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I've been playing guitar for a little bit over three years now. Sometimes I practice every day, in busier times a bit less, but I've been doing it regularly and know some stuff beyond the beginner level. But until now I've done it alone. And I am REALLY struggling to get to the point where I can play with other people. It is so frustrating. People have this "just do it" attitude and I get that it works with most. "You'll know what to do. Play a couple of notes, see if that works and just go from there" - I've seen that myself many times. It seems so easy. However, this feels not at all comfortable to me. But I also know that I can't spend the rest of my life playing music alone in my room.

Can somebody give me some advice? I am searching for something in between the "just do it"-attitude and burying myself in music theory books - both doesn't seem to work for me. Is there something specific that I can prepare for? Like a checklist? This is not about practicing cover songs with anybody. I want to improvise a bit with other people. And add some useful stuff to a jam session.

EDIT: Wow, thanks for all your answers! I didn't really know what to expect here, because I think it's a difficult question if one of the issues is something as vague as "not being comfortable". That was exactly what I was looking for.

EDIT 2: I really liked the idea of having a setlist as a part of preparation. The statement "This is not about practicing cover songs with anybody. I want to improvise a bit with other people." was badly phrased. Want I meant was that the jam session I have in mind is not so stiff, opposed to everyone having his music sheet and playing exactly what he practiced at home note for note. But what and how exactly I want to play is not that important here

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    Could you improvise alone eg. to a backing track? – el.pescado Nov 2 '17 at 13:43
  • Maybe I don't understand your situation, so this is just a comment, but: Have you considered playing the role of the background guitar for start? – yo' Nov 2 '17 at 16:13
  • I think it is difficult as well playing "background" guitar, because the background is just as important. This is mostly about having trouble with playing with others in general. Maybe you mean I should consider not having a "driving" role in the band? As a beginner (concerning playing with people) I certainly wouldn't start off with that – Tobitobitobi Nov 2 '17 at 21:50
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    As I understand from last paragraph, you want to play improvised music with people. That's two things: (1) playing improvised music and (2) playing with people. Start with practicing those aspects in isolation, i.e. jam to a backing track, and play covers with other people (playing covers can be fun too), and when you feel confident enough in both things try to combine them. You could even make smooth transition, eg. improvise solos when playing covers. – el.pescado Nov 3 '17 at 9:01
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"However, this feels not at all comfortable to me"

Beneath it all this statement appears to be the underlying issue behind you not being able to 'just do it.' Lets face the facts, it is uncomfortable! You see the more you play with others, the less stressful it is each time. Just like guitar practise, you practise and you get better. The same with playing others, the more you do it the less nerves you get and the more you're able to focus on what you're playing. I tell you how I know? Because I used to be like this too! But now I am playing with people at an event this weekend in front of roughly 800 people! The truth is you really have to 'just do it.' But I can provide you with tips that helped me. In order of importance:

  1. Stop expecting so much of yourself - Absolutely every musician started somewhere, even if you're playing with complete professionals, they were in your shoes too. Think of something that you're really good at. If someone else was trying to learn that, wouldn't you just want to pour your knowledge into them? The sooner you get this point, the sooner you'll stop stressing about it and can focus more on your playing.

  2. Enjoy playing guitar - too many musicians focus on the end goal of becoming a really good musician. But the truth is that mindset will always lead someone to being unsatisfied with music. You need to enjoy the stage that you are at now! That does not mean to never improve, it just means to always be happy where you at. If you learn this, you will never be discouraged about a musician who is on another level and you will always be happy with the musician you are now.

  3. Practise jamming in your room - There are plenty of resources on YouTube for this type of stuff, however you learn so much more when playing with others and share information on licks, riffs, chord theory etc..

  4. Create a set list - Depending on what you end up playing for, to 'just improvise' never sounds as prepared as a set list. I know freakish (crazy professional) musicians who won't do a gig without a set list. Even though they have the ability to improvise the whole time at an insane level, they still choose to have a set list. So it'd be good to notify other members and discuss a set list even for the jam sessions so you can be prepared for a real life event. Creating a set list means you can also practise the songs at home before the jam session and since you already know the songs, you can practise improvising over them at the jam session but you can always fall back on the basic structure of the song because you practised them at home.

  5. Do it.

  6. Don't make it a competition - If there are other good guitarists that you play with and they're so much better than you, don't bring a competition based mindset. Instead ask them questions and learn from them so they can pour their knowledge into you.

Overall you really have to 'just do it.' It may not be what you want to hear but it's the truth. However, if you follow the points that I mentioned you'll be less stressed about it and you'll be forged into a killer musician.

