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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 to sneak off to the woodshed and get something worked out, but for the most part the learning process does not have to be all by yourself. In fact, more often than not it is better to learn music outside of the vacuum of personal practice, and instead just “play along”. Whether it is a buddy with a guitar, or the radio, or a slightly inebriated potluck jam, just diving in and learning as you go offers many rewards.

First of all when you play with someone or something else, it forces you to be in time. This is a very important and often overlooked element of learning music, and which unfortunately is hard to acquire when you are practicing by yourself. When you have to listen to something and try to match the beat and stay in time, you are developing one of the most important abilities in music, the ability to jam along. Why is this so important? Well, if you ever want to join into a jam session, or be in a band, or record an album with other musicians, then this is a critical skill.

Without a doubt the most enjoyable way of achieving this is simply have friends who are learning music as well, and making time to “jam”. And it is important to clarify here that we do not mean “perform”, we mean the most casual, low-pressure and playful experience imaginable. When you get together and jam with your peers, it should be approached with a great degree of silliness, and the more you laugh, the better. Think of it like the auditory equivalent of learning to ride unicycles together. You’re going to crash a whole lot, and look pretty ridiculous for awhile, but if you are having fun in the process then you’ll get better eventually!

But for the beginner, the first year student of the banjo or ukulele, this is often easier said than done. For many of us who are new to playing music, the very idea of going to a jam session fills us with an indescribable dread, and we would rather do taxes or go to the DMV than bring our instrument to the potluck this Friday. And we understand this! Even though the very bedrock of JamAlong is (surprise) jamming along with other folks, all of our instructors here are very sympathetic to how it feels to be a beginner and be nervous about playing in public. This is perfectly natural, and the last thing we want is to encourage folks to go get traumatized and then sell their guitar and take up knitting. So what to do when you are wanting to play along, but not quite ready to join the jam session?

Enter the computer. Yes, this is where technology swoops in to fill the void, and in this case it is a good thing. Think of it this way: the tricks you are about to learn will help you avoid those guilty hours watching cat videos on YouTube, or pointless Facebooking. Yes, if you are smart about it, your computer (or iPad or even smart phone) can be your best friend in learning music. The key is to have a plan, and so here are some smart ways you can utilize your machine for learning how to jam…

Method 1 – recording yourself

This method of course can also be done with “pre-computer” technology, like the good old fashioned tape recorder or any digital recording device. But since you are reading this on a computer, and probably have computers in every aspect of your life like most of us, we’ll discuss this way for now. First of all, you’ll want to have some basic equipment, like a decent computer mic and a set of headphones (trust us, headphones save marriages). So if you don’t already, take a minute to head over to our music tech page and order some of this stuff. Then it’s a good idea to get a basic recording software, and don’t freak out yet, the software we recommend is easier to use than a tooth brush. It’s called “Audacity” and you can download it for free HERE. And don’t worry, if you get stuck at any point you can just call us up or book a video lesson and we’ll walk you through it step by step. We’ve got your back! Then what you do is just strum some chords, rewind, and play along to what you just recorded. It really is that simple. And all of a sudden, you will start having more fun than a monkey with a peanut machine, and guess what…you’re jamming!

Method 2 – YouTube

Yes, YouTube can be a dangerous black hole, full of life-stealing spectacles like cute rodents and people skateboarding off of buildings. But used wisely, it can be your best friend for learning how to jam. The trick is to search for songs or artists you like, Google the chords, and then do your best to strum along. And the good part is, you can sound as bad as you need to, and repeat it as many times as you want, and no-one gets hurt. With this in mind, we’ve started our own series of YouTube videos for you to jam along with, called Virtual Jams (yes, click that title to check them out). There’s a bluegrass one, a swing and a blues one, and many more to come. Feel free to use the comment field to suggest a song or a music style, and we’ll create one just for you!

Method 3 – Backing Tracks 

This is our preferred method, for several reasons. First, when you have a pre-recorded music track that it designed for you to play along with, it leaves a lot of room for you to hear yourself and play whatever parts you wish. For instance, if you are playing along with our Backing Track to Wagon Wheel, there are a number of fun options for you. You can just play along with the chords if you wish, or you can practice that lead part you’ve been wanting to get smooth. Heck, you can even sing the lyrics too, if you are home alone. See, a good Backing Track is like a trampoline, you can jump all over it and use it for whatever purposes you want, and it will just stay put and take the beating. And on top of that, it’s super fun!

So, here is our suggested workout for playing with Backing Tracks:

1) Print out the chord chart (all of our Backing Tracks come with the chords) and just strum along with the song

2) Practice playing your lead part (the instrumental arrangement that you are learning). If you don’t have a lead part, well then it’s time to get one! That’s as easy as ordering one from us in a Custom Lesson, we’ll arrange a part that matches your instrument and ability level 🙂

3) Play in “real jam format”, trading back and forth between strumming chords and going into your lead part. This is our recommended approach, because it will sharpen all of the skills you will use in an actual jam, like getting in and out of your solos without crashing, and learning to switch to backup so others can take a turn. 

Once you get the hang of it, you will find that jamming along to our Backing Tracks is totally addictive, and the best part is, it counts as practice! You will seriously get better with every pass, and before you know it, you’ll be ready to march into a real jam without any fear.

This is what we mean by our slogan “Don’t Learn to Play, Play to Learn!”, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than by playing along with JamAlong Backing Tracks. So, what are you waiting for? Get tuned up and head on over to our Backing Track page and get to jammin!




1 thought on “Playing to Learn

  1. Thank you very informative

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