Ahhhh, jammin’ at the Legion – what a terrifying thought!!! No way, no how, right?!
WRONG! You too can rule at the Legion jam session. Just don’t let them push you around. These here people are seasoned professional jammers, don’t kid yourself for one second. And how do we “little ukulele players” fit in with that?
Bring your chord wheel, your ukulele chord charts and your Chords in Keys charts, and lay them out. Practice your strumming techniques. Pray that there will be a stand-up bass play to help the group keep time, and bring a friend. The friend is there to sit right beside you and fetch you a drink or two (whether non-alcoholic or not is up to you).
It can be daunting. We are used to playing in a big group where every instrument is some variation of a ukulele from soprano to U-bass. That is the landscape we are used to looking at. When you sit in on a jam session you may feel out of place. You will be surrounded by – this is a given – guitar players for sure, and then a smattering of fiddle players, and then a range of instruments from one or two banjo’s to a mandolin, dulcimer or harpsichord. You just never know and it usually varies from week to week.
Also, I need to interject here, there is a VERY big difference between sitting in on the local informal jam session “down the pub” or “down the Legion”, and the organized jam session of an art, such as Hamilton Irish Arts. You can’t join in on that one, but you are welcome to listen as a patron of the bar. Typically, speaking in general, you have to be invited. I believe you can approach the hosts of the event and introduce your instrument but generally unless you can prove yourself to be proficient in that art, you won’t be allowed to participate as a player.
At the informal pub jam, there is usually a leader of the group, or you may recognize him or her as “the host”. So that person usually makes an effort to introduce themselves and ask your name so that they can introduce you to the group. If the group has a large number of males and only one or two females, and you are a female, they generally are glad to see you and will make more of an effort to keep you because your singing voice helps even out the sound of the group. This jam takes place for two reasons: wanting to play with others, and the deal made with the establishment to bring in patrons, therefore 50% of what they are doing is to entertain the patrons who are gathered around to listen. Sometimes the patrons want to sing with. That is also comforting because the louder everyone around you is, the less they can hear you if you make mistakes, so you feel better about the situation.
The leader or host, usually keeps the song selection going by keeping the participants selecting songs. This is what I call “karaoke style” where each player is asked what song they want to do, in the same order no matter if new players join in half-way through or whatever. Sometimes the player selects a song that they want someone else in the group to lead, sometimes the player passes, sometimes the player stands up and performs a song alone. In which case we politely listen. The key here is to go with the flow.
Depending on the leader or host, he or she might be accommodating the players by making the key of each song known, and in some cases the leader will call it to the group. There isn’t usually a lot of discussion beforehand because this is not a teaching situation. Either you know the song and are able to join in or you don’t. If the leader feels like calling out the chords, he or she will but it is not their job. They don’t have to so you should not rely on that happening with consistency. Sometimes all you’re told is the key, ie. “Jambalaya in C”. Sometimes they all just launch into a song and it’s up to you to figure out the key. If there are other uke players in the group, you can figure out the chords by looking off them. If not, you might be able to pick up what the left-hand formation of chords like C and G look like on a guitar player and figure it out from there.
If you are at least told which key, then if you have your chord finder before you or a Chords in Keys chart, then you can make your way through the song by listening to when they change chords and try to establish the pattern of chords. Is it C then F then back to C, twice? And keep a pen and paper handy to jot that down if you need to.
Another calling situation would be if the leader tells you the key the song is in, followed by letters. This refers to the circle of fifths and is a notation of the specific chords of the key. So for example if they say, “Key of C, one four five” that means, the first, fourth and fifth chords in the key of C. How do we figure that out? In this example, the first chord is C. Then we use counting. If C is the first chord, then D is the second one, and so on. In this example the chords being used will be C, F and G, and some variation such as C7, Fm and G7, etc. For the key of G, G chord would the first chord, then by counting, the fourth chord would be C and the fifth one would be D. Even better, just keep the Chords in Keys chart in front of you so you can figure it out quicker. As time goes by you will get faster at this.
Chords in Keys chart This is my rendition, it’s not perfect but you will get the idea. 🙂
It is a good experience for any of us to at least try. I feel that I am now so much better at “listening” to chord changes and have developed a better ability to “play by ear”. It has helped me when developing my own song arrangements. And I have a better understanding of songs that are good for group performing and which keys are actually better for group singing. There are many songs that I redid just because I needed a better key for my personal singing range, but that did not mean that that key was any good for the group to sing. Because of this idea you might now appreciate why a song is available from large uke groups online, in a certain key. When you start to sing it, try to imagine hearing a range of other voices. That’s why we bring them to group.
Below are the jam songs I usually hear down the Legion, plus a few of my own:
Other suggestions are: Jambalaya, King of the Road, Eagles songs, Could I Have this Dance, Wagon Wheel, I Walk the Line and others by Johnny Cash, Singin’ the Blues, You Are My Sunshine, gospels like I Saw the Light, and Irish songs like I’ll Tell Me Ma and The Black Velvet Band.