There’s no formal guide to jam etiquette, but like the Boy Scouts, a good jammer’s motto is “be prepared.” That, good citizenship and serviceable chops go a long way in the world of jamming. So here’s a list of tips you might want to consider before bringing your axe down to the local watering hole and making a B-line for the stage.
Maintain Your Guitar
For working players, this is a no-brainer. But if your guitar lives in the closet for extended periods of time, be sure it’s properly intonated, that there’s no rust on the bridge (which can create buzzing), and that all your toggle switches, pots and jacks work. When you plug in at a jam, you need to be good to go or you’ll risk embarrassment and perhaps not be invited back. And, of course, an improperly intonated instrument or loosey-goosey tuning pegs means you won’t be in tune with the rest of the band, which ain’t good.
Don’t be a stage hog. If someone else is soloing, lay back and add support, don’t fight for space or overplay. And look to the leader for cues to step to the fore. Every jam has a leader. A superb example of jam leadership can be found in the latest movie by famed music documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge, All Jams on Deck. Shot during the October 2010 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, the film focuses on the jams that are an important part of the Cruise’s fabric. In the first major jam sequence, bluesman Tommy Castro sets the pace for a host of celebrity players, leading and cuing a horn section, two other guitarists, keyboards and a rhythm section while wailing on a fat-toned Gibson Firebird through his “A Good Fool is Hard to Find.” There’s no formal written text on the politics and fine points of jamming, but Mugge’s movie is a superb visual primer.
Know Your Jam
It’s perfectly cool to walk into a jam for the first time with your guitar, but if the jam’s mostly composed of regular players, you might not get invited to the stage until you’ve attended a few times and get to know the key musicians. And some jammers group together on the same stage every week and do a segment. Strictly speaking, a jam shouldn’t be anybody’s showcase except the house band’s, if there is one, but certain jams let the regulars do their thing regularly – and if too much time is taken up by these “bands,” hanging out might be a waste of time for you. These regular aggregations also are likely to play the same material every week, which makes for a boring scene.
Bring Minimal Effects
If you plan to use tones that require effects, try to keep it spare. The more time you take to set up, the less time people can play. At a jam, you’re always a guest, and a courteous guest is always considerate of others. One solution is a small battery powered plug-in-and-play pedal board that can be dropped on the floor and be ready to go. Any more than three or four pedals – maybe a tuner, an overdrive or distortion, delay and wah-wah – and you’re hogging real estate and getting into overkill.
Bring the basics with you – picks, cables and a tuner. Often the volume at jams tends to get out of hand, so don’t count on being able to tune by ear. And while bringing picks, if you play with them, is self-explanatory, don’t assume there will be cables waiting there for you, either. Often the backline provided includes cables, but after the heat of playing, these cables often leave the stage with players in the throes of post-jam thrill. Honest mistake, but if you don’t have your own cable you could find yourself hunting for one instead of getting down to business.
If you need to bring an amp, never bring more than a 1x12 combo. Overpowered jams end up being more like the arms race than a musician’s social. A single player who is too loud can throw off the balance of the entire affair, inspiring others to crank up to be heard. Truth is, the quieter everybody plays the better it’s gonna be, since jams are ideally about listening and communication. For a great example of the perfect application of volume and tone, check out the All Jams on Deck footage of Elvin Bishop leading a rendition of his hit single “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” with his beloved Gibson ES-335 Red Dog. And if you’re using a backline amp, try to find one that’s comparable to your usual rig so you’ll feel as comfortable as possible.
Watch Your Volume
It’s worth saying one more time. Controlling volume is part of being respectful and deferential to others, and if you find you need a little more tone or attenuation to compensate, that’s where a pedal comes in handy.
Most jams are blues jams, but blues is pretty broadly defined. Typically at a blues jam you’ll need to have a grip on the basics of Chicago, Texas and West Cost blues. So listen to Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Stevie Ray Vaughan and T-Bone Walker to gain perspective on where you’re likely to be required to go. A little Chuck Berry never hurts, either. And if you’re a jazz player, think Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian, because that mode of playing is far more likely to be on the menu at a jam than John McLaughlin’s flash or Pat Metheny’s smoothness.
Unless the leader of the jam insists, plan to stay for only two songs. Many jams have more people on the sign-up sheet than can be accommodated, so plan to get your rock on and then get off stage. It’s good citizenship.
Show Up Early, Stay Late
You’ll want to show up early to be sure you get a spot on the sign-up sheet. But if you split as soon as you’re done, you’re not making payback for the folks who’ve watched you play. Every band needs an audience for inspiration and energy, and the players on stage at any jam are no different. The simple rule is, if you’re playing, you’re staying.