Bluegrass Jam Etiquette
Musicians participating in a jam co-operate to create music and have fun. Sometimes
this can be tricky, because by its very nature a jam is an event that happens
on the fly.
There is no one set of rules that fits all jams, and not even all bluegrass
jams. Here are three good online articles about jam etiquette which you may
If you've looked at these, you'll see that there is quite a bit of variation
between them. What's common, though, is that the participants in the jam should
treat each other with respect and that everyone should be given a chance to
Sometimes the location or circumstances of the jam control what happens. A
jam at someone's home, or a series of sessions organized by the same host, for
example, may have specific rules set by the host which everyone follows. Jams
at campsites at a festival, where there are several going on at the same time,
may end up being sorted by speed or skill level, or with some being mostly instrumental
and others all singing, as people wander from place to place and stop where
they feel they will fit in.
at the club - the Circle Jam
At a venue like our club meetings, where the numbers and participants in the
jam vary a lot, the most effective type of jam is the circle jam. Here's how
that works, and some general etiquette:
- Circle jams don't generally need a leader, but sometimes one person will
help keep the process moving if there are participants who don't know what
- The jam begins when one person names a tune and a key, waits a moment for
capos, and begins a song or an instrumental. The person who starts the tune
usually calls the breaks, unless he or she asks someone else to do it. Other
singers join in on the chorus of a song and/or add harmonies if they know
- As the tune comes near the end of a section, most often a chorus, it's time
for a break. The leader will look directly at one of the other players and
may also call out a name or an instrument; this is a request for an instrumental
break. If not prepared play a break, the player should not make eye contact,
or if they do, indicate with a small head shake as soon as possible, so that
the leader can choose someone else.
- Breaks are usually done to the chords of the verse. If the leader wants
something else, that should be mentioned beforehand. Everyone who wants to
should be given a chance to play a break; the simplest way to do this is to
go around the circle. It's okay to have more than one break between verses,
or two split a break between two players.. Occasionally, if the circle is
just too big, it may not be practical to include everyone every time, but
then those left out should be sure to be included in the next tune.
- Once the first song or tune is over, the lead passes around the circle,
and each person either leads a tune or declines. The process starts over again.
for players in a circle jam
- Tune up before you step into the circle. Tune again between songs if you
need to. If you need to retune after a song has started (and you're not leading
it!), don't interrupt the song – step away for a moment.
- If you want a break during the song, look directly at the singer as the
chorus of the song ends (smiling is always good...); if not, don't. Now is
your chance to show off! Play something of your choice that fits with the
rhythm and chords - it doesn't have to be fancy.
- When another participant is singing or playing a break, adjust the volume
of your instrument so that the lyrics or break can be heard. Play something
that doesn't interfere, such as a gentle rhythm, a soft repetitive roll or
chop, or long slow notes, depending on your instrument. In particular, avoid
playing the melody of the tune.
- When playing or singing along with something you know particularly well,
resist the temptation to move into the circle and face the tune leader. Blocking
other players' view of the leader with your back is rarely a good idea.
- A few comments between tunes are acceptable, for example while tuning is
going on, but don't make others wait while you tell long stories, etc. Most
people are in the circle to play. If you feel the need to have a conversation
while the music is going on, move away from the circle so that you don't distract
a song or tune
- When it's your turn, either have a song or tune in mind or pass.
- When choosing a song or tune, consider the others in the circle; if you
start up a tune from an unfamiliar genre, or with complex chord progressions,
or in an unusual key (unless there's a good reason for it), you may not get
the participation you were expecting.
- Choose a song that you can sing or play reasonably well. Be sure to say
what key the song is in and give its name.
- Indicate a specific person when calling a break; try to give a few seconds
notice; this takes some experience, so don't worry if you don't get everything
to work smoothly at first - everyone's been there.
Show respect for others, whatever their skill level
- Overheard at a jam session (not at our club, thank heavens!): "When
those yahoos that don't know what they're doing try to join a jam I'm in,
I just start up a fast tune in A flat with nine or ten chords, and they don't
hang around long."
Written by Anne Delong - others may have differing opinions!