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    +1 for suggesting a set list or some tunes to play that everyone knows. Playing well-known songs is a great way to break the ice with people personally and musically. Once you have a better idea of them and their thinking, you’ll be more inclined to have open jams or even songwriting. – jjmusicnotes Nov 2 '17 at 0:45
  • What is a "set list"? – anatolyg Nov 2 '17 at 17:17
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    @anatolyg It's just a list of the songs the group is going to play, usually in the order they will be played. The entire list of songs is called the "set". When you go see a band live, if they play a bunch of songs, take a break, and then play some more songs, then we say they "played two sets". – Todd Wilcox Nov 2 '17 at 20:45
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I want to add a few things that apply more when you're actually going to your first band practice or jam session. First, I want to point out that many times, at least one of the other musicians at a band practice or jam session is still inexperienced, nervous, and even more worried than you are that you'll find them to be unprepared. Sort of like the old, "they're more scared of you than you are of them". You don't have to be prefect to play with other people. They certainly won't be, but it's not about perfection.

Anyway, off my soap box:

  • Have all your equipment in good working order and know how to work it - As tempting as it is to bring your latest effect pedal to band practice and plug it in and see how it sounds, more often than not you'll end up wasting time troubleshooting or finding a good tone. The same goes with everything else. Make sure you know how to dial in the sound you want right away. Know what options you have for being louder or quieter. Make sure you use your most reliable gear. Bring spare cables, strings, tubes, fuses, and an extension cord and/or power strip.
  • Practice setting up and tearing down your rig - Sort of part II of the above. Be comfortable and proficient in setting everything up in short order and taking it apart and putting it back in cases or whatever. Also keep in mind that space may be tight so think about how you can fit into the smallest possible area and still play and hit your pedals, etc. If and when you gig, this will be a very valuable skill.
  • Make sure you know where you're going and arrive early or on time - It's much better to be the one standing around waiting for everyone else to show up than to be the one everyone is waiting on.
  • Be your most polite and considerate self - Collaborating can be stressful, and some people will be stressed out just feeling insecure around other musicians. Do whatever you can to not add to the stress level. Accept everyone's input. Respect everyone's opinion. Second guess your own desires to criticize. You might be a very nice, personable, friendly person, so maybe you don't have to worry about this one. If you're not, and you're used to being the only one making music in the room, prepare yourself for accepting that other people will be making noise/music while you're trying to play.
  • Make your volume as low as you can stand - If you can barely hear yourself, then that might be a good thing. After the first number or so, ask if you should be louder or softer. People are much happier when they are asking you to turn up than when they want you to turn down. Getting the right levels takes practice but it's crucial for everyone to sound good and enjoy themselves.
  • Listen Listen Listen Listen - Obviously I can't stress this enough. And I mean both to what people are saying and what they are playing. The act of merely ignoring your own playing and letting your fingers run on autopilot while listening closely to the other musicians will really make you stand out. Knowing when to lay back and even stop playing entirely is a crucial skill. Think about when the snare hits are coming. Pay attention to the range the bass is playing in. Get out of the way for the singer or someone else's solo. Don't crowd the other instruments. Dial back your tone and make it thinner sounding so it fits into the cracks. Listen for parts in the rhythm where there are 8th notes where no one is playing and fill those cracks. Or emphasize the silence and hit a root note exactly when the bass and kick drum hit. Try to play a rhythm that matches the snare so closely that you can't hear yourself behind the snare hit. Keep listening. Make the song the most important thing - more important than you or your guitar or your tone or your solo or anything else.
  • Allow plenty of time - You don't know how long the groove will keep you there. Also, if everyone wants to grab some food or drinks afterwards, you should really go along, even if you don't eat or drink much. Just have a glass of water at least and chat and keep listening. Those after practice cool-downs are tremendous bonding experiences, and the bandmate relationship/friendship is unlike any other (in my experience). Enjoy the non-musical parts of hanging with musicians.

One way to get into it is to find one person to jam with. This could be another guitarist. Just get together and play some favorite tunes really badly (or really well). Famous bands have been founded just like that. It's just a small group of people getting together to have fun. Keep that mindset and it will be fun. Maybe the most fun you'll ever have.

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    An excellent answer - and one that should be printed out and stuck onto every rehearsal studio wall, every open mic session back of p.a. speakers, in fact anywhere where potential (and already gigging) musos should be made to read and sign! Couple of addenda - the brilliant sound your pedal makes at home will rarely be the same as you get at a jam session or gig. Getting there early means you have space to play with (so to speak), but also leave room, power sockets, etc., for latecomers. Get used to ' please turn up'. And listen far more than you play.That goes for any performing muso anyway. – Tim Nov 2 '17 at 8:24
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    "find one person to jam with" -- this is key for me. I'm in about the same place as OP and I play with a beginner drummer. We have low expectations, which keeps it fun. I have about 3 "go to" riffs that I use to warm up with, and whatever beats he's going to use. Playing with someone who is just doing rhythm also keeps it simple -- I don't have to worry about making chord changes in time :) – bstpierre Nov 2 '17 at 17:25
  • By far the most useful advice here is "Keep that mindset and it will be fun." Can't tell you how quickly it can not be fun anymore. – GibralterTop Nov 2 '17 at 19:31
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Unlike the other answers here, I think the advice to "just do it" is misguided. Playing music with other people is an entire skill unto itself. To be able to play well with others, you need to practice doing so first.

