7 Things You Need to Know Before Participating in Your First Jam Session

Regularly attending a jam can be one of the best ways to get inspired to practice and improve. Here's how to find a jam session, how to prepare, and what to do when you get there.
Ashokan jam session
Back porch jam at an Ashokan music camp in New York, Courtesy Ashokan Center

In traditional music circles like bluegrass, old-time, Celtic, and others, jams are an opportunity for like-minded musicians to gather in public spaces and take joy in creating the music they love. These genres rarely sell out venues or top the charts. Instead, the fans are often instrumentalists themselves, pre-serving the music by playing it in their local communities and teaching it to newcomers, who then carry the traditions onward.

Many guitarists are understandably hesitant about attending their first jam. Being new to the instrument, having little experience playing with others, not knowing much about a particular musical style, or feeling uncertain about meeting new people are all valid concerns. That said, regularly attending a jam can be one of the best ways to become motivated and inspired to practice and improve. In this article we’ll cover ways to find a session, how to prepare, and what to do when you get there.

1. Know Your Jam Types

Here we are focusing on public jams in traditional music styles that use acoustic guitars. The main distinction between these traditional jams and other kinds (blues, rock, jazz, funk, etc.) is that, in addition to being acoustic, they are highly structured. They follow established customs so that musicians who may have never met before can play songs from start to finish for hours with no rehearsal. The songs come from a common repertoire, and the excitement comes not necessarily from playing new songs but doing so with new people. You don’t need to learn a bunch of songs before going to your first jam. Go a few times and you’ll quickly identify which ones are the most popular and worth learning at home.


2. Find a Jam

Jams for traditional music typically take place in public places, like restaurants, breweries, coffee shops, music stores, and community centers. Internet searching is the best starting spot for finding a jam, but sometimes they are not advertised well. If you can’t find much online, try contacting music stores for input. Sometimes jams are organized through Facebook groups or email lists. Expect to do some digging, but with a bit of work, patience, and perhaps a few emails or phone calls, you may be surprised by the number of opportunities in your area.

3. Go Listen

After you’ve found a jam, the best thing you can do is leave your guitar at home and just go check it out. Reading about how a jam works is great, but it all makes more sense and is a lot more fun if you see it happen. Jams commonly garner small audiences, especially when they happen at restaurants or bars. If you scope one out and don’t think it’s the right fit—maybe it’s too advanced or not the type of music you are interested in—consider visiting a few others. Each jam has its own culture, and it may take a few tries to find the one that feels right for you.

4. Learn the Customs

Each style of music has its own rules of jam etiquette, so before bringing your guitar along, do a little online research. Most folks are excited to welcome newcomers and will show you the ropes, but it helps if you have at least a basic understanding of how the music works and the role of the guitar in the genre. For example, at a bluegrass jam, the guitar mostly plays rhythm but has opportunities for solos, while in old-time and Celtic jams the guitar usually only plays rhythm. You do not need to know all the particular ins and outs, but showing that you have respect for the culture and music goes a long way.


5. Pack the Essentials

Whenever I leave for a jam, I check my guitar case to make sure I have a clip-on tuner, a capo, a pick, and a strap. The tuner is necessary for obvious reasons—while at the jam you should use it often. For bluegrass you’ll definitely want a capo; other styles may not require one. You won’t necessarily need a strap if chairs are provided, but it can be a handy item to have. 

The type of acoustic guitar you bring to your first jam is secondary. Each style has its customary models—a dreadnought for bluegrass, for instance—but as a newcomer, the main thing you can do is be around the music and start to play. Over time you’ll figure out both what you like in a guitar and which type makes most sense for your approach within the genre.

6. Start Quietly

In pretty much any jam situation you’ll be able to sit on the outskirts, play quietly (if you choose to participate), watch, and take everything in. It’s OK if you don’t know the song or the chords—or even how to play that well. You can observe the other guitarists and join in whenever you feel ready. Have fun, relax, and play some music! 

The only faux pas you can make is derailing the jam, perhaps by playing very loudly, out of time, and out of tune. I’ll wager that since you’ve read this far, it is unlikely you are going to be the “jam buster,” whose lack of self-awareness gets in the way of everyone else’s good time.

7. Prepare Songs

In some jams the leaders choose all the songs, and in other settings the tune choice goes around the circle and each person can choose one to lead. If you are asked to make a selection, it is completely acceptable to say you are new to jamming and would like to pass, but if you do want to contribute a song, you will be expected to lead it. Keep your choice straightforward, with no more than three or four predictable chords, so that others can easily follow along. Also jot down the names of songs people play so you can keep them in mind to learn and remember for next time—and the time after that.

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 347

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Alan Barnosky
Alan Barnosky

Alan Barnosky is a guitarist based in Durham, NC. He performs solo as a songwriter as well as in bluegrass and folk bands.

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  1. Really good article. There are a few bluegrass jams in Marshall NC I’m ping to attend. Hoping to find a Hawaiian Slack Key Kanikapila here in Asheville too.