This week’s post focuses on a subject of interest to nearly everyone who plays bluegrass: jam sessions. Jams are informal musical gatherings where musicians make music for the joy of it. They are found everywhere bluegrass is played. Although the pandemic has put many group activities on hold for now, we all look forward to playing together again when we can safely do so without masks and social distancing.
The prevalence of jam sessions reflects a fact that sets bluegrass apart from many other types of music: the people who enjoy the music are often inspired to learn to play and sing it. Perhaps, as I did, you come to bluegrass having already played some guitar. Maybe you played violin in the school orchestra. Perhaps you are highly trained in another style of music. Or perhaps you have never played a note of music and are moved to learn to play the banjo or mandolin. Whatever your pre-bluegrass musical experience, something about the music makes you want to join in.
You’ll soon find that a big part of that something is the personal connection you make with your fellow musicians. You can’t play bluegrass alone. Bluegrass is by definition a social music-it has to be played in a group. Although you can listen to the music alone (lots of close listening is essential for those serious about learning to play well) and practice by yourself (“woodshedding”), performing the music requires more than one person. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys set the pattern-guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and bass, with up to four voices singing together. Flatt and Scruggs added the dobro and sometimes an extra voice or two. With minor variations, those are pretty much the formats followed by today’s bands.
Similarly, enjoyment of the music often occurs in a group setting, at a concert or a festival or an informal party in someone’s back yard. Bluegrass festivals in particular are social events as much as musical gatherings. Likely there are old friends that you see every year at a particular festival. Making music with them can be part of the pleasure you find in their company.
Usually, the first bluegrass you play with others is played in a jam session. It’s no less a jam if you are picking and singing with only one other person. In that case, though, it’s good if at least one of you plays guitar. My own experience is probably reasonably typical. I had played guitar for about five years before I started playing bluegrass, so I had some musical background. I started jamming with a few close friends in a living room where I could try out in a relaxed setting the things I had been practicing at home. In those days the slow jam approach was not widespread; we played at or near performance tempo. So playing with my friends gave me the experience and the confidence I needed to start to jam with people I didn’t know as well, or at all.
Playing in jam sessions was an important part of my learning to play bluegrass. I was lucky that most of the folks I jammed with in those days were more experienced than I and taught me by example how to play well with others. From the living room sessions to larger picking parties to festival jams with strangers, I learned about listening, timing, volume, dynamics, improvisation, taste, and tone-when to play, what to play, how to play it, when not to play-the things a musician needs to know in order to play what’s best for the song.
Of all these skills, the most important is listening. From jamming you can learn to pay attention to what the other musicians are doing and to listen carefully to yourself. You want to add to the music, not detract from it. Most critically, if you can’t hear the singer or an instrumental soloist, someone is playing too loud. You don’t want it to be you. Unfortunately, unless you play resonator guitar, you can’t always tell how loud you are playing because your ears are usually above your instrument rather than in front of it where most of the sound is projected. Pay attention to your volume relative to everyone else. And if you find, for example, that you are slamming your guitar just to be heard because the group is too large or everyone else is playing too loud, maybe it’s time to find another group to play with. Someday you will want to know how to play with your indoor voice.
Bluegrass jam sessions at festivals can be an exciting way to meet new people and up your game. I made many enduring friendships with folks I met jamming at festivals. I even ended up in bands with some of them. Festival jams present some challenges. I have included some jam session etiquette links below, but the basic rule, as usual, is pay attention and listen, especially to style and repertoire and other cues regarding the participants and the session. If the musicians are far more advanced than you are, and/or are consistently playing material you don’t know, it’s usually best to just listen, or to look for other sessions that are a better fit with what you have to offer. If you don’t know the other jammers, you should generally wait to be invited in. Sometimes the jammers may be friends who have been waiting all year to play with each other at this festival and who want to keep their session to themselves. Other times what looks like a jam session is a band warming up to go onstage. In either case you do not want to intrude.
But just as many jams are wide open affairs, where everyone is welcome. Sometimes these can be crowded and raucous, but their advantage is that you can decide how much you want to participate, whether strumming quietly at the edge of the circle or working your way in closer to the center of the music. In my experience, many folks enjoy meeting and jamming with lots of new people at bluegrass festivals. Everyone was a beginner once.
Some of my most enjoyable bluegrass moments have happened in festival jams. Typically, after a few days and nights of almost nonstop playing, when I am as warmed up as I get, late on a warm summer night in a jam with some friends old and new, suddenly everyone is playing and singing better than we know how and the music is effortless and magical.
I hope we can soon get back to all that. Festivals have been canceled for the duration of the pandemic, and jamming has become a strictly fair-weather, outdoor phenomenon, with masks and social distancing. This is better than not jamming at all, and under the circumstances I have much to be thankful for. But on the long winter nights I still find myself wanting to circle up my friends, lean in close, hear the snap of the banjo in my ear, feel the thump of the bass in my chest, and hear the buzz when the tenor and the high baritone come in on the chorus. Something to look forward to.
For more information:
Jam Etiquette – Bluegrass and old time jam etiquette by Roger Russell
Bluegrass Jamming Basics – DrBanjo.com