The Bluegrass Tao – Part II

[Note: This is the second of the Bluegrass Tao series]

Absolute Musts

There are a handful of absolute musts for participating in any jam.  Failure to observe these basic guidelines will at best generate quiet resentment and at worst result in an ugly confrontation with your fellow musicians.  Yet if you listen, keep in tune, and stay on time, you’ll be welcome at nearly every jam, no matter your skill level.

Listen.  Playing music with other people places a premium on an ability (and willingness) to listen and adjust your playing as necessary to support the entire group’s music making.  You can’t practice this kind of listening by yourself at home.   If you’re new to jamming, make a point of listening more than playing until you can do both at the same time, maintaining a sense of self-awareness within the group.

Keep in tune.  Precise tuning is critical to achieving a clear, attractive sound.  With the widespread availability of inexpensive yet accurate electronic tuners, there is absolutely no excuse for being out of tune.  It is a matter of common courtesy and respect to check your tuning early and often.  If someone assures you that they “tune by ear” and have no need for an electronic tuner, be very skeptical.  If you suspect someone is out of tune, but are reluctant to start a confrontation, you might start by asking if they think that you sound out of tune.  This might trigger some self-examination.  If they can’t take the hint, you owe it to yourself and your fellow musicians to intervene and force the issue.

Stay on time.  Rhythm is the sine qua non — the absolute core basic component — of music.  Nothing is more distracting or disruptive to a singer or soloist than a loud, out-of-tempo instrument pounding away.  At best, the music becomes muddy.  At worst, the whole song breaks down into a “train wreck.”

If the jam includes a double-bass, the bass player will keep the basic rhythm by sounding the down beat (the first and third quarter note in 4:4 time, the first quarter note in 3:4 time).  If there is no bass player, one or more guitars will perform this function.  In either case, a mandolin “chop” on the upbeat will serve the same function as a snare drum in a rock or pop ensemble. 

The job of most musicians in a jam is to listen for, and follow, the tempo.  If you’re unsure of the beat, stop and listen for a while.  If you can’t catch it, or keep up, stop playing altogether.  If you lose your place, stop.  Be alert to and vigilant against the common tendency to speed up over the course of a song. 

Musty Absolutes

Know the lyrics.  If you lead a song, know the lyrics.  If you don’t know the words by heart, it’s perfectly OK to refer to a song book or sheet.  If you ‘blank out” during the song, do not stop the music!  Repeat: do not stop!  Keep the music going and resume singing when you can.  If recovery is impossible, simply repeat a previous verse and find an elegant way to end the song.  Alternatively, you can look around to see if someone else can step up and complete the song.

Play the right chord at the right time.  Make sure you follow and make chord changes accurately and on time.  If you don’t know the progression, watch the left hand of a guitarist who does.  If you can’t recognize the guitar chords, just stop playing and take a breather.  The song won’t last forever.  Alternatively, if you’re a guitarist, you can mute your strings and quietly strum your guitar as a percussion instrument.

Become familiar with chord relationships and the Nashville numbering system.  Musicians will often describe a chord progression using a numbering system, first developed in Nashville, in which chords are assigned numbers that correspond to the seven degrees of a scale in Western (as in Western civilization, not Wyoming) music, starting with the root or tonic as the first degree.  For example, in the key of G, the “one chord” is G, the “four chord” is C, and the “five chord” is D.  As it happens, you can play the vast majority of traditional songs using the one, four, and five chords, which correspond to the tonic, subdominant, and dominant degrees of any scale (major or minor).  These chords are inextricably and forever linked together in a powerful musical relationship.  Why this is so is beyond our scope, but trust me, you will often hear a song leader say, “This is a one, four, five song…”

For those who have difficulty picking up on or anticipating chord changes, a good exercise (in the privacy of your own home) is to try to accompany yourself to any simple tune you happen to know well — “Happy Birthday” will do in a pinch — until you can “hear” the upcoming chord changes.  Then try another tune.  It will get easier.  You will quickly note that some chords lead to others.  For example, in Western folk music a five chord almost always leads to or “resolves” to the one or root chord.

Sing harmonies on the chorus only.  As stated previously, the song leader normally sing verses alone, while others may join in on the chorus.  If you know how to sing a harmony, great, but do it on the chorus only.

Play rhythm softly during other musicians’ solos.  Especially in large jams, it can be hard to hear solo instruments if banjos and others are thumping away.  Pay the soloist — and everyone else — the small courtesy of backing off and piping down when someone is soloing.  They’ll likely return the favor.

