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The Rules Make The Jam Possible: Novice Jamming By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Friday, May 2, 2014

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I've been leading a student Tip Jar Jam for almost two years now and one of the things that I've become painfully aware of is how many rules there are for jamming! On the surface it seems as if there are no rules. People get together, someone suggests a song, everybody plays along, and it's all good! But underneath that happy-go-lucky exterior there are more rules than you can shake a stick at! These rules can be intimidating to a novice jammer. But knowing the rules can actually keep a jam going and make it work well.

In my jam the students don't have to worry about the rules because I call the songs, I call the keys, I line out the order of the breaks, and I often yell "ending" when it's time to end the song. But what happens when two or three beginning jammers are gathered together in Earl's name?  

First of all, here are some things that jammers must bring to the jam. (Beer is optional!)

You have to be able to play your tunes IN CORRECT TIME.

You have to be able to play your break without stopping and starting. 

You have to be able to recover from the mistakes which you will make. 

Two other "essentials" actually have some wiggle room:

You have to be able to come in for your break--in time--after someone else finishes their break. (Wiggle room: You can ask to start the tune and take just that one break.)

You have to be able to vamp to the songs you can play. (Wiggle room: You don't HAVE to vamp at all....at first. Play your break and you're done. Later on you absolutely must vamp.)

How do you learn all these essentials without actually jamming? If you're taking lessons, your instructor should be working with you on these things. If you don't have a personal instructor, then get thee to a camp where you can work on this stuff! (Or--Shameless Self Promotion--order the Murphy Method Slow Jam DVD and learn to play along with these easy, slow songs. It's as close as you can get to jamming without leaving your house!)

Let's say you have done these things to the best of your ability. You've got some songs you can play well. You can vamp a little.

So, you are at a banjo camp. You and three other banjo players are gathered together in Earl's name, desperately hoping to jam. To make it easier, I'm going to give you a good rhythm guitar player. She's not a jam leader, just a guitar-playing girl who wants to have fun. What do you do, dear? 

Here's what you do at a beginning-level jam:

1. Someone has to name a song. You want this jam to actually get off the ground, so choose a simple instrumental. Cripple Creek is ALWAYS A GOOD CHOICE. Yes, I know. You HATE Cripple Creek. You've been playing it since you first picked up a banjo. You want to pick something that will IMPRESS everyone in the jam, but choosing a hard tune is a sure way to torpedo the jam. Choose something easy. Did I mention Cripple Creek? Most banjo players know it and you don't even have to worry about the key, since almost all banjo players play it in G.

So you've got the song. Hooray! Now what?

2. Someone has to kick the song off. If you name the song, then you are expected to start it. Playing slow is fine. If you are a fast player--or think you are--err on the side of caution. Play moderately until you've gotten the feel of the group. (Wiggle room: There is nothing wrong with having everybody play the song together to get warmed up and establish a certain level of comfort.)

3. When the first player has gotten to the end of his break, the next player in the circle is expected to play her break. Next person: PAY ATTENTION. Don't get lost in the "zen" of vamping. More experienced jammers will nod at the next person to indicate that it's their turn, and that person will be waiting for the nod. In a novice jam you may not actually get a nod. Or you may forget to look up. Nodding is hard. So, pay attention and be ready to play! 

4. When you are not playing your break, vamp quietly. If you can't hear the lead player, you are vamping too loud. Do not do any fancy backup. 

5. As the break continues to be passed around the circle, eventually it will get back to the person who started the song. The rule is: The person who starts an instrumental ends it. You need to know an ending lick. (Wiggle room: You can ask someone beforehand to supply the ending lick when you finish your last break.)

So, Cripple Creek was a rousing success (told ya!) and now you're ready for that all-important second tune. Although the next person in the circle will choose the tune, everyone should always have a tune in mind. That eliminates hemming and hawing and saying, "I don't know what to play." If you have a mind like a sieve, tape a list of tunes you can play to your banjo. Waiting for someone to think of a tune sucks energy from the jam. Again, pick something easy. If you sing, you can pick an easy three-chord singing song. Stay in the same key the first song was in. This eliminates the tuning problems that occur when banjos have to use capos. 

NOTE: Unfortunately, this beginner-level rule about starting in the key of G (for banjo jams) and then staying in G for several songs works against women singers. I can't tell you how much I hate that! Women usually sing in B, C, or D, which require capos or more skill than beginning banjo players have. 

If you suggest a singing song, you are expected to sing it! And you are expected to know what key you sing it in. Don't pull a song out of thin air, hoping that someone else knows the words. Later in the jam you might ask if anyone knows the words to such-and-such. But right now, for the second song, you gotta name it and sing it. Or pick another easy instrumental. 

What are some easy singing songs? I Saw The Light, Bury Me Beneath The Willow, Two Dollar Bill, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Do Lord, Somebody Touched Me, Worried Gal/Man.

Let's say you make the excellent suggestion of I Saw The Light. If you're holding a banjo, you are also expected to kick it off. Because why would you suggest a song that you couldn't play? 

Singing songs work this way:

Kick-off
Singer sings first verse and chorus
Break
Singer sings second verse and chorus
Break
Singer sings third verse and chorus
Break
Singer (who has sung all the verses) sings the chorus again and ends the song.

The singer is responsible for seeing that everyone gets to play a break who wants to. No one wants to be left out. (I speak from painful experience!)

When the singer is ready to end the song, she signals that by singing the last line of the chorus twice: "Praise the Lord, I saw the light. Praise the Lord, I saw the light." Badda boom. Ending lick. If you want to end the song without repeating the last line, you can raise your leg and sorta kick it out. (It's harder than you think, especially standing up!)

