Disclaimer: The opinions offered in this article are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else (such as, the Board of Directors or membership of SWBA). Further and for the record, the author freely acknowledging participating in jams during which he and/or others did indeed fail to follow one, or more of the features of jam etiquette discussed below.
What is a bluegrass jam?
A bluegrass jam, or any kind of jam for that matter, is an event in which musicians come together to play and sing unrehearsed music with and for each other. They may, or may not, know each other in advance—often in a given jam some do know each other, while some don’t. They may have different levels of experience and/or ability for playing, or singing, or both. There may be observers, an audience of sorts, but the main thing for those jamming is having fun playing music together.
Pickers and grinners: When it comes to the matter of jam etiquette, then, there are those guidelines that apply to the musicians (pickers) and those that apply to the listeners (grinners). And each are there to help with the goal of jamming, in the first place.
Primary goal of a bluegrass jam
Given what a bluegrass jam is in the first place, it’s easy to see that the primary goal is having fun making music together. It’s an opportunity for musicians to play together. Simple as that.
The reason for jam etiquette, rules, guidelines, whatever
And the reason for any sort of etiquette, guidelines, or rules for behavior in a jam, is to make it easier for that goal to be achieved. Simple as that. Some of them apply primarily to the jammers (pickers), the musicians singing and playing, while others apply to those listening (grinners). They all have to do with achieving the goal of jamming: Having fun playing and singing bluegrass music.
If a group of musicians, some who may know each other and some who may not, and some of whom may have different levels of musical ability, come together to jam, and if they have some idea in advance about what’s expected, they can get down to the business of playing together without preliminary discussion, or negotiation about how they should proceed. And that makes it an easier, more enjoyable experience.
Which is NOT to say that such discussions won’t occur, because sometimes they do, for various reasons. But having a basic understanding of what is going on in a jam helps facilitate the playing and even helps any discussion that may be arise.
Variations in jam etiquette
There are lots of opinions, ideas, suggestions, commands, directives, etc. regarding bluegrass jamming and how to participate. And while some might be rather dictatorial, insisting that the rules, or standards, or whatever, that apply to jams and jamming absolutely must be followed, the simple fact is that it depends…it depends on what kind of jam it is, it depends upon who is playing in the jam, it depends on the phase of the moon, time of day, etc.
For example, some will say ONLY bluegrass can be played in a bluegrass jam…but, guess what, there are differing opinions about what constitutes bluegrass (is it only “traditional” or can it include “contemporary,” or “progressive” bluegrass?), AND some folks in some jams are willing to include folk music, or Old Time music, or Country-And-Western music, or even Bluegrass-style renditions of popular tunes and songs.
For another example, some will say that ONLY certain acoustic instruments (such as guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, resonator slide guitar, and violin) can be used in a bluegrass jam… But, again, that can vary, and sometimes an autoharp, or a harmonica, or hybrid instruments like a “banjolin” (banjo mandolin), or an amplified base, or a hammered dulcimer, or even an accordion will find it’s way into a jam.
So not all jams are the same. Consequently, not every jam follows exactly the same etiquette. It all depends on who’s in the jam and what they collectively find acceptable.
And probably the most important thing is being aware of the major goal for jamming (having fun making music together), and from there what the range of expectations and preferences are that serve that purpose.
In other words, while it’s beneficial to know the general etiquette that most follow in a jam, it’s also important to get a sense of what’s expected, accepted and being done in a specific jam, especially if it involves musicians one has never played with before. And probably the best way to do this is to listen and observe, and when appropriate ask questions.
General jam guidelines: For Pickers
Though there are different jams with different players using different guidelines, there are some features that tend to occur in all discussions of jam etiquette. Here are several of these common features.
How jams are organized and run: All the jam etiquette discussions emphasize the idea that jams are run in a manner that gives everybody the best opportunity to participate. To accomplish this, jams generally have:
Some jams have a leader, someone who oversees the functioning of the jam (this person is not the same as the song leader discussed below). But others jams don’t. If there is a leader, it may be the person at whose site the jam is taking place.
