How to Jam: Song selection

Ok so you’ve been playing for a number of months or years and you meet another person who also plays and you think it would be fun to jam together. So you get your guitars out, tune up, and then the big question: “what should we play?” Well, if you don’t happen to have memorized any of the same songs, here are some tips on how to pick some songs and/or progressions to jam on.

First of all, just to clarify, when we say “song selection” in this context, it really means a chord progression or two that the song is made up of, for the most part. In the context of an informal jam session, it would not be necessary or appropriate to try and show the other musician(s) the little intros, bridges, turnarounds, or any other potentially tricky nonessential part of the song. By nonessential I mean like a cool arrangement idea that helps put the song together. All too often two or three musicians will get together and one or two will spend time teaching the other person how to play a certain riff or some part of a song, and now the focus is on the teaching and the learning, not the jamming. For an easy and fun time jamming, Just focus on easy chord progressions.

These simple progressions do not even necessarily have to be from any specific song either. A 12-bar blues is the basis for thousands of songs, but just because you may decide to jam on one doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be identified. In fact, it can be more fun to simply decide on a key and a tempo and a groove (time signature and rhythmic feel for the song.) Further, when ‘deciding’ on these elements, a picture is worth a thousand words. Tell your jam partner(s) that you will “set it up,” meaning that you will play a bit of the progression in the key, rhythm and style you envision, and they can easily pick up on it that way rather than verbally describing it. Alternatively, invite them to “set it up.” Pros do this all the time.

If the other person is not familiar with the progression (and every guitarist really should memorize the pattern of a 12-bar blues because it is so common and easy to jam on), then simply write it down for them, with the bar lines, nice and big for them to see. If they are not as good as you are, that’s totally fine, they may be happy just to play chords while you improvise, and you can do the same for them. If they are better than you, then that’s even better for you, because it’s always great to have better musicians to play with. It makes you grow more quickly.

Beyond the 12-bar blues there are so many easy pop songs whose chord progressions are fun to jam on. At one point I began to write down some of these for my students and some of them are so simple.

Even just two chords can be fun, like these (all examples in 4/4 unless otherwise indictated. % means repeat previous measure, || is beginning or end of section, and / means another beat of previous chord):

“Feelin’ Alright”
|| C7 | F7 ||

“Iko Iko”

|| D | % | % | A |
| A | % | % | D ||

“Sweet Child of Mine” part 1

|| D | % | C | % |
| G | % | D | % ||

And this bit could be used as an ‘interlude’ between each soloist:

|| A | C | D | % |
| A | C | D | % ||

“Sweet Child of Mine” part 2

|| Em | G | Am | C / D G ||

“Sympathy for the Devil”

|| E | D | A | E ||

And this could be the ‘interlude’ between soloists:
|| B | % | E | %|
|| B | % | E | %||

Another option is to go to any jam track website or youtube video and copy down the progressions (and tempos) for the ones you like (or transcribe it which is to be discussed in another article.) There are so many more options, so hopefully from now on you’ll never be stuck again for material to use for informal jam sessions. Happy jamming!

About the author: Dennis Winge is a professional guitarist living in New York with a passion for vegan food and bhakti yoga. If you are interested in taking Guitar Lessons in Ithaca, NY, then be sure to contact Dennis!