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You Can Compose Music!

When most of us hear the term “composer” we see a dude with a white poofy wig holding a quill pen, etching notes onto a parchment, usually by candle light. And even if we have a more modern image in mind, we think that surely we would need to be able to read and write music notation before we could ever compose music. How else will we get the music onto the page? Well, prior to Thomas Edison inventing the phonograph in 1877 this was certainly the case. In other words, before the advent of recorded music, the only way to preserve your composition was indeed to get it onto paper. So either you had to fill up your quill pen and get to work scratching out notes, or hire the poofy wigged guy to write them out for you while you played your new cello sonata over and over again, note for note. Not a great way to make friends with the folks in the cobblestone hut next to you. But now that we live…

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How to play songs “by Ear”

  Imagine if you could show up to a jam, sit down and play along with every song…without knowing them!! Imagine if you didn’t need charts, but could listen for a few minutes and then jump in, hitting all the right chords…is this possible? Absolutely. In fact all of our instructors here at JamAlong Music are expected to be able to do this, you can see an example of this with our instructor Brae teaching Wagon Wheel “by ear” on YouTube HERE. And yes, you too can be this quick! This can be done when you know how to “play by ear”, when you’ve learned to follow along just by listening and you don’t need to worry about having any music, or pestering the guitar player to tell you the chords. And if you want to learn this awesome skill, we have some good news and some bad news… First, the bad news: learning to do this does take some time. Now don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be years, in fact if you follow our…

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Understanding “Licks”

One of the most mysterious and misunderstood elements in Folk, Bluegrass and Country music is the “Lick”. Explained simply, a Lick is a short phrase of music, usually composed ahead of time, that is used to ornament the song that you’re playing. No, it’s not a scale or arpeggio, it’s like a miniature composition that is designed for a specific key or to highlight a particular technique. Most Licks are two measures long, but there are also scores of Licks out there that are one measure, or even four measures. For the record, when a Lick gets to be longer than four measures it is generally considered to be a “run”, or a combination of smaller Licks. All good players end up collecting Licks that they like, often from the playing of musicians that they admire, or made up using a certain technique on their instrument. We can then use these pre-learned Licks to spice up our playing at a jam session, or to work our arrangements of songs that we like. As any Google…

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How to Improvise Better with a “Mental Menu”

Improvisation: the Final Frontier for every jamming musician. Now that you have reams of TAB memorized, more hot licks than you know what to do with, and piles of scales and arpeggios ready for battle, how do you make that leap to actually “saying something” when you improvise? It is one thing to be able to keep a stream of notes emanating from your instrument, but another thing entirely to create solos that have personality. One of the things that we notice when we listen to the greats play improvised solos, is that every solo they take is different from the previous one. Each solo sounds like it was written ahead of time, it is so smooth and logical. How do we develop this same ability? Well, the answer is twofold. First, the “bad news” is that, you guessed it, many hours of wood-shedding are necessary to be able to “speak” freely on your instrument. You have to get to the point where you don’t have to think about your hands anymore, and instead your…

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How to Play Your Song at a Jam – The Rules of Effective Song Leading   

It is one thing to go to a jam session and play along, but another thing entirely to actually offer up and successfully play your own song. To ensure that you have an enjoyable experience doing this (and get asked back to the jam!), take some time to study these important rules of jamming etiquette… Be aware of the type of jam                                                                                                                                                 By and large, most jams will involve a mix of folk music, bluegrass, country and some classic rock. This is just the way it is, may as well deal with it. Oh yeah, there are specialty jams, like traditional Irish sessions,…

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Playing to Learn

Ever since the first caveman heard his buddy thumping out a rhythm on a mammoth bone and had to stomp along, jamming was a part of our very humanity. Wolves howl together, and city dogs cant resist chiming in whenever a siren wails in the distance. From the cro-magnon era to modern kareoke bars, folks have always wanted to play music with one another. It is as natural as getting up in the morning and wanting coffee. And if you could ask most of our folk music heros, like Doc Watson or the Carter sisters, they would probably say “well shucks, I just learned by sangin along!” Many of these folks never had music lessons, or often even read music, and developed their talent by singing in Church or jammin around the cook stove. So it really is a silly notion to assume that the only way you can learn music is my “studying”, by taking music lessons with a serious teacher who admonishes you to practice long hours by yourself. Sure, sometimes you have…

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When You’ve Had Your Banjo less Than 24 Hours

As Linus once told Charlie Brown, every baby should get a banjo! Here at JamAlong Music we believe this to be true, if for the only reason that it is impossible to play banjo and be in a bad mood! (disclaimer: your roommates and loved ones may very likely end up in a bad mood shortly, but the actual operator of the banjo remains in good spirits). This blog is intended for those of you lucky enough to have just acquired a banjo, and to you we say: congratulations and welcome! Now, before you go running off and buying instruction books, or worse, YouTubing “how to play banjo” and end up trying to learn Possum On A Gum Stump by the guy wearing suspenders and nothing else…hold on! There are some basic survival skills you need to have. First off, when you first pick up that thing it may very well be way out-of-wack. That is bluegrass-bonics for “needing some adjustment”, and with banjos the most common issue is usually bridge placement. That little wooden…

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In Praise of the Fiddle Tune

Every form of music has its ways of exercising. Classical music has “etudes”, compositions designed to focus on a particular technique, and jazz players are fond of musty books full of arpeggios and bebop phrases. Aspiring rock guitar players spend hours obsessing on the licks of their musical heroes, and piano teachers delight in inflicting scales on their students. And yes, all of these techniques eventually help one to learn how to play guitar or piano, but often give music lessons a bad name. Why? Because all of these practice approaches focus on mere exercises, that are only useful in the practice room. Sure you can play a Carassi etude at your guitar recital, but it still tends to be more stressful than fun. (Yes we know there are classical music teachers out there who will fly into a rage when they read this, and we invite them to call us up and set us straight 😎) But if you want to learn music, and don’t want to get stuck practicing scales or slogging through…

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Virtual Jamming!

When you are starting out learning to jam, there’s lots of scary things going on for sure. You can break a string moments into your first G chord, or maybe you ended up right next to a really grumpy banjo player, who keeps stabbing your eardrums with his twangs. Or the person who is supposed to pass the tune around to you is a fiddle player who seems to be engaged in a life or death struggle with their instrument, and you keep getting pulled out of time by the tortured noises emanating from his fiddle. Yes, it’s often a free-for-all, and the best you can do is just try to stay in time and keep a straight face. But probably the scariest part is when you hear your name, preceded by the phrase “pick it!” Or in other words, it’s your turn to take the lead! Oh sh**. Yep, this is where everyone is suddenly playing chords and there is an expectant hush over the jam, and through your red mist of adrenaline you…

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One Note At A Time

Everyone loves mountain climbers. Or explorers, or rugged captains who sail the high seas and discover new continents. We all worship large accomplishments, big leaps, and any kind of victory. But rarely, it seems, do we applaud the small steps. Or even notice  them for that matter. But the truth is, all of these big conquests have humble beginnings. The climbers impressive journey up Mount Everest is actually the result of thousands of steps, and each one equally important to reaching the top. In the famous words of the sage Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” As musicians (or those still learning to be) it is a similar process. We hear great compositions and yearn to play them, like a child gazing up at distant snowy peaks, and often become intimidated by the distance that lies ahead. But there is a secret path we can find, one that focuses our attention on our feet and keeps us from getting distracted. We can climb any musical mountain if we do…

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