Jam Etiquette

You've been looking forward to do some picking for a whole week and tonight is the night. Usually it's a lot of fun, sometimes not. Here's how you can make sure each time is a great time:
  • Every one, regardless of musical ability, should be invited and encouraged to join the jam circle.
  • The circle - stagger the players so there's balance and variety: don't have two of the same instruments standing next to each other.
  • Keep your eye out - make room for new players so they can enter the circle at any time and feel welcome to do so.
  • Too many of the same instruments? Tag team time: leave the circle after playing a few tunes and encourage a sideliner to take your place.
  • Every one in the circle plays the same tune or song at the same time.
  • Announce the song's key before starting each tune or song.
  • Announce the chords if someone is not familiar with the tune.
  • Breaks go around clock-wise. Each player, regardless of musical ability, gets a turn.
  • The tune, or song, is not finished until each musician in the circle gets a break.
  • Players may skip their turn at a break at their discretion - not at the discretion of others. Signal your pass by taking a step back or shake your head.
  • Passing your turn means passing your turn for this break only - a new turn comes up with each rotation around the circle.
  • If a player falters during a break: he/she is allowed the opportunity to recover before the next player in the circle takes over. Other players keep the song going while the breaker tries to recover - a "miss" is never a strike-out. Once recovered, the break reverts back to the original player.
  • Players should clearly signal the next player in the circle if they want him/her to take over.
  • Other players lower their volume while some one takes a break. Pay particular attention to lower volume instruments like dobros, dulcimers, open back banjos etc.
  • When the player next to you does not know the chords and you do: tell them quietly.
  • Groups that have split off from the circle should sit/stand far away enough and lower the volume of their playing so they don't interfere with the circle.
  • Anyone playing along who is not in the circle does so at a lower volume and does not "compete" with the circle.
  • Jams are not freebie music lessons. Don't ask other players how to play a certain lick during a jam. Save it for a one-on-one lick trading session later, or a workshop.
  • Make sure not all songs are hundred mile an hour instrumentals, allow for a change of pace and pick a few slower ones to give every one a breather.
  • Tune your instruments! If your instrument is out of tune it'll drive other players bonkers and easily distracts them into playing mistakes. If you don't know how to tune, ask someone to help you or buy an electronic tuner-they are easy to use gadgets you can pick up for as little as about twenty dollars and up and properly tuned instruments simply sound better.
  • Jams are not closed band practice sessions, no one gets excluded by weird tunes nobody but a select few know.
  • A portion of the jam gets allocated to be beginner-friendly to encourage sideliners to become more proficient players and to afford them the opportunity to apply newly learned tunes/skills/licks.

Food for thought: "a person with whom one shares close ties of liking," or: "a person who is often in the company of another," or: "a person whom one knows casually." Guess what, these are the dictionary definitions of the word friend - treat your fellow jammers accordingly and enjoy!

Latest update Feb 24, 2004. I've had a lot of comments on this article. Non-profit clubs or organizations may freely reprint it, no need to ask for permission.

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Copyright 2001 Bart Veerman

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