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Open Jams 101

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Nashville is host to a wide variety of open jams where musicians of various genres and abilities get together to improvise, collaborate, and make some great music. Here are some frequently asked questions and some guidance on how to be a good jammer as well as a great host.

What is an open jam?

An open jam is typically organized at a local venue by a host and/or house band. The house band will normally play a short set and then start bringing up groups of jammers. Sometimes there may also be a featured artist who gets up after the house band’s set and plays a few songs as well.

An open jam differs from an open mic night which is normally more focused on individuals and original content. Jams are often focused on a genre (blues, rock, country, etc.), and the groups are most likely playing covers of well known songs. Jams are more about musical collaboration and improvisation and less of a showcase for an individual performer.

A jam can also cater to a specific level of musicianship, such as a “pro jam,” which implies that the jammers have sometimes been part time or full time paid musicians. These types of jams may not be the best for beginners or hobbyists since there will often be an assumed level of musical ability among the groups that might cause a less seasoned player to be a little lost at times and not enjoy their experience as much.

Where can I find an open jam?

Here are a few links to websites listing several different types of jams. Note that some of these may be out of date since some of these come and go over the years.

Who determines who gets to play and when?

There is usually some sort of sign up sheet where jammers can write in their name, what instrument they play, and if they sing. The host will review this list and try to match up a group for each “round” of jammers which is typically 2 or 3 reasonably long songs. This group will most likely be at least a drummer, bass player, one or more guitarists, and a singer. They may also include other instrumentalists such as keyboardists, horn players, harmonica players, fiddlers, etc. A good host will try to respect the order of the sign up sheet but may have to mix and match players further down the list to create a full group.

A few jams do not operate with a signup sheet at all, and you will need to find and introduce yourself to the host when you arrive. These may be a bit looser in how people get up and when solely based on the host. You might need to be prepared to go up later if you are new and do not have a previous connection with the host, as they tend to let their more established and known players up first.

There are times when there will simply be more jammers than time, and the host will have to make some quick decisions as to who gets up and how long they play. They may decide to limit the number of songs to rotate more jammers through. Also, there may be fewer jammers for specific instruments, so they might be asked to join multiple groups (often the case for drummers and bass players). A good host always tries to ensure that everyone gets to play and gets a fair share of playing time.

It may also be the case where the host will intermingle known established musicians throughout the rounds regardless of the signup sheet to ensure some consistency in the quality of the performances.

Who determines what songs get played?

Usually, this is the singer as specified by the signup sheet. Some signup sheets will have a specific slot to designate one singer for the round, others may not, and there may be multiple singers up in one group. If there are multiple singers, it is good form to share the spotlight and rotate singers for each song in the round, so it is also polite to ask who all wants to sing when you first get up together and quickly determine an order.

The singer will let the rest of the group know the song, the key, the tempo, and any special instructions. Since an open jam can have musicians from various backgrounds and skill levels, these song selections should be kept to well known classics/standards with easy arrangements as much as possible. If the song is an original or not as widely known, it should be as simple an arrangement as possible and be easily explained to all players within 30 seconds. The singer should ensure all the players understand the song selection and are ready to start before kicking things off.

What are musicians expected to bring?

Most jams will provide a drum kit, vocal mics (along with the house PA system), and a backline for bass and guitars. There may also be a house keyboard setup, but don’t always assume that at a venue you are unfamiliar with. The backline is normally amps and cables so that guitarists can just walk up and plug in to start playing. Jammers should always be respectful of the equipment provided and treat it accordingly.

The guitar backline often has a basic pedal board with things like some type of overdrive/distortion, delay, boost, tuner, etc. This is very dependent on the house band, who usually lets you use their own setup. While some jams are fine with you bringing your own pedal board, it is often discouraged since the setup and tear down make transitions between groups longer. The same can go for bringing your own amp. You should ask the host or house band about this before assuming it is okay to bring yours up on stage.

With COVID still being a thing, bringing your own vocal mic is a good idea as well, even though they are usually provided.

Musicians are expected to bring their own instruments. Very rarely are there any “house” instruments available to borrow, and not all fellow musicians are keen on letting someone use their prized equipment. That said, some may be more than happy to let you use theirs but don’t assume this always to be the case, and be respectful if someone says “no.”

Being a Good Jammer (General)

  1. Listen. Jams are about collaboration, and you cannot do that if you are not listening to your fellow jammers. Pay attention to the vibe and tone of the group and the song and play accordingly.

  2. Respect other players. When a bunch of individuals who have never played together get on stage to jam, there is a lot of potential for this to be a trainwreck, even if they are all good musicians. This typically comes from them not respecting each other and playing over one another or simply “overplaying”.

    1. During solos, keep them to 1 or 2 verses. Each round has limited songs and time so respect others by keeping your solos short and giving others time for their own.

