Bluegrass jamming will open up a whole world of musical fun for you, but only if you get over your hesitancy to dive into that first jam.
I showed up at my first jam with a nylon-string guitar and no knowledge of bluegrass jam etiquette whatsoever. Sure, I felt a little out of place. Everyone does. But bluegrass folks are extremely welcoming and love bringing along new converts.
Knowing how to play in a bluegrass jam can make you a little more confident heading into your first jam, so I’ve collected here all the unwritten bluegrass jam rules I can think of.
You don’t have to study them and remember them all. Eventually they’ll become second nature. If you only remember two things, remember to stay in tune and stay in time. The rest is mostly common courtesy.
How a bluegrass jam works
A bluegrass jam is typically a circle. Everyone in the circle takes turns choosing the next song. This usually goes in a clockwise direction. When it’s your turn, you can either pick a song or pass the privilege along to the next person if you don’t have one in mind.
The person who chooses the song (or tune, if it’s in an instrumental) also leads it. They might sing it, or they might ask another volunteer to sing it. Their main job is to make sure the group is on the same page before the song starts—people know the song and know the chords.
When the song gets under way, the leader uses body language and the occasional shoutout to indicate who will take the next break (solo), and keeps the breaks moving around the circle.
The leader also signals when it’s time for the song or tune to wrap up. Repeating the last line of lyrics is one common way of closing a song. On an instrumental, the leader often lifts a leg or foot off the floor near the end of the final run-through, so everyone knows it’s time to finish on the same beat.
Before you join the jam circle
First, know that certain instruments are less welcome than others at a bluegrass jam. If you have a guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass or resonator guitar (Dobro), you’re golden. Those are traditional bluegrass instruments.
If you’re bringing a harmonica, spoons, washboard or tambourine, tread cautiously. Some bluegrass jams are more forgiving than others. Stay if you feel welcome. Leave if you don’t.
Before joining any bluegrass jam, sit back and observe before you take out your instrument. What level are the players at? Are you comfortable with the material and the tempo at which they’re playing?
If you have a choice of jam circles to join, the ideal circle will be full of folks who are just a little bit better than you are. That will be a fun jam for you. You’ll probably be able to improve your playing, and you won’t bring everyone else down.
Folks who play much better than you might be OK with you joining their circle, but try not to cramp their style. Bluegrass culture is generally very welcoming—everyone remembers being a beginner—but once you’ve picked a few with the advanced players consider bowing out and letting them have their fun. Again, stay if you feel welcome and leave if you don’t.
If you are lucky to stick around in a jam with advanced players, keep it simple, let everyone else be heard, and stay in time.
In the jam circle
Keep in tune
Staying in tune is the No. 1 piece of jamming etiquette. If you can, get a clip-on tuner for your guitar so you can make tiny adjustments during the jam. Sometimes it takes only a few songs for your instrument to slip out of tune, and the chances increase as you slap on a capo and move it around. Nothing brings a jam down like an out-of-tune instrument.
If you have to re-tune, step out of the circle for a moment, turn your back and re-tune very quietly. Ideally you can do this between songs. It’s a good idea to check your tuning every few songs or every time you change your capo.
Keep in time
Keeping in time is No. 1a. Everyone in the jam wants to feel a groove, and if somebody is playing at a faster or slower tempo than everyone else, it’s usually pretty obvious. Keep the rhythm going. Even if your left hand gets lost for a moment, don’t let it throw you off the beat. You can always find the correct chord again.
Play the right chords
Playing the wrong chord isn’t too different from being out of tune. There’s bound to a be a note in your incorrect chord that clashes heavily with what everyone else is playing, and the result can be rather unpleasant.
If somebody calls a song that you don’t know, it’s perfectly fine to ask if they can fill you in on the chord progression before kicking it off.
If you do happen to lose the chords at some point, hopefully that will be short-lived. You can help yourself by watching the left hand of other guitar players in the circle. Just be aware if they are using a capo and you aren’t, or if they are capoed at a different fret. You won’t be able to simply imitate their hands if that’s the case.
If all else fails, either stop playing and listen carefully to the tune to pick up the chord progression, or mute your strings and keep your rhythm hand going as you watch what other players are doing.
Sit one out
Remember, you can always sit out if a song is unfamiliar to you, or if the rhythm is too fast for you. In fact, you probably should.
