Playing in a jam is one of the best things about being a musician in my opinion. Meeting up with other musicians to pass around songs and learn from friends / strangers is why most of us play music.
Below are some guidelines to help you participate in a jam – these tips are focused around bluegrass circles but generally work in other similar styles of jams. A good rule of thumb is to act how you want others to act towards you.
1. Song choice (almost) always goes to the left of the circle. I don’t know why left – it just is. You are allowed to pass, but if you’re going to the jam – you should try calling at least 1 tune.
2. If you choose the song, you are the leader. This means you need to sing loud enough for everyone to hear, make sure that breaks stay on time and over the right part (i.e. soloing over verse or chorus etc) and etc.
3. No jam busters. Generally a jam buster is any song that has too many chords or odd chord changes for someone to learn on the fly. If you’re not sure if your tune is a jam buster, just ask (though if you have to ask, it probably is).
4. Originals are likely okay – but jams are NOT open mic nights. If original songs are allowed at the jam (always ask the host) it should follow the jam type (i.e. be bluegrassy in a bluegrass jam, bluesy in blues jams etc) and of course cannot be a jam buster. Ask the jam host if you’re not sure.
5. Call out chords if the group is unfamiliar with a tune. If you are calling an uncommon tune that is not a jam buster, call out the chords and play “cowboy chords” (simple open chords) so others can follow your changes. If it’s too hard to do this, the song is probably a jam buster. Also, if you aren’t familiar with a tune but the group is, it’s okay to ask someone near you for help or just sit out for a song.
6. If you don’t like a song, smile and play along or keep your mouth shut and walk away. Jams are a place for everyone to share songs they like – and sometimes what one person loves, another hates. If you don’t like the song, just smile and play along because that’s the nice thing to do. If you just can’t play nice, just walk away and get a beer or something.
7. Solos pass to the left starting with the singer UNLESS the singer clearly asks someone else to solo instead. Keep your eye on the singer for the next soloist and keep in mind, even if you’re “next” in the circle, there can be reasons the singer / song leader decides to shift solos out of order – for example, if there are 3 guitarists in a row, the singer may want to break up that block with a different instrument. If you get skipped, don’t fret (pun!), they will come back to you.
8. Unless otherwise directed by the singer, solos should only be one verse or verse / chorus (depending on the tune).
9. If you do not plan to solo on a particular song, make sure the person to your left knows in advance. DO NOT wait until it’s your turn to solo to pass as that just messes up the next person. Best bet, just lean over and tell your neighbor you plan to pass immediately.
10. Don’t play over others or over the vocals. When it’s not your turn to take a solo, just play strong rhythms and enjoy listening to your friends in the jam.
11. Keep mid song noodling to a minimum. When a song is being chosen, listen to the song leader for the song name, key, and any oddities in the tune (like “this goes to the 4 at the end” or “watch the change in the chorus” etc). No one likes to repeat themselves because someone was noodling while they explained the tune.
12. If you can’t hear the singer or soloist, play quieter. Listening to others is the entire reason the jam exists. Enjoy your friends playing.
13. Respect the hosting venue. That means buying drinks / food there instead of bringing your own. Promoting the jam on your social media pages. Tagging the venue in your pictures / videos etc. Inviting friends. Above all, respect the rules of the jam laid out by the host and the venue and always be nice to wait staff and bartenders. The better the venue does during the jam, the more often we can jam at that venue. Also, most often jam hosts aren’t paid – buying them a beer and saying “thank you” is a nice thing to do when you can.
If you have questions on what is or is not allowed at a particular jam, just ask the host.