Play Well With Others
A Musician's Guide to Jamming Like a Pro
Martha Haehl & Mike Walker
Tune your instrument before you join the session.
“Tuners are like mints, if someone offers you one, use it!”
say Martha Haehl and Mike Walker, authors of the jamming
guide Play Well with Others (How High the Moon, 2009). But
never tune in the middle of someone else’s song. If the music
has started and you are out of tune, step out of the circle and
find a place away from the group to tune your instrument.
Be a good listener. Keep in mind that players rarely garner
ill will from playing too softly. Unless you are playing a solo,
you should focus on blending in. If you can’t hear a solo (or
break) that’s being played, you are playing too loudly. Also,
it’s rude to play along with the soloist or talk during a solo.
Watch the leader. If you want to join, instead of just listening
or playing along, you should be sure to make eye contact
with the leader. You will rarely get a solo break without having
established this level of contact.
Play what you know. If the group is playing a tune that
is unfamiliar to you, don’t jump in. Jams are not practice
sessions. Alternatively, don’t lead a tune that is too difficult
or that the group is not likely to know.
Stick with the jam’s style. When a song or tune is
simple and lyrical, don’t try to cram a bunch of notes in it.
Also, keep a good tempo so that everyone can keep up and
no one falls asleep.
Wait your turn. Never jump into a jam in the middle of
Circular motion. Often each participant will get a turn to
lead the jam, and the lead rotates around the circle. Breaks
may also go around the circle, with each person, regardless
of ability, taking a turn soloing. If you don’t want to take a
turn, you can signal the others by stepping back or shaking
All good songs must end. Often a song goes around
the circle once, to give each person a break and the person
who started the song then ends it. The person who chose the
song may also put his or her foot up or announce “last time”
to signal the end.
Silence is golden. When a song ends, stop playing.
Relax and enjoy the ride. Remember that you are there
to have fun. Above all else, forgive yourself and others for
Various musical styles, as well as the traditions of the group,
may dictate the unwritten rules. For example, in an old
time jam it is fairly common for banjos and fiddles to play
a melody in unison, but at a bluegrass jam this would be
unacceptable. The book Play Well With Others offers a more
detailed look at jamming etiquette. It can be ordered at www.
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