    2. Look for and give cues to other players when you are starting or finishing your solos. A singer or band leader may also help by giving cues to other players.

    3. Play at an appropriate volume. It is fine to give yourself a little boost during a solo, but while playing rhythm, turn down a bit to give the singer some room.

    4. When there are multiple guitarists playing rhythm, try to find a way to accent each other. Rather than having three guitars playing the same shuffle pattern, add some appropriate accents or, in some cases, just turn down or lay out entirely.

      1. Conversely, don’t just “noodle” over someone else if it does not accent what they are playing and is more of a distraction.

  3. When in doubt, lay out. If you get lost or are not exactly sure what to play, it is okay to simply lay out (don’t play). Don’t use the stage to figure things out on the spot if you are unsure of what you are doing.

    1. Sometimes experienced musicians will often help you if you are lost by signaling changes or turning their instruments towards you so that you can better see what they are doing. If you don’t already know the Nashville Numbering System, it is a good thing to learn since this is how many professional musicians will signal chord changes.

  4. Mind your stage volume. Many jam venues are smaller places where a loud band can become overbearing easily. Try to keep your stage volume to an acceptable level.

    1. Guitarists/Bassists: Listen to the sound engineer if they ask you to turn down. When not soloing, reduce your volume. Avoid turning up the volume on the amps if possible. Ask the sound engineer to increase your amp in the monitors if possible or position yourself closer to your amp to hear better.

    2. Singers, Horns, and Harmonica Players: Work the microphone accordingly. Back off when you are singing/playing louder. Remember that often the only thing coming through stage monitors are vocal microphones, and those can easily overpower other non-microphoned instruments.

    3. Drummers: Play with the appropriate intensity since often you are the loudest instrument on the stage and don’t have a volume knob.

  5. Be ready to play. It is good to keep the transition time between groups of jammers to a minimum, so be ready to play by having your instrument out and ready (if applicable). Have your instrument already tuned appropriately. Don’t bring cases, jackets, etc. on stage with you. Leave that at your table and do not clutter up the stage,

    1. Drummers: If you want to use your own snare, check with the host or house band first to see if that is acceptable. If it is, quickly change them out and be careful and respectful of the house bands kit while doing it. Have your own sticks.

    2. Guitarists/bassists: If you want to use your own pedal board, check with the host or house band first to see if that is acceptable. If it is, quickly change them out and be careful and respectful of the house band’s equipment. The same goes for using your own amplifier.

      1. This is usually discouraged since it often takes more time to transition and can lead to issues around things not being connected back correctly when you are done.

      2. Don’t fiddle too much with the house amplifier or pedal settings. Minor adjustments might be okay, but these should be quick and easily reset for the next person.

    3. Horns and Harmonica Players: Since you will most likely be playing into a vocal microphone, ensure that one is available besides the one used for the lead singer and adjust it to the appropriate height for your instrument.

  6. Exit efficiently when you are done. As mentioned above, in an effort to keep transition times quick, you should hop off stage as fast as you safely can when your round is done. Save your side conversations and compliments for your fellow jammers for later and allow the next group access to the stage. Make sure to remove anything you brought up with you on stage (especially drinks!).

    1. Guitarists/Bassists: Switch amps to stand by (or off) before unplugging. There may also be a tuner on the pedal board you can switch on.

    2. Horns and Harmonica Players: Return microphones to normal position for singers when you are done.

  7. Be courteous. The best way to get invited back to a jam is by being a good player, and the fastest way to not be invited back is by being rude. Be polite to your host, house band, fellow players, audience, and venue staff.

    1. Introduce yourself to your host when you arrive. Give them a face to go with the name they see on the signup sheet.

      1. Even if you already know them, it is always a good thing to say hello when you arrive.

    2. Introduce yourself to the house band. If you are playing through their equipment, thank them for letting you use it and ask any particulars about their setup beforehand also to ensure you are not confused when you get on stage and are trying to get set up.

    3. Introduce yourself to your fellow jammers when you get on stage. Nothing too long, just something like, “Hi, I’m Tommy. What’s your name?”

    4. If there is a sound engineer, introduce yourself to them and ask for any specifics about the setup beforehand.

    5. When others are playing, be respectful by not talking too much over them (go outside if you want to network). Pay attention, you might hear something you like or learn something new!

    6. Resist the urge to make “ugly” faces when people are playing or talk smack about other players. Yes, not everyone will be at the same skill level, but everyone has to start somewhere, and it takes guts to get up and play in front of people initially.

    7. Thank your host, the house band, the venue staff, and fellow players when you are on the mic.

    8. If you can, tip the house band, sound engineer, and wait staff. These gigs don’t pay much, and the crowds are often small, so there is not a lot of money being made by anyone working that night.

