One of the National Blues Museum’s most cherished rituals is our Sittin’ on the Porch jam session, which occurs every Thursday from 6:00-9:00 PM. Musicians start showing up around 5:00 to soundcheck, sign-up, and mingle. Players of ALL SKILL LEVELS are encouraged to join us, and any instrument or musical background will be appreciated (for real, our jam session is the best jam session for beginners in St. Louis). Our musicians will be happy to help you learn the ins and outs of playing the Blues in settings like this, but, that being said, we realize you may have questions about what jamming will entail and how you will fit into the group. Below are some terms and guidelines for Blues jams, including a typical sequence of how a given song will go.
If you want a recorded example of these individual elements brought together for reference,
- THE TUNE/”HEAD”/MELODY: when you come to a jam session, it is helpful to arrive with 2 or 3 songs in mind to play. Check out this NBM list of Blues standards to get an idea of what musicians who attend jam sessions are likely to know. You can also sort of get around this in Blues jams, as many songs have similar structures and chords. A vast majority of Blues songs are made up of 12 measure phrases revolving around the I, IV, and V chords. Even if you’re new to playing the Blues, this progression is such a big part of our culture that you’ll probably recognize it in context and maybe even know some songs that follow it already. Every music example in this post follows this general form.
By learning some 12-bar Blues songs, you and the other musicians can choose something everyone knows how to play.
Normally, you’ll start the song off by playing/singing the melody and come back to it (even just one verse) after people have soloed.
- FEELS/GROOVES: In Blues, common grooves/feels/tempos and the key of the song can help communicate what you want to play with the band as well. Someone might not know how to play “Pride and Joy” off the top of their head, but if you describe it as a “shuffle” in E, they can most likely get by. Here are some common feels/grooves used in Blues music. Even if you aren’t familiar with musical terminology, listening to examples of these feels should give you an idea of their differences and, given Blues’ prominent influence in popular music, there’s a good chance you can innately feel them.
Shuffle: a swung, triplet-based feel relying on swung/accented eighth notes. This is the most common Blues feel. Example:
Straight-ahead: an eight-note based feel where the triplets are not swung. Early Rock and Roll music often relies on this. Example:
6/8: 6/8 grooves divide measures into 6 beats instead of four. You can count them out as “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.” This is also a very commonly used feel in doo-wop music and will be very familiar to listeners. In Blues, it is often blurred with the shuffle feel. Example:
Riff-Based : Certain Blues songs are dictated by a specific underlying riff or bassline. The songs’ overall feel may fit into one of the categories mentioned above, but the riff acts as an anchor for the band to form the song around. Prominent examples include “Mannish Boy” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Example:
- SOLOING: Blues, jazz, bluegrass, and other jam styles feature improvisatory solos. After the melody of the song is played or sung, the band will keep looping the song’s chord progression for different players to solo over. One time through the chord progression is referred to as a “chorus,” so if you solo through the progression 8 times, you’d say you “played 8 choruses.” Often, the player who called the tune–you–will solo first, followed by other members of the band. Before returning to the song’s melody, look around and make sure every player who wanted to solo got a chance.
- COMPING: “Comping,” short for accompanying, is what a player does when they aren’t soloing. Guitarists, bassists, keyboard players, drummers, and other rhythm instruments are responsible for keeping the groove down. There are a variety of styles one can use to comp, but–for guitarists and piano players–just playing the song’s chords in a rhythmic pattern that fits the feel will suffice. Bassists must walk a bassline, alternating between chord tones in a manner that pushes the song forward.
- TRADING: After the members of the band wishing to solo have played, it is common to suggest “Trading 4s” with soloists in the group. Usually, this will occur after the melody has been played its last time, but all of this can be varied. Trading entails soloing back and forth in 4 measure phrases (1/3 of the Blues form). As trading sessions go on, the increments between switching will often get smaller, going to 2 measure phrases, 1 measure phrases, and eventually having the players step over each other in a call and response fashion. Here is a good example of Buddy Guy and Albert Collins trading fours alternated with full choruses of soling.
- ENDING: After all the players in the band have gotten their say, and you’ve run through the melody again, and perhaps traded to take it out, you have to END THE SONG. People often forget this one. Blues endings can also be haphazard and joyfully chaotic. At the end of the progression, the band may slow down slightly and then all hit the root chord and sustain it dramatically while players do fills underneath. Then, everyone looks at each other and hits one last note to round out the song. This sort of ending can be seen in the Eric Gales and Josh Smith video below. Other endings might be particular to a given song. Even if you make it all the way to the end and then forget to come up with something, elder musicians will often give you a helping hand finishing the tune.
When it all comes together, here’s a possible sequence for a Blues jam:
There is a lot of room for variation in Blues formats, so it’s likely a jam will interchange the order of these individual pieces. A song might start out with a short solo or feature short solos between each lyrical verse of a song. Trading might also occur before the melody comes back in, or not at all.
All of this is communicated through eye contact, gestures, and intuition. Experienced players are familiar with this format, and they can take the reins from beginners to make sure the song unfolds in a logical fashion. Here are some ways of communicating where you’re at in the song:
- Tapping Your Head: If you tap your head, you are signaling to the band or soloist that you will be going back to the melody and should stop soloing. Often the last person to solo will do this, or make eye contact with you to signal the rest of the band.
- Holding Up Your Fist: Holding up your first toward the end of the song signals to the band that you’re going to end the tune, and that they should get ready stop at the end of the progression. In Blues, the fist can hold another purpose. Dramatic breaks are often used to highlight solos and change up the momentum of the song. By holding up your fist while singing or soloing you can signal to the band to all stop and do rhythmic breaks. This often happens when the form starts over again, doing breaks on the I chord until the IV chord arrives.
- Holding Up Fingers: In Blues and many other genres, there are three primary chords (I, IV, and V). If the band needs guidance on where you are in the progression, holding up one finger, four fingers, or five fingers will signal which of the chords you are on our about to go to.
- Eye Contact: when you reach the soloing portion of the jam, you can let other band members know you are about to finish soloing by making eye contact. By making eye contact with a musician, you are signaling to them that THEY will be the next person to solo. This process eventually becomes very intuitive. Eye contact is also useful in simply communicating that you are going to move onto the next phase of a given song.
- If you want to trade solos, making eye contact saying so/mouthing words to the band member you’re going to pass it off too will suffice, but you may have to think on your feet.
A complete run-through of this style of jam can be seen in this performance of Josh Smith and Eric Gales.
filmed at The Baked Potato in Studio City, CA
Smith starts with a one chorus solo, sings the melody/head, and takes a prolonged solo. After he is done soloing, the keyboard player takes over, followed by Gales. After Gales’ solo, Smith sings the melody/head once more. Then the two trade solos to carry the song out, starting out with short intervals, moving to four measure phrases, and eventually letting the energy rise until they are playing over each other.
So, there you have it. When you come to Sittin’ on the Porch at the National Blues Museum to play, musicians will be happy to guide you through this process and give you pointers, but having these general guidelines will help you get your start jamming. Even if some of these ideas don’t make sense to you right now, we highly encourage you to come by. Jam sessions are a great place to learn by DOING, and being thrown into the sea of music you’ll find yourself swimming in no-time. But, again, we’ve got plenty of good lifeguards to make sure you get to the other side safely. All musicians need places where they can take these initial steps into collaboration, and Sittin’ on the Porch is a perfect place to do so. So stop by! From 6:00 – 9:00 PM every Thursday!! At the National Blues Museum, one of the best places for live music in St. Louis.