Jamming Fundamentals: Chord Changing Made Easy

by Pete Wernick

People sometimes wonder why I switched from doing banjo camps to jam camps. In keeping with my overall philosophy of “doing whatever gets you the most fulfillment the soonest”, I’ve sorted out that: People who want to start playing banjo are better served by learning — as soon as possible — how to play with other musicians, rather than by first learning the complicated and elusive mechanics of soloing using Scruggs-style banjo.

Even as early as my 1974 Bluegrass Banjo book, I have focused on the skills necessary to play simple and enjoyable music with others. Not only is the payoff much quicker, with fun and fulfillment flowing abundantly, easy jamming is also a logical preliminary step toward approaching the mysteries of Scruggs style.

When I first experimented with bluegrass jamming classes, I found that it wasn’t just banjo players who needed help. A variety of folks showed up with guitars, mandolins, etc., all wondering how a bluegrass jam session “works”. Many of these folks had attended jams but were intimidated by the speed, and know-how of the participants, and would end up never taking their instruments out from the case, and leaving discouraged, frustrated, and envious.

Having learned basic jam skills as a fledgling folkie back in the 60s before I even discovered bluegrass, I realized as a teacher, that I could recreate the environment I started with and get people playing easily together on good three-chord songs without a lot of angst or sustained effort. And once the music began to flow, it could keep flowing and become more and more fun as it went. Watching this unfold as I taught was truly uplifting. The thanks I’d get from the participants was deep and heartfelt, often touching on the theme of “I never knew if this would ever happen, and I had been getting so discouraged, I was about to quit.”

The main hurdle that stops a lot of people from jamming is developing the skills to follow, and “hear”, chord changes. Players learning from tab are used to tackling groups of 128 memorized notes (16 measures of Scruggs-style picking), taking maybe 15 or 20 seconds if played without stopping.

But when people jam, each song goes on for a few minutes, and every few seconds, there’s another chord change! People’s first experience playing through a full-length song in real time can be a tough challenge, and mentally exhausting. The chords keep changing!

To ease their outlook, I inform people early on that many songs have verses and choruses that use the same melody and chords, so doing a song means they need to learn just one four-line chord pattern, which gets repeated as many as eight or more times. So the main challenge is finite: learn that four-line chord pattern, the sooner the better once the song starts.

In Wernick Method classes, believe it or not, we don’t hand out song sheets for everyone to put in front of them and play from. We have a songbook, but that’s only for lead singers when leading a song if they need some reminding. Just as in “real bluegrass”, most singers remember the lyrics of songs they lead, and if others want to learn chorus words, they often learn them on the fly.

Regarding learning chord progressions, students are glad to hear that the patterns have rather predictable aspects, song to song: They always end on the 1 chord (G if you’re in G). They almost always start on the 1 chord. And the next-to-last chord is almost always the 5 (D or D7 if you’re in G). The by far most typical way chords change for the last line of most songs is: 1/5/1. So some of the puzzle is “filled in”, or is at least pretty predictable, at the outset.

How does a new jammer learn the chords for a song he/she hasn’t played before? Simple: learn how to read the left hand chording of a guitar, and be sure to have a view of a guitar player who knows the chords (this is exactly what I and all experienced players do in jams, even onstage jams).

I urge people to start working on internalizing the chord progression as soon as they hear it. In other words, do two things as the song starts:

  1. Make a point of following the changes as they happen, and
    (this is the really necessary one, that new jammers often forget):
  2. Make a point of memorizing the changes. Think: I’m going to be tested, but they’re giving me the answers.

What would you do if you were going to be tested, but were first given the answers? You would take notes on the points you’ll be tested on. But in jams, you’re also busy playing the chords, so you take mental notes.

Example of the “note-taking” for the song “Think of What You’ve Done”:

  1. First line of song: all 1
  2. Second line, right to 5, and back to 1 at the end
  3. Third line starts on 4, back to 1
  4. Right to 5, finishes on 1

That distills down to “151 4151”, not too unlike a phone number, and with three of the numbers completely predictable (the first and last 1 chords and the next-to-last 5).

Now for the chorus:

  1. Starts on 4, back to 1
  2. Right to 5, back to 1
  3. Sounds just like the first line, and same chords, 4 to 1
  4. Just like line 2: 5 to 1.

So the chorus distills to “4151 TWICE”. And note the repetition: 4151 is the 2nd half of every verse AND both halves of every chorus.

The chord pattern repeats throughout the song, verse and chorus. So this famous, typical song with about FIFTY chord changes is actually distillable to:

“Verse is 151 4151 and chorus is 4151 twice.”

Sounds less daunting, and in fact IS easier than thinking “three minutes of music with 50 chord changes”.

The next step up from learning to follow, then learning to memorize chord changes is learning to HEAR chord changes. This is the ability to tell when a chord change happens, and then, what the change is. This skill takes longer to learn, but it comes along inevitably as any player gets exposed to a variety of new songs in jams, and learns to follow in real time.

More on this skill in a future column! Meanwhile, get yourself to a jam and have fun. If you can’t find a good slow jam, go to DrBanjo.com and click Learn, then Articles, and find Can’t find people to jam? Or if you’re a novice jammer, click Videos and get one of my play-along Slow Jam videos — and play with a band — on your TV or computer screen at home. No tab, just real-time fun.

I can’t stress enough: If you aren’t able to do this yet, it should be the next goal in your musical progress!

This article was originally published in the Banjo Newsletter. Pete Wernick, aka "Dr. Banjo" is renowned worldwide for his accomplishments and contributions to bluegrass music: the hot-picking force in several trend-setting bands including Hot Rize, innovative teacher and author, songwriter, and long-term President of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Pete is a pioneer in bluegrass music instruction, and since 1980 his banjo camps, bluegrass jam camps, instruction books, videos and his DrBanjo,com website have inspired players nationwide and overseas. In 2010, he launched the Wernick Method of teaching bluegrass jamming which as of 2016 has certified teachers offering classes in 40 states and 11 countries. 

Learn more at LetsPick.org




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