    9. If you can, show up early and support the host, house band, or featured guest. These are not high paying or highly promoted gigs, and these people are dedicating a lot of time and effort to provide other musicians with a place to exhibit their talent. Show them some love!

  8. Be a good mentor. If you are lucky enough to already be a well established and experienced musician, give back to your fellow jammers.

    1. Give praise freely. Everyone likes to get positive feedback, and a simple “sounded great” from a respected musician can make a less experienced musician feel awesome.

    2. Give well meaning, constructive criticism when warranted. Egos are rampant with most musicians, but a genuine piece of advice can go a long way.

  9. Learn. Musicians at every skill level are always learning, and by playing with others, you will often pick up some cool new things.

    1. Pay attention to what others are doing both when you are on stage and when you are in the audience. If you hear something that piques your interest, chat up that musician later and ask them about it.

    2. Take constructive criticism graciously. No one wants to focus on what they did wrong or could do better all the time, but getting some pointers or advice from other musicians can often open up new things for you.

  10. Support the Venue. Open jams often don’t attract a large crowd, so do your best to support the venue and its staff by ordering drinks and/or food. Tip well when you can.

    1. Don’t be a “play and run” jammer!

  11. Have fun! No one likes a grumpy jammer. Music should be a fun experience and enjoyable for those playing and listening to it.

Being a Good Jammer (Singer or Band Leader)

As the singer of a round or a default “band leader”, you might have some extra responsibilities during a round.

  1. Make appropriate song selections. When you choose a song to play, take into consideration the varying level of musicians that might be in your group and the amount of time you have before you need to start playing.

    1. Try to choose songs that are classic or standards for the genre you are playing. These would be songs that should be well known but don’t be surprised if someone does not know it and be ready to explain it.

    2. If you do choose a song that is not well known or is an original, make sure it is a simple arrangement and easy to explain to the group in 30 seconds or less. (see below)

    3. If you are choosing more than one song for a round, try to mix things up. Don’t play 3 slow songs in a row, but rather try to throw in something upbeat between them.

    4. Be true to the genre of the jam (if one is specified like a “blues jam”) and don’t bring in a song that is far outside that musical range. You can bring a song that is traditionally from another style and rearrange it to fit the appropriate genre.

    5. It is normally considered bad form to bring in charts or sheet music to a jam and expect jammers to read them and get up to speed quickly before a song.

    6. Be aware of song keys that might be harder for some instruments to play, especially brass instruments or harmonicas.

      1. Guitarists: Don’t come tuned to Eb and expect everyone to tune to you or transpose on the fly!

  2. Know how to explain an arrangement. Since you cannot always depend on other jammers knowing the song you have selected, be ready to quickly explain it to them.

    1. Know the key of the song and the chord progression. Many musicians will know the Nashville Numbering System, which can allow you to easily describe the progression of a song.

    2. Describe the tempo or be ready to count it off for the band.

    3. Call out any key changes or shifts to different chord progressions.

    4. Call out any specific breaks.

    5. Singers: If you are not a musician and not sure of the information above, maybe find a fellow jammer who does and have them help you learn enough to explain on stage or have them sign up for your same round and work it out with them prior to playing.

    6. Example: “This is a traditional 1-4-5 slow blues in Em with a quick 4 and breaks on the 5. I’ll give a signal on the breaks. Everybody cool?”

  3. Provide cues during the song. Even if you did a great job explaining the arrangement, give cues to the group along the way while you are playing.

    1. There are a few commonly accepted hand signals or cues most musicians would know that you can use to indicate changes.

    2. To help keep everyone on track, you can use numbers to show chord progressions. Do this a few beats before the actual change. Even with a well known song, when the song breaks from the established pattern, you may want to throw up a signal like at the end of a song with a common 1-4-5 progression where you want to repeat the 5.

    3. Beginning and ending at the same time can make or break a song. When starting, count out the beat or if you are playing an instrument, start playing the rhythm and signal everyone else when to come in. When ending, hold up your fist (or guitar neck) to signal the end a few beats before the actual end of the song.

      1. Even when you signal the end of the song, some of the jammers may not be sure if it is a “hard stop” where all of them immediately quit playing at the same time, or if they will have some sort of crescendo/outro over a final chord with everyone.

        1. The signal the “hard stop,” you may want to raise your fist and then make a cutting gesture as if to say, “stop and no more.” Again, not everyone might know the intent of the gesture.

        2. The easiest is probably to start with some crescendo with the root chord and then signal a final hard stop.

      2. This can also depend on if the song already has a very well established ending that everyone will just follow along.

    4. Most jammers like to solo, so make sure to give a clear indication of who is up next for a solo by nodding or pointing to that person a few beats beforehand.

  4. Try to give everyone equal attention. As we said above, jammers like to solo so make sure everyone who wants one gets some appropriate playing time. It is a good idea to even ask everyone quickly before you start (especially bassists and drummers who may or may not want one).

