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.