Friday, May 24, 2013

Jam Etiquette

The popularity of open mic jams has soared in recent years primarily because people have begun to realize the many advantages of them. They can provide people who work full time and don't have the time to be in a band (or who want to avoid band drama!) a place to play some music, try/learn new songs, and meet some new people. It provides professional players a place to meet with, and jam with, potential new band members in a low pressure non-audition environment (in fact some players may not even know they are, in essence, auditioning!). It also provides a place for young, and/or less experienced musicians, to cut their teeth in an environment where perfection is appreciated, but not expected, as well as find local musicians to look up to and learn from. This great outlet does however come with it's own set of rules and etiquette that sometimes even experienced "jammers" may not realize, or just choose to ignore. I have put together a list of short bullet point topics below (in no particular order) to make sure that you can see what it takes to participate in these fun events in a positive way!

-When you go to an open mic jam for the first time, immediately find the host. You can get signed up to play, but also find out what the rules are for the open mic. You will want to find out what order players are called up in (not everyone does it the same), what gear is provided, and what you need to bring in. This way everything is clear right up front.

-Don't hassle the host about when you will be up. You should have already gotten the rules to begin with so just relax and enjoy the other players. Trust me, if players are called up in the order they signed up which is the most common way, the host did NOT skip you. While most jams don't make you wait too long, I run one weekly jam where the average wait time is 2-3 hours. Sometimes waiting for your turn takes longer than others. I have done almost 500 open mics, and I only accidentally skipped somebody once, and I caught it in a matter of one set (costing him about 15 minutes). Remember as well, you don't always know what time your fellow jammers got there. You may think that you have been there much longer than someone who got called up before you did but you don't know if that person got there before you, signed up then laid low, was signed up by their friend earlier in the night, or even left to run an errand or pick up something last minute from Guitar Center (it happens)!

-When you are called up, go to the stage immediately and then make sure you are set up in 2 minutes or less. If it takes you longer than 2 minutes to set up, you are probably setting up too much stuff for a jam. I won't try to sit here and tell what you do and don't need, but try to remember that you are probably only playing a few songs; you might not need every guitar pedal you own, or your double kick pedal for your awesome helicopter beats over Margaritaville. Regardless of what you bring however, make sure it's ready BEFORE you get called up. Guitarists: get your pedals out, plug the cables into them and into your amp (if you're bringing one) and put them on top of your amp. This way when you are called up, you just need to plug into the power source, and plug your guitar in. Also, make sure that your instrument is tuned up before you get on stage. Sure, guitars and basses will go out of tune often, but just try to keep tuning periodically throughout the night so that when you do get called up, you just need a last minute fine tuning. If you want to take your time to set up, make sure you are the first one there. Most jam hosts don't mind if you want to set up before the jam starts IF you are going to be the first one up. With all this being said, as a note to guitar players, I would typically not bring an amp in if the jam offers a "house" amp for you to use. It cuts down on stage clutter, cuts down set up time, and the amp they have in many cases may even be better than the one you use anyway. Plus it's always fun to try new gear!

-Have an idea of what you want to play ahead of time. Not everyone will know the same songs so come with a list of 10 songs you want to play, and it's likely that you will be able to reach 3 or 4 that everyone on stage can agree to play. If you want to play some original songs, or some songs that are not common, bring a chord chart and make sure that you tell the host when you sign up that you need musicians who can follow charts. Don't think that you have to write a fully professional chord chart; while that's really helpful, it's still better to have the chords just written on a piece of paper than to just say "follow me!" and rip into a series of chords that the rest of the band might not be able to see, hear, or follow. It's also helpful if you can tell the other players the key. NEVER EVER just start playing a song and expect everyone to follow you. They don't need every single detail but at least give them a song title, the key, and at least a general run down of the chords.

-When you get on stage, don't "noodle". Yes, guitarists and bassists need to take a second to dial in their tone and drummers need to get comfortable with the layout of the drum kit, however get your tone dialed in, get comfortable with the kit, then stop playing until you start the set. There are very few things more irritating to an audience and other jammers than having to hear 10 minutes of different musicians playing a bunch of different things from one another simultaneously, especially over the "house" music being played between sets.

-Along with the above bullet point, don't play ANYTHING when someone (presumably the host) is trying to speak on the mic. Time after time after time I am trying to make announcements or convey info over the mic and I have drummers paradiddling away, guitarists shredding their minor scales, and bassists thumping while I'm trying to make an announcement. This should be a matter of common courtesy, but it's amazing how even very experienced musicians overlook this very simple tip.

