“I received your jam camp orientation materials today. After looking it over I am wondering if I am getting on board a bit late. I know two songs that I can play, Worried Man and Bile Dem Cabbage Down and I have never sung either one, I am not even sure what the words are! The only person that has ever heard me play banjo is my wife and son, and I rarely play when they are around. If you think I should wait a year and be better prepared I will. Your thoughts?”
The info materials tell people how to prepare, assuming they have time to prepare. The prep is not necessary, just recommended. The requirements of the camp are spelled out, and if you meet them (can tune your instrument and play 4 chords) you qualify and can get a benefit from the camp.
You would be better prepared for next year if you took this year’s camp. The practicing you’ve done thus far (learning two songs by tablature only) is not good prep for jamming. I would say you should have started by working on different skills, but at the camp I make it clear what sorts of practicing are most beneficial, and you’ll get a chance to work on them.
Right now, you might try seeing if you can keep a simple standard roll such as TITM repeating while you change chords between G and D7. If that goes well, try using different chord changes. This is not a necessary skill, but if you can do it, it will be very satisfying to use in as accompaniment behind songs.
The camp itself can benefit you a lot as it will bring you face to face with what it takes to actually play music with others, and you will get a chance to do exactly that, for a few days. You can fit in just chording along. We keep it about as easy as it can possibly be (start with a bunch of two chord songs). Be assured there will be others there with zero jamming experience and confidence.n
Absolutely we do not require or even recommend a 4-finger D chord. Many people seem to think that D is “supposed to be” a 4-finger chord, but it actually sounds *better* as a 3-finger chord, leaving the 4th string open. The open string is a low D, after all, so that chord sounds fuller than a 4-finger D. I suggest using all but the ring finger, leaving it free to play the 4th string (or the 3rd) when and if the melody calls for it. The 4-finger version I guess is often taught because unlike the 3-finger one, it’s a movable position, usable at other locations as an F chord, G chord, etc.
In the key of G, the easy 2-finger D7 substitutes fine for a D. But that substitution doesn’t work in the key of D, where the D7 is not interchangeable with D. BUT… there’s an easy alternative D chord, a simple 2-finger D, like the 3- and 4-finger versions but where both the 1st string and the 4th are left open. That D chord is not the best-sounding one, but is workable.
The key of D is well-worth getting handy with, generally needing only D, G, and A. It’s the most workable alternative to playing in G, and is often used when the singer can’t easily sing a particular song in G. That’s why our “required chords” list is G, C, D, and A. On the banjo G and A are pretty darned easy, and the easiest D is easy too, so we have the bar set as low as possible to make it easiest for people to come and learn how to jam.
It would fit in at the jam camp, but it’s appropriate to mention that clawhammer is not the “style of choice” for bluegrass, and the reasons for that.
On one hand, any song playable in Scruggs style (3-finger picking) banjo can also be played in clawhammer style, and as an accompaniment in a group setting, either style of banjo would work. If played well and tastefully, it can sound good in a variety of bluegrass settings. As a good example, the late Merle Watson did some fine clawhammer work on Doc Watson’s most “bluegrassy” record, Greenville Trestle. Ralph Stanley and others have occasionally played clawhammer style, perhaps a single song in a set, as a welcome novelty.
However, the reason the style is not normally heard in bluegrass is that, depending on what sort of clawhammer style is used (single notes, vs. more of a rhythmic strum), clawhammer banjo is not as clear and distinct as 3-finger picking is, and may either be too quiet to be heard, or else possibly “muddy” the rhythm sound that already includes a good amount of guitar and mandolin. While in informal bluegrass jam situations clawhammer may fit in easily, you will almost never hear it in a performing bluegrass band, for the reasons given.
All that said, I am happy to welcome clawhammer banjo players to a bluegrass jam camp, since their playing should fit in just fine. However, during the camp when it comes to learning soloing, they will encounter the limitation I’ve described.n
“In the orientation materials I didn’t see much about upright bass music. So I’ve been working on a variety of songs from your song list. Some fast jams, some slow and what-not.”
