Guitarmaker Magazine Editor Updates Bluegrass Jam Rules


Guest Blogger Alton Acker has 10 key points for beginners and veterans alike!

Bluegrass Jam Etiquette

By Alton “Bear” Acker

When Brian McNeal from Prescription Bluegrass contacted me about writing an up to date article on “jamming etiquette” I remembered two previous articles I’d seen in Bluegrass Unlimited. I got in touch with Bluegrass Unlimited and inquired about the articles I’d read many years ago. They were nice enough to send copies of the articles which had appeared in their magazine in 1976 and 1985. A comparison of these articles follows, as well as my observations of how jam sessions have evolved over the years.

In 1976, bluegrass had evolved to a point where regional festivals were widely being established. The article of June of that year has a more simplistic view of “Jam Session Etiquette” because festivals were still evolving, along with how patrons behaved at them. I’ll quote from that BU article, and the author Martin Gibson (a questionable name for an author, it seems to me):

“One of the nicest things about bluegrass festivals is the sense of community and the feeling of oneness with fellow bluegrass followers, whether they are pickers or just educated listeners. And nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the parking lot jam session. Here folks can mingle with one another to exchange ideas, or renew old acquaintances, or just make music. Top professionals are often found woodshedding with talented amateurs and musicians from diverse backgrounds and different geographical areas can come together to share their music. Yes, a good parking lot session can be a beautiful thing; but, as with so many beautiful things, it can also be very fragile. Nothing is more disheartening than being present at a really super session when everything is clicking perfectly, only to have something go wrong. Somehow the spell is broken, and the session disintegrates.”

Image634800184424413147This has been, and still remains, a problem with parking lot picking. Such occurrences as:

  • An outside influence that disturbs a thriving jam, such as a picker joining the group, without asking if the session is closed, or not.

  • A picker who is not of the same level of picking and singing as the group.

  • Someone who plays an entirely different style from the material the group was playing

  • People with cameras and/or recording devices pushing-in to capture the music, and causing disruption to the general climate of the group.

  • Listeners requesting songs or applauding when it is not the “climate” of the session.

The author of the 1976 article further states:

“Try it this way: Walk around the outside. Look for an opening or a listener who looks like he's about to leave. Slip into a slot and, as the group shifts. Gradually work your way in. Then when you're close enough, ease your microphone near the pickers. But for goodness sake don't jam it into someone's nose. Camera people have similar problems but they are potentially more disruptive because they move around a lot, searching for just the right angle. If you must move around, use your long lens and shoot from behind the crowd. If you need to be in close, completely exhaust your angle before you move; and again, don't stick your lens into someone's ear.

Applause and requests, these too, are a distraction at a really good session. If you must make a request, do it in the form of a question, "Do you all know----?" and then only when it looks like the participants can't think of anything. And don't insist or give them a hard time if they can't comply; after all, it is their session.

Then when it's all over, for whatever reason, tell them that you enjoyed their music. This is a lot better and a lot more believable than whoops and claps while they're jamming; and, who knows, you might strike up a conversation and make a friend, all because you didn't mess up the picking.

If you're roaming the parking lot with your axe in search of picking companions, you're still obligated to be courteous. Don't plunge head-long into an established session. Wait a few minutes and feel it out. It could be that you simply don't know the material that they're doing; in which case you should either listen or move on But if you do decide to join in, or if they ask you to get out your "five," then play it their way till you get your footing. Of course, being the newcomer, you'll probably be challenged to "Pick one," in which case do one you know well. But no matter what you do, don't drag out your banjo, or whatever, when there are already too many whatever’s in the session. Two of any instrument is about the limit for a good session, and then always remember to back off when it's the other guy's turn. Nobody likes a pig.

So the next time you're involved in a session and all of a sudden for no apparent reason it falls apart, look around. Chances are that someone has behaved in one of the ways that you now know to be deadly to good jam sessions. Was it you?”

As I said before, these were early musings about festival conduct in the early days of bluegrass festivals. But reviewing the later Bluegrass Unlimited article by Janice McDonald, from 1985, some things hadn’t changed much. The ideal of treating people in a manner that you would like to be treated doesn’t really change with time. Image634800192713857276The rules listed here, however, are guidelines practiced by most every veteran festival goer. These conditions aren't usually broken, except by the novice attending a festival, or those insensitive bores everybody groans about when they see them corning. These are excerpts from the 1985 article:

Rule #1: Do not howl or shriek with laughter outside darkened campers at four a.m. Believe it or not, there are those who actually go to bed at a bluegrass festival. As a musician who never sleeps at a festival I was never aware of how offensive this practice can be. Tents also should be avoided when lurching around on your way back to your own campsite in the gloom. Those tent stakes can lead to a nasty fall, and nothing is quite so lethally embarrassing as crashing end over end into a pup tent until it's wrapped tightly around you ankle, then finding it contains a rudely awakened couple. Also, do not walk by a darkened camper and clunk your hard shell guitar case against it rhythmically along the entire length.

