July-August 2010

Joining Jams and Sessions

By Roland Sturm

Summer is here and so is the festival season with many opportunities for jamming. Playing with others is one of the best ways to improve your playing and certainly an enjoyable one. Are you one of the many people who like the thought of jamming, but find the next steps step too daunting?

It's actually not that difficult, but you need a bit of preparation. Knowing what to expect and what to look for will go a long way towards a successful start. Participating in a jam session is more than walking up and playing along with other musicians. It's no different from joining a conversation: You need to know the language (style) and the topic (repertoire).

Different music styles have different conventions, accompanied by different expectations about appropriate behavior in a jam session. The California Traditional Music Society in Los Angeles has a different style every weekend: first Sunday of the month is Old Time, second Sunday is a Song Jam, third Sunday Celtic and fourth is Bluegrass. Check out the different styles to see what appeals to you as a player. In Orange County, The Living Tradition has a beginner oriented jam the fourth Saturday at the Anaheim Community Center. Observing a session and understanding its dynamic is a good idea before trying to jump in - just like you make sure you know the language and the topic before joining a conversation.

A common repertoire is what makes or breaks a jam session. A jam will fizzle out quickly, or never even get off the ground, if people don't have a basic set of tunes they all know. Each style has its own repertoire with relatively little overlap across styles. And every group will have a minuscule fraction of that particular style repertoire as its own common repertoire. Novice jammers do best when they learn the core tunes of the local groups. You won't get far as a newcomer if you try to get the group to play a bunch of tunes that only you know. The bane of all sessions are "jam busters"- individuals who want to play tunes that nobody else has a clue how to play. Especially at festivals, a jam is a fragile thing. Very commonly, jam busting is due to picking a tune from a different style (classic rock reliably blows apart any traditional music circle).


Let's start with the conventions. Some are more readily apparent than others. You'll quickly observe that everybody plays the same melody at the same time in Old Time jams or Irish/Scottish sessions (the word jam isn't used in Celtic circles), while people trade solos in Bluegrass or jazz/swing jams. A less obvious convention is that Old Time jams tend to stay in the same key for a long time. There is a logic to this: Frequent key changes are distracting (a jam busting strategy) because banjos and some fiddles are in key specific tunings and retuning saps momentum. So suggesting a tune in a different key is not a good move. It's completely different in Celtic sessions, where tunes are typically strung together and changing keys even within a set (i.e. a group of tunes played without interruption) is encouraged. Again, there is a logic here: Irish sessions tend to switch tunes after 3 to 5 repetitions, moving on to a new one with no break; Scottish sessions switch after 2 repetitions. It is much easier to hear the contrast between tunes and keep people on the same page by switching keys at the same time as starting a new tune. In contrast, Old Time jams repeat the same tune many times. Bluegrass has a different structure entirely. People take turns taking solos (similar to jazz). Solos can stray far from the original tune, but that's why they are solos. Key changes from tune to tune are common and because singing dominates in Bluegrass, often you end up in keys that sound good for singing but would be unusual in old-time or Celtic (e.g. B flat, B, E). In Celtic or Old-Time jams singing is more unusual.

Those stylistic conventions also determine conventions about how much personal space you have as a player. A prototypical jam buster is a guitar player who endlessly spins out pentatonic minor and blues licks over melodies or other people's solo. That is an obvious problem, but there are more subtle common problems. In Celtic sessions, trying to "fake" your way through a tune can be a problem because it makes it much harder for others to stay together. Noodling around is a definite no. It is fine to finger along, but only very quietly or outside of the circle. There is no need to be embarrassed or nervous about not playing on everything, it is perfectly ok regardless of skill level to sit out tunes that you are not comfortable with. In Bluegrass (or jazz/swing), there is room for solos unrelated to the melody, but with a different constraint: Only when it is your turn. Layering onto somebody else's solo is just as annoying as noodling in Celtic sessions.