Your comment and this response are going right onto our web site, to help others prepare for future camps. What you are doing is right on target. Also, be sure to practice your 1/4/5 positions in different keys. Playing along with recordings of standards is great practice too.
“Do you expect other bass players? I ask this for two reasons. First, I don’t get to talk to other bass players often. Second, three hours of hard jamming is about all my fingers can take at a time. It would be nice to take turns.”
We don’t expect steady playing for more than 2 hours at a time. So far, one other bass player is signed up, and we never know what to expect. Usually we’re short on bass players, so I HOPE you’ll sign up! Without bass players, we double up guitars, if available, in the small groups. Normally the bass players stay busy during the small groups times of day.
Amplifying will probably be necessary as the smaller “guitar” type basses are pretty quiet for bluegrass needs. No problem whatsoever playing electric bass. It’s definitely an acceptable variation on the traditional standup, as long as it’s played appropriately. Naturally there are limitations to where you can play, as you need to plug in your amp. Though there are battery powered amps which let you play anywhere.”
The advertised requirement is “able to change smoothly between simple chords”. A fiddle doesn’t exactly chord, but a fiddler needs to be able to follow simple chord progressions, and be aware when the song is on a G, or on a D, etc. That allows for playing of correct backup notes for either bowing or “chopping”, and if she ventures a lead, using licks that are most easily categorized by what chord(s) they go with.
Important: For bluegrass jamming, it is not really sufficient for a person to know only how to play tunes and lead lines. This is where bluegrass and other kinds of music differ: All instruments are expected to play backup, for which there is no printed music available. You just have to watch (the guitar player’s left hand) and listen for chord changes, and play something appropriate, even if it’s a single note for each chord. So it’s important for fiddlers to know what the different notes are that go into a G, C, or D chord, and to get to them quickly and smoothly. It’s actually ok if they just hit the root notes, G, C, and D, and that is a basic workable place to start.
Aside from that, a new fiddler would benefit a lot from being able to find melodies by ear. It’s fine to start slowly and haltingly, but after a while it should come more quickly and accurately, and that’s a great place to be when the camp gets going, so that she can try faking a melody in a jam now and then. To start that, suggest some favorite songs that she could hum, and the likely key (G or A works for many). If you can sing the song slowly and play guitar while she tries, that could really help get her going. Watch out, though, husbands and wives don’t always match up so well as pickers when one is ahead of the other one. Just being encouraging is the best thing, especially if she’s sensitive to criticism.
Either way, tab or standard notation, is just fine as a way of learning solos that someone else has created. But in bluegrass jamming, people have to “think on their feet” and learn to come up with solos based on their ability to follow chord progressions with notes that fit in the chords, and put in melody notes or pre-learned “licks” where they can. So we actually don’t use written notation at the camp at all, but work on developing ear skills. Since you are already a singer, you probably can already find melodies by ear, and that’s the kind of thing we encourage at the camp. Since we keep the tempos nice and slow, learning to solo this way gets a chance to happen at an easy pace, and there are lots of chances to try solos on good but simple bluegrass songs.
You’ve probably noticed in seeing other people play bluegrass, that people are not playing from paper. Nor do they usually have from-paper solos memorized. They make do using the above methods, and that’s what we teach at the camp!
“I am being taught to play fiddle as a lead instrument and I don’t understand about chords on the fiddle.”
This is typical, if that’s any comfort. Our teachers have taught the basics to a lot of fiddlers, even though many of them don’t play fiddle!
“I thought arpeggios were just extended chords broken up into single notes the fiddle can play, and a way to beat into the brain just which notes are acceptable choices when everyone else is playing a certain chord.”
That’s exactly right.
“But you say I need to learn honest-to-goodness chords on the fiddle.”
