Mike Moxcey ©2005


Jamming can mean many different things.

But it mainly means improvisation, making new things up, using your imagination.

Jamming can be just improvising by yourself on a song. I generally use it to mean playing with other people. But “playing” in the fun sense of the word, not rehearsing and rehashing the same song but coming up with something new. Of course, you need to know the melody before you can improvise around it and everyone has to play the same chords (or similar ones) over the same rhythms to form a bed of sound over which the soloist or two or three can improvise.

Jamming can also mean cluttering up radio signals so you can’t make sense of their sound and that connotation often arises in jam sessions, too. That’s okay. You can’t make music without occasionally just making noise.

Your First Jam Session

The first time you improvise on a song, or more likely make a mistake and cover it up or even do it again so it doesn’t sound like a mistake, that’s jamming. But it’s not a “session” unless it’s done with other people. If you play music with a friend, then that would be a jam session. Because he or she is your friend, it’s probably comfortable and you don’t even think of it as a jam session, just having fun.

That’s what a jam session is supposed to be: Having fun.

At a regular jam (as opposed to a beginner jam), the rest of the musicians are keeping the time and playing the tune. All you've got to do is sit in the back and try to keep time quietly. Beginners aren't expected to contribute. This is a lot different than sitting in front of a teacher (an expert in your mind) and playing by yourself or even playing along with an expert.
Nobody shines in that situation; everyone feels uncomfortable; it's not a jam.

I don't think going to a beginner jam so you know they'll put you on the spot is necessarily a good thing. Go to a regular jam, sit in the back, and play quietly. It's far more relaxing than any lesson. You'll still feel uncomfortable, but it won't be like a sinner going to church to get judged by experts; it'll be more like the discomfort at the first day of work at a new job where everyone knows you're new and everyone will offer some advice and some of the folks will even offer worthwhile advice, but you won't know what's what or who's who for quite awhile but at least there aren't a lot of expectations and you'll get a paycheck at the end of the week.

Necessary Skills

You are ready for your first jam session when you can play 10 or 20 songs through several times without losing the rhythm. If you miss a chord or form a bad one, it doesn’t matter as long as you don’t mess up the rhythm. It also helps if you can play quietly. You don’t need to be able to play the melody but it helps. You don’t need to be able to sing, but you can if you want.

You ought to know at least 10 chords and have a capo if you’ve got a banjo or guitar. On a mandolin, you’ll need to know the basic chord forms (4-finger chords) and move them around on the neck. The dobro and autoharp are special cases.

It helps to be able to hear how you sound, but that’s a skill that is often learned quicker at jams than while playing by yourself.

Types of Jams

Going into the first jam session with strangers can be really frightening. You don’t know if you’re good enough, if you’ll know the songs, or if they’ll like you. It’s like any new situation. The analogy of a jam as a conversation between people holds up through all kinds of jams.

Just as there are different types of conversations, there are all varieties of jams. Some are open to newcomers just like a bar argument about the local sports teams or the weather. Some are only for experts such as talks about muons in a college corridor or a barroom discussion of the relative merits of a hemi versus a straight head piston. You can listen but don’t join in unless you know what they’re really talking about.

Look for advertisements for jams on the bulletin board at music stores. Those are almost always open to newcomers.

Joining a Jam Session

Some jams are open to beginners; some aren't. Many times the best way for a beginner to join a jam is to view it as a process, not a one-time deal.

Show up with your instrument in its case and listen to the music. Someone may come over and invite you in.

If they don’t but it sounds like music you could play, then
  1. you can ask someone if it’s okay to join in or
  2. you can get out your instrument and
    1. join in or
    2. sit way outside the circle and just play along quietly.

Some people think you should always ask, but in the hundreds of jam sessions I’ve been to, only a few have had actual leaders (and I’ve never liked those anyway—does a conversation have a leader?). Most jams are collections of folks who know each other and newcomers. Since you’re new, you don’t know who the right person to ask is.

If the music seems like you could play it, then treat it like a conversation and speak up.

But don’t be obnoxious—loud, out of time, out of tune, off-key. Be polite and listen to the others and see if you’re making things better or at least not making things worse.

If they ask you to quiet down, do it They’re open to training newcomers in the art of jamming.

If someone gets mad at you and tells you to quit, then leave. You don’t want to hang out with that type of person anyway. But come back to the next jam. That person may not be there or he may be in a better mood. Don’t write off a jam until you’ve gone to it at least three different times. The personnel usually changes.

