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Thread: Jam etiquette

  1. #26
    Free Spirit Aran's Avatar
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    May 2005
    Dublin Ireland


    Okay please excuse the length of this response,

    I am still on a learning curve with regards to how to fit in with sessions and especially with kick offs and endings but I do watch my volume and generally back up the majority of the time and wait for a nod before taking what I pass of as a break.

    However below is a copy of a handout that was handed to everyone on the first night of a regular weekly session I sometimes attend. This was taken from Pete Wernick (Banjo player). (etiquette is at the bottom but the whole thing might be helpfull to some)

    Bottom lines:
    1. Be in tune. Before starting and whenever in doubt, use an electronic tuner.
    2. Be on the right chord.
    A. Remember the chord progression.
    B. If necessary, watch the left hand of someone who knows the chords.
    3. Stay with the beat.

    It helps if you:
    1. Recognize common guitar chords by sight even if you don’t play guitar.
    2. Help with the singing. Knowing the verses to songs is a key ingredient.
    3. Suggest songs easy enough for everyone to follow. Be aware of common denominators of ability when picking keys and tempos.
    4. Know the basics of simple key transposing, such as when capos are used.
    5. Help others be on the right chord, tuning, etc.
    6. Watch your volume.
    A. Allow featured singer/soloist to be easily heard. If you can’t hear him/her, get quieter.
    B. When it’s your turn, make sure you’re heard.
    C. Be aware that your instrument (banjos especially) may not seem as loud to you as to someone who’s in front of it.
    7. Know the traditional unspoken ground rules (see below).
    8. Give everyone a chance to shine. Be encouraging.

    Traditional unspoken ground rules:

    Whoever is singing lead or kicks off an instrumental usually leads the group through the song, signaling who takes instrumental solos (“breaks”) and when to end.
    Typical arrangement formats:
    1. On a song when there are few or no instrumental soloists:
    The singer starts tune any way comfortable, others join in, play until verses run out. Or the singer can give a solo to anyone willing, following format:
    2. On a song when some instruments can solo:
    Break (“kickoff”), verse, chorus,
    Break, verse, chorus,
    Break, verse, chorus
    [optional: add solo(s) and final chorus]
    3. On instrumentals, the same person usually starts and ends, with solos going around in a circle to those willing. Most common end: double “shave and a haircut” lick.
    Regarding solos (“breaks”):
    1. Breaks for songs generally follow the melody and chords of a verse.
    2. At the beginning of a song and following each chorus, the singer offers breaks. Head signals and body language are used to offer, accept/decline.
    3. If no one can solo, the singer just keeps singing verses and choruses to the end.
    4. If there are more soloists than there are verses of the song, some solos can be grouped together to give everyone a turn. Or the singer can repeat verses to lengthen the song.
    5. If there are more than enough spots for breaks, some soloists can take an extra turn.
    If an instrumental soloist starts late, listen for whether the break is starting from the top or from a later point in the song. If different players realize they seem to be at different points in the song, try to resolve it quickly, usually by falling in with the soloist, even if he/she is mistaken.

    When the lead singer doesn’t start a verse on time, keep playing the root chord and wait until the singer starts before going to the chord changes.

    Sing harmonies on choruses only normally. Verses are sung solo. But in less advanced jams, people may often sing along on the verses too, even if not singing a harmony.

    Use signals to help everyone end together: Foot out, hold up instrument, end after “one last chorus” or repeat of last line. Listen for instrumental licks that signal ending.

    Etiquette stuff:
    1. Some key participants may have main influence over the choice of songs and who gets to do what. Be respectful of the situation. Fit in as invited.
    2. Instrumentalists, be mindful of when others want to solo or do featured backup. Give them space and take turns being featured. Don’t compete!
    3. Re tuning: wait your turn. If someone is tuning, avoid any playing, or perhaps (if you’re sure your instrument is in tune) offer notes matching the open strings of the other person’s instrument.
    4. In more advanced jams, often the “classic” arrangement of a particular number is followed, including choice of key, which instrument solos when, harmony parts, etc. However, if the classic version is in a key that doesn’t work well for the lead singer, the singer calls the key and the others adapt.
    5. If you don’t fit into one jam, look for another or start another, or just stay and listen. (Note if there are already enough of your instrument in the group, or if the speed or difficulty of the material is out of your league.) In some situations it’s OK to play quietly in an “outer circle”, not trying to be heard in the inner circle.
    6. Pay attention and learn from experience.
    Mando: Weber Bitteroot

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  3. #27
    Registered User
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    Sep 2002
    North Carolina


    Thanks, Aran. Funny, but seeing all those 'rules' in writing smacks of stating the obvious, but I suppose it can only help in some situations.

