If you're an enthusiastic guitar player and you like playing with other musicians, you've probably played on jam sessions or have visited them. Playing in a jam session can be a great way to meet fellow musicians, get more stage experience, make yourself heard, learn how to play different kinds of music, and have tons of fun! Maybe you'll even meet your future band members there...
There's a few things to know when you start out going to these jam sessions with the plan to play onstage. Although most jams look quite informal, there's a few unwritten rules, a kind of jam etiquette which ensures that:
a) things go smoothly;
b) every player gets to shine;
c) the audience is entertained;
d) the music becomes something greater than the sum of its musicians and their egos;
e) due respect is given and no-one is insulted or offended;
f) everyone has fun and walks out at the end of the night feeling good.
So, what are these unwritten rules of the jam session? Which things do you need to know if you want to visit these sessions and play in the jam?
The level of the jam When you walk into a new bar or club or any session situation you're unfamiliar with, check it out for a while. It'll be clear very soon if this is your night to jam.
Every jam venue or even every typical jam night at a given day of the week has it's own level at which the majority of the jamming players can function. There are amateur sessions where any level and any instrument will go, but there are also jam sessions where even seasoned pros are hesitant to step on stage because of the perceived 'required' level of musicianship.
You could still play in the jam while you think you're below level, but it might turn out feeling uncomfortable. If on the other hand the jam's level seems far below your own abilities, you could jump in, but don't try to steal the show, know your place!
The state you're in
Once you go onstage, you'll be visible and audible to most of the audience and the musicians. If you're feeling slightly too drunk, depressed, stoned, or otherwise to really make music, don't! Making a fool out of yourself can hurt your (social and/or professional) reputation.
There are always older pros who can play the roof off the house while being completely wasted, but leave it to them. That also takes experience to be able to do.
The session leader
Every jam session has a session leader. Most often it's one of the musicians that started the night with a little concert. If you can't determine who it is, ask around. When you've spotted the session leader and when he/she is OFF STAGE, ask if you can join in for the jam. Sometimes they'll ask you which instrument you play and if you know what's expected. Don't feel intimidated by that! It's just their responsibility towards the club owner to avoid unpleasant or embarrasing situations.
The session leader will probably tell you when to go onstage or how long you'll have to wait.
When to go on stage
The right moment for going onstage varies from session to session. On some sessions people jump on and off stage in the middle of songs, where in a different, high-profile jam session that would be considered a deadly sin. You'll see this soon enough. If you play guitar, ask the player if they're doing another song or not and if you can use the amp/cable/fx etc. NEVER tell them to move or go off, especially if you don't know who you're talking to.
The first thing (before plugging in/tuning up/setting up) to do is to briefly introduce yourself to the players on stage. This will make for a more pleasant and relaxed vibe. I've seen players, unknown to the other musicians, jump on in the middle of a song, play a 6-minute solo and go off again. Not cool.
Usually, deciding the tune is something done democratically. Someone calls a song and the other may or may not know how to play it. Ideally, the jam players settle on a tune that everyone knows.
Depending on the session and your own experience (and the size of your ears), you might decide to play along with a tune you don't know. But ask the other musicians how hard it is first. If not sure, don't do it.
Tune your instrument
Really. Do it.
Make sure that whatever you play is in balance with the rest of the band. Guitar players are known for playing too loud. Know your place, listen to the drummer and how loud he/she plays at every moment. The only moment where you should have decent, guitar-legend-style volume available, is on loud blues, rock or funk sessions, when you take a solo.
One of the most annoying mistakes made by musicians in jam sessions is to take too long solos. If your solo doesn't really fly, end it, there will be another tune. There will be another session. You'll be respected by the other musicians for staying modest in your role on stage (musicianship!), much more so than for your instrumental abilities. Sometimes however, you might be playing a solo that comes directly from the cosmic soul or the center of the earth... In that special case, KEEP PLAYING until the rhythm section starts playing softer!
Listen to what the other musicians are playing/singing at all times. This allows for REAL MUSIC to happen.
Communication and cues
When jamming, constantly look at other players, their eyes and their body language. There is so much, musically, that you can make happen this way. Breaks, modulations (sometimes yelled and the end of a song section), solos, vamps, all these things are only possible when the players make eye contact regularly.
Most of the time, on the guitar, you're either playing a melody, accompanying chords, fills or a solo. BUT, if there is another chord instrument, it's cool to just lay out for a while and let them do the comping. Too many guitar players just play the whole time, without evaluating whether of not they should be playing at all during the various sections of the song!
If a singer joins in, this generally pulls in the attention of the audience. Take shorter solos and let the singer shine! Don't play too loud, singers need to hear their own voice in order to sing in tune. A good singer will also give the band subtle cues or signs through his/her body language.
Your playing: No worries
It's easy to focus too much on your own playing during and after you're done jamming. But don't worry!! A jam session is also a place to make mistakes, mess up the chords or the form, play with a not-so-good guitar sound, and the like. It happens to everyone and it's no big deal!
There are famous stories about people like Charlie Parker being laughed off stage or messing up.
The main reasons to play in jam sessions should be:
- You play in a jam session to HAVE fun, so relax and don't expect too much from yourself.
- You play in a jam session to GAIN EXPERIENCE, negative or positive.
After playing 10-20 jam sessions you will have learned more about music, about communication and about yourself, than you could have learned by playing 20 normal gigs with your own band, or practising for a whole year at home!
Respect your fellow musician
Most of the etiquette on jam sessions comes down to having a certain amount of respect for the abilities, but more importantly, for the FEELINGS of the other people involved in the session. Keep in mind that they might feel just as happy/unhappy/scared/hyped/out-of-place or whatever as you do.
Also try to show musicians respect even if they act bossy.
If a somewhat arrogant jam player who doesn't know you, thinks you're a newbie, and starts giving you commands, while you have already played in more than a few sessions (eg. you've 'payed your dues'), stay polite and let them live, this time... Muahahaahaaa!
Another thing to realize is that even a jam session serves not only the musicians playing, but also the audience (musician or non-musician) present. This means it's a good idea to also make eye-contact with the audience. And when you're having fun, show everyone that you are! Smile, do a little dance, whatever.
It's nice if there is something entertaining/funny/intriguing going on onstage, visually. Live music is part music, part visual performance/entertainment, at least from an audience point of view.
That's it. I think this sums up the most important unwritten jam sessions rules or etiquette. Have fun!