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Our local youth center organises a jam session each two weeks. Most of the time, everyone is just playing stuff and not really looking at, listening to or paying attention to each other. The most players haven't been to other jam sessions and are certainly not experts.

The owner of the youth center asked me to lead the jam session from now. What should I do to prevent each other playing random stuff without listening to each other?

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Oh, wow... That doesn't sound like a jam session so much as it sounds like a middle school band room. Can you clarify: do you already have enough experience that you have an idea of how these should be going? That is, is this a question about what a jam session should be, or about how to herd a bunch of confused guitar players? –  NReilingh Aug 27 '12 at 16:07
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Most jam sessions I attended were like everybody takes their instruments, listens to each other and tries to play something that fits in. We try to do the same here (just taking instruments, and start playing), but that goes horribly wrong. I was thinking about something like printing out a 12-bar-blues scheme on a poster as a general guide of what we are doing. But playing the same scheme for the whole session sounds a little boring. –  ONOZ Aug 27 '12 at 16:56
    
My experience of jam sessions "dixieland style" (everyone soloing at the same time) tells me that the culprit is that everybody wants to play in their corner, because they are afraid of being listened to. With that comment I just want to say that this may be the problem to address (although I am sure that other people have other experiences). –  Gauthier Aug 27 '12 at 18:35
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Yeah, some structure is required. Experienced improvisers can sometimes wordlessly communicate a structure. But even experienced people allow themselves to have a chat before starting to play.

Try playing songs! OK, strictly that might not be "jamming", but it's satisfying and it can put the skills in place for jamming. Print some chord sheets with a nice clear song structure, and play through it together from beginning to end. If you don't play songs, it's all too easy to just play the same riff for half an hour, or the same 12 bar chord progression.

By "song" I don't mean someone has to sing (although it's good if they do). I just mean something with a beginning, middle and end; a sequence of different parts. It's satisfying to perform something finite. Then you can talk about how it could be improved, and try it again.

Within that structure, there's room for improvising. "OK guys, how about we do the first two verses, then the chorus, then the third verse, then we'll do the chords from the verse, and go round the room getting a solo from everyone who wants one, then a final chorus, then the end".

Other structures you can impose are things like "trading fours" -- some number of musicians provide a backing, while two or more people take it in turns to play four-bar licks, ideally taking cues from each other. At first you'll need quite quite a strict rota ("You two trade fours for 16 bars, then go back to being rhythm players and the next pair can trade fours"). Encourage everyone to use eye contact to help each other keep to the structure.

As everyone gets more experience, you can be more loose ("You two trade licks until you're ready, then you two take over") -- it doesn't need to be a strict 16 bars any more, because they know how to communicate the handover.

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Based on the level of inexperience you seem to be describing, I would strongly suggest incorporating some structure. If the musicians can't come up with the structure on their own, it will give them something to latch on to.

It doesn't have to be 12-bar blues for hours and hours (although you can get some considerable mileage out of that), but that's certainly a place to start. Hey, there's also 8-bar blues, and 16-bar blues--and 12 different keys for each! Then maybe you could do it swing, or a latin groove, one in 5/4, some rockabilly... 7/8 reggae? Not to mention the thousands of melodies and lyrics that exist over the blues changes.

Basically, you want to go in with a game plan. Devise something based on the musical tastes of who you expect to attend. If you can, bring along bass and drums who are on the same page as you so you have a combo to work from and extend with everyone else there. If people are hearing something they recognize, they'll be more likely to join in instead of playing random stuff without listening.

Also, lots of tunes are simple enough that players can learn them by ear after a chorus or two. Learning by ear, after all, is the kind of skill that jam sessions are great for working on.

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Your idea of a basic theme for the session has merit. You could use a blues theme one week, jazz for another etc.

You can define a couple of rhythmic options for the session, and possibly two basic keys with a break for drinks in the middle. That keeps it from getting too boring.

If you have some regulars who know their stuff, get them on side and ready to follow some simple guidance. Then play a couple of samples by popular bands if any attendees don't have an idea.

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