Jam Etiquette By Jim Crowley, WBA Gazette Editor
A bluegrass jam is a great opportunity for people to get together and play music. A jam session can be great fun, and a great way to make new friends, or it can be frustrating and aggravating. Every jam is different, but every fun and succesful jam has has an unspoken (usually) set of rules or conduct that makes it work. Here is a basic set of guidelines for playing at jams, for both the novice, and the experienced jammer to consider:
Tune your instrument to standard pitch. Most people these days use electronic tuners. If you don't have one, you can borrow one for a few minutes. Tuning at a jam is done before the playing starts
Take turns leading a song. The most common thing at jams is for each person to choose a song to play in turn either going clockwise or counter-clockwise around the circle. At some jams, there is a jam leader or host who "conducts" the jam and chooses people, but this is rare. When it's your turn, tell everyone the name of the song and what key it's in. It's also common to tell everyone if something odd happens in the song like "The off chord in the chorus is a Bm". At some jams, the song leader takes a minute to show the chord changes to people who don't know the song.
Listen and watch the other players. The key to making good music at a jam is to listen to the song being played by all the others instead of listening to your own playing. Keeping eye contact with the other players lets you know where the song is going, if it's time for a lead break, or time to end the song. Dobro players take note: look up once in a while.
Keep the beat. Timing is everything.
Know when not to play. Back off when the singer is singing, or when someone is taking a lead break. It's OK to completely stop playing and just listen during a song, especially in a large jam.
Play familiar, simple songs. Complex songs that can't be picked up "on the fly" by the other players are known as "jam-busters". Pick songs that everyone can enjoy, and save the "fancy stuff" for times when you're with people who also know the songs.
Noodle between songs. Noodling is the habit of continuing to play licks in between songs. It's very distracting to the other players and can really slow up a jam. Sit on your hands between songs, until the song starts.
Steal the show. Playing on top of another player's solo is bad manners unless you have permission to play a harmony part from the person playing his/her solo. Play quiet rhythm backup while another person takes a break. This is especially true for banjo players who consider their rolls to be backup. Try to just vamp or chop the rhythm chords so that you're not playing over the break. Fiddle players should never play the melody along with the singer.
Play too loud. Don't play so loud that you're drowning out the lead singer or the person taking a break. Some instruments are naturally loud, and some players need to learn to play softly. Play your instrument so that it blends in and allows the other instruments and singer to be heard.
Hog the Show. In a jam, everyone takes turns picking and leading a song. Don't start a song when it's not your turn. At most jams, people will be in a circle, and the turn passes to the person sitting next to the last person who picked a song. The person who starts a tune usually ends it. Everyone should get a chance to play a break before ending the song.
Play out of tune. Instruments will get out of tune during a jam. If you have to stop and tune, it's good manners to step out of the circle to retune, unless everyone agrees to take a tuning break.
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