-When you start a song and it starts to go south, DO NOT EVER STOP AND RESTART. There is nothing more irritating and less professional than stopping and starting over. Unless every musician on stage is terrible, there is ALWAYS a way to right the ship and continue on. Find that way to right it, or let the most experienced musician on stage find a way then carry on.

-When you're on stage jamming keep your head up and eyes and ears open. Jamming with people requires a large amount of flexibility, and a good deal of visual cues. Make sure you are looking for them so that everything goes smoothly. If you are alert, you are ready to drop out when you get the signal, raise or lower the dynamic, go to the next change, or even just end the song. If you are in your own world, everybody (including you) suffers. If it's your tune, and/or you are the one leading the band through changes, make sure that you are giving VERY obvious cues that are as specific as possible.

-You need to make sure, regardless of the instrument you are playing, that you play in the mix. Don't come in and blast everybody out with your volume, but also don't just make your instrument whisper. The house band sets the tone and volume for the night. Respect that volume level. If everyone stays in that range of volume, everybody will be heard clearly. If you are playing and you can't hear the vocals or the soloing instrument, then you need to turn down or play more quietly. There are cases where the vocals do need to be turned up because not everyone sings at the same volume, but if you don't see someone from the host band turning the mics up nor telling the soloist to turn up, it means that they are where they need to be and you are too loud. One tip for guitar players is to be mindful of where your amp is and where your ears are. If your amp is flat on the ground and you are standing 2 feet in front of it, you will not hear yourself UNLESS you are playing too loud. Get the amp as far behind you as you can, and/or tilt it back. If its a smaller amp, put it up on a tall chair. The only way you will EVER be able to gauge if your volume is appropriate or not is if the amp is pointing at your ears.

-Don't drink excessively when you are getting ready to play. Know your limit. Nothing will make you forget these rules of etiquette faster, nor play worse, then getting trashed before you play. Have a moderate amount of booze before you play if that's your thing, then do whatever you'd like after.

-It's important to always be friendly, courteous, AND encouraging to ALL of your fellow jammers and hosts. A lot of people at these jams are inexperienced and insecure. Nothing makes someone more confident than looking out and seeing a smiling face, or having someone tell them what a great job they did. Remember, this is not a contest, and someone else playing well isn't going to mean that it's going to harm you in any way. If someone did great, tell them!

-This topic is up for debate, but I would suggest not using profanity on the mic in mixed company. If you are jamming at a 21+ bar and it's 11:30 at night, sure, let it fly, but if it's 8:30 at a restaurant or all ages venue, it's a good idea to keep it clean.

-If there is a tip jar set out and someone happens to come up and tip while you are playing, that tip money is NOT yours. Leave it for the house band. You have no idea whether that person is tipping because they love YOUR set, or if they just happen to be leaving at that time and want to tip on their way out, or any other number of reasons.

-Remember to treat the bar/restaurant staff with GREAT respect. This should go without saying anyway, but these people are taking care of you so you need to take care of them as well. Remember that at a jam, you are taking a table or bar seat for several hours whereas an average patron may only be there for an hour or less. If you are there for 3 hours, even if you had a meal and a few drinks, that's 2 less meals than they would ordinarily be selling, and thus tipped on. I'm not going to name a dollar amount nor percentage, but use your best judgement and tip more than you ordinarily would. If you go to jam and you are not in a position where you want to buy any food nor drinks, try to "buddy up" and sit with somebody who is buying stuff so that you leave a table or bar stool open for a paying customer. Remember, at the end of the day, the venue has to make money to keep it going, and the staff has to make their money so that they encourage the venue owners to keep the jams going.

There you have it! I'm sure that there are more rules of etiquette that I may be leaving out for now, but if you follow these simple steps, everybody will have a great jam session time and time again!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Pick vs Fingers and more

