Jams are the lingua franca of bluegrass. Anyone involved in bluegrass has participated in jams – either as a picker or a listener. In fact, jams are so captivating for many folks that they never leave the campsite at a bluegrass festival despite paying several hundred dollars for admission to see the show on the main stage.
In this post, we will cover the basics of jamming, including the types of typical jams, jam etiquette and how you should (or should not) participate in a particular jam. If you are new to bluegrass music – either a beginning picker or an experienced musician coming from another form of music, I’d suggest you read this blog post. On the other hand, if you have been around bluegrass for a while, you can probably skip this post, as this material will be highly familiar to you.
First and foremost, knowledge of basic jam etiquette is essential before entering a bluegrass jam (even if you choose to ignore itJ). It consists of a few simple things:
1) ASSESS THE JAM FIRST
Try to assess the jam from the point of view of a listener before joining in. Sit out for a couple of tunes – this will allow you to assess the level and type of the jam (see below) and the friendliness of the pickers. If the jammers seem like they are more advanced than you, I would not necessarily urge you to walk away – jamming with better musicians is a sure way to improve. But knowing this ahead of time will give you hints on how to behave in the jam and how humble you should be in your approach to the situation.
2) ASK (OR WAIT TO BE ASKED) BEFORE JUMPING IN
Ask if it is OK to join instead of just whipping out your instrument and foisting yourself on the other musicians. This will endear you to the people in the jam as well as avoid any misunderstandings that the jam may be private. If the answer is “yes, you can join,” pay close attention to the body language. The word “no” is almost never used in the bluegrass community, and a “yes” with a couple grunts or people looking away from you might really mean “no, this is not an open jam.” Another interpretation of grunting might be “I have heard you play, and I think you suck compared to us” (which might or might not be true). Either interpretation is a bad sign but note that there is nothing inherently wrong with ignoring an implied “no” and joining the jam anyway. I have joined many jams where the musicians were a bit cold to me initially but warmed up considerably once they saw I had decent chops. But if you get an implied “no” it is best to carefully consider your options – the best course of action might be to find another, more friendly jam.
3) MAKE SURE YOU ARE IN TUNE
Nothing is worse than having somebody sit next to you in a jam and be out of tune. It’s as if your jam-mate forgot to apply deodorant this morning. A sin that ranks a close second is having a banjo being loudly tuned in your ear while you are trying to sing. Tune your instrument (with an electronic tuner) while pointed away from other pickers, preferably between songs. It’s common courtesy.
4) AVOID JAM-BUSTERS (AT LEAST INITIALLY)
A “jam-buster” is a song with a complex chord structure that other people are unlikely to know. When it comes to your turn to call a tune, don’t choose “Flight of the Bumblebee” even if you have practiced it incessantly in preparation for playing in front of your adoring public! Instead, choose something others probably know and kick it off at a reasonable speed.
5) WATCH YOUR VOLUME
One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is not being sensitive to their volume levels. This can especially be true if you play the banjo – most of the volume comes out the front of the instrument and beginning players are often not sensitive to the fact that relatively little volume is reaching the player’s ear even though listeners and fellow pickers are being blasted at high decibels. Nothing ruins a jam faster than escalating volume levels – if you are playing extra loud others will try to match your volume and the result can be cacophonous.
A cardinal rule of jamming (and playing in a band, for that matter) is to think about listening more than you are thinking about playing. This might seem obvious, but it is hard to do, especially for beginners. Listen to the volume levels of others and how that compares to what you are playing (as described in the paragraph above). Listen for other people filling (during vocals) and make sure you aren’t conflicting. Listen to the developing groove and syncopation and try to fit your backup and lead notes into that groove. Listen to the vocal blend and how people are pronouncing and timing their words (if you are singing harmony).
And oh, by the way, please don’t sing along with a part that has already been covered by someone else in the jam!
7) LOOK FOR A BALANCED JAM
Some jams consist of just one of each type of instrument: one banjo, one bass, one guitar, one fiddle, one mandolin and maybe one Dobro™. This will be described more fully below but if you already see a banjo player in a jam and you want to join with a second banjo, it is good to be extra cautious. The best music is often made with a single instrument of each type (exceptions for highly coordinated “double” breaks such as twin fiddles) and you could be ruining a “perfect” jam by joining with a second banjo, mandolin or guitar. Just make sure the other person playing the same instrument as you are is OK with you joining as a “second” and you will be fine. Now, on the other hand, if you find a jam where your particular instrument is missing from the lineup, you’ll be especially welcomed!
