Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Choking at jams

Ben, any advice to stop chocking at jams? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

There is lots to write and explore here, but I want to address two things initially–one physical and one mental/psychological.

A common physical cause of choking at a jam is that you’re too tied down to a version or solo for a song. If you mess up once and the mental aspect kicks in (read below), you don’t know how to recover. Does this mean we don’t learn solos or versions? No, I do that all the time, and many of the best players I know play the same essential solo for certain songs night after night. The difference is that they know how to recover if they mess up. That’s where lessons like the Waypoints video come in.

Now, for the mental/psychological side of things, and I’m going to be blunt. You have to not really give a snot what other people think about you or your picking. You have to decide if you’re going to enjoy this or not. This took me forever to realize and I still fight it (especially with how many folks know me from YouTube). Everyone expects me to play a Skaggs-level break every time and I just can’t. It’s very easy for me to not have fun in public situations when I mess up. Eventually I have to accept the bottomline: my worth/value is not determined by how good a picker I am, and neither is yours. I’m not Skaggs, and he’s not calling to hire me for his band, either. I’m a teacher that enjoys playing music and helping other folks to also enjoy it. If I’m not enjoying music or making other folks a little better, then it’s time to hang it up.

I hope this helps you in some way.


It’s been a long time since I’ve picked bluegrass with anyone. When I did, though, the psychological part was tough for me, too. I agree with Ben about learning not to think about what others think. Ultimately, you’re just there to have fun.

One thing I’ll add… when I choked in a picking session, it was almost always when I was trying to play beyond my ability. So, what I did was lay down some forward and reverse rolls that I could play non-stop without even thinking about it. I could literally carry on a conversation and keep these rolls going. Then, before the next jam, I’d find 1 or 2 licks that I liked and incorporate them, then play the heck out of those licks at the next jam. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If I had kept going to jam sessions, I’d have a whole arsenal of licks at the ready by now.

Long story short, don’t try to play beyond your ability. Stick to what you know, even if you don’t think it’s impressive. Others aren’t thinking bad about you. Most people are just impressed that you’re holding a banjo. :slight_smile:


Just happen to see this and I hear you. Playing in jams is like surfing, you got to catch the wave of the song. Low level jams tends to have multiple beats going on and then you can’t Fiquer out where to fit in, then you feel like you choked. I play to recordings but I also will just put headphones on with the metronome at a speed I am comfortable with and play songs and licks. Banging away against the metronome has been the biggest help I have found. Steve Martin said he thought his metronome was broken when he first was getting together with SCR. Fix your metronome and you will fix your Jam problems I suspect.

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Not to be a brown noser, but I think you’re on the same level as those guys.


Thanks Ben.

I can relate to all of this except what others might expect of me and every point you made has been me at one time or another.

My deepest problem in playing with others stems from what I expect of myself…and not always being up to my own expectations.


My mental block came from reading the negative comments of a certain famous teacher and the many negative conversations over on the BHO. Eventually I gave up visiting the BHO and focused on my studies and playing. With Ben’s help and encouragement my self confidence has grown


First off, I realize I am just not “ready” to jam… as I don’t know my way around the instrument well enough yet but I would be willing to play with others… I am new to Banjo but I have played in bands… improvised solos in jazz (Tumpet HIgh School and College bands while in High School) and Rock (Guitar and keys) in Rock/Fusion Bands…

For ME… collaborating music in any group is like a conversation. We all have things to say or that can be said… because I found that - just like a conversation… it is up to the group to accept and let everyone be heard. In conversations, topics come up that some know more about - others less. Even children can contribute… like when we have families share prayer-time… all are welcome and included. Haven’t we all experienced the old person’s deep wisdom in few words… or again, the purity in a child’s few words - both have beauty - in their own way… yet all contribute to the greater whole.

So it is with music. I once had a very talented friend who played keys… he was technically proficient… thought that only a flurry of notes in a difficult passage was impressive… but in that, he lost the power of the single note… perfectly placed in the music that was striking. He had said, I opened a new world to him on that level… simple or complex, harmonic or dissonant… it all makes us FEEL. Who can deny the beautiful sound of what some call a IV-I, Perfect Plagal Cadance… to others, it is the classic coral or gospel/hymnal ending…Aaaaaa-Mennnnn (Amen). Complex or simple… defined technically or known in church from countless repetition… it’s all about the feeling that is important!