Celtic sessions have no constraint on the number of melody instruments, while a Bluegrass jam circle will become awkward with more than one or at most two of each lead instrument: fiddle, mandolin, banjo, etc. Oddly enough, the role of accompanists seems to be reversed across styles. Backup is predictable in Bluegrass and swing, but more improvisational in Celtic sessions. So for guitar, bass, mandolin (chords), etc., joining a Bluegrass and Old Time session is fairly easy (jazz requires more skills) and multiple backup instruments are fine as long as they don't drown out the lead players. For Celtic session, it's trickier. There are essentially two distinct models. The more common one is that there only is one guitar (or piano) at a time who essentially improvises a backup, with guitars often in nonstandard tuning (like DADGAD). If there is more than one guitar, they take turns across sets (same rule for percussion). Unfortunately, that makes such sessions harder to join. An alternative, which may be more suitable for beginning/intermediate sessions and which we use for the CTMS session, is to have fixed chord charts that work for guitars in standard tuning. It is easier for beginners and allows more to participate (we often have 4 guitars or more).


Tunes (or songs in Bluegrass) constitute the topic (or maybe the vocabulary) of the jam session's musical conversation. Just as conversations vary in the depth of a topic, so do sessions. At festivals, you will typically see groups of players with a common repertoire. It is easy to get the feeling of being excluded from a close circle of friends, but this is usually a misleading impression: What holds them together is knowledge of tunes, not cliqueishness or even necessarily personal ties. If you knew the same tunes, you would be one of them automatically.

So it always comes back to the same question, what tunes do you need to know? Once you get beyond a few dozen tunes, common repertoires tend to vary locally and the best way is to check out local jams and sessions to see what is common there. But to get started as a beginner, there are tunes that qualify as common repertoire just about anywhere. These are the equivalent of day-to-day topics, so you may no longer hear them at an advanced or regular session, not because people don't know them, but because they are so well known. However, that is what makes them safe choices for new groups, informal jams, and beginners. Regular groups may drift towards more esoteric topics, just like there are discussion groups on advances in genome sequences or the latest developments in particle physics. But then, you don't strike up a conversation with strangers with a specialized topic either (nor will you talk to your friends every day about where you live or what you work on). I have selected a dozen in each genre, but could have selected a different dozen (although going much beyond that would get into less common tunes).

A dozen Irish tunes: Cooley's Reel, Drowsy Maggie, The Banshee, Silver Spear, Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Musical Priest, The Kesh Jig, Morrison's, Butterfly, Banish Misfortune, Harvest Home, The Boys of Bluehill.

A dozen Old-Time tunes: Old Joe Clark, June Apple, Cluck Old Hen, Cripple Creek, Soldier's Joy, Sugar Hill, Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss, Angelina Baker, Liza Jane, Cotton-Eyed Joe, Sourwood Mountain, Sandy Boys.

Bluegrass instrumentals are largely traditional fiddle tunes, so there is plenty of overlap. Certainly the first 6 in the Old Time list are among the tunes that Bluegrass players have learned early on as well. But to make it a separate list, I just chose a few that seem to be much more popular in Bluegrass circles than Old Time circles. But don't forget that Bluegrass is centered around songs, not instrumentals. Red-Haired Boy and Fisher's Hornpipe also work in Irish sessions. Otherwise, there is not a lot of overlap.

A dozen Bluegrass tunes: Blackberry Blossom, Bill Cheatham, Cherokee Shuffle, Fisher's Hornpipe, Red Haired Boy, Whiskey before Breakfast, Salt Creek, Sally Goodin, Clinch Mountain Backstep, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Rebecca, John Hardy.

I've only touched on the major jam session styles that you can find almost everywhere, but there are other jams in styles, which are a bit harder to find. Scottish or Cape Breton are not that unusual, even if dominated by traditional Irish styles. And while old-time usually means tunes from the Southeast US, there is also a Southwest style (see my previous Cinco de Mayo column) and you will reliably hear people play these tunes at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Festival or the Old-Time Fiddlers Convention at Goleta or the CTMS winter camp in Malibu.

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and leads the monthly Celtic sessions at CTMS. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


All Columns by Roland Sturm