More experienced fiddle players learn which pairs of adjacent strings might BOTH have acceptable notes (one might be an open string, while the other is stopped), and then you actually would have a 2-note chord. But one “legal” note is sufficient.
“Or a definition of what a chord actually is on the fiddle? None of the books I have lying around address this. I don’t know whether to play double stops on the G and D strings, or on the D and A strings, or on the A and E strings, or something else entirely, and sometimes there’s more than one double stop that might be used.”
A chord means any two or more notes which harmonize together. If you are playing arpeggios of the “acceptable notes in a chord”, then any one or more of those same notes can be used. If you’re playing two at the same time, that can be called “a chord”.
To jam in bluegrass, you mainly need to know what notes are “acceptable” choices behind each of the chords. The choices change as the chords change.
On our Slow Jam video, we start out with a bunch of two chord songs. They use G and D chords. For those two chords, the acceptable notes are (for G:) G, B, or D, and (for D:) D, F#, A. So, for instance, as the song changed from the part backed by a G chord, to D chord, on the fiddle you could note a G and then an A. Or a G and then a D. Or …. a D and then a D!
When you look at it that way, the technical end is pretty simple, but you do have to keep the “acceptable” choices in mind, and as you follow the chord changes, make sure to “stay legal”.
This kind of thing gets much easier the more you do it, to where after a while you can almost stop thinking about it, while still doing it correctly. That’s why I strongly recommend the Slow Jam video for both you and your husband. The chord changes are shown right on screen, and as the songs go by, you can just follow along. The video has 17 standards, all played slowly, and the entire chord vocabulary is G, C, D, and A. Play along enough with that video, and you’ll be able to fit right in at the camp, and set your sights on more than just the basics of “being legal”.
If you are willing/able to try for double stops, then the trick is to find which pair of notes that are both in a chord can be easily enough sounded when the time comes. Example: For a G chord, you can just play the open G and D simultaneously. For the D chord, you can play D and A simultaneously. Those are nice easy choices, no left hand!nnIn case it’s not spelled out in your books, the acceptable notes in a chord are: the FIRST, THIRD, and FIFTH note of the scale the chord is based on. Example, for a G chord, use the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the G scale. Those are: G, B, and D.
“Are there suggested ways to improve learning chords?”
Pick two chords that are commonly played in the same song, and practice switching between them. At first, once you’ve made the chord, pick the strings one by one to make sure they’re all clear. Then change the chord and do the same. Then back and forth, and in time, more quickly. With practice, you will definitely get it.n
“I teach Texas Style or ‘contest style’ fiddling. Most of my fiddlers jam quite often and almost all also play guitar. I am not sure my kids would fit into the bluegrass perspective.”
From what you say, not many of your students might find this class “for them”. But it’s also true that being able to “fake” solos and do tasteful backup on songs that come up at a jam is a skill that some “contest style” fiddlers might want to add. This skill is less about well-practiced technique than just getting out in a bluegrass situation and “learning how to play shortstop” where, while there are ground rules, no one really knows just what’s going to happen. Depending on what sort of jamming experience a student has had or wants, this kind of opportunity might be helpful.
In general, guitarists are handled about the same as the other folks: You’re expected to at the least, know several chords and be able to play rhythm and change chords pretty smoothly.
Beyond that, it’s a plus if you can offer some songs that you sing, at slow tempos, with easy chords, preferably in G. If you can do any soloing, that’s fine, but it’s not expected. We are mainly about:n1. Getting people comfortable in a jamming situation, following along.n2. Teaching people how to be valuable contributors to a jam session (singing lead, singing harmony, taking solos, leading the group for a song at a time). Some people are ready for this, some not. All are welcome.
My wife Joan is a good rhythm guitar player, and both she and I will give pointers to the various guitarists regarding a good balance of sound, bass runs, etc. Not a lot of specific instrument instruction, but pointers as a person’s playing relates to helping the group sound better.
