This month’s OPEN ACOUSTIC ROOTS JAM SESSION will be held on Thursday, May 18th, at 8:30pm at The Douglass, 149 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217. You can call ahead at: (718) 857-4337

If you’ve never been to a jam session before, I want to go over a little bit of etiquette with you, and explain the process of learning tunes on the fly by ear, because I think it’ll help you relax and have more fun playing new songs.

I always try to incorporate jam sessions into my teaching method because there are certain musical cues you need to be able to pick up on in the moment of a song, that sometimes don’t come up in a private lesson. Private sessions are great for workshopping songs, refining techniques, and building good habits, but it’s also important to experience playing music in a larger group setting, because there are nonverbal cues that are unique to each group of players.

  1. LISTEN – The first rule of any jam session is listening, just like a conversation between two people involves listening and talking in equal parts. When you’re a member of a session, you’re one of many players, so it’s important to work together and wait your turn. Depending on who’s leading it, everyone should get a chance to take a solo and call a tune. If someone calls a tune you don’t know, the most important thing you can do is just sit back and listen. In a setting where everyone is playing a string instrument, it’s easy to watch their fingers and begin to memorize the chord progression, which you should do as quickly as you can.
  2. INTRODUCTIONS – Bluegrass tunes will typically start with a “kick off” of 2 or 3 bars – a musical count in for all the players to know when the downbeat of the song is going to start. It serves as an introduction to get everybody on the same page. If you’re leading a tune, you can play a musical introduction, or make a clear count-off. Either way, be confident and specific about how your introduction will setup the tune.
  3. ENDINGS – Endings can also be a giant question mark. It’s important to watch the singer (or melody player) for an indication on how to end the song. Commonly a “tag” is used to make it easy – repeating the last phrase of the song 2 or 3 more times for dramatic effect. Typically the leader will shout “tag” on the last phrase, so you can hear it coming. You just want to watch their body language for what beat they’re going to land on. Experienced Bluegrass players often have a bag of tricks for endings consisting of pre-composed musical phrases that add finality to each song’s ending.
  4. MEDLEYS – In a traditional Irish session for example, this is an opportunity for fiddlers to launch into the next tune. Fiddle tunes are typically strung together as “medleys”, so 3 or 4 songs can be played in a row played without stopping (for a sip of Guinness). As you see the end of one song coming, jump to the next song on the top of your mind. This eliminates a lot of the awkward silence between songs, and keeps players on their toes (if they know the tune).
  5. TAKE NOTES – One of the most valuable things you can take away from any jam session is the group’s collective repertoire. It’s a great opportunity to broaden your scope and play with other musicians. Allow them to teach you new songs or introduce you to new players. If somebody calls a tune you don’t know, you may want to kindly ask them afterwards for reference recordings to practice along with at home for next time. There’s nothing more rewarding than showing up to a jam session having done your homework and learned a list of songs that may have been unknown to you previously. Jam sessions are a great place to talk shop about your favorite artists, songs, playing roadblocks and goals.
  6. BE A NICE PERSON – Jam sessions are social musical opportunities for you to reach out and connect with new players. If you’re not a professional musician, this may not seem like that big of a deal. Even if you’re not trying to get more gigs, it’s always nice to be on a short list of people to call when they’re organizing a musical event. So put your best vibes out.
  7. TALK SHOP – Musicians are notoriously gearheads. From the moment we purchased our first instrument, our curiosity about creating sounds begins to grow exponentially. Hanging out with other folks with different instruments and backgrounds is a great chance to ask questions about how they achieve their sound. It’s always interesting to learn about how players practice, and it’s a great chance to find out more about instruments, strings, pics, amplifiers, cases, and to get referrals for luthiers and local repair shops.
  8. ALWAYS TIP YOUR SERVER – The art of the jam session is definitely a fragile breed when it comes to musical events. Compared to the size of giant music festivals, award shows, and primetime singing competitions, the intimate and friendly jam sessions seem to be a bygone tradition. The best way we can ensure that great musical events like these continue, is to support the local establishments to make them possible for us. The nice folks at The Douglass have gone out of their way on many occasions to invite musicians to perform and grow a local musical community. When they show their support for musicians like us, it’s important that we do the same to reciprocate these efforts, so that they’ll invite us back next month. Small things like this are easy to overlook, but just think about it from the perspective of a musician. How hard would it be to put a few dollars in the tip jar? Often times I’ll donate most of the tip jar back to the bartenders to make sure that spending their time with us was worth their while, and I encourage you to also show your support.

The rest is easy – have fun, smile, play it loud, and enjoy the food & beverages!

Chris Conly

About the author: Chris Conly is a musician & educator. He is a Maine native living in the borough of Brooklyn. Forever fascinated by nature, design, music & learning, Chris shares his passions with the world via his website, and with private students.