Berklee Bass Babylon: The Art of the Jam, Part 1

Welcome back to Berklee bass babylon.
By Steve Bailey with Victor Wooten,

Welcome back to Berklee bass babylon. For the next few columns, we’ll focus on what we Berklee Faculty members consider important concepts. We touched on some of them in our first mega-column [January ’18], which included integral teaching concepts from 20 of our bass professors.

Onstage, Victor Wooten and I routinely open our Bass Extremes shows with an unrehearsed and un-discussed jam. Inevitably it results in the after-show question, “What was the name of the first song you played?” This makes us smile, because we know that the tools outlined below make our jams sound like well-rehearsed songs. Composing in real time is not as hard as it may seem, if you know a few basic principles and develop simple skill sets.

At Berklee, Victor and I teach a class/clinic called “The Art and Science of the Jam.” The goal is to give students tools that will help them transcend the typical one-chord jam or 12-bar blues, which in most cases becomes boring to the listener, as well as to the musicians. The following tools will allow your jams to instantly sound like rehearsed songs.

The first thing Vic and I ask the class, after we’ve improvised what sounds like a rehearsed song, is, “How long would it take you to rehearse a piece like this, to prepare it for performance?” They usually reply, “a few hours” or “maybe a day!” We then ask them to list the ingredients of a great song. The usual responses are spot on: intro, groove, melody or verse, bridge, breakdown, solo section. This is all put in the framework of what we refer to as structure.

Vic If you want your jam to sound like a well-rehearsed song, structure is the key. In modern music, song sections usually change after 4, 8, or 16 bars; a new section rarely happens after 7 or 9 bars. Making changes in commonly felt places will help the musicians and listeners feel what’s coming, even before it happens. Remember: When we jam, it is not a test. We should make it easy for everyone. Changing in common places will help.

We should also make our changes diatonic. So, when adding a new section such as a bridge, we make sure the chords change in a way that stays in the key signature. This will allow the other musicians to quickly hear, recognize, and play the new section with less risk of disharmony—even if they arrive at the new section a few beats late. There are many common exceptions (chords moving down a whole-step, or up a minor 3rd, for example), but diatonic movement is common in all styles of music, and it’s easier to “hear.”

Steve Dynamics are so important and often overlooked. Simply put, each section should have a dynamic contrast to the one that precedes it. Notice how a bridge almost always “lifts,” how a solo often starts with space (from everyone) and builds in intensity, how the recap of the melody comes down and settles, and how the outro/tag may build (or may drop to a fade).

When I play a new melody, I try to keep it riff-oriented and simple so that it’s easy to remember, because it should be repeated in the verses and at the end, just like in a “real” song. I may play a slight variation of the melody on the repeat, but my primary goal is to instill those few notes into the listener’s memory. After the second time through the melody, Victor and I switch roles, and he improvises a melody for the next section (bridge) while I play bass/chords or simply “something else.”

Vic In most songs, solos happen after a couple verses and choruses. So, allow the song to develop before the solo starts. If you’re the first soloist, keep in mind that taking a long solo gives permission for everyone after you to take a long solo, so keep your solo short, and don’t feel the need to express all your ideas at once. Pay attention and listen to the other soloists so you don’t repeat the same ideas. If there are lyrics, use your solo to continue the story. Don’t change the story by “talking about yourself.”

Steve After the solos, any number of things can happen. You may decide to create a breakdown or have a drum solo over a simple groove. Whatever happens, know that you are aiming toward the classic restatement of the melody and/or chorus.

Vic Many of us use jam sessions to show others how good we are or how well we can solo. The musicians who get hired the most use a different approach: They play with the intention of showing how good everyone else in the band is. They have the skill to make a less experienced musician sound more mature, and they might even musically disguise that the drummer is rushing. Their overall goal is to make the music better. This is high-level musicianship!

Steve & Vic Use these skills, practice them over and over, and share them, but most of all, have fun! Next time, we’ll look at other skills that can elevate your jam sessions and improve your musicianship in general.



Steve Bailey is the Chairman of the Bass Department at Berklee College of Music and the grandmaster of the fretless 6-string as a veteran sideman, author, educator, and solo artist. In addition to touring with Victor Wooten in Bass Extremes, he is at work on his next solo record.


One of the most influential bassists of the last 25 years, Victor Wooten is a member of the Berklee Bass Department faculty. In addition to running his numerous camps (, he is touring in support of his latest album, Trypnotyx.