I try to find the melody on the fly. (Sometimes i DO know it is hopeless, and ill skip if i havent caught the changes).


    The changes...that, to me, is the anchor, then, the scales....


    And, one can do ok simply mimicing the melodies phrasing. Trust me, even on tunes i know, i do this, also from boredom, or, sense of adventure/experimentation. Yes, sometimes its throwing something at the wall. More, sometimes its really good. There is a skill in fitting into a twenty second window, on the fly.

    For me, its not about respecting the melody, but participation. Creativity, too, hopefully. In fact other than celtic, i rather balk at the idea that the melody must be rigidly followed, unless playing in unison, or the like. I think a lot of jazz and pop and rock folk might agree. Its how old music can stay fresh, imho.

    I can say there are way too many tunes i dont know, and, some i know in one or two keys, but not another, ie fast fiddle type. I still try, even if i can only capture snippets of phrases and melody, on the fly, and at tempo.

    I would rather go around the circle and see someone try, and fail, than to skip, but thats me.

    And, i may simply be a musical slob. Sometimes precise, but more in the moment, stoking the song.

    My main interest is to make the song work, then to have fun and camaraderie.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Hi Steve, to clarify, I'm remembering a moment in learning guitar when a buddy and I would put a bluesy rock record on and noodle around randomly in the pentatonic scale in the right key, and it could be loads of fun for hours on end, but that's not something I can imagine importing into a break in a bluegrass or folk or country tune at my jam. My talent and experience is such that if in the jam I said to myself "WTF, I know the key, and with the pentatonic scale you can't hit a wrong note" and let it fly, it would sound like random noodling. I want to play something that sounds like the song. Down the road, as I get better, I'm sure I will want to be more adventurous.

    That being said, I take Manfred Hacker's point that using the pentatonic scale might help make finding the melody easier, and your idea of thinking in terms of the contours of the melody rather than strictly hitting the melody should help open up the process as well. Thanks.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Hey Mark,

    What's a song you want to learn a break to and what key? I'll show you a method of creating a break I learned from Butch Baldassari.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    I can think of many things I play that end up being just notes from pent scale plus flatted 3 & 7 maybe. I can't take those notes and force out a melody by itself. The melody starts in my head and I use those notes as a reliable guide.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    One thing that helps me is to just throw on my iTunes, Spotify, CDs, whatever and just play whatever comes on. Sometimes I know it and focus on playing what I learned at the full speed, or maybe embellishing or changing what I already know to create a good "second break". Sometimes I don't know it at all and fumble around finding the key and chords. You can always hit back and start over. (or skip too lol). It's a homemade jam full of pros, but they aren't very good at leaving you space to play.


    If your jam is anything like my local jam, most people that go regularly will stick to the same handful of songs from week to week. You'll get the hang of them. Also try asking whoever called for that tune either after the song or later after the jam. Hey what was that note you put there? etc. Most people are willing to help I think. Good luck!
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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Denny Gies View Post
    ...you don't need to be Sam or David to have success in local jams...
    Yeah, they were hard to beat, jammin'...

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Stevedenver asks what is wrong with improvising with pentatonic or otherwise. First if you just learn a scale of any kind that you can play over a melody or chord progression, how is that improvising? The other thing is all your breaks will sound alike because you are playing basically the same thing. Maybe use something like this while you are learning the fretboard but at best it's a crutch, something to lean on while you are learning to truly improvise. Someone remarked that it took a long time to learn the fingerboard to the point that you can improvise on the fly and that is true but I've heard a lot of players learn a few scales to play over the melody and let it go at that, never bothering to learn melodies and how to play around them. I'm not saying that the goal is to play the melody note for note,but the melody should be part of the break in most cases. Embellish the melody don't eliminate it.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Miller View Post
    ..... learning solos I pull off recordings, and taking tunes I know and spending the week picking out the melody with a few little embellishments.....

