Blues jam etiquette

When the founder of Music Muse Academy asked me to create-and-share a brief article about ‘blues jam etiquette’, I began to think about the many blues jams I have had great fun hosting and great fun being a part of. I was also began to remember the way players who had the greatest ‘blues-jam-etiquette’ were also those whose presence was the ‘most-welcomed’ and the ‘most-celebrated’ regardless of their actual playing ability. In addition, I remember observing that those with great etiquette on-and-off stage were are also the ones who tended to grow the most musically and were the ones who looked and sounded more-and-more professional with each passing jam!

Introduction

In this article we are going to step away from working directly on our musical skills for just a moment and invest in ‘how’ to best apply our musical skills in a blues-jam setting, and do so in a way that is going to help us grow great friendships and generate clear pathways for hitting the ultimate target of musical growth-and satisfaction. With that said, let’s jump in and get started!

Before the jam

If possible, we should speak with the blues-jam host at least one or two days before we make our first appearance at the jam. This will provide us with a great chance to answer questions we have about the best way to get started within his-or her particular jam-format. This information might also be available in written form on a website which could be a great time saver - regardless, our aim is to know, before arriving at the jam, answers to basic questions like:

Blues jam preparation
  • Where is the blues jam located?
  • What time does the blues jam begin and end?
  • Can we arrive anytime, or is there a special time set aside for loading in our favorite Fender Stratocasters, Telecasters, Gibson Les Pauls, and ES-335s?
  • Is there a certain door used for loading in, or do we just carry our gear through the main entrance?
  • What equipment is needed? (Some jams will not let you bring your own guitar amplifier while others will require that you do.)
  • Is there a set list? If not, what can we practice beforehand in order to be best prepared? Are there backing tracks posted somewhere in order to improve our ability to prep for jam day?
  • Do we need to lead a song or tune ourselves, or can we be on stage with someone else who is leading?
  • Is it ‘first come first serve’, or will an organizer be putting us into groups that he or-she feels are going to be well-balanced.
  • Is there an order that we take solos in, or will the bandleader prompt us?
  • Is there a preset number of choruses that we should not exceed when soloing, or will the bandleader prompt us?
  • And other need-to-know basics like these.

Pro-Level Tip: These are not questions that we want to be asking a blues-jam-host just before or during the actual jam. Asking a day or two beforehand gives everyone plenty of time to be relaxed and well-prepared on jam day!

What to bring

We should be sure to bring our own instrument, cable, tuner, amplifier (if allowed), extension cord, and outlet strip. This will ensure that we are self sufficient and adaptive. It will also help us avoid being that person who is always borrowing gear and who often impacts a lender’s ability to participate freely.

Pro-Level Tip: We should decide beforehand whether or not we are willing to lend our personal equipment to other players. One word of caution is that many players have ended up staying at a jam much longer than they had originally hoped simply because their ‘amplifier-on-loan’ remained on stage during a heated blues jam frenzy that just went on and on!

Tuning

We should turn our guitar volumes completely off while tuning. This is a pro move! What is not a pro-move is making everyone in the band-and-audience listen to us tune up at any volume other than completely quiet and peaceful.

Warm up

blues jam tuning

We should warm up and practice with our guitar volumes set to zero. Remember that anyone who is in the venue before the jam starts is a potential audience member.

If they hear one or more guitar players ‘noodling’ around in collective chaos for thirty-minutes-straight before the first beat hits, they are likely to become ‘burned-out’ and head-for-the-hills before the band even gets started.

We should let there be a growing sense of anticipation and a growing sense of excitement that brings us quietly up to that very first downbeat!

Set List

If there is a set list for the jam, we should be sure to print it out and bring our own personal copy with us. Nothing looks and sounds more pro and more top notch than a group of great players who – in a relaxed and competent way - all know what song and in what key they are about to perform without having to ask and/or ‘yell around’ to figure things out between songs! Remember, the audience is watching!

Silence is golden

Between songs we should turn our guitar volumes back to zero and remain silent. This gives the audience-and-the-band a bit of rest and brings everyone back to that sense of anticipation and excitement for the next song to begin.

