Jamming Etiquette

warning...some things never change

Way back in 1998 I wrote an article for a local rag called ‘Cosmic Debris’ that was a feature on Jamming Etiquette. For some reason, over the past few months and out of the blue, I’ve had a few people mention to me how useful the article was. One guy even told me he gives it out to new people who attend their jam sessions.

Just goes to show how we reach other people as mentors/teachers, even years after we take a notion to make  a motion.

Serendipitously enough, last week a friend gave me a copy of the magazine the feature was in which I haven’t even seen since I wrote it! Someone she knows found it in an archive box somewhere…


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Coincidentally, I am about to embark on a few theatre gigs with some amazing guitar playing friends, Bill Kirchen, Kevin Breit, Mark Stuart, Cécile Doo-Kingue and Sam Hurrie. The shows, called ‘The Mighty String Thing’, will be an in-the-round guitar-pull where we all sit together on stage and share songs, tell stories and JAM. I love doing these kind of shows as they really do set up a situation for a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration on stage among the players. Jam Etiquette can make or break this kind of show!




Although it’s certainly not an earth shattering article, I thought I’d share it here for anyone who may have use for it. It doesn’t hurt for any of us to be reminded from time to time; music is a social activity and not a competition!


Feel free to use or pilfer this article in any way that may be useful to you!

Jamming Etiquette

(by Doug Cox / Feb ’98 /Cosmic Debris)

Happy New Year to you all. This month, I’m sharing some thoughts on jamming etiquette. It’s cool to see how many jams there are on our island; from the blues jams in Victoria (blues jam capital of the world!); to Saturday afternoons at the Arbutus Pub in Courtenay; to the living room jams that take place in houses and campfires all over.

These jams should have one thing in common, some form of manners and jamming etiquette. Unfortunately however, this isn’t always the case. Bad jamming etiquette has driven many of the more experienced players away because they are not fun to participate in. Often at Festivals I perform at, the ‘advanced’ jammers meet in private to share their music because they are sick of the lack of etiquette at party jams. That sucks.


Here’s a few things to consider if you are at a jam…

  • Good music is often like good conversation. This means one participant speaks at a time while the other participants listen. Give room for the soloist to speak their thoughts. Also, pay attention to the soloist and if you can’t hear what they are doing, turn down or play at a softer level. Many times I have heard the backup players at local jams being completely unaware of the fact they are drowning out the lead instrument. Here’s a simple rule to follow… if you can’t hear the soloist, you are too loud. Many musicians think this is the soundmans  job, to adjust the player’s volume levels. Wrong! The soundmans job is simply to reproduce what is happening on stage as honestly as he can. In a perfect world, it is the musicians on stage who set the dynamic level.
  • If you walk into a jam session and there is magic happening, be sensitive to whether or not you can add anything to this magic. If the playing is way above your level, respect that and learn from it. Likewise, always try to play material aimed at the group of people you are jamming with so you don’t alienate anyone with obscure or hard-to-play material. This is like trying to start a conversation at a party on brain surgery. You are not there to lecture… you are there to jam and share a musical experience with those around you.
  • Tune. Tune. Tune your instrument.
  • Be aware of your level of intoxication in relation to the others you are jamming with. One drunk or stoned musician can really wreck a jam unless the sentiment is shared by all. Then again…one sober musician can really wreck things! Just joking here…
  • Be aware of who is leading the song. If it’s you, be sure to call solos and include everyone who is jamming.
  • Don’t be a jam hog. Share the circle and let everyone have a chance at leading.
  • Never, never enter a jam uninvited or in the middle of a song. It’s just like budding in on a conversation.

In closing, might I suggest that if you are at a jam and someone is being rude or bullying those around them, gently tell them. We all benefit from teaching each other how to participate.

– all these years and thousands of jams later I still think… not bad! 

Tell me about your best/worst jam?



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3 thoughts on “Jamming Etiquette

  1. Worst jam……a few years ago at a venue I was hosting an open mic with a full band set up. A guy got up to play the drums with 4 very jam-aware musicians. It all went down hill when he closed his eyes, and started hitting the kit really loud. I was onstage, trying to signal through playing techniques/stops to get his attention, but to no avail. I eventually stopped playing. The bass player, lead guitarist, and harmonica player all did the same…..yet the drummer persisted, still eyes closed. Then, the grand finale…..The drummer, still eyes closed, leans back, lifts his foot off the pedal, and starts heel butting the high hat…..while trying to hit the snare…

    Best jam philosophies I have been passed on, other than what you have just said – “When in doubt, stay out,” (Victor Wooten), and “Listen.”