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The Etiquette Of Jamming

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If you’re going to take part in a jam session there’s a certain etiquette which should be understood; which will make for a better jam session for all concerned.

Jam sessions usually feature 8 to 20 musicians of varying skill levels, seated in a semi circle playing a variety of instruments. Each musician will take a turn playing the lead, either an instrumental tune or by singing a song while accompanying him/herself on his/her instrument. He/she announces what song he/she would like to play and in what key. Everyone else will/can play back up to his lead. It’s OK to skip your turn or share your turn with another jammer. Generally there is a variety of music played including traditional country music, gospel, show tunes and oldies type rock n roll. For the most part, this type of music can be played using just 3 or 4 chords.
Here are some general guidelines which can help make for a better jam session: • We all have egos. Leave them at the door. The jam session should be about having fun and respecting fellow musicians. It makes for a better session if we all resolve to make the other players sound as good as we can. • As Jam sessions are created for the betterment of the musicians, all jammers must play an instrument. Backing tracks are not appropriate, nor are guest singers who have no means to back themselves up as they do not contribute directly to the musicianship of the group. Organized karaokes and voice based activities are better suited for this. •

Resist the temptation to play over the lead even if the lead player is struggling. If you don’t know the song that’s being played, it’s better to sit it out. Either way, you are not helping by adding more mud to the mud puddle. • WAIT for the lead player to start before playing so that he/she can establish the tempo and style of song (which might be different than what you’re accustomed to.) • Don’t play the song INTRO unless asked to. He/she may have their own arrangement to present. • Refrain from turning up your amp or playing too loudly, Key jam organizers can let you know if you’re loud enough or need to turn up.

Playing backup fill ins – Try to make the lead musician look good but don’t overdo it! It’s their turn in the lime light. Be subtle. If you want to ad melody lines (arpeggios, double stops etc.), do it at the end of a vocal phrase and not on top of the vocals. • When playing the lead, choose songs that fit your particular jam session. It does no good to play something that others can’t follow (This goes back to point #1 about egos). If playing in an off key (b/#) most guitar players can capo to a major key. Let them know how to capo an Eb for example. If you are trying something new, bring copies of the chords if you want all to join in sooner. …2

Setting up • Many jammers bring their own amp and sound equipment (mic, stands, mixing boards etc.). Be conscious of your “footprint”. Many jams have limited musician space, so try to set your equipment behind or in front of you so as to not take up the space normally occupied by two musicians. Also make sure you can hear yourself in relation to the other musicians (ie. volume, tone etc.) • Dial  up your mic settings first, at a volume level acceptable to the room and/or jam host/moderator. Your voice should be clear of distortion and full (not too much treble nor bass). Next, set up your instrument to complement your voice. • Try to tune before the jam starts. If you have to tune during the jam, use an electronic tuner allowing you to tune with your volume OFF. • In a tight space, feedback might be a problem. Feedback most often occurs at high volumes, or when a mixer is setup at extreme frequencies (too much treble or bass), or when a microphone is aimed at a speaker, which then amplifies and loops the sound. Setting up your mic 120 degrees away from a speaker should do the trick. You should immediately turn down your master volume and/or hit your standby button should you encounter feedback. You can then start to resolve the problem comfortably by gradually bringing your levels back up. • Avoid getting into a “volume battle” with your jam mates. Everyone cranking it up can ruin your sound, fray tempers, damage hearing and make it uncomfortable for the audience. If you think you’re getting drowned out (especially if you are playing an acoustic instrument among electrics) politely request that the group spend a little time to adjust the volume and mix before launching into the next tune.
Playing together means adjusting your volume and playing style for the common good. Jam sessions are about the music. Musicians are there to participate and learn. They are interested in playing music, therefore commentary between songs should be kept to a minimum. The greatest compliment is when a fellow musician says to you that he really enjoys playing with you because you make him a better musician. More than anything have fun and enjoy the jam session.

Happy Jamming

My  thanks to my good friend Roger St Jules for his great insight and contribution to this important post

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