Be careful — very careful — when “noodling” while someone is singing.  As professional musicians demonstrate all the time, tasteful solo licks in the background while a singer is singing a verse can add color and texture to a song.  Yet there is a fine line between tasteful and truly annoying.  If you have any doubts, don’t do it.  If you can’t resist the urge, experiment with a few short phrases and see how it goes over.  If you get a glare from the singer, stop.  Special word for harmonica players: in most cases, harmonicas are appropriate for instrumental solos only!

Nice Touches

Eight is enough.  In most cases, eight or so musicians at a jam are about enough.  Many more will tend to yield a loud muddy sound that drowns singing and obliterates instrumental solos.  If you show up and there’s already a large group playing, exercise some restraint and wait for people to take a break or leave.   In some cases, a perceptive jam leader will split the group up if the circumstances allow.

Have a plan.  If you know will be attending a jam next weekend, why not take a moment to learn two or three songs by heart and have them at the ready?  That way, you’ll avoid that awkward moment when it’s your turn to select a song and you run a blank.

Build a play list and share it.  When you’re in a jam setting, it’s important to keep momentum going by always having a song ready to go.  One useful tip, especially for jam leaders, is to write a list of the songs you know and can sing on an index card and put the card in your instrument case.   (Guitarists sometimes tape a list to the top of their instrument, but that leaves nasty adhesive residue on your polished wood.)  It’s also nice to invite others in the jam to consult your list if they draw a blank (and even if they don’t).  That way, you end up playing more songs that you know.  Finally, you should always be willing to share your song lists, lyrics, and tabs.

Read the mood when choosing a song.  Choosing an appropriate song and tempo for a particular moment in the jam is important.  If your group has just completed a mournfully slow song about lost love or dying, it might be appropriate to choose a fun, up-tempo song or instrumental to lift the mood and get things moving again.  That said, however, it’s also simple politeness to avoid super-fast material if you know that a plurality of your fellow musicians can’t keep up.  The point is to keep things interesting and fun for everyone, not to show off or show others up.  It’s the Bluegrass Tao.

Default to songs, rather than Instrumentals, for a novice jam.  In general, if you’re playing with novice jammers, it’s better to choose a song rather than an instrumental.  For one thing, it’s easier to pick up and play a song’s melody and chord progression.  In addition, most bluegrass instrumentals are “fiddle tunes” — English, Scottish, and Irish folk tunes — meant to be played ripping fast.  Even though many fiddle tunes sound great at slower speeds, it’s hard to restrain the natural impulse to speed up and thus leave some members of your group behind and frustrated.

Don’t get hung up on what’s “traditional” bluegrass.  I may get into a bit of trouble here, but I think it’s pretty tiresome when someone objects to playing a particular song because it “isn’t bluegrass”.  As noted above, a lot of “traditional bluegrass” has its roots in centuries-old folk songs, so let’s not get too technical.  The test should be whether the song sounds good and is fun to play in a bluegrass style.  Many believe it keeps things interesting and fresh to mix old songs such as Nine Pound Hammer, Darling Cory, or Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the origins of which are now lost to time and tradition, with modern bluegrass compositions and songs adapted from the pop, rock, country, folk and blues traditions.  Imitation, or borrowing, is a high form of flattery.

Too much Gospel is too much Gospel.  Gospel songs are an important component of the bluegrass heritage.  Songs such as Angel Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and White Dove are truly beautiful and deserving staples of any jam anywhere in the world.  Yet be mindful that many of your fellow bluegrass musicians aren’t evangelical Christians, so it’s only polite to restrain from turning your local jam into an all-Gospel affair (unless it’s been advertised as such).  Mix things up and everyone will be happy.

Be welcoming and encouraging.  Even if you’re not the leader of a particular jam, it’s really nice to introduce yourself and some of the others to a newcomer.  Most likely, he or she will feel a little awkward.  To break the ice, you might ask newcomers about their instrument, where they live, and where they’ve been playing music.  Also, try to encourage a shy newcomer or novice to lead a song or take a solo break, even if you know that the result won’t be ready for the Grand Ole Opry.  This kind of support is extremely motivating and can lead to rapid improvement.  Plus it’s just really nice.

Open the jam circle.  As noted previously, most jams feature a circle of musicians.  That way, everyone has a better chance of seeing and hearing each other.  But it can extremely intimidating to a newcomer to be confronted with a tight phalanx of shoulders.  If you see someone approaching, open the circle up if there is enough space.  Many times, the newcomer will be content to play in the background (or as part of an “outer circle”) until they get the measure of the situation, but welcoming gestures are always appreciated.

Lend equipment willingly.  Note: we reference equipment, not instruments.  Whether you are willing to let a complete stranger take a turn with your $22,000 Gibson F-5 Distressed Master Model Mandolin is entirely your business.  But you should always be willing to lend stuff like picks, capos, tuners, song sheets, and lyric books.  