In beginning-level jams, it's fine if everyone joins in on the chorus, singing harmony or singing lead. The more the merrier!

After two songs the players will have some sort of idea of the level of the jam and can continue to suggest songs accordingly. A beginning-level jam might even be able to survive capoing up to A, a key where some women can sing, even it is still on the low side. 

Question: What do you do if you can't play a break to the song that's suggested? Before the song starts, tell the group that you don't want a break. If the song gets going and you discover you actually can't play your break (too fast, or you've forgotten it) then you shake your head "no" when the break comes to you. In that case, the person on the other side of you is expected to jump in and take the break (which is hard for beginning jammers, that's for sure).

A strong leader--even a willing leader--can really help in a novice jam, so if you are blessed with leadership skills, don't be afraid to step up to the plate.  You don't have to be the best picker in the group to be a good jam leader, you just have to have a sense of the "rules" and the willingness to be "bossy." (Yes, I will keep using that word, dammit!) Many jams have faltered for want of a leader. 

Keep in mind that these "rules" are for a four-person banjo jam with guitar player. In a beginning mandolin jam or a fiddle jam, the rules might be much the same, but starting key might be different, and the selection of tunes would be different. And when you have a variety of instruments at a beginning level jam, it becomes really hard to find common ground.

I wish I could say that jamming rules really don't matter, just go out there and play, but alas! They do matter. Think of baseball. (Always a good bluegrass metaphor!) You can have a good time just knocking the ball around with a pitcher, a batter, and maybe an outfielder. But when you add folks and start to play for real, even in sandlot ball, you have to follow some of the rules of the game. There is always some local wiggle room but the rules make the game possible. It's the same way in jamming. Knowing the rules gives jammers a starting place. So bring a big heart and jump into the jam, ready to falter, fail, forgive, and fly!



13 comments on “The Rules Make The Jam Possible: Novice Jamming By Murphy Henry”

pickn5 Says:
Saturday, May 3, 2014 @5:11:19 AM

Murphy, thank you for the advice. I haven't been to a jam, yet. I'm getting the itch to go as I progress through the Beginning Banjo Track.

ranbush Says:
Monday, May 5, 2014 @1:48:30 PM

Great list, Murphy. I would only add this: if a person misses the downbeat for their break, holler, "Stay on the I (one) chord!". We do that at our Slow jams, and then we can all vamp on I and start off on the same beat when the person starts their break. Of course, this may require making sure all the pickers are familiar with the I-IV-V chord lingo before starting out.

stanzukowski Says:
Monday, May 5, 2014 @2:22:33 PM

And the rules for an old-time jam:

1. Blend in.

:^)

rlh271 Says:
Monday, May 5, 2014 @5:34:55 PM

Murphy is one of the finest banjo players, and teachers, in the country. If you don't believe so, just ask her.

Ragamuffin Says:
Monday, May 5, 2014 @5:52:47 PM

Thanks Murphy! Excellent information as always!

Jeff B. Says:
Monday, May 5, 2014 @7:16:46 PM

With all these rules to follow before I can even start to learn, it's obvious I am never going to learn to play. I wouldn't dare try going to even a beginner's jam now. I would only be a problem for everyone else. I still like to mess around with my banjo, but I will stick to trying to pick out a few tunes on my own with no one else around.

bulldogging Says:
Monday, May 5, 2014 @9:32:24 PM

Thanks Murphy, Great info.

ranbush Says:
Monday, May 5, 2014 @9:42:04 PM

Hey Jeff B. - it's fun to go to a beginner jam and just play chords, you can try that too. You learn the "rules" as you go along, you won't be a "problem" for anyone else, honest. This music is _supposed_ to be played as part of a social gathering. Playing at home alone until you think you're "ready" for a jam is not nearly as much fun. Best wishes for you and your music, whatever you decide to do.

Kemo Sabe Says:
Monday, May 5, 2014 @10:45:57 PM

Good stuff! Go to jams and learn to pick. You are not going to hit a home run if you don't step up to the plate. Thanks Murphy and thanks Casey. Phil in Katy, Tx. where Katy Jam Buddies are jamming and making progress and learning music and having fun!

Dale Diehl Says:
Tuesday, May 6, 2014 @7:53:51 AM

Jeff B. don't get discouraged! While the rules are helpful, you may notice a lot of them are directed at the leader. At first you may want to take your banjo to a jam and just hang around the outer edges of the circle and quietly vamp. This will help get you into the flow of things and take away some of the anxt associated with performing. A jam is a good place to network for pickers of similar level. I was a closet picker for too many years. The best way to get better is play with others as difficult as it is to get started, it is worth the effort. Stick to it and have fun.

doronron Says:
Tuesday, May 6, 2014 @8:19:33 AM

Good job! I do not like a rhythm guitar or bass sounding like wannabe lead guitar players
My rules for the band include:
1. Your job is to make everyone else sound as good as you can.
2. You have to learn to play a song correctly before you can treat it with contempt.
3. Less is more.
Keep up the good work!

banjoboy1943 Says:
Friday, May 16, 2014 @3:53:50 AM

One good rule, when it's your turn to pick a song, tell the group the name of the song and the key you want to play it in. I have been to jams where the player just starts of playing/singing and I have to figure what key he/she is playing in. Much easier if I know ahead od time.

docjpollack Says:
Tuesday, May 20, 2014 @1:30:03 PM

Great rules!! Thanks for posting!!

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