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Strathound's Blues Jam Guide

So you want to go to a blues jam and get on stage? That's great. Then this guide may be for you. But be forewarned. I'm not writing this for people out there that think a blues jam is just another open-mic opportunity. And this guide isn't for people who think of a jam as simply a public practice session. This is a guide for musicians who want to understand how a jam works and how to get the most out of it. In a nutshell, this is a guide on how not to look like a poser at a blues jam.

Blues jams are older than I am. They've been going on since before I was born when blues was being invented. The formula isn't very complicated, and that's part of the secret of it. But there is no denying that this is an American tradition with deep roots in our history. And it's power and influence can be felt around the world today.

So what is a blues jam and how does it work? Basically, a blues jam a gathering of musicians in a public venue who share a love of traditional American roots music, specifically blues. Typically there is a host band that starts off the show. Then, throughout the night, the band leader will bring up some of the musicians in the audience to play various instruments in the band. For instance, he may bring up a guitar player and a singer. Or he may just bring up a drummer. It depends on a number of factors. But in general, he's trying to get everyone a chance to play while trying to put the best groups together to keep it entertaining for the crowd.

To the uninitiated, this can sound like a recipe for disaster. But the secret is in the simplicity. Not all songs are good candidates for a blues jam. And most band leaders are pretty good at figuring out who knows the blues formula and who doesn't. Their job is to make sure this goes smoothly. And if they've been doing it for a while, you can bet they know what's going to work.

If you are a musician and you want to go to a blues jam, here are a few simple guidelines that will help you hit the ground running and avoid the most obvious pitfalls.

Jam Etiquette:

1. When you get to the jam, find out who is running it and introduce yourself. Let them know what instrument you play so that they can begin to think about who they will pair you with. Then, while you are waiting, listen to some great music and mingle with other musicians. This is a great opportunity to network. I can't tell you the number of bands that were born at a blues jam. I'm sure it's a lot. My last two bands were formed this way.

2. By default, the singer is the bandleader on stage. That means they call the tune, signal the breaks and dish out the solos. If you sing, it's crucial that you know how to do this. The best way to learn is to watch others and listen. When in doubt, ask for help from someone that's done this before.

3. A solo is your opportunity to shine. But it can go well, or it can go poorly. In general, try and play something that fits the feel of the song. Metallica doesn't go well with a Robert Johnson country blues tune. Also, try and keep one eye on the band leader during your solo. They may cut you short and you want to see it coming. If you aren't paying attention, you'll miss the signal and step on the next guy. Finally, if you are not soloing, bring the volume down so they don't have to turn up so much to be heard.

4. Listen. Learn. Have fun. A blues jam is a great learning experience. But you get out of it what you are willing to learn. Don't go in with any preconceived notions. Ask a lot of questions. And listen to the guys that have been doing this a while. Their advice and input is always worth the price of admission. Think of it like free lessons. ;)

5. Be musical. That means ... listen to what's happening up there on stage. Don't just listen to your one part. Listen to the whole mix. The whole point of getting on stage is to provide entertainment. It's about the music, not some selfish goal. And you have to understand your part in the arrangement. This comes, first and foremost, from listening to the music you are trying to play. If you come out to the jam and you don't know the first thing about blues, then it's probably best if you listen for a while before getting up there. There are those that get it, and those that don't.

6. Know some blues tunes. I cannot stress this enough. The sure fire way to earn the scorn of the rest of the musicians in the room is to show up and call out some classic rock or other non-blues tune. Remember, the purpose of a blues jam is not to show off how well you play the solo in Stairway to Heaven. It's to perpetuate and relive a timeless American musical tradition with a group of other musicians who share the same goal. If you don't share that goal, people will not want to get on stage with you. Seriously. All you have to do in order to not look like a complete poser is simply ask someone for some tunes you could learn and learn them. It's that simple. This leads to a controversial question: what is blues? I won't try and answer this question here. But I'll give you a jamming tip ... avoid Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Hendrix at first. That's one of those sure fire-signs that sets of the poser alerts. Better to start with some Muddy or TBone before you start testing the boundaries. Remember, I'm trying to help you.

What To Bring:

1. Bring your instrument. Make sure it's well maintained and ready to play.

2. Bring a tuner and tune up before you get called up on stage.

3. If you're a drummer, bring your own sticks.

What Not To Bring:

1. Do not bring your Marshall Half Stack. Blues Jam. Remember?

2. Do not bring your pedal board and all your pedals. A blues jam is all mixing it up with other musicians. It's not about the equipment. So keep it simple. Don't be that guy.

Song Selection:

1. In general, any 12-bar blues song that follows the standard I-IV-V chord pattern is a good call. Everyone will know how to pull this off. Click here for more information on what I-IV-V means.

2. Any blues song that stays on the one is also a good choice.

3. Any of the standards are also good (Sweet Home Chicago, Kansas City, Stormy Monday, etc).

4. If you bring your whole band up, feel free to choose songs that have a different arrangement. But remember, people have come to hear some blues. It is a blues jam after all. See #5.

5. Play blues. This is a blues jam. They don't want to hear your rendition of Sweet Home Alabama.

If you follow these guidelines, you will get the most out of a blues jam. The other musicians will accept you as a peer. You will get more playing time. And if you are lucky, you will experience the pure magic that happens when you get lightning in a bottle and the stars align on stage. It's truly a blessing that happens every once in a while. And hopefully, you will avoid as many of the train wrecks as possible.

Your friend in the blues,

Michael Schaefer

Strathound's Blues Jam Guide