Appropriate jam etiquette should ALWAYS be observed. If you’re a novice, stay in the background & play quietly until you get the hang of it. (This is the musical equivalent of "lurking.") No one is impressed by a newcomer (or old timer) who insists on playing over everyone else’s vocals and breaks. Rules of etiquette tend to differ from jam to jam and especially between Old Timey and BG jams. In BG jams, all pickers are expected to vamp or chop or play back up licks behind the vocalist or whichever instrument is given the nod to take a solo break. In Old Timey (OT) jams, it’s common for all banjos and all fiddles to play the melody in unison. This behavior would quickly make you persona non grata at a BG jam. Many OT jams frown on banjo players with finger picks (and possibly resonators) because such instruments overpower the more traditional-style pickers. Playing Scruggs style at some OT jams is liable to get you ridden out of town on a (f)rail. Some "Folky" jams are not jams at all but "open circles" where participants take turns singing and playing. It always pays to stay in the background for a half hour or so until you can deduce the rules. BG jams will often welcome an OT banjo player and even offer him/her solo breaks but you must obey BG etiquette and not keep frailing, etc. over other people’s breaks.
We suggest you read the rest of the etiquette article on Ed's site.
- Come prepared to lead at least 2 songs or instrumentals, more if you want to play all night.
- To “lead” means that you must know the words and/or chord progression by heart. Written music and handouts are not acceptable! If you have to read, it’s not a jam - it’s a practice session! Solos are fine, especially for the singers who want to show off a bit. In general, though, you should find pieces that bring in at least one or two of the other musicians before the whole gang jumps in.
- Songs and instrumentals should be “standards” that many people will know or recognize (Amazing Grace, She’ll Be Comin ‘Round the Mountain) or have relatively straightforward chord progressions that can be picked up quickly. If you are jamming with a specific group, such as frequent band-mates, fellow bluegrassers, 70’s rock-n-rollers, or similar theme, more complex tunes may be thrown into the mix, since you already share a history of playing them.
by Charlie Hall and Robert Rosenburg, as printed in the January/February 2002 Folknik newsletter of the San Francisco Folk Music Club
THOU SHALT TUNE THY INSTRUMENT. There are too many good, cheap tuners around not to do this.
THOU SHALT LISTEN. If you can't hear the lead instrument or vocalist, then consider yourself too loud.
THOU SHALT PASS. When handing off an instrumental solo, try to follow a pattern either clockwise or counter clockwise. If you want to skip the next solo or pass it on to the next picker, be sure that the next person is aware of the handoff. No one wants to start his or her solo in the middle of the song.
- Have fun! Forgive yourself and others for imperfect music while recognizing and enjoying the brilliant moments.
- Follow the leader. The leader of the song should control the tempo and the tone of the song.
- Prepare to lead a song by knowing the chords and the words. (You can look at a cheat sheet if you can play the song well while still interacting with the other musicians.) Make sure you know some simple 3-chord songs with simple 4/4 or 3/4 timing. Not everyone can play songs with a lot of chords, and if the tempo is not standard, few jam groups can follow.
- You are playing too loud if you have to strain to hear the person playing an instrumental lead or the person leading the song.