Etiquette for a Guitar Jam

by Hans Fredrick
Playing with other musicians is one of the best ways to improve your own skills.

Playing with other musicians is one of the best ways to improve your own skills.

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Guitarists who attend a jam session can have fun while showing off a little, and they almost always become better musicians. However, for a guitar player who's been woodshedding at home for several years, the first jam session can be a little intimidating. Knowing the basic etiquette of a jam demystifies the process and can even help you look like an old pro.

Accept Mistakes

Don't worry about your own mistakes during a jam. Mistakes happen all the time, especially when jamming. However, don't waste everyone's time constantly apologizing for your own mistakes. This makes it seem like work instead of fun. Just smile and keep on playing. By the same token, don't ever be harsh or critical of anyone else who makes a mistake. The cooler everyone can be about the wrong notes, the more fun everyone will have in the end.

Starting Off

Give enough information to the other musicians when your turn comes to start a tune during a jam. Tell everyone the name of the song and the key that it's played in. A quick rundown of the chord progression is important, too, especially if the progression is odd or varies a great deal from a standard progression. An example of this would be a blues song that strayed greatly from a 12-bar-blues progression, which is the most basic form of blues song and one that all musicians should be familiar with.

Watch the Volume

Keep your volume low enough that all the other instruments can be clearly heard while you play. During a jam, everyone should set a volume that allows the musicians to all hear one another without any clearly dominant player. Turn your amp to a level that matches the musicians who either usually play in or are hosting the jam, and be ready to use the volume knob on your guitar so you can turn down if you get overpowering. Keep your volume to lower levels especially when backing up the jam as someone else plays a solo. When it comes time for your own solo, a volume pedal is an easy way to raise your volume if you need a little boost.


Jam sessions often take place in a friend's basement or on stage at the local pub or bar. By nature, these events are fun and relaxed and alcohol is often available in abundance. Wherever you'll be, don't show up after too many drinks and expect to play, and don't drink too much during the set. Focus on the music during the jam. This will make you a better musician, and you'll look more professional. Experienced jam musicians all have played with the guy who's had one too many and wants to play 10-minute solos. (That guy rarely gets invited back to a jam session.)

Taking Turns

During a jam session, everyone should get a chance to take a solo. The person who chooses the song that you play should also be that song's leader, functioning as a sort of conductor. The leader should point at someone when it's his turn to solo, call out the stops and use a gesture agreed upon by the others to signal the end of a song.

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