    Your tag mentions Buddy's Gilly. I well remember his Monteleone, certainly a fine instrument, but when he got the Gilchrist, he was a happy man!

  4. #28
    Free Spirit Aran's Avatar
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    May 2005
    Dublin Ireland


    Yeah it is stating the obvious but it's really for beginners and I thought that there are quite a few beginners here (me included) who might find it usefull.

    I saw pictures of Buddy's Monteleone after the car accident, not a pretty sight.

    Well at least he is still here to tell the tale.
    Mando: Weber Bitteroot

  5. #29


    Who else gets tired of somebody noodling in between songs?
    Quietly checking your tuning is one thing. But nobody can check unless they step away with somebody constantly noodling. You can't hear the next tunes name or key either. Yikes!
    i've never used this emodicon before


  6. #30
    Registered User David M.'s Avatar
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    Apr 2003
    East Iowa, these days


    Quote Originally Posted by
    B Flat
    Funny. But, could open a can o'worms if this boy can't play in Bflat and plays anyhow.
    David Mehaffey
    ...I wonder how the old folks are at home...

  7. #31
    Registered User adgefan's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2004


    Quote Originally Posted by (farmerjones @ Jan. 25 2006, 08:23)
    Who else gets tired of somebody noodling in between songs?
    Quietly checking your tuning is one thing. But nobody can check unless they step away with somebody constantly noodling. You can't hear the next tunes name or key either. Yikes!
    This used to happen a lot in the jam I run. Lots of beginners (including me!) who didn't know the "rules" and a room with really bad acoustics. We quite often would have two songs start off at once because nobody could hear anything - the moment more than two instruments were playing it descended into a dirge.

    Happily, I can now say that we have a new room with much better acoustics and most of us have a better grasp of etiquette. Also, I've managed to encourage a few more experienced jammers to come along and help us out. I still occassionaly have to ask people to back off when others are taking breaks and things like that. But asking someone straight is the only way to do it. We tried handing out print outs and dropping hints but this didn't work. You just have to tell them (politely, of course)! In the majority of cases people get it. Those that don't are usually only there to show off anyway and don't bother coming back once you tell them off enough times

  8. #32
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    Dec 2005


    I dont understand how even a first day beginner could step all over someones break. Didnt their parents teach them not to speak when someone else is talking? It seems SO obvious...and yet is such a common complaint. Just another one of the many things I will never understand about human beings i guess.

  9. #33

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    ... Good BG jams are so illusive and fleeting, It seems that I pursued and enjoyed 'jams' much more when I had just begun to get involved in BG. After being seriously associated with BG, and a member of a 'band' for many years, it seems I am confronted with the sad reality of just how difficult it is to experience a real satisfying jam. Maybe I expect too much out of the other players ?

  10. #34
    Registered User Bob Visentin's Avatar
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    Mar 2008
    Decatur, GA

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    I've been going to a local jam now for about 20 years. Some people just don't get it. I don't understand a musician who does not listen.

  11. #35
    Registered User Mando Mort's Avatar
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    Dec 2017
    Chesterfield, VA

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    I was probably that mando player at one point, but have since learned to listen more and pick less. Just like life, it is a learning process.
    "All of us contain Music & Truth, but most of us can't get it out." - Mark Twain

    Eastman MD615SB
    Martin D35
    Gibson SG

  12. #36
    Fingers of Concrete ccravens's Avatar
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    Dec 2005
    Crockett, TX

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Sager View Post
    ... imagine 4-5 mandolins all playing their own melody ALL THE TIME on EVERY song.
    I think that's called "Old Time Music."

    Oops, I now see someone beat me to it.
    Chris Cravens

    Girouard A5
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  14. #37
    Registered User bradlaird's Avatar
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    Apr 2005
    Americus, GA
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    I am happy to see this ancient thread revived. Jams have been a fascinating study of mine for a long time.

    I took the classic Jammandments and exploded them into a 60 page free eBook PDF that you can download here:

    Don’t be fooled by the word payhip. Payment is optional (but appreciated) if you set the price to zero.

    Have fun!

  15. #38
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    Nov 2011
    port orchard washington

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    So I to love to see if i can figure out the tune while its being played then take a break on it myself and see if i can not embarrass myself. So i have to play it quietly but loud enough to hear. Is this ok?? Usually we are sitting in a circle so i cant step back to the back of the jam as woodwiz says he does.

  16. #39

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by banjofish View Post
    So I to love to see if i can figure out the tune while its being played then take a break on it myself and see if i can not embarrass myself. So i have to play it quietly but loud enough to hear. Is this ok?? Usually we are sitting in a circle so i cant step back to the back of the jam as woodwiz says he does.
    -Strangely enough I’ve just been looking at an advert for one of those tiny ear phone preamps that usually plug into an electric guitar. It looks like a real amp but is only about three inches long. If you had a pickup fitted to your mando then you could probably hear your own playing with ear plugs even if you just touch the strings with your fret hand fingers.

