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You're a beginner or intermediate bluegrass fiddle player; you know a few tunes such as "Cripple Creek", "Old Joe Clark", and "Boil Them Cabbage Down". You might have learned the basics of playing, but you may not have played with other people much or at all. You're at your favorite festival, and you've just come up on a HOT jam session. You'd love to join in, BUT you're afraid that:
a) You won't know the tunes.
b) You won't know what to do or how to do it.
c) You'll be embarrassed or choke.
d) They'll ignore you and pretend you're not there.
e) Someone will take your fiddle out of your hands and fling it into the woods.
f) They'll all get up and leave.
g) They'll laugh.
h) Something even more horrible might happen.
Been there, done that! Well, not (e), but certainly most of the rest. It doesn't have to be like that! Our task is to give you some tools and tricks so you can sit in on most any jam session and come out alive and grinning. It's easier than you think. Here's the secret: LEARN TO PLAY ALONG WITHIN CHORDS IN COMMON KEYS. Ha! I hear you saying, "I know a little about keys and chords - I just don't always know which chords are being played and how to play along with them." Never fear, we will cover that and more. Let's get started!
ANATOMY OF A JAM SESSION
A jam session is an informal, varied group of musicians playing together. Typically, members of the group come and go, have different abilities, and often don't all know each other. There may be two or twenty. There may be one of each instrument, or 10 guitars or six banjos. The jam may be hot, lukewarm, or very, very cold.
Jam sessions spring up at festivals, flea markets, music stores, and campgrounds. Pretty much anywhere there's a bunch of musicians. Some are open and some are closed. If you see four musicians sitting with their knees almost touching, their heads down, and playing extremely well together, it's probably a closed jam. They might be members of a band practicing. Sit back and be the audience! But if there's a circle of musicians with some empty spaces between them and they seem to be relaxed and having fun, and one smiles and calls out to you to "come on in", it's definitely an open jam.
Then, there's everything in between! How do you make sure it's an open jam before you jump in? Well, you might not be able to tell from "outside". If it's not obviously closed, be brave and join in if there's space. Of course, you won't want to do the wrong thing and immediately feel unwanted! See "Jamming Etiquette" for the proper way to comport yourself in a jam session.
At any particular time, there's likely to be a leader. It may be someone who suddenly starts playing and/or singing a tune, or it may be someone who says, "Hey, let's play Rocky Top in G". In some jams, the leader changes often. In others, there may be a set leader.
In a bluegrass jam, as in a bluegrass band, the players take turns playing lead while the others play "backup" (hopefully). And, everyone plays backup during the singing (once again, hopefully!). Note that in an old-time jam, no one takes a lead break. The melody instruments all play the melody together. Folk jams are more singing oriented and most everyone will be playing backup or accompaniment. In any case, you can join in by learning several types of "vamping". This will be explained below.
WHAT CAN I BRING TO THE JAM?
If one listens closely to good bluegrass jamming, it soon becomes apparent that a fairly sophisticated minuet is taking place, where each player is paying close attention to both the makeup and the sequence of the music being played. Rather than playing the same tune repeatedly (as "old-time" or other traditional musicians might) a bluegrass fiddler may sit out portions of the tune, "vamp" both percussively and chordally, add melodic fills at the end of sung phrases and, at the appropriate point in the tune, take his or her moment in the limelight with a "lead break", usually an improvisational departure from the basic tune melody but following its chord structure. Knowing what to do and when (and how often!) is a skill best acquired in co-operation with one's fellow jammers who, after all, are faced with the same challenge of how to give the collective rendition of the tune the most pleasing mix of texture and variety. We'll discuss each of these possible musical contributions in turn, starting with the simplest:
About the Authors
Carl Yaffey teaches music and plays with Grassahol. He is the author of "A Banjo Player's Guide to Jamming", "A Mandolin Player's Guide to Jamming", and "A Flatpicker's Guide to Jamming".
John Sherman has been active in playing American folk and Celtic music for 25 years. He currently divides his time between teaching, producing, solo performance and playing The Timbre Wolves and Celtic group Silver Arm. John also occasionally serves as side-guitarist to folk songwriting legend Tom Paxton.
John is the author of "John Sherman - So Inclined", and a contributor to "Master Anthology of Fingerstyle Guitar Solos Vol. 1".