When people hear that I play both guitar and bass I often get the same question: "When you play bass, do you play with your fingers or a pick?". This is obviously an extension of the stereotypical idea that guitar players ALL think they can play bass because they know where the notes are. Whether or not they use a pick seems to be first indicator of whether or not they are going to respect the integrity of the bass, or just try to play it like a guitar. Along with that is that the thinking by many bass player friends of mine that playing with a pick is blasphemy and "amateur hour" stuff. Here's my "elevator pitch" answer to this frequent asked question: "I prefer to use my fingers most of the time". However, this debate really is a topic that needs to be explored in greater depth, and the argument is something that goes far beyond just the topic of the bass guitar itself. Many people look back on the history of the bass guitar in modern music and look to the days of upright bass in the context of jazz, early blues, and rockabilly. Certainly few people would have thought to take a pick to the strings of an upright bass, however, in the beginning of these genres, it probably seemed odd to traditionalists of that time for people to exclusively play it with their fingers since traditionally it was a bowed instrument. These bass players of these early genres made a decision that playing with their fingers would provide a more appropriate tone for the music they were playing than using a bow. Obviously, as an extension of this, the first players of the electric bass were guys who were experienced with upright, so it seemed a natural fit to play the electric bass with their fingers. This set the standard for the instrument. However as time went on, some players began using a pick just as they saw their guitarist counterparts doing, but not necessarily for the "ease" of using a pick, but, like their predecessors in the jazz and rockabilly genres, they used them for the tone it provided. A pick sounds dramatically different than one's fingers. It can provide a sharper attack on the strings, a boost in high end response, and a more consistent volume on faster played passages. Given this difference in tone, playing with a pick should not be something that is considered inferior; it is something that expands the tone color pallet for the instrument. Honestly, even though I have an extensive guitar background, I find it easier all in all to use my fingers as opposed to a pick, so "ease of use" has never been a factor to me. Live, I will almost always use my fingers; the only exceptions being when I play a punk rock or heavy metal song on my cover gigs. The bass tone in those genres lend themselves well to pick playing. In the studio, in just about any genre, I tend to use a pick because of its more even, measured, output, and brighter tone. There are considerably less "peaks and valleys" in the volume which can be hard to compensate for, and I have found tonally that it is better to record a brighter sound and then darken it if need be as opposed to trying to brighten a muddier sound. At the end of the day, I think you can see that the debate is really a foolish one. When it comes to any instrument, the bottom line is finding one's tone and thus furthering the creative process. I believe that if you say "I would never play with a pick!" or "I would never play with my fingers!" you are only doing a disservice to yourself, your creativity, and your audience. As a player of ANY instrument, if you really LOVE the instrument, you need to be aware of EVERYTHING that that instrument can do; every sound it can make, every tone that can come out of it. It's only by knowing what all is available to you that you can dial into the perfect sound for your genre, and/or each individual song you play. Don't let any kind of stigma associated with a certain approach keep you from trying something that you may end up really liking, or at least having a use for. It's important as musicians that we learn about, and build off of, what came before us, but the goal should never be to emulate what is tradition, but to use our own creativity to further our instrument of choice. On this same token, this bit of advice should be picked up by songwriters as well. Don't feel that you have to conform to any kind of structure, arrangement, instrumentation, or genre lines just because "That's the way it's always been done". Experiment as much as you see necessary, and don't be afraid to do something off the beaten path if you think it best expresses what you are trying to get across with your song.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The 40 songs every cover band and sub player should know

Every cover band is a little bit different. While almost every band plays the same core songs, each one adds in their tunes that no one else, or at the very least not EVERYONE else, is doing. That’s what makes a modern rock band different from classic rock, while they will both likely play Sweet Home Alabama, Brickhouse, Plat That Funky Music, Brown Eyed Girl, etc. However, there’s a lot of times when these bands need fill-in, or sub, players. Now whether you are in a band that needs, or may need, a sub player, or you are a musician aspiring to be a sub player in the cover music scene, I think it’s important that you know the following 40 songs. Some songs on this list appear there because of their sheer popularity, while others appear because of their simplicity. If you know these 40 songs you can’t really go wrong whether you need a sub, or you are trying to throw together a band for a last minute engagement. I encourage you to learn all the songs on this list, and start circulating this list around the music community. While some of you may read this list and think that I am merely just stating the glaringly obvious, others may see one or two songs that they never thought of playing, while others still may be brand new to the scene and looking for a great place to start. Playing ALL the songs on this list won’t make you the hippest, coolest, most unique band on the block, but they can get you through a tough gig, and knowing these songs REALLY well will please an audience and make you sound like a great (if not entirely original) band. Enjoy!

Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

Van Halen

All Right Now


American Girl

Tom Petty

Ball and Chain

Social Distortion

Born on the Bayou



The Commodores

Brown Eyed Girl

Van Morrison



Dancing With Myself

Billy Idol

Evil Ways


Feel Like Making Love

Bad Company

Folsom Prison Blues

Johnny Cash


Tom Petty

Hard to Handle

The Black Crows

Honkey Tonk Woman

The Rolling Stones

Jenny (867-5309)

