Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jam Etiquette

Recently, I had the great pleasure of attending a big ukulele festival in Canada.

While at this festival I witnessed a few things which encouraged me to write this

For many beginning and Intermediate 
Jammers, lessons can be hard won, as no one has ever told them how to jam
Or that there is an etiquette which lends itself to playing well with others.

As with most music festivals, be they folk, blues, bluegrass or dance camps, the opportunity to jam with others is a huge draw for most attendees.

 All jam sessions are not created equal.

The ones when everything goes right, can often live on in the memory books for years to come.

For every great jam that I have taken part in, I have witnessed 2 or 3 mediocre jams or failed jams.

Before I tell you what makes a jam successful let me first mention a couple of common pitfalls that can really sidetrack the best way-laid intentions.

1) one strong leader who doesn't know how to share the load. While many people appreciate his willingness to lead the group, he should be empowering others to step up and lead a song or two 
In order to keep things moving along.

Think about what a healthy Democracy looks like to you and that's what a good jam should feel like.

2) Sometimes a small circle of talented musicians will hijack the direction of the jam and often they'll start playing tunes that are too complicated for the majority of the participants. 

These are folks who aren't thinking about whats good for the group as a whole.

I see this happen alot with Uke players who like to play standards. 

Sure everyone knows Five Foot Two and All of Me, but you'll loose em right quick with Stardust and Dream A Little Dream.

This often happens at old time and bluegrass jams when the big boys start playing obscure fiddle tunes that no one else knows. It leaves others feeling left out since most can't figure out melodies right on the spot.

The goal should be to find tunes or songs that everyone knows well or songs that are fun and easy to pick up which are 2, 3, 4, and occasionally 5 chord tunes, with the vast majority being 3 chord songs.

Many jammers need to learn how to play by ear and transpose among other things that might otherwise make it hard for them to jump right in on a song without sheet music in front of them. 

Most are comfortable with the keys of: F, C, G, D and A.

3) Cutting others off or publicly criticizing others delivery. Yep! I have seen this more times then I care to mention. Hard to believe I know; but egos know no bounds when it comes to jams and many beginners walk on egg-shells, they are fragile, and already insecure about the notion of whether they are good enough, it doesn't take much to discourage them.

So it's our job to see to it that a positive jam stays uplifting and doesn't regress into anarchy.

Often, what will happen is someone will start a tune then another will jump in and cut the other person off or Segway into a different tune without a courteous transition.

Here's how you'll know you are at a good jam:

1) People take turns leading songs.

(No one likes a song-circle bogart!)

2) Those leading songs will call out the titles, keys and chords before starting a tune.

3) The group will sit in a circle where everyone can see each other and eye contact is obvious amongst players.

4) Jam speed is compatible with the skill level of the given group.

5) Those who have instrumental skills are encouraged to take solos but no one is put on the spot too often or asked to play something outside their skill level.

No one is told to take it, when they are obviously not soloists.

Even good pickers don't always want to be called on to solo constantly.

6) jammers network and share resources with one another.

7) When a song is started the leader will count it off so everyone can come in at the same time. Likewise, when a song is coming to an end the leader puts his or her foot up in the air or indicates in some verbal or non-verbal manner that the song is coming to an end.

 The Bottom line is, If you are watching the song leader, generally, you'll know when the song is going to end.

8) When someone takes a solo, the group as a whole shall quiet down so that the solo can be heard. 

9) Talking amongst non-jammers shall be a whisper or unheard. A jam is a place where we come forth to sing, listen, play along with others and generally practice learning how to be a good musician. 

If non-jammers are talking loudly during a song kindly ask them to quiet down or move along.

10) While jams are often the place that beg for time tested favorites, new songs are welcome if they are presented in the right way...

A) Give the key, style, title, chords.
B) Tell folks something about the tune that might interest them. 
C) If the song has a singable chorus or bridge, start by teaching that first so everyone has a vested interest.
D) keep it simple.
E) humorous songs are always welcome.

11) If there are kids, try to include them, encourage them, and keep the choice of material clean. 

12) In a good Jam, members are encouraging of one another and often
Complimentary of one another's delivery.

We all like to be told that we did a good job. Why not help instill in others a sense 
Of confidence and a willingness to continue on their path as we all seek to play well with others.

Alright! Go forth and jam!

Lil Rev


  1. Interesting post, really good, thank you! I've never taken part in a jam, never had the opportunity...... one day, I hope! :)

  2. We have just set up a monthly ukulele jam session here in Morristown NJ. Thanks for sharing your insights! We taking them to heart!

  3. This is a great article and covers a lot of issues I've never thought of. I will keep these in mind when I am fortunate enough to attend one.


                                                                   Lil Rev @ Sam Ash in Clearwater, FL                                      ...