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Anatomy of a Blues Jam

Anatomy of a Blues Jam

A blues jam is kind of like a blind date with music. Sometimes, when the chemistry is right, it can be magic. That’s what makes jams special—the elements of surprise, the experimentation, and the improvisation.

Players gather for a blues jam at Stampen in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Bengt Nyman

A blues jam is kind of like a blind date with music. Sometimes, when the chemistry is right, it can be magic. That’s what makes jams special—the elements of surprise, the experimentation, and the improvisation.

Some of you reading this article might be like me. You have a passion for music and love to play, but music did not become your profession. Even if performance opportunities were few or none, you played and played anyway because of the sheer enjoyment of it. Like many of you, I discovered the beauty of the evening open mic blues jam. For hobbyist players, jams provide an opportunity to play and perform, and a place where courtesy, enthusiasm, cooperation, and good music are respected and encouraged. Generous welcomes are extended to share musical tradition, knowledge, and talent at most open mics out there.

Here, we’ll look at blues jams from two perspectives. First, we’ll address the gear, etiquette, and musical know-how necessary for a successful blues jam. Then we’ll travel to New York, Missouri, and Pennsylvania to take part in jams and talk to blues jam regulars about what they do. This article is an open invitation and an encouragement to come out and play.

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.

Sam Wesley (aka Sam-One, guitar) and Grant Walters (harp) take the stage for the weekly Club Fox Blues Jam in Redwood City, California. Photo by Rachel Kumar.

The Musical Know-How
Blues jam etiquette also demands that the jammer have at least a basic understanding of blues progressions and the keys in which they are played. Understanding what a “quick four” or “shuffle” mean improves jam comfort levels for all. That said, there is nothing wrong with struggling a bit at a jam—people are there to learn too and it’s a great opportunity to do so. No one should be embarrassed to ask, or be asked, questions. In the end, the jam is a performance, so everyone should simply bring the best they can.

There is no guaranteed setlist at any location. A the two new jams I visited for this article, I was presented with blues songs that I had never been asked to play at a jam before. While versions of standard jam blues tunes pop up regularly, "The Thrill is Gone" or "Stormy Monday" for instance, it is possible for the blues jammer to be confronted with songs influenced by a variety of styles and rhythms such as swing ("T-Bone Shuffle," "Every Day I Have the Blues"), rock ("Crossroads," "Red House"), funk ("I’m Tore Down," "Standing on Shaky Ground") or the basic blues shuffle. Familiarity with major and minor keys and the 1–4–5 blues progression are essential basics, but keep in mind that everyone, including the best players, become even better by playing with others. That is especially true for the novice blues jammer. It’s as much of a learning experience as you choose to make it.

If you’re starting completely from scratch, here are a few basic chord charts for some common progressions.

PART TWO: Blues Jams Around the US

“It's a great way for younger players to develop their live chops, as well as a place for older musicians to play out without having to be in a full-time band. It is a great creative outlet.” Trampled Under Foot guitarist/vocalist Nick Schnebelen, 2008 International Blues Challenge Albert King Award Winner for Most Promising Guitarist.

A blues jam offers the opportunity for the non-professional guitarist to get out, play with some amazing musicians, and learn a thing or two in the process. I’ve always been grateful for that opportunity and it’s good to know that blues jams can be found all around the US.

While there are many local jams from which to choose in the New York Metro area where I live, it was worthwhile to leave the local orbit for a jam or two and experience the differences. Playing to unfamiliar crowds in unfamiliar venues with musicians you have never met or played with before, while standard practice for the professional or regular gigging musician, presents the jammer with a fresh set of challenges.

At the Bayou Monday Night Blues Jam, from left to right: Johnny "Feds" Federico (guitar),
Dave Schimanksy (drums), John "Elmo" Lawson (bass), and Fred Lind (keys).

