A Group of Beginning Guitar Students at Their Very First Jam
I recently found myself standing in front of a group of fresh-faced young guitar students at the community recreation center in Mount Pleasant, the leather strap of my banjo slung over a shoulder, and plucking out the typical ‘four potato’ intro that kicks off most standard bluegrass songs.
You could just as easily holler out a four-count to start a song: “A one, and a two, and a three, and a four,” but it’s simply more fun to let your instrument do the counting, by playing four ‘potatoes’ in a rhythmic riff to get everyone strumming at the same time and tempo.
These introductory potatoes can be played by any of the usual bluegrass instruments—fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass—but on this particular afternoon, they are played with ample twang on a Deering 5-string banjo.
Tempo doesn’t really matter if you’re playing all alone in your parlor. The cat doesn’t much care how fast or slow you play. He’s going to leave the room regardless.
But when two or more of you are playing together—known as ‘jamming,’ by most musical types—it becomes important to play at the same time and speed.
And this is where those four potatoes come in, which I dutifully plucked out like a human metronome, launching myself and those nine guitar-wielding youth into a clumsy, rollicking spasm. We muddled through a simple chord progression, managing to finish surprisingly close together.
I wanted these young budding musicians to have a positive experience that day since I had learned many years ago the joy of playing music together as a group, as part of a so-called ‘jam’ session. It is simply the most fun you can have with your instrument. Any instrument.
The first time it happened for me, I was sitting on the sofa in my banjo teacher’s living room. Once he was satisfied with my proficiency in the three-finger picking arrangement of the old bluegrass standard “Cripple Creek,” he grabbed his guitar from behind the sofa, strummed out a four-potato intro, kicking us off into our own impromptu duet of that very basic three-chord tune.
We played it many times through, as my instructor indulged his student, who was clearly exulting in his first musical collaboration—actually ‘jamming’—with another musician. I wanted these kids to feel that same joy.
Our first song was a simple, two-chord version of “Buffalo Gals.” Only two chords in the entire song, which means, if you’re playing a G chord and something doesn’t sound right, try a D7, and vice-versa.
I plucked out the same four potatoes to launch us into our second number: an easy-going version of “You Are My Sunshine.” It sounded good enough that I began to see some smiles replacing the furrowed brows of our first effort, with one girl even singing along. (She told me later that singing the lyrics of a song helps her to know when to change chords, which I could totally appreciate.)
Four more rhythmic potatoes and we were off and trotting through a perfectly decent rendition of “Cripple Creek,” that very same song I’d played together with my music teacher in his living room so many years ago.
We played it at least a dozen times until my lifted leg eventually indicated the last time through. (If four potatoes gets everyone started on the same beat and tempo, then an exaggerated leg lift—usually by the same person who kicked off the song—is the universal bluegrass signal to wind it down.)
Lastly, we had a good go at that familiar folk song “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” and it was during this song that I finally witnessed what is the single sweetest thing you can see during a jam: involuntary grinning and a profuse tapping of toes.
We chugged merrily through many verses of this old stand-by, the singing girl belting out the lyrics to help her know when to change chords, and all of us—nine young guitarists and one old banjo picker—exchanging broad and knowing smiles.
After my leg finally rose to signal the wind down of our last song of the afternoon, I told them we were now a bona fide band, with a solid repertoire of four classic tunes, and ready to take our show on the road.
So, if anyone is looking for a local 10-piece string-band to play a house concert right in your very own living room, we are available to come and perform our four songs for you, and with no extra charge for those 10 beaming smiles and all those happily tapping toes!
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