In sum, you will get a good workout on your guitar, and learn some of the fine points of how to handle your guitar at a jam, building confidence as you go.n
There are a few rhythm guitar players (including Delbert Williams, a very respected California musician), who do use a thumb pick, in the style of some of the earliest bluegrass guitar players, such as Lester Flatt and Carter Stanley. But these exceptions are rare.
I would say a flat pick is not *necessary* for bluegrass, but the standard way the guitar is played in bluegrass does *not* call for fingerpicking at all. Instead, it is typically a strong and clear bass note followed by a quick and clean (not noisy) brushed strum on mostly strings 1, 2, and 3. The idea is to have the low note, and punctuate time, not to “fill” the midrange sound of the ensemble.
Generally, people make the bluegrass guitar sound with a flat pick, but if the grip, etc. are awkward at first, you can try for the same sound with a thumbpick and maybe a single finger pick for the quick strum (not individual notes). Sorry to sound dogmatic about that, but I feel responsible for helping people to understand and learn “the bluegrass way” from me, which they then can use according to their own judgement.
We are glad to accept people who play acoustic string instruments that are not normally thought of as bluegrass instruments. But we feel it’s important to make clear why the instrument is not normally thought of as “belonging” in bluegrass.
In general, the reason is the instrument is too quiet or low-definition in sound to stand out among a group of bluegrass instruments. The player can participate by playing along, but their playing may not be heard by the other musicians, so it’s not the usual type of participation, where interactions are part of the artistry and the fun.
Ukulele or mountain dulcimer, for instance, would be hard to hear over guitars, banjo, bass, etc… unless amplified. Amplification could work, but that would open another challenge, since many jams take place outdoors, and the absence of an outlet could be a problem… Then again, there are good battery-operated, rechargeable amps, which would solve the problem. Or, as with electric basses that need amps, we could make sure that that person was able to jam within reach of an outlet.
Hammered dulcimers can usually solo loud enough to be heard in a bluegrass jam, but there’s no designated role for them as a rhythm/chording instrument. Because only two notes can be played at once, it would have less role to play in backup than a typical chording instrument.
Autoharp is not necessarily quiet, but its sound as a rhythm instrument would likely be lost amidst the strumming of guitars and mandolins. Soloing on an autoharp could be audible if done well.
Clawhammer banjo – see this information.
Harmonica has been a bit controversial in bluegrass (as a non-stringed instrument that doesn’t typically fit well in faster songs), but we are happy to accept harmonica players who understand the limitations of the instrument. Like hammered dulcimer it’s not able to make full chords, limiting its use for backup. But harmonica, like fiddle, can play good melody lines and background fills with expression, and a skilled player can make a good contribution to a bluegrass jam. It’s a rare harmonica player that can keep up with fast bluegrass, and the results are not always likeable, but it can be done and done well.
Percussion has long been the most controversial aspect of bluegrass instrumentation… with even some of the founding bluegrass fathers taking different stands on the issue — sometimes at different points in their own career (!). Even Monroe had a bit of percussion on a few cuts, and brushes on a snare drum was a regular component of Jimmy Martin records and at times, his and others’ stage shows. In a bluegrass jam, percussion most likely would show up as spoons, bones, or washboard. Some songs and situations can take percussion more readily than others, and if the player knows that and tastefully lays out when appropriate, he or she will likely get general appreciation. Bones and spoons can work easily as a brief novelty, and then can wear out everyone if they are heard even a little too often (like three songs in a row). The typical protocol in bluegrass jams for washboard is “they’re not welcome”. A tasteful player who doesn’t just barge in may get acceptance but there’ll definitely be some frowns.
One last thing worth mentioning: If a person wants to play bluegrass, it makes most sense to learn to play one of the instruments normally associated with bluegrass: guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo (played Scruggs style), bass, or dobro guitar. Many people play more than one instrument, and play different styles of music. Usually, the second instrument or the second style is learned faster than the first, and being versatile is an advantage in that it allows a person to participate in more situations. This is worth considering!
