Blues Jam Instruments and Live Recording
Advice for Better Recordings of your jam

by Jeff Williams

(Revised 7/18/12)   The song montage which plays when this page is loaded is a "highlights reel" of audio recordings from the Domain - a popular but now-defunct blues jam in Gulfport, Florida. It was a quality jam with lots of musical talent, but the restaurant/bar venue succumbed to the recession.

This webpage is an addition to the Blues Jam Drumming page I wrote a number of years ago, covers the other instruments and their players, and is mainly focused on the audio recording aspect of the jams - but it can also be helpful for learning to be a better musician/jammer.

Like many jam musicians, I love playing at jams just for the fun of creating cool musical moments on the fly with my talented bandmates. I'm not as interested in the performing aspect, so it doesn't matter to me if there's a crowd or a lot of happy dancers as long as the music's good. I practice on my keyboards almost daily, search for new riffs and techniques, and learn the songs that I commonly hear at the jams.

Occasionally I'm asked why I record these jams. It's simple, really. Recording life's sights & sounds is just part of my nature -  I'm also a photographer.  Here's my facebook portfolio of local musicians (you can view it even if you're not on facebook).

I've recorded my musical performances ever since my teens, which include some truly ancient (sorry, Tim) recordings with multiple Grammy-nominated international recording artist Tim Hagans. I learned my first blues scale from him on an upright piano in our high school bandroom (I also played drums with him in the school's jazz band as well as the Dayton All-City Jazz Band); he has since gone on to become one of the world's foremost progressive jazz trumpeters - and I still have the crappy but cherished cassette tapes from those 'early days'.

In addition, jam recordings are a great learning tool. Not only do they help me learn songs, they help me learn music. I hear what works and what doesn't (like riffs I tend to repeat too often), and my proficiency has truly benefitted as a result.

So I enjoy recording blues jams. In reciprocation, as a special thanks to the bands which allow me to indulge in this practice, I provide free MP3s of the better recordings online to the other jammers. The web pages also provide additional publicity and international exposure for the venues where the jams are held. Traveling jammers increasingly use the internet to find jams in the area where they plan to visit, and what better way to gauge the quality of a jam than to listen to it online?

BTW, if you're on facebook check out the Tampa Bay Jam Sessions page for current and valuable information on jams in our area.

Many jammers like to hear recordings of themselves playing, and you have to admit - sharing your performances with your friends and family around the world is pretty cool. Do your own web search and try to find something like this (hint, you won't find much, if anything - but here's one in London, England that's very well-organized).

Blues jams are dynamic and unpredictable. I'm recording but I'm also there to have a good time, so it's inevitable that the recordings will vary in quality due to all the changes which occur on stage that I may not be aware of or capable of adjusting for. Plus, the recordings and mixes are fairly basic due to time constraints and my slave wage pay basis, and the MP3s themselves are moderately low resolution.  But it's all free, so...

The bottom line is, mixing the jams takes a lot of time - even when doing just a basic mix as I do now. Please note that I tend to spend the vast majority of my mixing time working on the songs where the musicians are clearly serious about playing something cool with their bandmates. Enough said there, I hope.

Please be considerate and learn your instrument BEFORE before you start going to recorded jam sessions (this is especially true for drummers). No one enjoys train wrecks, and it's simply not fair to the other musicians or the audience if you're not reasonably proficient.

You can help me make better recordings by following the suggestions below:

A major advantage to having a website like this is that you have recordings of the specific songs that are played at the jams. This means that you can download them and LEARN them - especially the commonly played songs. 

Lucky you - you get an entire web page - go here.

I generally don't have a problem recording guitarists, since I can mic their cabinets to separate them from the rest of the mix. The most frequent issue involves volume - no surprises here. When the guitarist cranks it up, the rest of the band has to crank it up, too. And the louder it gets, the worse the recording sounds because of all the extra reflections bouncing around and back into the mics. The PA mix can get especially noisy as a result. Want a good sound? Then keep the volume down!