    1. It is good form to not solo more than two “verses” of a song, so make sure to give hand signals appropriately at the start and end of them.

    2. Know where solos are appropriate in your song, and be ready to signal people. Some songs may have intros, multiple spots for solos between verses, and outros. Spread those opportunities out among your players to make sure everyone gets equal playing time while also not making the song unreasonably long.

  5. Share the spotlight. There may be times when multiple singers get up for the same round, and the signup sheet does not designate a specific singer. In these cases, you should try to share the spotlight with the other singers by trading off lead vocals on each song.

    1. If there are more singers than songs for a specific round to share evenly, someone is going to get fewer songs than the others. Try to find a gracious way to determine who gets more songs, knowing that there will be other jams where you can have more of the spotlight in the future.

      1. You may also approach the host to ask for a spot in another round, but don’t be surprised if they cannot accommodate that based on the number of other singers signed up.

    2. When not singing lead, add some background vocals to fill out the sound without stealing the lead singer's thunder.

Being a Good Jam Host

Hosting a jam is not as easy as it sounds. Think of it like herding cats, where the cats are actually all different types of animals, and some have huge egos! Some jams are run very loosely, while some hosts run a tighter ship, and depending on what you are looking for, either one might suit you better. Here are a few tips for people hosting a jam:

  1. Focus on the jammers. Yes, as a host or house band, you should get your own moment in the spotlight, but in the end, a jam is about all the other musicians.

    1. Don’t find excuses to insert you or your house band players back into the rotation unnecessarily. If a spot can be filled by a jammer, let them have it.

    2. A good jam should welcome newcomers as much as the more established frequent jammers.

  2. Ensure everyone gets equal playing time. Unless someone is flagrantly breaking your jam rules or is so significantly bad as to ruin everyone else’s experience, each of them should get the same opportunity to play as the other.

    1. Don’t give preferential treatment to others by allowing them to play longer than other people or leaving them in the rotation longer between groups.

      1. There are obvious exceptions, such as when you need to have some players in the mix you know can lead a more inexperienced group, or when you have a featured singer whose material may not be as easy to pick up.

    2. Ensure the people acting as the band leaders during rounds are giving other players equal opportunities to play during songs.

  3. Respect the signup sheet. Yes, you might need to jump down the list to get all the needed musicians to make up a group, but try to go in order as much as you can. People show up early often to specifically get on the list first and will rightfully be disappointed if others get up before them.

    1. Don’t give preferential treatment to others by allowing them to jump other players on the list.

    2. Don’t give preferential treatment to others by allowing them to jump in without signing up on the sheet like everyone else.

  4. Promote your jammers. Often musicians are coming to jams to promote themselves and try to find projects or get noticed. Support their efforts by taking as many opportunities to promote them as possible.

    1. Introduce the jammers by name at the start of the round.

    2. Mention each jammer by name at the end of their round.

    3. If possible, tag jammers in any social media posts.

  5. Set a good stage. Sometimes you don’t have much say in how your stage is set up for a jam, but if you can ensure some basics are in place, you can make it a much more favorable environment for your jammers.

    1. Ensure that your backline is of good quality and in working order.

      1. Guitarists: Make sure you have an amp with a standby switch or a tuner/kill switch on your pedal board to make rotating guitarists in and out of your rig easier.

    2. Do a decent sound check and ensure the stage volume and main mix are balanced before you start.

    3. If you can afford it, hire a decent sound engineer. When swapping out different musicians with different styles, instruments, etc. the mix for each round can be drastically different from the others. A good sound engineer can adjust things on the fly during each round to ensure each group sounds as good as possible.

    4. Mic guitar amplifiers and run them into the monitors if you can. Guitarists are the most notorious for constantly turning up their amps on stage to “better hear themselves”. If the amps are mic’d up, you can control this more with monitors and reduce stage volume.

      1. If you cannot mic up guitar amps, possibly have them on stands to allow for players to hear themselves on stage better. There is nothing worse than not being able to hear what you are playing during a song.

    5. Aim for at least 3 vocal mics. While you will usually only have one lead singer at a time, you may have people who want to sing backup or need extra mics for horns, harmonicas, and other instruments.

      1. You may also want to have a DI box on stage for the random acoustic electric or other instruments that you can plug in but would not run through an amplifier.

  6. Provide clear instructions. Newcomers and beginners often walk in not knowing the logistics of your particular jam (or maybe any jam for that matter). Make sure to post or mention your rules and instructions as much as possible. If you have a social media presence, make sure these are posted there as well. This should include at least:

    1. Start and end times for the house band, featured act, and jam.

    2. Whether or not a backline is provided.

    3. How to sign up.

    4. Venue address and any particulars about parking.

1 comment

1 comentario

14 abr 2023

Thanks for a great write up!

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