    You might get some comments or smiles from the other players, but if there aren’t many people taking breaks then maybe you can make a comment? Slow session time?

    By the way, to save your hearing you’ll need to figure out a way to switch the darn thing off when you take that break!

  17. #40
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Upstate New York
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    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Know the kind of jam you are in - taking turns selecting the tune, or jumping in, or waiting till called on.

    Know the kind genre you are in - list to find if it is the kind of music where taking breaks and improvising is appropriate. What kind of backup is appropriate, should I chop?

    Nothing wrong with not playing a tune if you don't know the tune.

    Be the bunny - large ears small mouth, not the gator, large mouth tiny ears.
    Having something to say is highly over rated.

    The entire staff

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  19. #41
    Registered User mbruno's Avatar
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    May 2012
    San Diego CA

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    I've always followed Mr. Derek Trucks

    1. Just listen.
    Make sure that when you’re on stage with others, you are paying attention to what’s going on and not getting self-involved in your own world.
    2. Respect everyone else’s musical space.
    The easiest way to kill a vibe is by jumping in and adding your two cents too soon, while someone else is still trying to build something. Just let things happen.
    3. Make you sure you are telling a story.
    Never just be playing scales, filling space or going through the motions. Sometimes people resort to such tactics just to fill space but it’s always a mistake. Longer solos aren’t always better solos. Always have something to say.
    4. Try to play an emotion.
    Always be aware of what emotion you want to convey and try to tap into it. You can often hear what a great soloist is going through. It doesn’t take words to express a thought; you can definitely spell out emotions musically and should always strive to do so.
    5. Never use the bandstand to practice.
    Don’t waste time working through things. It’s great to take chances but not to try things you are completely unsure of. Save your practice time for off stage.
    6. Treat the stage as your church.
    Respect what you are doing. If you want people to respect what you’re doing and think it means something, you have to act like it does. All great artists treat the stage like it is sanctified.
    7. Make sure your intentions are right.
    Don’t be up there to boost your ego or career. Mean what you’re doing and appreciate it. You won’t get anywhere musically if you are just on stage to impress people.
    8. Always make the band sound better.
    Don’t just highlight what you do; serve the group and the music. Playing rhythm behind someone or even sitting out at the right moment is just as important as soloing. Some people sound great when they’re doing their thing but just get in the way when they’re not.
    9. Educate with your music.
    Always move forward and turn your audience on to new things instead of relying on the same old tricks. A core audience gets stuck listening to one group and think that’s it, but you’re around so much music and should always be inspired by new things. It’s important to pass that along, and it keeps you out of ruts.
    10, Make sure you mean what you’re doing.
    Do what you want and love. If you’re playing with somebody, you might as well do it right. No matter what the gig, dig in and go to town.

    Mando's in use
    Newson 2018
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  21. #42
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Mar 2006
    Rochester NY 14610

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Thirteen-year break between Posts #32 and #33. Record or near-record?
    Allen Hopkins
    Gibsn: '54 F5 3pt F2 A-N Custm K1 m'cello
    Natl Triolian Dobro mando
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    H-O mandolinetto
    Stradolin Vega banjolin
    Sobell'dola Washburn b-back'dola
    Eastmn: 615'dola 805 m'cello
    Flatiron 3K OM

  22. #43

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    Quote Originally Posted by woodwiz View Post
    I was at a large jam with a fiddle player who never looked up to see what was going on around him, played over other people's breaks, and generally made things awkward for everybody else. I figure he probably didn't know better, but if I run into him again I would like to find a polite but inoffensive way to give him a heads up so that he will play backup until he gets a cue from whoever is leading the tune. I have no social skills whatsoever, so I could use some input.

    The fiddler is not a kid, and fiddles well enough to do some basic improvisation.
    It is rather sad, that such people are the part of our community providing not too good imagination on modern people...

  23. #44

    Default Re: Jam etiquette

    “If you are sighted, Thou shalt watch the singer or tune initiator for visual cues and follow them as best as you can.” I know some very capable musicians who simply can’t shout out instructions while playing. They are not wired that way. You have to watch for the glance, the nod, the briefly raised knee. It raises the quality of the session when the players are attuned that way.

    Last month I was at a session led by one of the best fiddlers in Cape Breton, a pretty high bar. I started wondering why we could all tell when she was ending a set of tunes, so I asked her..turns out there was always a staccato note followed by a micro-rest before the final phrase. But she had to think about it before she told me that! Totally internalized process.

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