There are several distinct types of jams, and it is important that you understand the distinction between them. Many are private or semi-private affairs but there won’t be a sign out front saying, “keep out”. Others are open to all comers and all pickers at levels are welcome. Some ensembles, which look like jams may, instead, actually be a band warming up for a stage show or conducting a formal band practice. So, as mentioned above, it is always best to try to assess what type of jam is happening before you jump in. The following is a very rough taxonomy on the various types of jams you might find in a bluegrass festival or other musical events:
THE OPEN JAM
If a jam is advertised on social media or otherwise publicized, you can assume it is an open one. If you are wandering around a festival and see a relatively loose configuration of many different types of instruments – say multiple guitars and several harmonicas, you can be pretty sure it is open, and you will be welcomed.
PRIVATE OR SEMI-PRIVATE JAMS
If you see several people jamming in a tight circle and they have their backs to you, beware: this might be a “private” jam. Watch for any signs of welcoming – if you are carrying your instrument in its case, it will be obvious what your intent is. You won’t have to ask to be invited in – if they really want you to pick, they will let you know. If the body language of the jammers remains “closed off” then be extra cautious in joining in – it might be better to look for another jam.
BAND MEMBERS JAMMING
Often times, in a festival campsite, you will see members of a band jamming together. This is not necessarily a private jam, but it might be, and it would be worth finding out by asking, “is this a jam or are you guys practicing?” Some of the best jamming happens where several of the members of a jam have played together extensively – the years of experience playing together leads to a common sense of rhythm and melody and a good groove. If you are invited into such a jam, it is your task to try to fit to their groove, and not to try to impose your sense of rhythm on them. It can be a great learning experience for advancing musicians, but please be humble and sensitive.
Pay close attention to any regional variations in jamming practices. Jamming on the east coast is far different from that on the west coast. There can even be jamming practices at festivals within a geographic region that differ. Below is a rough taxonomy to help think about what kind of jam you might be witnessing:
Some jams consist of a huge circle where everybody gets a turn to call a song and everybody gets a break (this is typical in the Pacific Northwest, for example). These jams are almost always open jams, and everybody is welcome. The downside of such a jam is that the circle can become huge and if everybody is playing breaks it takes a while to get around the circle. To me, it gets pretty boring to hear yet another break to (say) Big Sandy River after the 20th time. To join such a jam, just pull up a chair (everybody is usually sitting in such a jam) and people will make room. The key point in such a jam is not to go out of turn either with calling a song or taking a break and you will probably be OK (if you don’t fall asleep waiting for your turn to take a break).
LAYERS OF AN ONION JAM:
A second type of jam is composed of four or five “key” people (typically in the center of the jam) who call all the shots and take all the breaks. Other people are arranged around the core similar to layers of an onion (with the more accomplished / more confident players near the center and the beginners at the periphery). If you find yourself in such a jam and you have good chops, it is best to position yourself as close as possible to the core people in the center and, eventually you’ll get a nod to take a break. If you can demonstrate your prowess during your break, you’ll be invited into the core. If not, you can continue to play quietly on the periphery until you either get bored or invited in. An especially confident musician could have a strategy of working themselves in, close to the core, and calling a song. If you try this you might be ignored, or one of the core members will kick off your chosen song. Again, what happens next depends on how accurate you are with assessing your level of bluegrass prowess as compared to those in the core.
THE BALANCED JAM REVISITED
Finding a balanced jam is nirvana to a bluegrass musician. The music works best when there is one bass (of course), one rhythm guitar (Ralph Stanley excepted), one banjo laying down a nice lilty roll, one mandolin giving a single interpretation of the back-beat chop and one fiddle tying things together with long, smooth bowstrokes. You’ll also find only the necessary complement of singers participating in a balanced jam – one singing lead, one singing the tenor part and one singing a baritone line. Others that could potentially sing lead or harmony lines will be quiet if someone else is taking that particular part. As mentioned above, if you happen upon such a balanced jam, my only request is that you respect what is going on there and, if invited in, listen especially carefully to how the other instruments are complementing each other and try to fit in the best you can. Or better yet, sit out and wait until the person playing your instrument gives you a turn.