Premier Guitar

The Guitarist’s Guide to Jam Sessions

December 21, 2010
A friend of mine asked me for advice recently. A guy he knew had invited him to a jam, but he was a little worried about going because, despite having some decent chops, he had never really played with other people before. He was wondering about protocol. He’s a gear collector and knows many of the classic songs we all know, but is mostly a basement hobbyist kind of guy. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. There are a lot of people out there who love music and have G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) but don’t play professionally, don’t do the weekend-warrior thing, or perhaps never even did the garageband thing back in the day. Don’t forget that if you’re not used to it, playing with a bunch of other people can be intimidating.

His situation got me thinking about how jams go down. I’m not talking about jams with a bunch of ringers who nail every song that’s called as if they’ve been playing together forever. I’m talking about situations where a bunch of people of different skill levels are in the same room with a bunch of instruments and no one really knows what’s about to go down. Sometimes there are magical moments that lead to the creation of new bands or side projects. Sometimes it’s total crash and burnage, and everyone involved can’t wait to get the hell out of there.

Whatever the case, I’m fascinated with the categories of guitarists that seem to apply to these kinds of jams. At the very least, a novice player should show up to their first jam knowing what kinds of players they might run into. Here are some of the more common ones I’ve run into.

The Jambuster
The person who can’t grasp the jam concept and roll with the flow for the sake of the jam. Expect a Jambuster to suggest unheard-of indie songs or their own original stuff with weird changes that, of course, no one at a jam is interested in learning on the spot.

The Surpriser
The cat who goes into the jam very low-key but then unexpectedly taps into some ridiculously tasty stuff.

The Sandbagger
Also known as The Surpriser- Wannabe, the Sandbagger modestly downplays their skills until that precise moment when they dial up a much-rehearsed thing they hope will melt everyone’s face off.

The Blues Hater
The guitarist who is bored with, or is outright against firing up a 12-bar blues, usually due to a lack of appreciation for the blues.

The Felix
The player who seems to have everything in their gig bag that everyone else forgets: extra capos, picks of every conceivable thickness known to man, multiple slides, cables, tuners, etc.

The Intro-Only Guy
The guy who suggests songs he only knows the intros to. Don’t look for this guy to mouth any chords to you once the song gets going, because he doesn’t know them.

The Tabber
This person has used tab to learn a few songs of great difficulty. Unfortunately, this person can’t hang, even on the simplest of songs, unless some kind of sheet music or internet chord chart is in front of them.

The Snagger
The person who covets someone else’s gear so much that after borrowing it for a few songs to “check it out,” they won’t let go of it until the owner asks for it back.

The Key Changer
The guitarist who suggests playing a familiar song in the least familiar key.

The Volume Jacker
The player who must have their amp on 11.

The Knobber
Someone who does the unthinkable and starts messing with your amp or pedal knobs without permission while you’re playing. This person means well and probably wants to show you something they think is really cool, but mistakenly thinks your tone isn’t the one you want to hear.

The Unrepentant Knobber
The player who crosses the line and messes with someone else’s knobs, usually the volume or treble controls, in an effort to avoid tinnitus when a Volume Jacker is out of control.

The Fiver
The person who loves starting a 12-bar on the five. There’s a Fiver at every jam, guaranteed.

The Niner
The guitarist who can’t count eight bars. This is the person who, when a jam goes to trading eights, goes past eight bars when it’s their turn to solo and just keeps right on going while everyone else in the room gives each other the “Oh no he di’int” look.

The Backer
The guitarist who messes with their amp settings so much or tries to tap into some feedback mojo so often that you end up seeing their backs most of the night.

As far as I know, no proper field guide exists for guitarists going to a jam, so consider this my effort to start one. Feel free to contribute to this taxonomy in a wiki-style way—just add your comments below!

Cheers!
Joe Coffey
joe@premierguitar.com