Most of you are here to join in on the jam sessions. It’s a great way to meet new friends and create spontaneous music together. Here are some rough guidelines from experience to help you out.
1. There are two fundamentally different types of jams, usually (but not always!) depending on the style. It’s a good idea to observe which type is happening before you jump in:
- All players play together just about every time through: Southern Oldtime, Irish, New England, Scottish styles
- Players take turns playing instrumental breaks: Bluegrass, Swing, Texas, Blues, Rock styles
2. Some jams have a leader (either appointed or de facto). Leaders call or coordinate the selection of tunes, including medleys, and may call out arrangements on the fly. Other jams have no fixed leader, in which case the tunes are often selected and led by the players in some order, such as going clockwise around the circle.
3. Some coherency in jam style is expected. An Irish jam shouldn’t suddenly change into a Southern Oldtime jam, or a bluegrass jam into a Scottish jam. On the other hand, some players play multiple styles, and their jams may wander among styles (which may be fine, or may cause problems).
4. Jams may vary in their choice of tempos, usually depending on the level of the players. Some jams are rather speedy! Occasionally, jams are designated as “half-speed” or “slow.” Beginner jams are also slower. It’s good manners to let the person calling a tune start it at his/her tempo, Sometimes a group may agree to play a tune slowly at first, and then speed it up. If tunes are falling apart rhythmically, it’s better to slow them down. Good taste is better than raw speed any day! Keep the beat.
5. Sometimes you may be invited to join an ongoing jam. If not, it’s polite to ask to join in. But it’s generally fine to stand or sit on the periphery (“outer circle”) of a jam, playing along quietly (perhaps learning the tune!) and not getting in the way. Be conscious of the level of a jam before jumping in at full blast. And tune up before joining in.
6. Listen to the other players! Watch them, too. Support singers or soloists; don’t play over them or back them up disruptively. For jams where many players are playing together, such as oldtime, the goal is to converge and lock in on a common version, getting tighter as the tune is repeated.
7. Tend towards choosing tunes that are common or at least easy to follow. A large jam with multiple levels of players isn’t the time to trot out a complex, obscure tune. That being said, advanced players like to challenge themselves, and may throw anything out. Or a player may really want to teach everyone a new tune. Whatever the level, it’s a common practice to mention any strange chords, crooked parts, or other structural oddities before starting a tune. Oldtime sessions with clawhammer banjo players usually stay in a chosen key for quite a while.
8. Be kind to beginners and new jammers. It takes courage to join in and play along, and many players don’t have much jamming experience. Ask what tunes they know, keep tempos down, and help them out where you can.
9. At jams with breaks, such as bluegrass jams, the lead singer or the person who started the tune calls the breaks by nodding at players or raising an eyebrow, or shouting out a name or instrument. Indicate your willingness to take a break by smiling, nodding, or stepping forward. Indicate that you’d rather pass this time by shaking your head no, or avoiding eye contact in the first place.
10. It never hurts to play melody on a break. Don’t throw in every lick you know! If you screw up part of a break, keep going if you can. You may find your touch again. If not, nod to another player to step in and finish the break.
11. Whoever starts a tune determines when it’s over. It’s common to raise a foot (or yell “out”) to indicate the last time through.
12. Minimize noodling around between tunes. This isn’t the time to show your virtuosity, practice tunes you don’t know, or raise the noise level in general. If you want to suggest the next tune, say it, don’t start noodling on it.
13. Step aside to tune or converse at length.
14. If you don’t want to continue with a jam for any reason, split off and start your own. Or just listen for a while.
15. Seek out jams at the right level and in a style you can play. Your jamming skills will improve over time.