Horn/Reed Players (saxes, trumpets, trombones, etc)
These instruments give me more headaches than everything else combined. More jam mixes are ruined by horns and saxes than by any other instruments. Why? - several reasons.

1) Most songs do not have parts for horns written for them. As a result, some horn players feel free to run amok. Please, please listen to the songs on the jam pages, note the popular tunes, and LEARN the melodies! Comping is much easier when you know the tune. Play with the melody - don't "wing it" with anything that distracts or clashes, and especially - don't play during others' solos! Believe me, most horn and sax jammers can not play under a soloist without interfering.

2) For simplicity's sake I record the band's PA mix. Since they generally run singers, harps, and horns through the PA, I get a pre-mix of these instruments - and there's no way to separate them out or control their individual volumes after this point. Trumpeters and trombonists nearly always blow out the mic, so stay away - you do not need to be close mic'd.

3) Saxes and horns play in the same general audio frequency range as harps and most vocals.
Here's a very important point:
Never - EVER - play over the singer. Restrain yourself during the verses. Seriously....

For the above reasons, mediocre horn players all too often literally destroy a mix - for themselves and for their bandmates.

Lay low and shine during your solos.

Harp Players
Harps are similar to horns in that they can interfere with the frequency range of vocals and other instruments, so read the section above on horns, too. My advice here is - easy does it and don't play over soloists or - ESPECIALLY - the vocalist. And leave some space for the other instruments.

Keyboard Players
Keyboard players often come to jams with a solo player mindset and a busy busy busy fill-all-the-voids sound - but that doesn't necessarily work well in a jam session where a lot of notes are being thrown around by everyone else. For the most part, less is better. Leave some space for other instruments - especially important when there's another keyboard playing.

Play within the basic structure of the chords and stay in sync with the rhythm. Play something meaningful to the song instead of filling space with busy work. During others' solos lower your volume and 'comp'. Think about your left hand voicings and use them only if you can satisfactorily 'comp the bass; use left hand chords very sparingly to blend better into the mix and give the bass player his "space".

Singing lessons are expensive, I know (see the video at right for a free youtube lesson), but at least learn how to control your plosives. Though I can digitally edit out plosives, it's time consuming and generally I don't bother trying to eradicate them in jam mixes.

Another challenge with recording jam singers is the inconsistency of volume. Because the singers are in the general PA mix, it's not an issue that's easily solved by using compression. My best advice here is to remember to stay on the mic as consistently as you can.  

If you are leading a song, tell the other bandmembers what KEY you plan to use - preferably before you begin the song.

For another voice on the subject (because it's not just me making these observations), check out the advice page my friends in London have put up.

To conclude the topic I've also included some relevant excerpts from "The Jazz Piano Book" below. Mark Levine, the author, explains the meaning of comping - something every jammer should know whether they play piano or not - the advice here applies to other musicians as well:

'Comping - by Mark Levine           (excerpts from Levine's excellent "The Jazz Piano Book")

'Comping, short for accompanying (or complementing), is what the pianist does behind the soloist, and during ensemble sections. The 'comper's job description is to stimulate the soloist harmonically and rhythmically, to accentuate turnarounds, bridges, and so on, to strengthen the form of the tune, and to stay out of the soloist's way.

The first rule is to LISTEN to the soloist. That's so easy to say, yet so hard to do. It's not unusual to get caught up in your own little world while 'comping and forget that your basic job is to play second fiddle.

Be aware of the range of each solo instrument, and be careful not to 'comp too much in the same register as the soloist. If you 'comp high up on the keyboard during a soprano sax solo, for example, you'll get in the soloist's way.

A singer once told me (she was unhappy because I was 'comping too busily behind her) "Play when I don't sing, and don't play when I sing." Although that's an exaggeration of what an accompanist is supposed to do, there's more than a grain of truth to it.

- Mark Levine

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