In the roots music tradition one of the most common ways songs are passed along are through musical gatherings called jam sessions. Jam sessions give people an in person experience of playing and learning from other musicians, and having the opportunity to find a community in the music tradition of your choice through songs.
Jam Etiquette FAQ's
Anyone who has ever attended an organized traditional music jam or session has been challenged by the concept of etiquette. How does this thing work? What is appropriate, (and not)? How can I be a part of it, and still be sure I won’t embarrass myself? How can I get invited back again? Well, the good news is that reaching these goals is not rocket science. Most session etiquette is common sense. But just to be safe, here’s an easy introduction to get you started:
There are no simple answers to these questions. Any informal (non-band) gathering of musicians might use one of these terms. As a generalization, folk, bluegrass and jazz musicians favor the term “jam,” while Irish, Scottish and related traditional players prefer the term “session.” Both are generally public, non-performance situations where musicians play together for fun, camaraderie and learning.
“Open mics” are performance situations in which an individual or band may volunteer to get a piece of the spotlight for a brief set (average 2-3 songs). This will likely involve a stage and sound system.
Sort of. For example, in a bluegrass or jazz jam, you can expect a tune to be “passed around,” allowing players to take individual and improvisational solos. Irish traditional players tend to play in melodic unison, with little or no improvisation. These things are rarely written down or communicated, but they’re important to figure out!
It depends, but usually, yes. A certain amount of structure is required to keep things rolling smoothly, so it’s common for a leader to emerge or be chosen. At some point, they’ll generally be overthrown in a bloodless coup. This leads to splinter sessions, and more places for us all to play.
Here we find the foundation of etiquette! Everyone is welcome who makes a sincere effort to fit in, acts appropriately, and isn’t completely obnoxious. Be a good session-citizen, help those around you enjoy themselves, and you’ll be loved by all.
Who chooses and starts a tune?
Usually anyone can. Just be careful. Figure out how your session works, and act appropriately. Experience will be your best teacher; you can also ask the session leader or other participants about the session or jam format.
Listen long enough, and you can answer this yourself. Follow the leads of others. Introducing new tunes to the group is good, but people all like to play things they know, too. Balance is crucial.
Listen and find out. Generally, you’ll hear a lot of D, G and A in most jams and sessions. Often instrument limitations govern what keys the group can play in, so you need to understand the needs of those around you. Also, most tunes have a key that’s normally associated with them, and it’s important not to start them in the wrong one!
A reasonable one, and that will vary based on the venue and the players. Never, ever start a tune at a tempo that you can't maintain without flubbing.
How many times do you play the tune through?
This varies, too. In Irish sessions, it’s often two or three runs, which may lead directly to another tune, (this is called a “set”). In other jams, it may go on until no one feels ready to step up with a solo. Sometimes there’s a signal near the end, such as a raised bow or foot. Occasionally the whole thing will implode of its own accord, and you'll figure out pretty quickly that it's safe to stop playing.
Songs and singing are an important part of most musical traditions, and are sadly lacking in many contemporary jams and sessions. However, “performances” are neither expected nor appreciated, so you need to understand the difference. Definitely sit in and observe for a good while before leaping in with a song!
Smile and be friendly.
If you're new to the session, observe first. Watch, wait, listen and learn — no matter how good a player you are.
Tune your instrument! Tune your instrument! Tune your instrument! (Remember this, if you forget all else!).
Don't start playing a tune while everyone else is tuning. • Don’t “noodle”! You’re either playing, or you’re not.
Stay in the genre! (Yes, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is a cool tune, but….).
Don't talk loudly while everyone else is playing.
Only sit IN the session if you're going to PLAY in the session. Otherwise, sit nearby and observe.
Be aware of the skill levels, and how players at the various levels participate. Chances are, everyone gets to play.
Ask before recording a jam or session.
Don’t videotape. Period.
About handling other people's instruments: An easy guideline — Don't unless it's offered.
Don't be afraid to ask questions.
Most important of all: Have fun! That's really what it's all about!
PineCone Bluegrass Jam: The PineCone Bluegrass Jam is a monthly jam session that happens on the 4th Monday of every month at Transfer Co. Food Hall in downtown Raleigh. This jam is for musicians of all levels and is focused on doing songs from the Bluegrass repertoire.
PineCone Beginner Bluegrass Jam: The PineCone Beginner Bluegrass Jam is a monthly jam session that happens at Harry’s Guitar Shop in Raleigh, NC on the third Monday of each month. This jam is meant to stay focused on playing songs that people with little experience can play along with.
List of songs frequently played at the
PineCone Bluegrass jam
These are just some of the songs frequently played at the PineCone Bluegrass Jams at Harry's Guitar Shop and TransferCo Food Hall each month. If you can pick a couple of these tunes you should be in good shape.
Big Spike Hammer
Banks of the Ohio
Deep River Blues
Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky
East Virginia Blues
Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Foggy Mountain Top
Gold Watch and Chain
How Mountain Girls Can Love
I’ll Fly Away
I Wonder Where You Are Tonight
Keep on the Sunny Side
Little Cabin Home on the Hill
Little Georgia Rose
Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee
Long Black Veil
Love, Please Come Home
New River Train
The Old Home Place
Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
Sittin’ on Top of the World
Some Old Day
Sunny Side of the Mountain
Whiskey Before Breakfast
Worried Man Blues
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
You Don’t Know My Mind
*It's a great song, but you're gonna want to "read the room" before calling this one.
PineCone Youth Bluegrass Jam
Calling all youth musicians
Fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and other stringed instruments, you are invited to jam with your peers, other kids in the area who enjoy playing the same types of music you do! These fun, friendly jams will continue to include some skill building, and will also provide opportunities for young musicians to meet each other and learn about bluegrass jamming.
PineCone's Youth Jam is held on the 3rd Saturday of the month (mostly) 2:30 - 4:00 in the Cary Arts Center.
Paul Cooper Studio
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave, Cary
Shape Note Music
Sacred Harp singing is the largest surviving branch of traditional American shape note singing. Singers in this tradition sing without accompaniment and sit arranged by vocal part in a "hollow square," facing one another across the square and taking turns at leading from the middle of the square. The songs are sung loudly, with spirit and enthusiasm, and rich four-part harmonies fill the room. The leader of each song sets the tempo with a simple vertical arm movement, and singers sitting in the square often beat time with the leader.
Songs are sung from a tune book called The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844 and continuously updated since then. It includes more than 500 a cappella hymns, odes, and anthems. While the origins of this music can be traced back to Renaissance England, the singing tradition reached a peak of development in early New England, as itinerant singing masters set words to hymns, ballads, and folk tunes, and taught their songs in singing schools. However, it was in the American South that shape note singing found an enduring home. Today, the South is home to singing conventions, including some that date back more than 100 years.
Shape Note Music
Our friends at North Carolina Shape Note keep track of open sings around the state. Most sessions begin with a primer for newcomers and end with refreshments.
Visit the NC Shape Note website