One additional reason for knowing about the jam guidelines it to understand what’s happening at jams where there is no clearly identified leader.
Jammers in a circle:
Some prefer standing, while others prefer sitting, but either way the players arrange themselves in a circle so they can see and hear each other as they play.
How big should the circle be?
That depends on the preferences of the players. Sometimes the circle becomes quite large. Those who prefer smaller jams will either not join such a jam, or leave when one becomes too large for their taste. Perhaps, the main issues concerning jam size are how hard it is to hear other players across the circle, how much opportunity there is to do a solo (see below), and how long it takes to go around the circle.
A sequence in which players participate:
The goal is to make sure all who want to participate do so, whether it’s in song selection and singing, or in taking breaks (doing solos between lyrics).
Usually songs are selected and lead by individual jam members one at a time, going around the circle. Now, some suggest it should be counter-clockwise in the circle, some say clockwise, some say just whoever next is prepared to lead a song (this can be problematic if it goes to one person more than anyone else) but whichever way, it goes one player at a time. The player who’s turn it is selects the song and tells the other the key he, or she is going to sing it in.
Any jammer is free at any particular time to pass, but if the person is not really able to sing songs, or do solos (see below), it is generally best for that person to play outside of the circle, so the others in the circle know not to include them in song selection, or taking breaks.
Singing along with the leader:
There are times when others in a jam join in singing with the person who’s doing the song, but unless otherwise requested, this is usually reserved for the chorus, and for the most part it is done for the purpose of harmonizing, not simply singing along.
Taking breaks (performing solos):
This may, or may not follow a sequence (such as clockwise, or counterclockwise), because it is up to the person who has selected and is singing the song to call out individuals to do solos (verbally, or by a nod).
Those who want to do a solo usually try to make that evident by making eye contact with the particular song leader, who often is looking around the circle to see who wants to take a break; making such eye contact can be very important, since song leader may not otherwise know. And anyone who doesn’t want to solo on a particular song avoids eye contact, or signals by a negative shake of the head.
Often the sequence that the leader chooses when assigning solos takes into account the various instruments arrayed around the circle. If, for example, there are two guitars next to each other, the leader may skip one at one point, but return to that one later, so there is more variety during a particular break, and so two guitarists don’t have to play one after the other.
Finally, there are times when players split the solo, with one doing the first half and another doing the second half. This may be discussed in advance, or the player who starts the solo may call out the person to do the end of the solo.
What not to do:
All jam guidelines also suggest that, regardless what one does do in a jam, jam etiquette is there to prevent behavior that can cause difficulty for other players. So what sorts of things can do this? Here’s a list of things that most often arise:
Noodling between songs.
This involves playing scales, or licks, or chords, between songs. This can be very distracting, especially for the next player who’s turn it is to come up with a song. He, or she may be trying to remember something about the song, and noodling can distract him, or her. The one possible exception is the person who is responsible for the next song, who may noodle a bit to find correct key and/or remember an arrangement.
This is not to say noodling cannot be done at all; for those who are mobile, it’s simply a matter of stepping out of the circle and earshot.
Playing over someone else’s solo.
Pros on albums can and do at times have two musicians harmonizing with each other during a break, but during a jam this can be problematic, because the person taking the break: (a) deserves his, or her solo, and (b) can easily be distracted by anyone who isn’t just providing rhythm backup.
It is very important to be in tune, and those without perfect pitch use electronic tuners to tune their instruments. Usually, however, doing this while in the jam circle is seen as inappropriate–might be OK for those who are mobility limited, but otherwise players are expected to move out of circle to tune, or retune. It’s the same problem as noodling. Of course, it may happen that several folks decide to check they’re tuning at the same time, and the jam may pause for this to happen.
Those who play excessively loud (especially on instruments that are inherently loud in the first place) can cover other instruments, or singers, with the result that they can’t be heard; if it’s the person leading the song who can’t be heard, the whole song can fall apart.
Hogging the jam:
As indicated above, jams are an opportunity for players to play, and for those who sing to sing. Anyone who doesn’t follow the established sequence and keeps going out of turn can easily prevent this from happening.
