50 Years of Jam Bands!

Do you fancy stretch­ing out in the styles of the clas­sic jam bands like the Grate­ful Dead and Phish? Well, Mil­ton Mer­mikides has put to­gether the de­fin­i­tive jam band tu­to­rial mas­ter­class, just for you!

Guitar Techniques - - PLAY: JAMMING -

Most au­di­ences at your av­er­age rock gig ex­pect to hear a live per­for­mance that’s faith­ful to the recorded ver­sion they know and love. there may be dif­fer­ences - the phras­ing of a melody might change, and a gui­tar solo may use the recorded ver­sion as a ref­er­ence point to a length­ier ex­cur­sion. But in essence, the au­di­ence is hop­ing to en­joy the spec­ta­cle of the band recre­at­ing the mu­sic they know. in fact, “it sounds just like the record!” is in­tended as a com­pli­ment rather than a crit­i­cism.

How­ever, there’s a type of band that re­jected this model of live per­for­mance. th­ese so-called ‘jam bands’ de­part from a ‘script’ and em­bark on im­pro­vi­sa­tions. im­pro­vi­sa­tion is es­sen­tial in jazz, but the jam band extends the jazz con­cept be­yond solo­ing over a pre­pared struc­ture, into a freer ethos, with more open ex­plo­rations. the at­trac­tion for the au­di­ence is that they will be the first to ever hear it.

open im­pro­vi­sa­tions are not un­known in ‘nor­mal’ bands; Jimi Hen­drix’s Band of Gyp­sys, Zappa’s Moth­ers of in­ven­tions, Pink Floyd and Muse all de­part from a script when play­ing live; how­ever this does not sig­nif­i­cantly char­ac­terise their art. a ‘jam-band’ on the other hand, holds im­pro­vi­sa­tion as a defin­ing fea­ture.

any brief over­view of jam-bands will be in­com­plete. it is a con­vo­luted his­tory of shared mem­bers, ill-de­fined bound­aries, form­ing and re­form­ing, side-projects and hia­tuse. But few dis­agree with the de­scrip­tion of the Grate­ful dead (with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir) as the god­fa­ther of the jam bands; with a ca­reer that spanned 30 years (1965-1995), they amassed a deeply com­mit­ted fan­base ‘(dead­heads’) who flocked to see their leg­endary live shows.

the ‘dead’ had a wide mix of styles and so open the doors to a num­ber of stylis­tic strands of jam bands. 1969 saw the for­ma­tion of the all­man Broth­ers Band (with duane all­man and dickey Betts), famed for their south­ern rock style of ex­tended blues-based jams. also in that year, slide player (and Zappa side­man) Low­ell Ge­orge be­came a found­ing mem­ber of Lit­tle Feat, an eclec­tic blend of styles cen­tered around lengthy blues im­pro­vi­sa­tions. this blues-based jam style char­ac­terises groups over the decades run­ning to the present day, in­clud­ing Blues trav­eler (formed in 1987 with gui­tarists John Pop­per and chan Kinchla), the Black crowes (formed in 1989 with gui­tarist Rich Robert­son), and Gov’t Mule (founded in 1994 by all­mans gui­tarist and bassist War­ren Haynes and allen Woody). and although he re­jects the la­bel, the derek trucks Band is of­ten de­scribed as a jam band within the broad all­man Broth­ers strand.

Par­al­lel to this the Grate­ful dead might also be seen as spawn­ing the more psy­che­delic space-rock flavour of jam-band, such as The ozric ten­ta­cles (formed in 1983 with gui­tarist Ed Wynne), and the blue­grass-flavoured Bela Fleck and the Fleck­tones, as well as the ‘trance-fu­sion’ style of the disco Bis­cuits. Most no­tably, bassist Les clay­pool (of Primus fame) has be­come an hon­orary mem­ber of the jam-band com­mu­nity with projects in­formed by mu­si­cal fea­tures of P-funk and Par­lia­ment in­clud­ing slap-bass, funk grooves and use of en­ve­lope fil­ter ef­fect, as well as a no-holds­barred eclec­tic Zappa aes­thetic. th­ese in­clude colonel Les clay­pool’s Fear­less Fly­ing Frog Brigade (with Primus gui­tarist todd Huth) and colonel clay­pool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains. the lat­ter project fea­tures the ex­tra­or­di­nary gui­tarist Buck­et­head (the KFc-bucket crowned and emo­tion­less masked al­ter ego of Brian car­rol). Buck­et­head’s ro­botic and vir­tu­osic live per­for­mances are stag­ger­ing and en­ter­tain­ing in equal mea­sure, as he is is able to ex­tem­po­rise end­lessly in keep­ing with the jam band ethic.

an­other key name is Jimmy Her­ring, a phe­nom­e­nal gui­tarist with a broad stylis­tic range and com­mit­ment to the jam-band her­itage. He’s played with the all­man Broth­ers and derek trucks, the jazz Grate­ful dead cover band Jazz is dead as well as the ex­per­i­men­tal Wide­spread Panic and aquar­ium Re­cue unit.

in ad­di­tion there is a more rock/pop (and com­mer­cially ac­ces­si­ble) lin­eage to the jam-band genre such as the 1991-formed dave Matthews Band (dave be­ing the singer, song­writer and gui­tarist), and in the very loosely de­fined alt-pop vein, the supremely popular Phish. Headed by gui­tarist trey anas­ta­sio, Phish have had over 20 years of suc­cess and their ex­tended live im­pro­vi­sa­tions are re­ported as tran­scen­dent ex­pe­ri­ences by their de­voted fans (aka ‘Phish-heads’). anas­ta­sio is also join­ing the sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the Grate­ful dead in their 2015 50-year an­niver­sary and farewell tour, which some­how closes a com­plex cir­cle; and there’s even a se­ries of an­nual awards recog­nis­ing jam-band ex­cel­lence, and known as the Jam­mys.

in ad­di­tion, Ben and Jerry’s have two ice-cream flavours de­voted to jam bands - cherry Garcia and Phish Food.

this ar­ti­cle will in­clude snip­pets of a se­lec­tion of jam band styles and will of­fer you a por­tal into the mind-ex­pand­ing world of this unique and in­ter­est­ing genre, hope­fully al­low­ing you to adopt sim­i­lar open and ex­per­i­men­tal con­cepts in your own play­ing.

Im­pro­vi­sa­tion is vi­tal in jazz, but the jam band extends the jazz con­cept be­yond solo­ing over a pre­pared struc­ture.

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