Tips for Playing Banjo in a Bluegrass Jam
by Ross Nickerson
It seems with jamming that it is best to plan for the unexpected. Learning how to improvise and “fill the space” based on the chord progression of the song is something that should be developed in practice. Using backup play along tracks or play along DVDs is a great strategy for simulating a jamming situation. When practicing with backup tracks try to play along using only the chords to the song as your guide. Then practice all elements of the song, including rhythm vamping backup, simple picking backup and a lead break. Be sure to find some tracks that play in other keys like C and D so you get lots of practice at that. Learning to play melodies and basic improvisation out of the D “shape” is an important step in your progress.
Learning how to tune quickly is very helpful at jams. Practice taking the capo on and off experimenting with how your banjo reacts to the capo, teaching yourself how to get your banjo in tune quickly and QUIETLY. Turn away from others when tuning, and use your bare finger to pluck the string. Choose a capo that requires the least amount of retuning. Less pressure and snug up against the fret wire works for me.
Practicing dynamics at home by picking loud and soft trying to cover the whole volume spectrum is very helpful. Sometimes jamming etiquette is simply being able to play good banjo without drowning others out. Dynamics are also very useful in backup or when its your turn to solo.
Being able to keep up with faster tempos is an important but sometimes overlooked skill to develop in practice. It’s not necessary to burn the doors off but being left behind in even moderate tempos is an awful feeling for students. One quick tip is to keep what you play simple and have at least a couple of banjo rolls you can play at a faster speed. This will get you feeling the rhythm at a faster tempo and then you can introduce more complicated things later, especially with the fretting hand.
Thanks, Ross Nickerson
Banjo jamming DVD