    Welcome to improvising.... what you are doing is exactly right. Now just work up to being able to do this "real-time" based on the music you hear in your head.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Quote Originally Posted by jshane View Post
    Welcome to improvising.... what you are doing is exactly right. Now just work up to being able to do this "real-time" based on the music you hear in your head.
    +1

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Well I have received a ration for my thoughts on this matter but here goes.

    I think the break should be closely related to the melody - should perhaps exaggerate the drama of the melody or create some new drama in the way it departs and returns to the melody.

    The best breaks come from knowing the tune.

    There is nothing wrong with just doing pentatonics and whatnot to the chord structure, but it will sound kind of generic. Like - this is the break I use for tunes in D and this is the break I use for tunes in A. It will sound better than canned breaks however.

    Canned breaks are literally prepared and practiced breaks for common chord progressions. To my ear they lack spontaneous energy, (in addition to having nothing to do with the tune being played).

    I have mixed feelings about playing breaks learned off a recording. As an exercise I have come to understand their value. As a way to play a break it seems a little disingenuous unless you give credit to Ricky Skaggs or whoever.

    My style, which is evolving a bit, is to kind of aim for the melody and "miss". Sometimes I might deliberately go astray to (hopefully) inspire some cool way to get back.

    But it all starts from knowing the tune. Chords and melody.
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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Thanks again to everyone. It seems like there are two kinds of advice here--one, people thinking about what makes for a good break, the other, people thinking about how to learn how to do it. I agree with Jeff, for instance, that playing someone else's break is in principle not as interesting or fun or in some sense honest as playing something of your own. But before I started learning other people's breaks, I literally had no idea what to do. I mean, I could have found the melody notes. But picking up the instrument and listening to where the notes are would never have gotten me to sliding up into a unison, or the cool double stop right here, or this place where a quick alternating trill between a major note and a blue note sounds good, to name three things I've learned from Monroe's early playing. Now I incorporate those kinds of things when I pick out a tune on my own. Since I'm still just starting to learn, I think a whole bunch more of breaking down other people's breaks and playing them for a while will do me a world of good in teaching me the language. I'm guessing that's what people have in mind who are suggesting continuing with that. Unless I'm not going to go to the jam until I've completed that process, as a practical matter I will be playing some breaks that I've learned off recordings (or at least a semblance of them).

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Don Grieser View Post
    Hey Mark,

    What's a song you want to learn a break to and what key? I'll show you a method of creating a break I learned from Butch Baldassari.

    Don

    Hi Don, thanks for the offer! How about Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee, key of A?

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    I approach learning breaks off recordings as more than just exercises. Especially for those just starting out, they provide insight into what is going through a recording artist's mind when crafting a solo. I have loads of transcribed recorded solos, many of the same number done by different artists. Studying them alerts me to techniques and note choices that are varied, and they all go into my trick bag for eventual use. This past Sunday, I was jamming with Jan Johannson (noted fiddle man) and some others. I called out Snowflake Reel. We went round and round. After it was over, Jan said something like "I heard Sam Bush in one of your solos". I thought about it and remembered a transcription I copped from one of the rags of Sam's solo to that number off a Bobby Hicks record. I didn't think actively "Ok, now I'm gonna do a Sam move". It just came out.

    Niles H., Dave Peters, Grisman, Joe Carr all have put out books and books of transcriptions - their own + recorded solos of the stars, precisely to show how they and others approach a given tune. Is the goal to play it just like they do? Not to my way of thinking. They are road maps to coming up with your own thing.

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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Miller View Post
    Hi Don, thanks for the offer! How about Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee, key of A?
    Bookmarking this, because I too would love to learn this method
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    Default Re: taking a break at the jam

    A side note....

    to a jazz player, "taking a break" at a jam session means you stop playing and get off the bandstand!

    I find it interesting that in the BG world what we jazz players call a "solo" is called a "break".

    I wonder why the divergence in terminology.

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