The great pleasure of bluegrass and other genres of roots and acoustic music is jamming along. It’s a lot of fun, but there is an etiquette to the whole thing. Understanding these norms will help you fit in. In truth, it is much the same as any social occasion no matter where you are in the world – be respectful, listen, and leave lots of space for others to contribute.
The advice below will help you understand what is going on, although none of it is hard and fast – after all, it’s a human social activity. A large organised jam at a festival will be different to a small intimate jam with friends who play regularly together. Still, the principles are the same. In either case we hope this guide will help you understand how to successfully contribute to the point where you will be welcomed back next time.
Don’t barge in
If there are a lot of people already playing your instrument in the jam, consider moving off to form another group. Banjo and bass players especially need to be sensitive to this as usually there is only one of each in a bluegrass group – it is just the nature of the these instruments.
Perhaps one banjo player might play chops while the other one rolls, or they make simply take turns to play, but it can be insensitive to sit down and expect to share.
If there is already a bass player in a jam session let them know you’re there and perhaps share the bass duties. The bass can be exhausting work in a jam (everyone but you gets to sit down) and having someone to swap out with so you can have a break and a chat is a good thing.
Listen and watch for a while before you sit down, that way you’ll pick up what is happening before you sit down.
In any event, take your time, be considerate, show willingness to listen and you will be gradually invited to contribute.
Suggest good jamming tunes
Good jamming songs are either simple songs, or a standards that many players know.
If you suggest a tune to jam on, it should be one that you personally know well, both chords and words. She who calls the song, sings the song. Also, make sure the song is appropriate to the jam. A group of relative beginners may not be keen to play a song they’ve never heard in the key of Q-minor and with 7 chords, and 4 separate parts.
If your new original song is simple and and gets a good reaction from people other than your mum, that’s fine. However when you added key modulations and oddball chords in the bridge to make it different from all the other songs out there, you blew its chances as a jamming song.
If there is one trick chord in an otherwise simple song, then yell out what it is – “there’s a Bb in the chorus” – and people can pick it up.
Stick to closely related genres. If you are in a bluegrassy jam, playing show tunes doesn’t show what a versatile player you are, it shows you don’t get it.
Don’t play “guess the song”
You are not a game show host. By all means, if the time is right, launch into a well known song, but starting to play and looking around expectantly for everybody to guess what the song is, well, that’s just as boring as that game show you secretly want to host.
Suggest a song by name unless it’s a well known standard and tell us the key. Then go for it and we will all be able to follow the first verse.
Lead from the front
If you started the song have the decency to lead it. Catch the eye of the next instrumentalist and nod to them and or verbally cue them when to go for it. Yell “Let’s hear some mandolin,” and everyone will know and thank you for it.
When playing in a jam you need to watch for those cues so you know what is happening and who is going to play next.
If you don’t want to take a break because they are all hot pickers and your fingers are sore, you could stare at the floor for a while, but it is way better just give the leader a slight shake of the head, and you will be skipped.
If you lead a song be prepared to play a strong rhythm to keep the group together. You may even have to skip your break (especially guitarists).
Don’t get stuck leading a song that won’t die. When it’s time to wrap it up, stick a leg out towards the middle in the internationally accepted bluegrass jam sign for the end is nigh.
When not to play
Playing in time is the most important thing – if you can’t manage it, or it is too fast, sit out for that song.
If it gets messy through too many instruments playing – don’t play for a while.
You don’t need to play at full volume all the time. When a quieter instrument like acoustic guitar is taking a lead break, or the vocalist is singing, play quietly or not at all.
There you are jamming away, having a great time and you look up and there is and an old friend from the last festival. Excited to see them, you ask them how the family are, what they ate for Christmas dinner, and relate the latest banjo joke. After telling them how your kids seem to have grown amazingly fast, and how terrible traffic was on the way here, you turn back to the jam only to find no – one is there. If this happens to you, learn from the experience.
If you really can’t keep your innocent chatter to the lull between songs, step right away from the jam for a bit.
Avoid banjo harassment
This is nothing to do with jamming. It is a personal plea snuck in from me, Pete Parnham. I am tired of banjo jokes and I don’t even play banjo. Watch the faces of the banjo players when you reach the punch line. Banjo jokes ceased being amusing around 1961. You are not original, we heard them all before. Give it a rest.
Don’t let your ego run away with you. For God’s sake, buy a tuner and use it. (That includes fiddle and bass players).
If someone offers to lend you a tuner, take it! Don’t dig the hole you are in any deeper.
Tuners ensure you are in tune, not just with yourself, but with everybody else without the agony of listening to other peoples extended tuning tweaking of the B string. It is polite to give others time and space to tune, and if they don’t have a tuner – old guys sometimes um.. forget – lend them yours.
It’s OK to leave.
Jams often have cycles. They start really well, so people join in, before you know it, there are twelve guitars, and it becomes a big ugly monster, the magic has gone, so people leave.
The trick is to leave your instrument case on the periphery so you can slip away without bashing someone’s precious Gibson as you valiantly heft your case over their heads.
Mutter something like “It’s been great but I gotta pee,” or drink, or sleep, or whatever. Go. It’s OK, nobody thinks you really have to do those things but you can hardly say “I am leaving now to go and see if I can find a better jam.” That would be bad music manners.
If somebody starts a bluegrass instrumental (often called fiddle tunes), usually it has a structure that everybody learns when they learn the tune.
In an instrumental the parts of the songs are referred to by letter in the order in which they first occur. The most common structure is AABB, that is, the A part is played twice, then the B part is played twice. Each player plays one sequence of AABB. For example, Whiskey for Breakfast has this structure.
Some tunes like Texas Gales have an AABBCC structure, and there are other structures like ABA. It is only usually mentioned when it is unusual or there is more than one way to play it. At any rate if someone says “this one is AABBCC” this is what they are talking about.
Break on a verse (usually)
In a song we don’t usually talk about ABCs but verses, chorus, and bridge. It is the same sort of thing.
A common structures is verse chorus, verse chorus. bridge, break over verse, chorus. However in the structure is often a lot looser according to how many people are playing and so on.
Usually breaks begin after a chorus so if you are given a break its generally safe to begin with a verse structure. It is common just to repeat that structure until the next round of singing which could be a verse a chorus or a bridge.
Vamping between verses
Before a vocal verse it is common to hold the tonic (the key) chord of the song for a couple of bars or so, while the vocalist gets their thoughts together.
Often for instrumental breaks that couple of bars falls away.
If you are taking a break it can be helpful to follow something close to the melody for a bar or two so everyone can home in on it.
Recognising chord sequences
If you are a guitarist, play the chords in obvious shapes so everyone can see. If you are not a guitarist learn to recognise basic guitar chords and keys.
Follow the guitarist’s chord shapes but not too much. The most important thing is to listen – especially if the bass player is any good as they will generally signal an upcoming change (once they are past the faking stage and actually know the song).
It’s bluegrass – so if you focus on listening you can often hear and anticipate where a chord is going just from the melody.
For chord instruments and bass players it sounds way better if you arrive the new chord on time, and if you wait for the guitarist then change chord to whatever they are doing it is too late. Watch for audio and visual signals they are about to change and anticipate.