Jam Survival Checklist for the Bluegrass Banjo Player

By Bill Evans

You’ll be hooked on the banjo for life when you’re able to play with other musicians in jam sessions. Here’s a checklist of what to bring to your next jam:

  • Your banjo

  • A capo

  • A strap

  • A tuner

  • Maybe a songbook (but not a banjo tab book — that’s bad form!)

  • A recording device (such as your cellphone) to record new tunes

Here’s an inventory of the skills you should start working on now to enjoy beginning group playing:

  • How to get and keep your banjo in tune

  • How the guitar player makes G, C, and D chords

  • How to use the capo to play in various keys

  • How to make your chords, beginning with G, C, D, and D7, and how to use these chords with the capo to play in other keys

  • How to make movable major chords shapes (barre, F, and D shapes) and how to vamp

  • How to use simple roll patterns to create a basic accompaniment

  • How to teach others a song that you can play (like “Cripple Creek”!)

  • How to feel comfortable not looking at your instrument while playing, so you can look up at others

  • How to make room for other banjo players in a jam

  • How to find others in your local area who play at your experience level or who are slightly better (which is ideal for you!)

And here’s an inventory of the skills you should start working on to enjoy intermediate group playing:

  • How to follow chord progressions with minor chords in the key of G and progressions in the keys of C and D

  • How to make minor and seventh chords

  • How to effectively communicate in a jam

  • How to play the same song at different tempos

  • How to kick off and end a song

  • How to transition into and play a banjo solo in the middle of a song

  • How to play forward-roll down-the-neck backup

  • How to play up-the-neck backup using “In the Mood” and D-shape licks

  • How to use G, C, and D licks to begin to create your own solos

  • How to use fill-in licks to enhance both lead and backup playing

  • How to “hear” chord progressions on the fly

  • How to accompany waltz time and slow songs

  • How to play fiddle tunes in melodic style

Most musicians welcome beginners at jams. If you find a group of people you think you’ll enjoy playing with, sit in on a session and keep a list of what they play — both the names of the songs and the keys. Then go home and start working on those songs!