Tommy Tutone

Johnny B Goode

Chuck Berry

Keep Your Hands to Yourself

Georgia Satelites


3 Doors Down

La Grange

ZZ Top

Last Dance With Mary Jane

Tom Petty


Jimmy Buffet

Mustang Sally

Wilson Picket

Play That Funky Music

Wild Cherry

Pride and Joy

Stevie Ray Vaughn

Proud Mary


Roadhouse Blues

The Doors




The Ramones

Simple Man

Lynyrd Skynyrd



Sweet Home Alabama

Lynyrd Skynyrd

The Joker

Steve Miller Band

The Middle

Jimmy Eat World

The One I Love



ZZ Top

What I Got


What I Like About You

The Romantics

You Really Got Me

Van Halen

You Shook Me All Night Long


E-mail me with any questions or comments, and remember to visit my website at!!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

News 02/02/10

Well, as remedial as it currently is, I have officially launched my site, This is meant to be an inclusive site for people to get information about all of the different things I do in the music business. Once I finish the two records I am working on, they will be up for FREE download on the website, and I will soon thereafter have merchandise for sale as well.

I am really excited because I just came up with an idea that, while I am sure I didn't invent, I hadn't heard of people doing before. It has to do with playing backing music on the records of solo artists. You can read all about it here: Help me spread the word about it by letting your musician friends, especially solo artists, know.

I am trying to get the hang of Twitter, and learning how to use Facebook to promote my career, but I am still a little unclear on both. If anyone has any suggestions, I'm all ears!

I just ordered the Digi003 Rack + interface for the studio with Pro Tools 8, and a brand new Mac. It is our first system upgrade in 8 years! This should help me DRAMATICALLY cut down on my turn times for recording projects. I can't wait!

Until next time, keep checking out my sites and calendar! I hope to see you all at a gig very soon!


Big Time Tips: Attitude is EVERYTHING, Part 1

The key to success in ANY professional endeavor is your attitude. Music is no different. When I say attitude, I mean your work ethic, the way you treat other people, your business sense, your commitment level, and overall outlook on your career. No matter how good you are at your instrument or craft, there is always someone better. With that being said however, the best player doesn’t always get the gig. What causes this phenomenon? It boils down to other qualities besides just talent because, honestly, you only need to be SO good to do most of the stuff that players at this career level need to play. I have gotten more gigs because I treat people respectfully, I am genuinely nice, I answer my phone/return phone calls, show up on time, show up dressed appropriately, and always try to play my best, than I EVER could have gotten because I can shred a harmonic minor scale.

The first key is to realize that you are no better than anybody else as a person, but also, that you are no worse. This ties in with the age old Ego/Confidence dilemma. People don’t like egomaniacs AT ALL, but they also don’t like the mousy shy musician scared to play his instrument, or even carry on a conversation. Avoid making any comments or actions that would make you come off as being either one. This can mean sitting back and letting the other guitar player solo all night even though in your mind you think you can outplay him (and maybe you can!). It can mean turning your amp down when the venue or the other band members tell you to. If you are a drummer, it may mean playing in the pocket all night even when you want to show off all your Neil Pert rolls (that’s for you Steve!).

Even if you are the star of the show, you are not bigger than the gig. Let me repeat that: YOU ARE NOT BIGGER THAN WHATEVER GIG YOU ARE PLAYING. If you act like any gig that you are playing is beneath you, then congratulations! You will never have to play that gig, nor any gig for whoever hired you to play that night, again. If you think a gig is beneath you, you are probably wrong, but either way, don’t take it to begin with.

If you agree to play a gig, whether you are hired a sub, or it is your band that is playing and the venue has hired you, you have an obligation to give 100% at all times. That means whether there are 2 people, 200, or 2000. Yes, sometimes it is hard to get that charge when you have a small crowd, but you have to reach down inside and find whatever it is you need to motivate you to play your best. Yes, we all “phone it in” sometimes, but that needs to be the exception, and not the rule. This is your craft, and you have a job to do. You can’t afford to slack off at any time. It’s like I have had to tell a band member in the past when he’s complained that no one was there: The people who hire us and/or can have influence on whether or not we come back (the bar staff, etc.) are there, and often sober, and that’s why we can never afford to slack off.

It is important that you are on time, and prepared, for any gig you take. My friend Sean Daniel has a saying that I will attempt to paraphrase because it’s so true: If you’re “on time”, you’re ten minutes late. I will even further expand upon this idea with a more confusing, but true, saying: “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired.” If you are a sub or hired player for a gig, you want to be the first one there. If its your band, you want to be there BEFORE the venue expects you, but, of course, within reason. Don’t show up 2 hours early looking to set up. 10-15 minutes is a good rule of thumb.