Plus, silence is very helpful for the bandleader and/or singer who need to get into the next groove and into the next key with clarity-and-confidence before counting the band in.

When to play

blues jam crowd

Before and during each song we should ask ourselves how we can best contribute to the overall performance. A real pro would rather ‘not-play’ in a situation where he/or she would only be piling on to an already overcrowded sound on stage.

If there are already enough ‘rhythm-guitar-players’ active on stage, we might consider remaining silent until it becomes our turn to solo. This is what many top-notch saxophonists, and other horn players, do – they wait musically until it becomes their time to step into the spotlight and really shine, then they step back like a pro and wait musically once again!

Volume control

When performing on stage, we should actively adjust our guitar volume to fit properly into the current mix (for more on this topic, see my article at Music Muse Academy called “Keys To Playing Blues Rhythm Guitar!”).

When the band gets quiet, we get quiet, and when the band builds up with greater volume-and-intensity, we do the same. With that said, we should always avoid being out of place in terms of volume.

We don’t want to be that player who stands out because they are playing way louder than everyone else, and we don’t want to be that player who stands out because their volume is way quieter than everyone else!

Being in creative control of when to turn on the solos and when to turn them off is an important part of creating a great listening experience for the audience. If your solo is ever cut shorter than you wanted it to be, there is a good chance that your audience has been left wanting more, and that’s a great position to be in!

Pro-Level Tip: I am saying all of this about ‘actively adjusting our guitar volume’ at the jam, but I realize that many jam scenarios simply end up lacking volume control and are often simply void of volume dynamics.

If this is the case, we must strive to find a more professional playing environment in order to really grow our musical abilities where band and/or ensemble playing is concerned. Keep going to the jam if it is fun, but be sure to play with “pros” in order to learn how to play more-and more like the pros do!

Keep it short

If we have been soloing for a long time, three or more choruses, there is a very good chance that the other players are hoping that we will become a team player, wrap it up and give them a chance to shine too! If we want to solo for hours, we can do that during our own time – then, on jam night we can be ready and happy to simply enjoy being a team player!

Wrap it up

If we are soloing and are about to start another chorus (of soloing) but instead, the singer starts to sing, we should immediately give them the ‘right of way’ by quickly going silent.

Remember that a bandleader’s job is to provide a balanced performance for the audience, and a singer who is also the bandleader might jump in and sing right at the end of our solo when they feel it has become time to give the audience that sense of balance between solos and the song’s main theme.

Being in creative control of when to turn on the solos and when to turn them off is an important part of creating a great listening experience for the audience. If your solo is ever cut shorter than you wanted it to be, there is a good chance that your audience has been left wanting more, and that’s a great position to be in!

Take it easy

guitar tuning

If we ever grow to the point that, for any reason, the blues-jam-scene is not satisfying our musical needs, we might consider starting our own band, either with casual or professional aims in mind. In this way we can simply create the kind of musical scenario that we really want instead of being frustrated with the blues-jam and/or instead of trying to ‘bend the blues jam’ to meet our personal interests and needs.

This even more satisfying approach frees us to then enjoy the blues-jam scene patiently and happily for ‘what it is’ without any real concern for ‘what it isn’t and can’t be’. In this way, we can enjoy walking into any blues jam and feel welcomed-and-celebrated for bringing our ‘easy-going’ and ‘fun-to-be-a-team player’ frame of mind!

Conclusion

Through many years of teaching, jamming and performing, I have come to the personal conclusion that if given a choice between ‘one or the other’, I would choose to make music with ‘great people’ over making music with people who are just ‘great musicians’.

Does that make sense? This is another way of saying that having great etiquette on-and-off stage really does work to build great musical friendships that last a lifetime – and those who have enough situational awareness to develop great etiquette on-and-off stage are often those who really do grow musically enough to look-and-sound-like true professionals!

With that said, it’s all about having fun as we are all learning and growing forward together, so until we meet again, happy practicing!