Here is why playing with others requires practice: it introduces many, many musical elements and techniques you need to be cognizant of that simply do not exist when you play by yourself. These include:

  1. Making sure you play in time with everyone else in the band.
  2. Making sure you play in tune with everyone else in the band - including playing slightly flat or sharp at times to make the notes you play in a chord fit into the overall chord better.
  3. Playing at the correct volume level and with the correct timbre to blend into the band's sound.
  4. Beginning and ending notes at the exact same time as others in your band playing the same or related lines to your part.
  5. Most importantly - and most difficultly - paying close attention to the playing style of other band members so you can both match that style precisely and anticipate how your bandmates will play the upcoming notes and phrases.

When you play by yourself, you already have a lot to think about - your technique, playing in tune, reading the music in front of you, keeping time... When you play with a group, you have to continue thinking about all of that and also add everything in the list above!

So you need to practice playing in a group. I can think of three ways to do so:

  1. Play along with a CD. Play the guitar part to a song you enjoy and focus on blending in to what you hear. Another option is that, especially for jazz musicians, some music companies produce CDs that are just the accompaniment for a common chord progression. Try improvising or playing a song that matches those chords over that backing track, trying to match the style you hear.

  2. Play with a group that's willing to help you practice. If you can find some friends who are willing to help you practice the skill of playing with a group, a lot of the pressure will be off and you can get some good feedback.

  3. Just do it. I know I said not to do this at the start of my answer, but it will certainly get you a lot of practice quickly! However, instead of just getting together with a group and hoping things go well, deliberately focus on how well you blend into the group and make a focused effort to improve on these new skills. This will help you improve more quickly and help you avoid getting into some bad habits. It will also make you a more considerate player, even when you're new to the group.

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    +1 for the jam track option. That's by far the best way to get yourself started. Never mind jamming a solo - simply managing to stay in time with someone else is hard. – Graham Nov 3 '17 at 11:38
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I started a jam with some pretty clear guidelines of how/what we were doing.

  1. We use songs from the Real Book so the melody and chord changes (and general form) are known ahead of time.
  2. We keep a short list of songs that we're working on, so people can come prepared.
  3. We announce the order of solos ahead of time.
  4. We agree how long (ie., how many bars) each solo will be.

This keeps things really clear, so those of us who are new to improvising can focus on the music and not be distracted by other things. When we have people come to the group who try to be more "freestyle" it just becomes harder to focus on just playing the changes.

All those other things are aspects which need to be dealt with when playing "out". But as a way to get started, I suggest making it as predictable as possible.

I started the group that I'm jamming with by contacting one person.. and then adding other people as we became comfortable. If you can find a friend with whom you can communicate these things, you can get started in a more relaxed, less stressful environment. And then attend a lot of open mics, jams & open stages to see how other people do it and learn where you need to improve to get out of your comfort zone.

  • +1 for the Real Book. Also the iReal Pro app so you can practice jamming to the same stuff at home. You and your mates can also use the app if e.g. you don't have a drummer handy. – RedSonja Nov 3 '17 at 12:01
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The first time I played with other people was with 3 other relative newbies like myself. If you listened to any one of us playing by our-self then it was blatantly obvious that we SUCKED individually. However, when we all played together, I thought we sounded quite awesome. In other words, don't worry that you aren't going to sound good because you will much better than you expect. Probably the 2 most important tips for your first few times are:

  1. Be sure that everybody knows some songs in common. It is better to know a few songs completely from beginning to end than a whole bunch of partial songs.
  2. Be sure you can play with the beat. You don't realize how important that is when you just play songs by yourself.
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A couple tips, listen to others, figure out the song order (if it is applicable), make sure you aren't overpowering with volume, if you just want to solo along first figure out the key and scale of the song and keep to it.

Good luck :)

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    Honestly, if you just want to solo over whatever's being played, that's probably not going to end well. – AJFaraday Nov 2 '17 at 16:31
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Really, the only advise anyone can give is to just do it. Of course, you will feel uncomfortable, because you are perfoming in front of others and showing your skillset to others ALWAYS will make you vulnerable in some way (ie, people hear when you play a wrong note or play not exactly in rhythm, etc), but to err is human.

When I played in a band for the first time, I had about as much experience as you have now, I played for roughly 3 years, but always alone. Playing together with other people is really something different, you cannot go back if you made an error. You either have to tell the others to stop or you have to just move on.

The most important (and the most difficult part, imo) is to keep the rhythm. You have to count the beat in your head and you have to time it to how the drummer is playing it. S/he is the one who decides, how a song is played. Playing against your own drummer will only result in the song sounding messed up.

To end this post on a positive note: It is really satisfying if you play together with others and you get through a song without errors. Every break was perfect, no off-beat notes, no wrong notes. That feeling is just so good and so rewarding. But to ever experience that feeling you have to do it! :)

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