I guess what it all boils down is that you have to remember at all times that if you are a professional, or aspiring professional, this is a business. You wouldn’t show up to your office/job site late, drunk, wearing the wrong clothes, and acting obnoxious, or you would be fired. The same goes for the music business. Yes, it’s a VERY different type of job, and it certainly doesn’t feel like work if you love it, but never lose sight of the fact that it IS a job. The best organized, most motivated, people rise to the top the fastest.

In Part 2, we will discuss the ever important concept of Audience interaction, as well as dealing with bookers/staff members that may be less than friendly or professional. Until then, e-mail me if you have any questions or comments (, and don’t forget to tune!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Big Time Tips Vol 1 - The Nashville Number system

If you are going to be a professional player on just about any level, it is absolutely imperative that you have at least a basic understanding of the Nashville Number System. This is a system of writing chord charts and changes created by the studio musicians of Nashville in the 1950's (though some Jazz players would argue that they were using this system prior to that date). In this system each chord is given a number (expressed by a Roman numeral) that corresponds to its scale position. For example, in the key of C major, the first chord is C, and is represented as I. Each of the chords follow in sequence; i.e. D is II, E is III, and so forth. The idea was to make it easier to transpose songs into different keys on the fly, but another interesting by product is that once you get used to hearing how the different chords relate to one another mathematically, it makes figuring out chord changes, and even anticipating changes on songs you are playing for the first time, a breeze.

The best example is a standard blues progression, often referred to as a I-IV-V. For example, if you were playing a blues in C, your I is a C, your IV is a F, and your V is a G. When you listen to enough blues music, you can almost anticipate where the IV will be, or the V, etc. even if you have never heard the song before because you are used to hearing that combination of chords in sequence in the genre. Well, it works the same in any genre once you recognize what that relationship sounds like. In fact, the I-IV-V is the most common progression known to man. Steve Miller's THE JOKER, The Ramone's SEDATED, Johnny Cash's FOLSOM PRISON BLUES, Billy Idol's DANCING WITH MYSELF, and Lynyrd Skynyrd/JJ Cale's CALL ME THE BREEZE are ALL examples of the I-IV-V relationship in action.

To further realize the true potential of this system, and to make sure that you apply it properly, it is important to memorize, and understand, the following chart which will show you which chords are major, and which are minor:



While many songwriters take the liberty of putting major chords where minors should be, etc. the hard and fast rules of the chart above will always keep you in key, which is very beneficial to beginning songwriters, as well as accompaniests. Start with the I, and go anywhere you want within the chart from there, and you will always be in key!! Here are a few examples of what the proper chords would be for a few different keys:

Key of C major

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

Key of G major

G Am Bm C D Em F#dim

Key of B major

B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#dim

Obviously you will have to already have what notes are in what key memorized in order to apply this chart properly....or do you? If you know the first position of the major scale (doe ray me...), then you can use that as your guide; just plug in the chords with the corresponding root notes. You don't necessarily have to think to yourself "In the key of A, the IIIm is the C#", you can just move up to the third note of the scale, and play that note's minor chord. Okay, admittedly, I may breezing through this particular idea too quickly, but if you have any specific questions, please e-mail me.

There is a little bit of contention amongst some players as to how to treat minor keys. Some people just say to go off of the Chords from the major keys (see the above chart), while others give it its own chart which rearranges the numbers, and thus the major/minor placement. I have seen it done both ways, and have done it both ways. For the sake of argument, here is the chart if you give the minor key it's own chart.

Minor Key

I hope this introduction has given you a basic understanding of this vital, yet sometimes confusing, topic. I guarantee you that this is a skill that you WILL use in almost every professional situation you play in. As always, e-mail me if you have any questions.

Introduction Blog

I am not a very experienced blogger, but I thought I would start this blog as a way to keep people posted on my career as it develops, major life events, cool stuff in general, and some tips for aspiring professional musicians. If you are new to the world of BRETT COHEN, I am what you would call a "Small Time" professional musician; that is I make my living (the bulk of it anyway) in the music industry, but on a very small scale. I spend my weekends playing "cover" gigs in bars, clubs, restaurants, casinos, etc., I play at a Church on Sundays, I teach guitar and bass, I produce albums and demos for local bands, I mentor bands in the ways of songwriting and arrangement, I work as a studio/session guitarist and bassist, and I am trying to break into the world of Film/TV/Multimedia composing. I would like to step up to the "Big Time" one day (which is ironically my nickname amongst my friends) but for now I just try to take it one step at a time...well, no, I don't try to; I try to grow by leaps and bounds, but am reminded constantly that it can only be achieved through small, deliberate, steps; the steps I hope to write about here. I hope you enjoy the journey, and if you are an aspiring pro player, I hope you get something of the tips I will be providing. Enjoy!