Since 2005, I have made a point of getting together with friends on a regular basis to make music. It's always on Thursday nights and it's called "Music Night." I recently shared my 20 Jam Tips with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. He urged me to share them with a wider audience.
Here's a quick rundown of the material I plan to put into a "lovely pamphlet," per Pete Seeger's advice:
20 Jam Tips (i.e. Jam Etiquette or “Jamiquette”)
1. Always tune. Spend $20 to get a good electronic tuner to clip on your instrument and use frequently.
2. Identify a few songs you want to play and learn them. Find the chords and lyrics online (Chordie.com is a great resource) and create songsheets. Find YouTube videos of people playing those songs and play along. Memorize the words and chords so you can play those songs without a songsheet.
3. Put together a binder of your songs and start building your repertoire. Bring your binder with you to jams. Keep your songs roughly in alphabetical order so you can find them quickly. Plastic sleeves make it easier to shuffle songs around and keep songsheets weatherproof.
4. Most songs played are made up of three chords and usually begin on the chord of the key the song is in. Learn the chord sets, the 1-4-5 rule, and practice chord changes within each key and you will be able to play 90 percent of the songs played in any jam. If you play guitar, learn and use “cheater” bar chords (playing only the bottom four strings) to be able to transition more quickly between chords. (A/D/E – C/F/G – D/G/A – E/A/B – F/Bb/C – G/C/D).
5. A major chord works in place of a 7th chord almost always (i.e. G/G7, C/C7 etc).
6. If you play guitar and don’t know the chords to a song being played, watch the hands of someone who does. If you play another instrument learn to recognize guitar chords.
7. Let the songleader lead. Even if the song sheet in front of you has different words or a different order for the song parts, let the songleader lead it as he/she wishes, with instrumental breaks, changes in lyrics etc.
8. Wait your turn. Jamming is a “small d” democratic pastime. Generally, everyone sits in a circle and each person takes a turn to suggest a song. In more casual, established circles it might be more of a free for all, in which case you should feel free to call out a song when there is a lull – the idea is to avoid monopolizing song suggestions.
9. When it’s your turn, it’s your choice. Be ready to pick a song when it’s your turn. You can lead the song, or suggest a song someone else can lead that you want to hear or play along with.
10. Play appropriate to the jam. Suggest songs that are in the style the jam group is playing (country, '70s rock, bluegrass etc.) and play appropriate instruments (ex: don’t bring electric guitars to an acoustic jam).
11. Call out the chords before you start the song and demonstrate how the “A” and “B” parts of the song go before you actually start playing it.
12. Songleading is hard and requires multitasking: singing, playing, keeping the tempo to the song steady, and watching for people who want to do instrumentals. Take breaks for instrumentals if you have people who want to play them. When it comes time to call them to play, call their name or instrument, or just make eye contact and nod your head or point your finger at them.
13. Get quiet for the instrumentals. The act of calling out an instrumentalist can be very subtle which is why it’s important for all players to pay attention and notice when an instrumental is underway. In an acoustic jam, especially big ones, it can be hard to hear the instrumentalists, so to amplify these players other players will “get quiet” on their instruments.
14. Watch for the end. It’s up to the songleader to decide when a song ends, and he/she will let you know the song is wrapping up by sticking their foot out or calling out “repeat that last line!” Songleaders may also suggest an “a cappella” moment in a song when all instruments are silent – be sure to watch for those, too!
15. If you are leading a song, play it all the way through, don’t stop in the middle of it. If you forget the words, just repeat a verse you already sang, whistle, sing “meow meow meow….” instead, invite an instrumental interlude, or improvise in some other way. You can also bring a song to a premature end and skip verses if it’s really not working. If you start out in the wrong key, change it at the beginning.
16. Avoid using a capo, it makes you hard to follow. If you must use a capo, identify someone else in the group who knows the chords who other people can follow.
17. You don’t have to play every song. If you’re having trouble playing a song, don’t play the wrong chords – use your instrument instead to keep the beat, or sing along, or sit it out, tune, refresh your drink, take a break.
18. Ideally, jam songs are three-chord or four-chord songs. Five chords is about the maximum. Don’t select songs with too many chords or funky chords that no one knows (unless you all have the same songsheets or lots of people know the song by heart). Such songs are affectionately known as “jambusters.”
19. Don’t record or take pictures without permission. Jamming is not a performance, it’s an interactive experience that can be deeply personal and emotional. Taking pictures or recording people while they are playing can be very distracting and change the nature of the jam if players suddenly feel they must perform for the camera. Many jammers are shy and inexperienced, and often feel they are not “good enough” to play in front of others, so taking pictures or recording is also discouraged for this reason.
20. If you are sitting in the circle, you are in the jam. If you want to chat with someone, smoke, text, or talk on the phone, respect other players and move out of the circle.