Rule #2: Be Neat. Do not get so involved during a jam session as to systematically destroy someone else's campsite. They have to look at that mess in the morning, you know, and the ugliness of garbage is magnified in the harsh light of day. Broken strings should be wound into a little circlet and shoved in your pocket until you can dispose of them properly.

Rule #3: Don't take advantage of others hospitality. If you are taking part in a jam session outside some else's campsite and they offer you a drink or some other refreshment, that doesn't mean you have free reign over their ice chest for the entire duration of the festival. . The same goes for coffee, which is a treasured and valuable commodity at sun up. If they've made enough to share, they'll offer. I know everyone gets in a bind from time to time and finds themselves at a festival smack in the middle of nowhere without a fork or a lantern mantel, so ask if you're desperate. Bluegrass people are by nature generous and helpful and understand camping equipment desperation, but please, consider that whatever you take diminishes their supply.

Rule #4: Do not play "Jam Wars." If there is already an established jam session within easy ear-shot of your campsite then it is your responsibility to discreetly move a bit farther away when starting another jam session. You'll find this will make it more pleasant for you, as well, as you won't have your music muddled by another song in the background, especially another song in a clashing key. No one in either jam session will know whether they're really in tune or not. Don't play louder and sing louder and hope they'll move. They never do if they're having a good time.

Rule #5: Know your jam session. When approaching a jam session that is well in progress, please pause before diving in and consider whether these people are playing music far more advanced than you would ever dream of. I have seen beginners barge into sessions without thought, only to learn they're disturbing a band that is practicing before going on stage. They often start making mysterious excuses one by one and disappear, only to start over again, without you, behind the next camper.

Rule #6: Don't be greedy. This rule is along the same lines as the last one. Try not to dominate a, jam session. Remember, everyone wants a turn. I've noticed the worst offenders are fiddlers and banjo players anxious to tryout all those songs they've been toiling over the last six months. But nothing is more wearying than playing rhythm to six hot fiddle breakdowns in a row.

Rule #7: Watch for your turn. Don't jump right in to sing the next verse before every instrument has had a turn to take a lead break. Don't dive into your own lead break when someone else has already started one. Play more softly while someone else has a lead break so they can be heard clearly. Give everybody a chance; this is why they came to the festival to begin with, to participate.

Rule #8: Don't complain about the key someone wants to play a song in, especially if it's a key requested by a singer. There's nothing worse than being forced to sing a song in a key that is impossible for you, just because someone forgot a capo, or the fiddler can't play comfortably in B flat. And no one likes to play in one key all night just to accommodate someone who can't play in any other.

Rule #9: Don't ask to play someone else's instrument. It makes little difference how badly you ache to touch that glorious Martin guitar, or Mastertone banjo, don't even ask. The more treasured the instrument, the more possessive the owner will be. This includes inexpensive instruments, as well. Every musician feels a fondness for their instrument and frets the whole time it's in someone else's hands. We've all heard horror tales of what a belt buckle or pearl buttons have done to the finish on the back of an instrument, or of someone else's malfunctioning capo screwing a neat hole through the back of the neck. If they offer, consider it your responsibility to protect that instrument while it's in your care.

Rule #10: Don't offend bluegrass purists by expecting to play or listen to top-forty country music, or rock and roll, in a bluegrass festival jam session. There are exceptions, but use your judgment. Artists are putting out so many great bluegrass songs from days gone by that are making the top forty charts, and with so many progressive bluegrass bands rearranging country tunes into great bluegrass numbers, we're hearing a lot of crossover hits at festivals lately. And I've often had occasion to enjoy someone banging out a terrific old Chuck Berry tune or a beautiful plaintive folk ballad in a jam, but gauge the mood. You'd have to be out of your mind to request or suggest a crossover hit when everybody's been doing Stanley Brothers tunes for hours.

So there are the 10 rules of bluegrass jam etiquette that will get you through playing in almost any situation in parking lot picking. Use your head, eyes and ears for a bit, and see if you’re going to fit into their group. Mostly it’s going to be a situation where common sense will play a big part in the enjoyment of impromptu jams that everyone involved will enjoy. Mostly, after listening to the performers, and jamming in between shows, festival attendees come away with a better feeling about the experience. In 2012, not that much has really changed in the way jam sessions operate. And you never know when you’ll find the roots of a new band in the next session.

I want to thank Bluegrass Unlimited magazine for their help, and permission to use excerpts from their archives.

Alton “Bear” Acker, Executive Director of ASIA (Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans)

Editor, Guitarmaker Magazine

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