Blues Jam Etiquette

By Mojo Red
Mojo Red

There are numerous blues jams and open stages where new and aspiring musicians can mingle and share the stage with more experienced players, learn the dynamics of playing in a group setting, and honing musical skills in a safe and supportive environment. I have attended hundreds of jams over the years, and have also been a host band at a jam, so I’ve seen it from both sides.
It’s a good idea for novice players—before jumping blindly into a potentially scary situation—to learn something of the blues jam etiquette so you can get the most out of your experience and, hopefully, fit right in. Here are some guidelines to think about.

In General - A blues jam is different than an open stage
  • At a blues jam, novice musicians are mixed with experienced players on stage and perform blues songs together. A host band will supply drums and backline and will run the jam by paring up players for each set.
  • An open stage is a venue where a single player, duet, trio or full band can take the stage to perform a set of whatever they want. An open stage is not necessarily confined to blues music.
  • If you have a blues band and want to play as a band at a blues jam, call the host band/venue ahead so see if you will be welcome.
Before You Go

  • Learn the Blues. Be familiar with the I-IV-V chord structure of the blues. Know the difference between major and minor keys and how to play in each.
  • Learn Songs. Learn songs, learn basic blues licks.
  • Call ahead to confirm that the jam is happening
  • Bring your own instrument, tuner, amp, chords, etc. You may be able to plug into someone’s amp, but that might not be the case. Drums are usually provided.
  • Leave the big amp home—Moderate stage volumes are expected, so don’t arrive with a Marshall stack thinking to impress anyone.
  • Keep it simple—Don’t bring a complex rig/pedal board that takes a long time to set up.  
At the Jam
  • The List—When you arrive, find the sign-up list and get your name on it. The host will call players for each set. You will not be called up to play unless you sign up.
  • The Host—It’s a great idea to have a word with whoever is hosting the jam to let him/her know your level of experience, and if you would like to play with anyone in particular.
  • Buy Drinks—This makes the venue owners happy, but don’t get drunk. If you’ve had too much, don’t get up on stage, you will only embarrass yourself, and it could result in getting you barred from the jam in the future.
  • Tune up before you get on stage. Tuning on stage will only irritate the host and the other players who are waiting their turn.
On the Stage

  • Be efficient—Set up time should be kept to a minimum. When your set is finished, get off stage as quickly as possible. Other jammers are waiting their turn.
  • Never place your drink on top of an amp, especially if it’s not yours.
  • Find the singer—The singer calls the tune and leads the band. Look to the singer for song keys, chord structures, groove, tempo, stops, solo and outro cues. The singer makes sure that everyone on stage has a chance to solo. If you don’t want to solo, let the singer know.
  • If you are the Singer—Try to call out songs that fall into the core blues repertoire, songs that your fellow jammers will be comfortable with and that don’t require a lot of description. In general, any 12-bar blues song that follows the standard I-IV-V chord pattern is a good call.
  • Listen—Fit your instrument into the song and listen to what other players are doing. Trade fills with others, only solo when asked.
  • Don’t Step on People—In other words, don’t play over the vocals or over someone else’s solo. If you are playing rhythm/comping, keep it tasteful. The time to solo is during your own solo break.
  • Keep it Tasteful—When soloing, show off your chops, but play within your means. If you are a novice/intermediate player stay within your comfort zone. Solos are generally twice through the chord progression, look to the singer for cues to continue or pass the solo on. 
  • Don’t Play Loudly—No one wants to go home with bleeding eardrums. Louder is not better.
  • Play in the Pocket—When not soloing, remember that you are a member of the band. It’s all about supporting the song. Keeping back and well in the pocket leaves room for fellow jammers to shine during their solos.
  • Don’t Panic—Remember this is only a blues jam, not Carnegie Hall. Nobody expects perfection and no one is there to judge you. The spirit of a jam is to support fellow musicians, to encourage novice and intermediate players and to learn something. 
  • Have Fun—Relax and don't expect too much from yourself. You play at jams to gain experience.
After Your Set
  • Thank the Band. Remember to thank the musicians who just shared the stage with you. 
  • Thank the Venue. Remember to thank the venue for holding the jam, supporting live music, and giving you this time on stage.
  • Mutual Respect. Most of the etiquette at jam sessions comes down to having a certain amount of respect for the abilities, but more importantly, for the feelings of the other people involved in the session. Keep in mind that they might be feeling just as happy/unhappy, scared or out-of-place as you do.
  • Learn and Remember. After playing 10-20 jam sessions you will have learned more about music, about communication, stagecraft and about yourself than you could have learned by playing solo or practicing for a whole year at home!