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!
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.