It’s also OK to step back slightly outside the circle and play quietly to get a better feel for the song.
If the song is unfamiliar, try to remember how it went. When it’s over, ask the leader its title. Enter it in your phone. Find some recordings later. Get to know it in case it comes up at future jams.
A jam is a conversation. To be good conversationalist, you have to be a good listener. Do as much listening as playing. Listen while you’re playing. If you do this, you’ll find that your playing blends much more nicely with the overall sound.
This is especially important when somebody else is singing or taking a lead break. You need to be able to hear whoever is being featured at any given moment. If you can’t hear them, soften your playing until you can. This won’t do the trick if there are other inconsiderate jammers in the group, but it’s up to everyone to do their part.
Eye contact and body language are really important during a jam. This is how people communicate when they’re in the middle of playing their instruments.
Keep a close eye on the leader so you always know who’s taking the break, and aren’t caught by surprise when your turn comes up. The leader will generally give you an inquisitive look shortly before the chorus ends, giving you an opportunity to either accept or pass on the upcoming break. Indicate with a nod if you want to take it. If you don’t, just smile and shake your head, or step back slightly and gesture with your head or instrument toward the next person in the circle. The leader will move on.
Typical jam ‘arrangements’
In a jam, bluegrass songs typically kick off with a break, followed by a verse and then a chorus. Another break comes after the chorus, and the pattern continues: break-verse-chorus, break-verse-chorus.
If there are a lot of people wanting to take breaks, and/or very few verses in the song, the leader might decide to “split” the breaks or double them up. In a split break, two different instruments each play half the break. In a double break, the break is repeated twice, each time by a different instrument.
Instrumentals usually follow the classic fiddle tune format where an A part is played twice, followed by a B part played twice: AABB. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s up to the tune leader to fill you in on any quirks in the tune structure.
Calling your song or tune
It’s great if you can show up at a jam with some songs, because you’ll be offered a chance to lead one.
A couple of words of advice, though: Don’t call an original song, and stay away from “jambusters.”
You want to call songs that people in the circle are likely to know. They won’t know your originals. A “jambuster” is a song with a complex chord progression or odd measures that is difficult for people to follow if they aren’t familiar with the song.
Choose songs from the traditional bluegrass canon and you’ll be fine. Anything by Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs or the Stanley Brothers will work, of course. Most bluegrass players know those songs, and if they don’t know the song itself, they’ll know the chord progression because bluegrass chord progressions are quite limited.
Announce the song and, if you’re singing, what key you want to play it in. (Don’t forget—you can ask for volunteer vocalists if you don’t want to sing, but then they get to pick the key.) Ask if anyone needs a refresher on the chord progression. If the song does have any unusual quirks—like the “backstep” in the B part of “Clinch Mountain Backstep”—give everyone a heads up.
Then ask if there are any volunteers to kick it off with an initial break leading into the first verse.
It’s entirely up to you whether you want to take a break or not. There’s nothing wrong with just hanging back and strumming.
If you do take one, try to make sure the song’s melody is recognizable. Playing random licks over the chord progression isn’t really the bluegrass way. Even players who heavily embellish the melody still hint at it.
Play your break with confidence and don’t worry if you crash and burn. No matter how big the screwup seems to you, everybody else is going to forget about it in five seconds.
Try to play through your mistakes and keep the song going. Nobody wants to stop the song and start over because you botched a few notes.
Bluegrass jam etiquette in summary
Even if you’re the new jammer now, there will come a time when you aren’t anymore. When that time comes, help people out! If you see somebody lost in the chord progression, wander over so they can get a good look at your fingers as you play. If somebody is out of tune, gently suggest they might need a tuneup, and offer your tuner if they don’t have one.
It sucks to be intimated by a bluegrass jam, so do whatever you can to ensure that’s not the case for the next jammer who comes along. Welcome them and introduce yourself.
In any jam circle, try to identify the least experienced, least confident person. When it’s your turn to call a tune, call one you think they can have fun with. The jam will be more fun for everyone if everyone can contribute.
Ultimately, bluegrass jam etiquette is about remembering that it isn’t about you—it’s about the music and making sure everyone has a good time. You want to make the other musicians sound good, and you want to make the overall music sound good. If everyone does that, everyone is going to have a good time.