Avoid the uneven dispersal of effusive praise.  Obviously, some songs leaders and soloists will do a markedly better job than others in your jam.  But heaping praise at the conclusion of one song, while remaining totally mute after another, can hurt feelings unnecessarily.  It doesn’t cost anything, or hurt anybody, to say “nice job” in most circumstances.

Don’t smoke near singers.  Actually, we should say don’t smoke at all.  But the point should be obvious: second-hand smoke and singers simply don’t mix.

Be aware of your physical position in relation to others.  If you play a loud instrument such as a banjo or a dreadnought guitar, be aware that you can sometimes drown out neighboring musicians.  If you have any doubts, ask.  Pivoting the sound box of your instrument in a different direction, or changing positions altogether, is easy and effective.

Help others collect new songs.  Part of the fun of participating in a jam is learning and sharing new tunes.  It may be a small point, but if someone inquires about the name of a tune you’ve just played, take a moment to make sure they get it right.  It’s also nice to tell them who wrote or recorded it for reference.  You’ll be playing a small but important part in maintaining the tradition of bluegrass and folk music.

Optional: more on chords for the ambitious.  As noted above, in many instances you’ll be able to play bluegrass standards with just three chords — the one, four, and five — adding a seventh degree tone to the five chord for extra color.  In G, for example, you might play a D7 before returning to a G chord. 

Three chords will get you through most jamming situations.  As you gain more experience, however, you will find that many songs also use, in rough order of frequency, the six, two, seven, and three chords.  It’s sometimes possible to treat a six or two chord as optional, but it’s better if you use the chord.

In this context it may be helpful to point out that there is a general pattern to the sequence of major and minor chords in folk music as you move up the degrees of any major or minor key.  In a major key, the pattern is major, minor, minor, major, major, diminished, and major.  Thus, in the key of G major, the chords are G major (one), A minor (two), B minor (three), C major (four), D major (five), E minor (six), and F# diminished (seven). 

But things in bluegrass can be a tiny bit more complicated.  At the risk of over-generalization, the “7 chord” in bluegrass usually refers to what is actually a flat major 7 chord (a “flat 7”).  This is because many bluegrass songs are not in the familiar major scale, but in a scale “mode” such as Dorian or Mixolydian in which the 7th degree of the scale is a whole rather than half tone below the root or first degree.  Forget the technical stuff and just remember: When someone at a bluegrass jam calls for a 7 chord, play the major chord one whole step (two keys on a piano) below the root chord.  Thus, in the key of C major, you would use B flat major.  In the key of G major, use F major.

The same basic rules apply for minor keys, which are much less common in bluegrass.  For minor keys, the sequence is minor, diminished, major, minor, minor, major, and major.  So, in the key of A minor, the chords would be A minor (one), B diminished (two), C major (three), D minor (four), E minor (five), F major (six), and G major (seven).


For many jammers, the focal point of any jam is taking a solo break.  For advanced and experienced musicians, improvising a compelling and innovative break on the fly can be as natural as breathing.  For most of the rest of use mere mortals, it’s a major challenge to come up with something that is presentable in public.

In general, there are two approaches to building a solo: lick-based and melody-based.  In the lick-based approach, the soloist aggregates a series of memorized individual musical phrases (“licks”) that can be played over a particular chord progression.  This often sounds great.  But some purists will say that a “true” solo break should be based on the melody — that, notwithstanding the presence of fancy licks and embellishments, the solo should evoke the tune’s melody.  Our advice: start with the melody and add licks.

However, this isn’t the place to try and teach solo technique.  Rather, we raise the subject to make several important points.

First, everyone at a jam has a right to try soloing.  Obviously, if you can’t hack a particular tune, and stumbling through it would detract from everyone else’s fun, exercise some restraint and wait for another opportunity.  But even if you can only “fake it” by using guitar cross-picking or a basic banjo roll over the chord progression, go for it.  It probably sounds just fine.  Besides, there’s no lasting harm in modest amounts of less-than-successful experimentation.  We’ve all been there.  How else can you expect to improve?

Second, the soloist is always right.  If a soloist starts his or her break late, or is out of step, try to adjust your rhythm playing to what he or she is doing, even if it’s wrong.  When all else fails, just play the root chord of the song until the soloist can get his or her act together and start (or resume).

Finally, a local jam isn’t a performance competition.  Don’t use your solo to speed up the tempo without warning.  Listen and be alert to directives from the song leader, who may be trying to split long verses into two or more solos.

Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff

Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff is a native of New York City but maintains a home in the Hudson Highlands near West Point. An intermittent guitar player since his teens, he attended one of Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick’s Jam Camps in 2006 and has enjoyed jamming ever since.

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