Focus on the other player (s)
It doesn’t matter how many chords you know. You focus on the other player. Some people like it when you give them the basic chord, some like it when you mess around with the harmony, some like it when you react to what they do, some like it when you anticipate what they may or may not do, some like it when you take an antagonistic approach to playing together, some like to be pushed, some like it when they don’t like it, some like going into strange places, some like it to sound correct, some like it when you leave gaps, some like it when you play in the gaps, some like whatever you do, some like it when you don’t divide things up like this as they think it’s an unnatural way of looking at a complex process, etc., etc., etc.
How do you know?
You listen. You listen to the other player (s). You listen, and you give up trying to impose anything other than focusing on the other player and then playing what feels right.
And it may or may not work.
The point is, if you do it that way, you learn stuff about the people that you play with. If you play your ‘hot shit’ you learn nothing; you’ll already know what you’re going to sound like because you worked all day on drop-2 voicings, or something.
How do you focus on the other player?
One way is to literally focus on the other player. Using a visual connection can focus your listening and attention, as well as providing important visual clues as to what’s happening musically. Some people like to close their eyes. Maybe one eye open is the answer ;)
If you know someone pretty well, try to lock eye contact when you play. It can be quite weird to do that as it feels so intrusive, but try it.
Say you want to lock in with the time-feel – maybe look at the drummer’s hi-hat or ride-cymbal beat, or maybe the bass player’s fingers. Maybe if you’re playing duo, look at each other’s fingers. Just try stuff, see what happens.
Also try this kind of thing when you’re soloing. It can get you out of that ‘Stand Back – I Am Emoting’ vibe. Not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional messianic moment (read – entire gig) of glory-laden fretboard heroics.
Yeah, actually forget everything I just said. Turn that wind machine on and let’s have it…