My 14-Year-old son is extremely shy to talk with others… but put a guitar in his hand… he becomes FEARLESS. Don’t ask me how… but he goes into solos with his old band during a show… and he flubs up… probably trying a bit too hard… but he DOESN’T CARE (not in a careless or mean way - but he doesn’t think about others reactions, like Ben said). He hears the music in his mind… and tries to make it happens… but he NEVER FREEZES or stops!

This is something he taught me.

Also key (no pun intended) in the conversation - is to LISTEN… and respond. I enjoy this about bluegrass so much… the ways Bands transitions into and out of solos with the instruments is captivating,.

I am reaching the point now where I want to find others at my level to play… and learn to “converse”.

Teaching youth bands, I have a GREAT respect for my son’s teacher (plays all styles but thrives in his love of old-time, mid-19th Century Fretless Banjo music! YouTube Search: Tim Twiss … or Timothy Twiss or visit his Banjo site: ) at his music school. He is calm and supportive, firm and professional. He guided others by showing simple scripted solos… until they built the skill and confidence to improvise… always nurturing, encouraging and polishing.

Tim is an excellent teacher and my son’s blessed to study with him. If only he taught Scruggs… but I can see Banjo lessons in MY future because I respect him so. By the way, he’s a great rock and Blues guitarist too!

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Your replies are great . I will definitely read many times and take to heart. My problem is I think is physiological . Never good enough at whatever I did. I know many, many , licks, rolls, specialty licks, breaks but jams I’ve been to don’t play what I call real bluegrass. Enter another stumbling block. I know i beat myself when music starts. Can tear it up playing with Pete Wernick jam cds but in jams no. I think it’s all mental
I really appreciate all of your advice. THANKS .


Same here .confidence is big. I know generally about 12 songs but not confident in a jam. Also get very nervous.

We are not alone in controlling our nerves! I am happy to share with y’all.

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Check this out.


Well stated Sir…well stated!!!

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The very basic beginner advice I got from a really good banjo player was to learn a few lead breaks and then just straight up vamp the other parts. So as an example kick off and intro the beginning of Ballad of Jed Clampett that I know really well then go into vamping while verse going or someone else taking a lead and when they let you take a lead break just do the intro part again. Sure the vamp and lead you know isn’t the fancy up the neck stuff but its a great place to start.

If there is anyone in a jam that judges you for that they are not the jam group you want to be hanging with. Heck if you get judged in a jam group for anything as a newbie (outside of positive advice) prob time to move onto another group. I have a great group of guys I jam with. Super supportive. The only problem is we only meet about once every 3 months. Not really in depth jam time.

This is why way points is so important to me because it will hopefully help me even if its just vamp parts up the neck better as I mentioned above. Then I can move onto more advanced parts. .


Great advice Ben.Well I went to a local jam tonight and I usually play guitar or bass but I took my banjo and out of 2 hours of songs I took a crash and burn break on like 3 songs. Only about 25% of the notes I planned on playing got picked but I just kept digging. Everyone was Very supportive and made me feel like JD. lol
On all the other songs I worked on vamping and learning the chord patterns. I guarantee no one went home and discussed all the notes I missed. So folks get out there and jam and have fun and don’t worry if you flub up. Keep digging…


This is a good topic and hits everyone. I live in an area that has a popular Friday night jamboree. If you show up with a banjo there are high expectations. it is very intimidating …or at least it is for me. I have a few buds that I love to get together with and play songs…but to meet up with strangers usually ends in a frustrating night. Especially the ones that see you trying to join and all of a sudden want to play in E or some chord that they know you may struggle with.
Now I have been to a few bluegrass camps that have the jams set up for different levels…beginner all the way up to Bens level…pick your group and jam…now those are fun.


There are some great responses posted here. Let me add that overall, I have found the bluegrass / old-time music community to be very accommodating and supportive of players of all skill levels. Jams can be very intimidating at first. I recall choking very badly at the first several jams I took part in. On a positive note, I have found that if you muster up the courage to stick with it and keep participating, your musical repertoire, back-up skills, and interacting with others musically will improve dramatically.


This is a solid advice on life as well (without being narcissistic). For some reason I needed to read this piece at this very moment. It’s as if @BanjoBen was talking directly to me right now. And it’s crazy that I just stumbled up on this too. Thank you Mr. Banjo Ben :pray: