The Bluegrass Tao


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

Although the terms “jam session” and “jamming” have their roots in the jazz culture of the 1930s, humans have been jamming — gathering to make informal, unscripted, often improvised music — ever since the first caveperson decided to sing a song or beat out a rhythm on a stretched animal skin.  Today, millions of amateur musicians throughout the world routinely assemble in small groups to sing or play musical instruments.  Why?  Because making music with other people is primal to the human social experience.   And it’s outrageously fun.

Contemporary jam sessions can focus on a wide variety of musical styles and traditions.  We are here concerned with jamming in the bluegrass style, which has evolved a distinct culture and a particularly well-defined and widely observed set of practical and cultural conventions — what I think of as The Bluegrass Tao (or “Way”).  Our purpose here is to provide the curious would-be jammer with a gentle introduction to the wonderful, yet slightly quirky, world of bluegrass jamming.

If you really don’t know what bluegrass is, perhaps you might consider reading something else.  But for what it’s worth, the term “bluegrass” generally refers to a distinctive style of playing traditional Southern string music first manifest in the music of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in the mid and late 1940s.  Although musicological arguments still rage, the consensus seems to be that the key evolutionary moment between “old time” Southern string music, which reaches well back into the 19th and even 18th centuries, and what would be called “bluegrass,” occurred when Monroe’s band incorporated Earl Scrugg’s innovative three-finger banjo roll.  A complex and difficult man, Monroe certainly enjoyed his status as “The Father of Bluegrass”.  Yet he would readily acknowledge that the musical tradition he helped to launch owed a heavy debt to African-American jazz and blues alongside the Anglo-Irish string music tradition.

Today, more than fifty years after its founding, bluegrass is vibrant and evolving.  Yet what makes bluegrass jamming so popular and accessible to amateurs is the existence of a lingua franca: an enduring and widely used core repertoire with a heavy emphasis on folk songs that actually predate bluegrass as a style but nevertheless have become “traditional bluegrass songs”.  Thus bluegrass, a relatively new style of playing music, is actually preserving very old folk songs.

For a supposedly informal and unscripted art form, bluegrass jamming is surprisingly rule-bound.  This can be irksome until one realizes that observing basic unwritten but tradition-supported “ground rules” is the only way to avoid cacophonous chaos when you are trying to coordinate the music-making efforts of two or more amateur musicians of varied experience and proficiency.   Moreover, just as the traditional ground rules regulate and provide a foundation for music-making, they also regulate and support the unique form of human social interaction that is an American bluegrass jam.  It is this strange yet alluring combination of practical guidelines and cultural convention that forms the Bluegrass Tao.

Whether in a festival parking lot, a church basement, a bar, or a private home, most bluegrass jams will feature one or more acoustic steel six-string guitars and several other instruments typical of the bluegrass genre: mandolins, fiddles, five-string banjos, resonator guitars (often referred to by the “Dobro” brand name), and (if you’re lucky) a double bass.   Occasionally, a jam will include a harmonica or flute and more exotic instruments such as a mountain dulcimer, autoharp, or lap steel.  Various forms of informal percussive instruments such as spoons and washboards are not unknown.  There’s no specific limit on the type or number of instruments, but generally it’s not great to have too many of any one instrument (especially loud ones such as banjos) pounding away at the same time.  Of course, only one bass player should play at a time.  This is usually not a problem; bass players are relatively rare and thus normally welcome additions to jams.

There is no way to generalize about the people behind the instruments.  A typical jam in an urban setting will include everyone from scruffy knit-hat-wearing young adults with professional aspirations to portly retired accountants in polyester pants to investment bankers with suspenders and French-cuff sleeves, and everyone in between.  For many, being an amateur bluegrass musician offers an opportunity to step outside their “normal” identities and routines and, perhaps, temporarily reinvent themselves as part of America’s somewhat idealized agrarian past.  Everyone assumes the easy familiarity of exchanging first names without bothering with surnames.  Professional lives and political views are (or should be) left behind.

All jams need a person who acts as coordinator.  This person need not be, and often is not, the “best” musician.  Instead, he or she is simply the kind of organized and motivated person who is the foundation of any volunteer organization, such as a church vestry or volunteer fire department.  S/he organizes the space, sends out e-mail reminders to the jam’s participants, and generally keeps things flowing during the jam.
At the jam, the musicians stand or sit in a circle.  The coordinator will usually ask each person in turn to lead a song.  The song leader sings (if applicable), assigns instrumental solos (“breaks”) to individual musicians, and ends the song.   Song leading duties rotate until the jam ends.

The song leader chooses the song (or instrumental) and specifies the key.  The song leader should choose a key that is both comfortable for his or her voice, and amenable for the other musicians.  To that end, when it comes to instrumentals, it’s helpful to remember that novice banjos prefer the key of G (banjos are tuned to an open G chord) but fiddles often prefer the key of A.  Guitar, resonator guitar, and banjo musicians can use a capo to change keys easily while retaining a familiar fingering.  Mandolins very rarely use a capo, and fiddles and other instruments cannot.  In generally, there’s no harm in taking a moment to ask around for special needs or preferences.

A word about singing.  Although it’s perfectly legitimate to choose an instrumental tune instead of a song with words, no one should be afraid to sing.  With practice, and the right choice of key, almost everyone can get through a bluegrass song without embarrassment.  That said, if you’re not comfortable with singing, it might be best to stay away from slow ballads with twelve verses.

If the other musicians are unfamiliar with the tune, the song leader should take a moment to review the chord progression and time signature.  Since most bluegrass standards have a relatively simple progression, in either 4:4 or 3:4 time, this usually doesn’t take a lot of time.  But it’s important to make sure everyone knows what to expect. 

Having reviewed the progression, the song leader might ask if any of the other musicians wish to take a solo break.  This isn’t a requirement.  In most cases it will be obvious who is prepared and/or willing to take a solo.  (This can be confirmed by catching a potential soloist’s eye during a song with an inquisitive look; he or she will either nod assent or shake his or her head to decline.)  Thereafter, the song leader may count off or simply starts the song to establish the tempo.   In more advanced jams, the song leader (or another soloist) can kickoff the song with an instrumental break.  Mandolin and banjo players will often introduce a song by repeating a short instrumental phrase known as a “potato” before inviting others to join in.1  They will generally announce the number of potatoes in advance.  
Most bluegrass songs feature two or more verses, each followed by a chorus.  The song leader sings the verses; the entire group joins in the chorus.  At the end of the first chorus, the song leader will either take a solo or look to another soloist, who then plays an instrumental over the verse’s chord progression.   After the break, the song leader sings the next verse, everyone sings the chorus, and the song leader then assigns the next solo.  And so on.  The song ends after the last chorus, often with the addition of a tag or ending segment, such as a repeat of the chorus’ last line.  In cases where the ending is ambiguous, the song leader should signal the coming end by raising his or her instrument and/or sticking a foot out into the circle.  (Yes, this is a little strange, but it’s universally recognized for “Heads up, the song is about to end.”)

If there are more soloists than verses, the song leader can either assign a second or even a third instrumental break between verses, or he or she can break up the solos into two parts.  The bottom line is that everyone who wants one should have the opportunity to take a solo.

If the tune is an instrumental, everyone who wants to should have an opportunity to solo while the others play rhythm through the chord progression.  The tune ends after every soloist has had at least one turn.  The leader will often take the first and the last break and signal the end. 

1 The well-known banjo player and bluegrass instructional Impresario Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick is credited with having coined the term “potato”.

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.

One Response

  • In the 3rd paragraph from the bottom, it says, everyone who wants a Solo Break, should have the opportunity. Is there a Limit? I go to a couple jams where every song takes so darn long they barely make it around the circle to give everyone an opportunity to Sing a song. I can see a couple breaks but they give the Banjo, Mandolin, Fiddle, Dobro, Harmonica and Guitar EACH A SOLO. A 3 minute song can take 10 minutes. Shouldn’t there be a limit??

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