A note about jam-busting:
This refers to someone coming into a jam who, usually by violating various aspects of jam etiquette listed above, causes the jam to break up (people start leaving until only the jam-buster remains). The jam-buster’s behavior, one way or another, makes playing together in that jam unsatisfactory (the fun evaporates), so the jam ends. It should be noted that if a given jam does not meet the standards of anyone joining the jam at some point, should that person attempt to change the jam (e.g., dictate what sorts of music should be played, how, or by whom), that too can be a jam buster–best for anyone who doesn’t like a jam to simply move along to another..
Sometimes, this can include not being able to play up to the level of the others in the jam. Whether or not this is a problem will generally have to do with: (a) how much disparity there is in playing ability, or (b) the person’s perceived ability to improve and benefit from playing with better musicians, or (c) the jammers willingness to include those who are less proficient (see below) , or (d) some combination of all three and maybe other factors as well. But whatever problems presented by someone who doesn’t play as well, they’re not really a matter of violating jam etiquette, so much as they are something that may reduce the fun for the other players in the jam–and whether that’s the case, depends on just exactly who those members are. Remember, not all jams are the same.
Understandably, jam-busting is considered to be a bad thing. And, for the most part, it is, because the goal of jamming is to have fun playing together, and anyone who stops that from happening has thwarted that go
So, while there is nothing sacred about a jam (who knows, at times there may be jams that deserve to be busted), it’s better to abide by the general jam guidelines, or walk away and find another jam, if a particular one is unsatisfactory, than it is to enter and somehow bust up the jam.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, almost all jam etiquettes written for bluegrass include the notion of inclusiveness. The guidelines are there to facilitate the joint enterprise of making music The goal is to encourage and make this possible, and this includes encouraging people who are just starting to get involved. So…while there may be varying guidelines that may, or may not be rigidly enforced in any particular jam, it’s important that whatever etiquette is being followed also be welcoming toward any and all who want to participate, regardless of their level of experience, or expertise, with the understanding that anyone who participates in a disruptive way may be politely told how to follow the etiquette, or to leave. In the event there is a group of players who are not welcoming, and this does indeed happen, then its best to move on to a jam that’s more inclusive.
General jam guidelines: For Grinners
Yes, there are some guidelines that apply to those who so graciously choose to participate by listening. And like those for pickers, they primarily have to do with helping achieve the goal of the jam: Having fun playing and singing Bluegrass together.
Since those who come to listen don’t actually participate in the making of the music, the guidelines that apply to them mostly have to do with those things they might do that would get in the way of the jam. However, just like the etiquette for pickers, there can and will be variation in these guidelines, depending on the nature of the specific jam.
They all have to do with either distracting, or interrupting the jammers. These are the sorts of things that can do that:
Talking: Since grinners aren’t playing, there’s nothing to prevent them from talking to each other. And that’s something they should do. The problem is when they are sitting so close to the players that their conversation distracts the pickers. So…the general guideline is:
Sit far enough away that the jammers don’t become distracted by the conversation.
If you’re not sitting that far away, only talk between songs.
Greeting jammers: Pickers and grinners alike are happy to meet and greet, so everyone wants to know if and when friends arrive. But…when it comes to the pickers, they usually don’t want that to happen during a song. So it’s best to wait for a break in the action, to make your presence known between songs. P.S. This applies to pickers who come up to a jam, as well.
Ah, the young’uns: It’s wonderful to have children involved. They’re a delight in their own right. And to have them present as potential participants in the future of Bluegrass is a wonderful prospect. And, as we all know, kids will be kids. They can be loud, rambunctious and highly energetic, enthusiastically running hither and yon, yelling in their loudest voices. We would never want to discourage that. And…all jammers would like to welcome kids into the jam as grinners, or pickers, for that matter, if they play, or are learning to play.
But, by their energy, their enthusiasm, by their possible lack of knowledge of jam etiquette, they do have the potential to obstruct the goal of jamming—so grinners and pickers alike are asked to recognize the potential affect of their children on jams and let the kids know how to be a helpful participants.