Blues Jam Protocol by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 8/10/2009 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) Blues Jam Protocol- the Do's and Don't of Jamming or How to Avoid a Major Blood-letting

After attending some of the many blues jams that take place at blues societies, festivals, the International Blues Challenge that takes place here in Memphis every year and some informal jams that occur at after-parties following gigs, it seems appropriate to mention a few of the basic rules for those of you who may want to participate in this fun.

Terry "Gatorman" Lape contributes to this article(photo by author)

After discussing this idea with my editor and friend, our Chicago correspondent Terry "Gatorman" Lape, he added a few suggestions of his own to the mix.

Memphis Blues Society hosts blues jams in Memphis on the first and third Thursdays of the month at Neil's on Madison Avenue.

What to expect:

Participants usually sign a list. The list is not a hard and fast schedule as any professional players usually will take precedence. Don't let this bother you. Plan on listening to them and taking in a few pointers on playing and presentation and soon you may be considered a pro yourself. The idea is to have fun.

Some jams have a hosting group of musicians who start out the show. Sometimes there are amps and drums provided for the participants. Plan on bringing your own instrument, guitar or bass, or check with the jam organizer to see if there will be a keyboard available to play. If there is, consider downloading it's operating instructions off the internet so you aren't lost trying to use it.

Some jams are comprised loosely with no backing band. In all jams you should be prepared to play on stage with folks you do not know, folks of varying levels of expertise, so it is important to be flexible and be polite.

If you bring your whole band with you, tell the organizer that you would all like to go on together if possible. If you don't bring a band, don't be surprised who ends up playing on stage with you.

Eric Hughes Band at the MBS Blues Jam
(left to right: author, Memphis Mike Forrest, bassist Laura Hughes, Eric Hughes, Jumping James Cunningham)

Usually you will be limited to playing 2 or 3 songs or 20 minutes. At bigger jams that are more well-attended, you may get less time than this. Don't assume you will get more than a song or two, ask somebody to avoid the embarrassing white hook and gong sound.

Do's and Don'ts

1. TUNE your stringed instruments before you get on stage and start playing. If you are one of those clever guys that likes to tune a half-step flat of A440, don't be surprised if the harmonica players outright loathe you if you insist on playing in a bunch of flat keys for which they have no harps.

2. If you are attending a blues jam, just play Blues. This is not the place for your best country or rock numbers or anything other than straight-up blues playing.

3. Don't bring a raggedy, out of tune, worn-out, flat-sounding harmonica to the jam. It may sound ok to you playing it alone in your car, but when combined with other stage instruments it will sound like a train wreck. Audiences will cringe as the musicians give you hard, mean stares.

Author plays at the MBS Blues Jam

4. Determine the Key of the song before you start playing. If you don't have the appropriate harmonica to play in that key, lay out. If you do not have the skills to play in that key, say so and collectively choose another key, or just lay out. Nobody wants to hear experimental music and you risk making the band sound bad.

5. Don't break stuff. Treat the amps and other gear you are playing on with respect, as if they were your own. Everybody has to use these amps and turning them up all the way or hooking them up backwards and killing them will make you a hated person. If you break it, man up and offer to fix it.

6. As Gatorman says, "Tell 'em, you get 24 bars, not 36 or 96, twenty-four!" After soloing your 24 bars, pass it off to the next musician so he can have his turn. Otherwise you are being rude.

7. Don't brag, talk crap or offer to "cut anybody's head" at the jam. At best you will be thought of as a jerk, at worst you are painting a target on yourself and will be handed your ass. Be humble.

8. Be friendly and try to get some pointers from musicians whose playing you admire. You may have just found a future band mate or teacher. At the least you will be known as a friend.

9. Don't get too loaded before you go on stage. It's not fair to the other musicians and you will embarrass yourself. If you have too much stage fright to go on without getting drunk or otherwise intoxicated, don't inflict yourself on others. Please don't. In the words of Muddy Waters, "Get your gauge but don't fall out."

10. Don't break out your original songs with lots of chord changes or unexpected stops and starts unless you bring your whole band. It won't sound good if only a couple of people know the "trick parts" and the band stumbles around or just stops. See Rule # 2. Play I- IV-V blues.

Memphis Mike Forrest, 25 year veteran of my blues bands, plays at the jam

11. Gatorman says, "Don't let the bass player solo unless he really knows what he is doing. For bass and drums, remember the rhythm section is a support role, not great for solos at a blues jam. "

12. Do what you can to improve the overall sound. This means don't play too loud or play over the top of somebody else.

13. Plan on playing on stage with folks who are both better and less skilled as you. Thus, be prepared to both learn and teach. That is what the blues tradition is, passing down the skills to others. It's good to share.

Author at the International Blues Challenge wearing the late Big Sam Clark's turban.

14. Don't stop the show because your tuner's battery or your stomp box is acting up. Play without it or lay out. The show must go on, particularly when the stage changes bands so many times in an hour. There will already be lots of dead air and that is not good for the audience.

15. Be nice to the sound engineer. His is not an easy task during these jams. Acknowledge him or her from the stage. Don't play too loud.

16. Don't play a bunch of crap during other players' solos. If you play harp and don't know any chords, lay out. Realize when your instrument's range is in the same range as the current soloist. It will clash.

17. Don't get too many musicians on stage at once. It gets too confusing and loud. Six guitars, bass, drums, congas, keyboard, harp, tuba and glockenspiel is a recipe for misery.

18. Gatorman says to remember to check your gun at the door. Make friends. You won't need it.

19. Don't take yourself or anyone else too seriously. It's a blues jam. Have fun.

photo above by Zen, Flickr

For more details or to join the Memphis Blues Society, here's the link:

Photos in this article by my friend, Blake Billings, whose photo book, Memphis in the Meantime is a suitable addition to any blues lover's coffetable. It is available for sale through the Memphis Blues Society (see link above). Thanks Blakesly.

Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

© 2009, Robert Tooms

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