If you keep coming back often enough, you'll become a regular. People will talk to you and may ask to you to come up front. This will also occur because you're getting better and getting used to the tunes that the jammers play. This can also happen if you stay late enough and the jam thins out. Making a judgment on a jam based on one visit is not a good idea because they change depending on the players. Another thing that may happen if you show up often enough and sit quietly playing along is that some other beginners may sit next to you and you'll make some new friends and maybe start your own jam.

How a Jam Works

These are just general rules. Every jam is different and even the “same” jam is different on different days depending on who shows up and what mood everyone is in.
  1. Usually, all the folks stand or sit in a circle so they can all hear each other.
  2. The choice of the song is often spread around the circle, usually just going around from one person to the next.
  3. The person who chooses the song kicks it off or tells someone else to. They are the current “leader of the song” and sing it and tell folks who’s got the lead with a nod of the head or a stare or something. If they don’t signal, the leads usually just go around the circle. The leader signals the end of the song with a foot in the air or a jump or something. Often, he or she does the final break on an instrumental or you can hear that the singers are ending by taking a second chorus.

Skills Needed to Jam

Below is a list of skills you may find useful for attending a jam.

1. Getting in the Circle

Sometimes pickers will get so excited and focused on the song they're doing and not realize others have joined the jam. Don’t take it to heart, just wait your turn. Some people don’t like jams with more than 8 or 12 people, or don’t like two banjos or two fiddles. Don’t take offense. Just hang out and enjoy. Eventually, a group of folks will quit because they’re tired, thirsty or have to go to the bathroom. Then there will be room for you and you’ll be warmed up.

2. Choosing a Song

Sometimes the choice of song isn’t spread fairly around the circle. Often, newcomers will feel uncomfortable starting a song so someone else will. Sometimes you have to let people get some nervousness out by playing a few songs in a row. Let them warm up. Your turn will come (whether you want it to or not).

3. Taking a Lead

When you join a new jam, don't come in full throttle. Hang out playing backup and see if the nod for a lead comes to you. If it doesn't after a few times, jump in with the start of a lead or some cool fill-in licks to let the folks know you're available. Sometimes people don't want to put you on the spot by asking if you want a lead. They're being nice, not standoffish.

4. Leading a Song

If it’s your turn to lead a song, you can beg off, but if the musicians seem friendly, go for it. The only way you learn is to mess up. Choose a song you’re comfortable with. Announce the name of the song and the key. If folks have to change capos, wait for them. Be ready to explain the chords and structure (verse/chorus/bridge) of the tune. You may not need to if you’re the only newcomer, but be prepared. Start the song off, sing it, nod the leads around, and take it home (end the song).

Lead a song even once and you'll realize that the leaders of a jam song have a lot going on to make things work smooth. Help them out by not taking offense. It's not easy to hit the grand finale of your break while also looking around to see if anyone else is ready to take a break, especially when they're all looking at their own fretboards. That's one reason why it's easier to go around the circle, but sometimes you want to break things up instead of having four banjo breaks in a row.

Song Choice

Start off introducing easy songs. It gets you warmed up and lets you feel out the capabilities of the other pickers. If you introduce some funky tune with easy chords, most people will try it. If you introduce some traditional but uncommon bluegrass/old-time song with extremely difficult chords, people will think you're being a showoff.

Make a List

In the excitement of a jam, it’s easy to forget the songs you know when asked to lead one off. Make a set list just like a performance band would. Have the name of the tune, the key you play it in, and indicate if you use a capo on a specific fret. If you’re singing, it sometimes helps to write the first few words to each verse. Write it big enough to read.

Some jams frown on having music. Many don’t care. Whatever works to make music is good. One problem with bringing music is that it becomes a crutch and you’re not really playing the song. The advantage is that you don’t need to memorize the chords. But memorization leaves you free to listen to what’s going on.

I’ve found that beginners shouldn’t bring music. Memorize the songs you want to lead. Know them cold. If someone else has music, then you’re going to spend a lot of effort reading when you could be playing and listening. Experienced pickers can play from sheet music and still listen to what’s going on because of all their experience.

A beginner needs to learn to get rid of the crutches. Bring the minimum needed to get you through the song. A chord chart and first word to every verse ought to be the starting point. Nothing at all can be the end of the process.

Save Your Best

As jams progress into the evening, they often get better as the same folks keep picking together and getting used to each other. If you start off with your newest, trickiest break and foul it up, you'll be upset and think everyone thinks you're incompetent. If you wait until later you'll be more warmed up and when you foul it up royally, you'll know you're all just having fun together.

Relax. Smile a lot. Put the other folks at ease by not being uptight yourself. It’s just music.
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