“My video for the mandolin is all in G, however the fiddle one has all the tunes in A. This becomes confusing at times. Should I try to learn all the songs for both instruments in mainly the key of G to be better prepared for the camp?”
Learning how to chord along on three chord songs in BOTH keys is a very meaningful and appropriate skill for you to work on. Both keys are frequently used in bluegrass jamming.
Also, in bluegrass there are so many different songs that might come up at a jam, the idea is not to “learn songs”, but to learn the skills to help you follow along on songs you’ve never played before. This is NOT the same as rote learning or reading music. It is a different set of skills. Working with my jamming videos will help you develop them.
“Also, I find it easy to do the two finger G, C, and D chords on the mandolin but the A chord as shown is pretty difficult. Do I need to be learning other than the two finder G, C, and D chords?”
2-finger chords will get you by, but you’ll be able to control your sound better once you get comfortable on the 4-finger ones. If you get started now, you’ll probably have it by November. It’s hard at first, and may seem impossible, but don’t give up. Change between the different chords and see how cleanly and fluently you can do it. Eventually, being able to make chord changes quickly *without looking* will get you where you want to be.
Class/Camp Prep for Novice Mandolin Players
By Mark Roberts, former jam camper, Argyle, TX
In bluegrass mandolins provide the back beat or off beat. This is done with the mandolin “chop.” It’s not hard. You make a chord – say G – and then strum it but just as it starts to ring you let you fingers up just a little on the strings, dampening them and the sound. You get a nice snare drum chop sound.
That’s your job: to keep the band in rhythm with your chop. The bass player will play ON the beat, and you will play the OFF beat. Boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick. You’re the chick.nGuitars do both the Boom and the chick. Fiddles, banjos, resonator guitars sometimes hit the chick, but the mandolin virtually always does.
Playing on the off beat is a little different. It is very easy to roll over to the on beat and it requires some practice to stay on the off beats. If you can’t do it you should work on this relentlessly until you can. This is the single most important preparation you can do so you need to work on this until you can do it. I’m not kidding. You’ve got to be able to chop on the off beats. Get a metronome and set it at a slow tempo. Hold a chord. Beep – Strum the CHOP – Beep – Strum the CHOP. If you can’t chop in between the beeps slow it down till you can. Then work on it until you can do it faster.
If you can’t do it you may want to try playing the G string (furthest from the floor on your mandolin) ON the beat and then chopping. This helps a lot of mandolin players. They play G string, then CHOP. In effect, they are playing boom-chick, boom-chick – playing “both parts”, as the guitar does. Work on this. This is what the mandolin does when playing rhythm in bluegrass.
You also should work on changing chords as you chop. You need to be able to smoothly and quickly change from G, C, and D chords. Get the song sheet and use it. Play boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick as you sing the words in your head and then smoothly, without breaking tempo, shift to the next chord and keep right on boom-chicking in rhythm. The better you are at this the better you’ll do at Jam Camp. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t work on fiddle tunes or solos. Just work on your chop chords.
By the way, I knew some two-finger mandolin chords and thought I’d just use those. Wrong! You can’t make that nice mandolin “bark” with only two strings chorded. You need to use the full chords that fret all the strings if you want to be a bluegrass mandolin player. [However, if you can switch quickly between the 2-finger chords, it’s acceptable to use those. But practicing the full chords is worth the effort.]nnIf you can chord chop your way through the songs Pete sends at a good pace (like 80 bpm) then you’re ready for Camp.
If you can’t chop and chord and you aren’t getting it on your own then order Pete’s Slow Jam video. It contains a ton of songs and gives you plenty of slow songs to work on your chop. I bought one at the Camp and it is a huge help. Get one before Camp and you’ll be just that much better before the Camp starts.