From the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Judy Minot
If you’re used to playing alone on your couch, it’s time you get out there and join a jam session. Jams offer a low-stress, non-performance environment where you can get comfortable learning to work with a group. When you play in a jam you can relax, because your mistakes, flubs, and imperfections really don’t matter.
In a jam session you get to hang out with other musicians—often really good ones. At the same time, you can build useful skills like providing support for singers, adjusting your timing and rhythm to other players, watching for and giving musical signals, starting and ending tunes, and taking breaks or solos. You’ll meet people who may become good friends, playing buddies, or musical mentors. You’ll certainly learn new music. You may even get gigs, because good jammers often make great bandmates.
Sound inviting? Here’s how to get started.
Every jam is different. Most jams are organized around a style of music or a concept: bluegrass, Gypsy jazz, song swap, etc. There are guitar-only jams, and those with a variety of instruments. Some jams are instrumental, others are mostly songs, or they may fall somewhere in between.
It’s important to be a good listener first and a good player second.
Hopefully you’ve picked a jam based on a style you enjoy playing. While you’re brushing up the music you know in that style, it’s good to prepare one tune or song in case you’re asked to lead. Don’t worry if you can only play slowly or imperfectly. It’s more important to be able to play in rhythm so others can play along. If you don’t feel ready to lead, that’s fine.
When You Arrive
Walking into your first jam can be daunting. Give yourself a mental pat on the back for bravery. Try to show up a bit early and introduce yourself to the leader. Let them know if it’s your first jam. This is a great time to ask questions like: “Where do you want me to sit?” “Is it okay to play my mandolin/electric bass/harmonica?” “I know this is an old-time jam—is it kosher to sing a Dolly Parton song?” “Do people usually use chord charts/lyrics/lead sheets?”
During the Jam
The best jams are full of friendly people who want to encourage other musicians. The basics of fitting in well involve common courtesy and thoughtfulness.
It’s important to be a good listener first and a good player second. Let yourself be guided by what’s going on around you—especially by players who are leaders in the group. Notice whether others sing along on the verses or just on the choruses. Do people play or sing harmonies? How many verses are in a typical song? How is it decided who will lead the next tune?
You can learn a lot by observing other players.
Think about blending, rather than shining. You’ll quickly see that a jam is very different from a performance. Supporting others so that they sound good will make you welcome in the group. Good song choices are often the ones that allow for participation. A song where everyone can join in on the chorus, learn the chord progression quickly, or take a solo or break will be a bigger hit than one that’s complex and obscure, no matter how flawlessly played.
You can learn a lot by observing other players. Choose the best rhythm player in the room. Watch their chord hand, but also their strumming hand. What rhythm patterns are they using? How loud is it? When do they change it? Listen for the way they provide a foundation for the group, not just with unusual chording, but with strong, reliable rhythm.
Beginning jammers often have questions about taking breaks or solos. There are many ways to organize breaks in a jam, so go ahead and ask. In some jams the leader walks through where the breaks will be before starting the song. Musicians may be signaled with eye contact, or called out by name or instrument. Some groups take turns around the circle. If you don’t yet feel comfortable calling breaks, someone may offer to do it for you.
Another thing you can learn by observing is how to support a singer. Your job is to make anyone who’s singing sound their best. You may notice that the better musicians in the jam help the singers by giving obvious cues, and by playing more quietly under the vocals. Many singers aren’t good at projecting their voices. On top of that, guitar sound projects outward more than up, so backup players often don’t realize how loud they’re playing.
After the Jam
Hopefully you’ll go home glowing, with an invitation to come back. You may have notes on tunes or ideas to work on, or a list of other jams you didn’t know about. You might also feel kind of overwhelmed by all the stuff you didn’t know. That’s pretty normal. And having new things to learn is, after all, a good problem to have.
It’s possible you had a bad experience—perhaps someone made you feel unwelcome or clueless. Don’t let this ruin jamming for you. If you followed good etiquette and were reasonably thoughtful, it’s probably not about you. You can try again, or just find another jam. There are plenty of them out there.
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Many jams have a mailing list, website, or social media page. These are great resources for sharing music, ideas, and recordings, or just chatting with the members. If you’re still having trouble getting started, try taking part in a weekend or weeklong music camp. Many offer sessions for beginning jammers. Above all, find a way to go forth and jam—you’ll be glad you did!
Judy Minot is the author of Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.