PART ONE: Blues Jam Basics

Tip of the Top hosts the weekly blues jam at Club Fox in Redwood City, California. Top to bottom: Jon Lawton (guitar), Carlos Velasco (drums), Frank DeRose (bass), and Aki Kumar (harmonica). Photo by Rachel Kumar

"A jam's gotta be about the players and ease of use. Check your egos at the door and accept that it's like a potluck dinner. My best advice to any new jam session organizers is to forget trying to please everyone, or you'll run yourself crazy." Randy Lippincott, leader of a blues jam at Warmdaddy’s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Equipment
Cut from the same cloth, blues jammers come together to make music happen, grateful that there are skilled host bands to lead the way and provide backup and the backline when needed. Providing the backline is key to the ease of operation and success of jams.

From venue to venue, a blues jammer may find differences in the structure of the jams and the equipment provided. Nearly every jam provides a sign up sheet from which the host band will schedule each jammer for a two- or three-song set. While some jams permit musicians to bring along their own amps and pedal boards, other jams actually discourage this since setup and break down is so time consuming. Ask before lugging in your full rig!

Volume and consistency in sound is important to many venues (especially in restaurants where diners are eating and conversing close to the music) and the sound is easier to control when the same equipment is left standing and at relatively the same levels for each performer. Nearly all jams provide a PA system, drums, and enough amps for a couple of jammers. Keyboards are often available as well. I ran into similar gear situations at the jams I visited for this piece (more on that in part two).

In Raytown, Missouri, at Trampled Under Foot’s jam, lead guitarist Nick Schnebelen provides two Category 5 amplifiers, high quality and modern amps known for vintage tone. It’s a great advantage for a jammer to be guided into great tone by bands that know which settings work and which settings don’t. So with an amp like a Category 5 Andrew available, there was no reason to play through anything else.

This version of the Fender Blues Jr. look like it's seen its share of jams, but it is actually one of Fender's Limited Edition Relic Blues Juniors from the mid-2000s
At the Warmdaddy’s jam in Philly, the house provides a sound engineer working a board off to the side of the substantial, well-lit 18' x 18' main stage, a professional touch not seen at many blues jams. Amps are mic'd and the sound is controlled for best effect. Jammers need only supply their instrument and an instrument cable. Here, the backline is comprised of Fender Blues Jr. amps—a favorite at many blues jams. The Blues Jr. is also the amp of choice at the Bayou Blues Jam in Mount Vernon, New York.

Bill Machrone—audio expert and former editor-in-chief of PC Magazine—is one of the leading experts on the Blues Jr. with a passion for making the amp as good as it can be, having modded more than a thousand of them. “The Blues Junior is in many ways an ideal blues jam amp,” Machrone says. “Blues jams are social events—people are there to see each other, eat some food, dance a slow groove, and sing a song like you mean it. You know the other players because you've probably played with them before—so it's cooperative, not competitive playing. With 15 watts and master volume, you can have as much or as little breakup as you want. You can get crunch or even full-on distortion without deafening anyone. Small amps set the tone for the whole band because a little restraint keeps the focus on the music, not the egos.”

The Vibe
Let’s revisit the last line and the key concept that “a little restraint keeps the focus on the music, not the egos.” Blues jammers will play with musicians of varying skill levels, so patience and respect is in order. Practicing rhythm guitar skills is important because guitarists at jams will spend most of their time not playing leads. Knowing how to support the other musicians counts.

It’s important to hear yourself at a jam, but listening to the other musicians is just as important—sometimes that means knowing when not to play. Sensitivity to volume cues is particularly helpful in the unrehearsed jam environment because the last thing venues and audiences want is the jammers endlessly turning up the volume in a decibel battle. Courtesy may be one of the most underrated concepts in art generally, but it goes a long way towards listener appreciation when the blues jammer understands that the jam is a shared experience.