Jam Session Etiquette
by Phil Leadbetter
Well, here we are in December, my last column of the year. It's unreal how time flies!
I want to use this month's column to discuss an area of picking that has no written rules, where knowing some of the unwritten guidelines will greatly enhance your enjoyment of participating in a jam session.
First of all, a "jam session" is a name for a gathering of pickers who get together to randomly play tunes. Usually, the tunes that are suggested by the participating musicians, but requests may come from people who are watching the jam session as spectators.
A jam session is a great place to become more comfortable with your instrument, as well as practice new licks and learn new solos. Jam sessions can be lots of fun, but they can also be very frustrating if not done right. This month I'll use this space to give you some pointers on how to make these things fun, and keep you from making enemies of the other pickers.
Here are some of the pointers or "hidden rules" of a jam session:
1. First of all, make sure you are in tune before you enter a jam session. By being "in tune", I mean you must make sure you are in tune with the other pickers in that particular jam session. Even though your guitar may be accurately "in tune", you may be tuned slightly lower or higher than those who are picking. Step away from the actual jam session while tuning your instrument. There is nothing worse than someone trying to tune right in the middle of your favorite song.
2. Be courteous. Make eye contact with the other pickers to determine who will be taking a solo. Usually a jam session will have a leader who will look at each player when its time for a solo. Don't try to take all the solos. Everyone likes to get their turn. When the other pickers are playing their solos, play your backups or fill-ins at a low volume so as not to take away from their solos. The main thing to remember here is to compliment the player who is soloing. Usually, "less is more" is the rule.
3. If a song is unfamiliar to you, it is generally wise to play softly while you are learning the tune, but even better not to play at all for the first 2 -3 rounds of a song. This gives you time to listen to the chord changes and how the song is arranged. If you don't feel comfortable with the tune, nobody will get mad if you just pass on taking a solo. You are not required to play one. It's a good idea to bring a tape recorder to record the jam session. That way, you can take the tape home and practice while learning these new tunes. You will find that the same tunes seem to be played at some time in most jam sessions. It's good to have a "memory library" of commonly played tunes so that you'll be better prepared in the future.
4. Be sure that you distinguish between a "jam session" and an ACTUAL band that might be rehearsing. I can't tell you the number of times I have seen musicians jump right into an actual band's rehearsal thinking it was a "jam session". This can be pretty embarrassing, but it often happens. You should ALWAYS ask if you can join in on a jam session. It's just a common courtesy that will save you lots of headaches, and keep you from losing friends.
5. When suggesting tunes at a jam session, it is usually best to stick with tunes people know. Most people at jam sessions aren't going to be very happy if you insist on playing tunes that you have written or that are unfamiliar to them. Very complicated tunes, or tunes with lots of chord changes are usually not a good idea either. It's OK to suggest these tunes and try them out, but don't persist if the pickers can't get the hang of the tune. After a while, it's best to give up and go on to another tune if the pickers are having a hard time playing the song. It will keep everyone from getting frustrated, including you. It is certainly OK to bring new tunes to a jam session; just don't beat them to death trying to learn the song, or keep pressing the issue if the group doesn't want to play it. After all, a jam session should be fun!
6. Never use a jam session as a place to show off or outdo the other players. This is not the place for competition. Jam sessions should be relaxed. As I said earlier, they should be fun! It is best not to enter a jam session if someone else in that particular session is already playing the exact same instrument as you. If there is already a resonator guitar player in the jam, for example, sometimes it's best to sit back and watch that player play his guitar. You'll be surprised at how much you can learn by just sitting back and watching other players. You can learn the proper things to do, as well as seeing good examples of what NOT to do.
7. Be respectful of other pickers. From time to time, you are going to be in a jam session where there will be a picker who isn't up to par. Show courtesy to these players as well. You should never laugh at these players or make fun of them. Believe me- you will be in a situation one day where you are the less-skilled picker in a jam. You will be happy when the other players return the favor of not making you feel inadequate. Nothing can been more harmful than making fun of another player who is still trying to learn. We were all beginners at one time, and should never forget those who were courteous to us when we were learning the ropes. You never know, the next time you see that once novice player, you just might be asking them for advice. I have seen this happen. You just never know.
The main thing with jams as I said earlier is just to have fun! Don't make it work for yourself or those who are picking with you. Always remember, you want to be invited back to pick again. Remember these rules and you will greatly increase your chances of getting that invitation!
I hope you have a great Christmas. I'll see you next year!!!