Bayou Blues Jam – Mount Vernon, New York
Within ten miles of where I live in White Plains, there are open mic blues jams at various bars, restaurants, and clubs Sunday through Thursday evenings. For several years, Tele in hand, I regularly attended guitarist Geoff Hartwell’s Tuesday Night Blues Jam. When that jam ended after a seven year run, I discovered the Bayou Restaurant Monday Night Blues Jam in Mount Vernon with host band Johnny Feds and the Bluez Boyz. “I run the Monday night blues jam like Little League—everybody gets to play,” says guitarist/vocalist Johnny Federico.

With a long workday under my belt already, blues jam evenings at the Bayou begin with cups of coffee and a slice of pecan pie, while Johnny and the band do their opening set. Over the years, the Bayou stage has seen musicians like Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Tab Benoit, Sonny Landreth, and Kenny Neal—to name just a few—and you can feel the blues oozing from the old wood floors and the festive lingerie dangling over the bar. The Bayou jam sees many terrific musicians passing through and the opportunity exists each week to play alongside someone different. Johnny Feds runs the jam with enthusiasm for everyone participating and it’s great to come back each week and see who has signed up to play.

Because all blues is not local, I decided to board a flight to Kansas City (with my Squier Classic Vibe Tele) to continue my blues jam research and quest for more experience.

Trampled Under Foot seen at the Eclipse Bar & Grill Wednesday Night Blues Jam, from left to right: Gharret Schaberg, friend ("brother from another mother") and occasional sax player locally for the band, Danielle Schnebelen (bass), Kris Schnebelen (drums), and Nick Schnebelen (guitar).

Trampled Under Foot – Raytown, Missouri
I was traveling to KC to meet up with the rising star musician Schnebelen siblings Nick (guitar), Danielle (bass), and Kris (drums) of the Kansas City blues band Trampled Under Foot. Though a dedicated and hardworking touring band, TUF has been hosting a popular Wednesday evening blues jam for more than seven years to appreciative crowds at the Eclipse Bar & Grill in Raytown, Missouri.

The evening before the jam, with my cell phone set for tornado alerts amid turbulent spring weather, I to BB’s Lawnside BBQ, a blues and barbecue landmark in Kansas City to see TUF perform. I felt right at home with a plate of BB’s barbecue and a cold beer on the table, and once TUF fired up, I was certain traveling all the way to KC for a blues jam was the right effort.

The Eclipse, TUF’s Wednesday evening jam venue, is a big, roadhouse-style bar and grill where the atmosphere is welcoming and the crowd loves the music. At The Eclipse Bar & Grill, there is a great familiar local feeling to the place and when Trampled Under Foot started to play, it is an understatement to say that a high standard was set for the evening. The Schnebelens are jam experts, having performed as youngsters at jams run by their musician mom and dad. So they are not only a tight, professional band; they’re family.

Waiting at the bar, I felt like I was about to join the Navy SEALS of Blues as a journalist on a mission and maybe I should keep my head down.  Any fears I had as a newcomer, however, quickly were dispelled by the friendly guidance of the band and the enthusiasm of the crowd. I was grateful for the warm welcome I received and it helped calm my nervous fingers working through Albert Collins’s “Too Tired” with the band.

The privilege to play with musicians like Nick, Danielle and Kris—players who make you better with their skill, patience, and support—is worth a tornado warning or two. And it’s the kind of experience you may find yourself, if you are willing to haunt the blues jam scene.

Author Larry Berglas sits in Warmdaddy's house band members Randy Lippincott (guitar and vocals),
Joey 'Hotbox' Simon (harmonica), Pete Eshelman (keyboards), Barry Meehan (bass),
and Bob Holden (drums) under the glow of the venue's neon.

Warmdaddy’s – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Guitarist, bassist, and vocalist Randy Lippincott has run the Warmdaddy's Tuesday Night Blues Jam with different bands for more than 12 years.
I wrapped my research by making the three-hour drive to Philadelphia on the hottest day of the 2011 summer to date. My destination was the blues club Warmdaddy’s, which TUF’s Nick Schnebelen cited as an important jam experience in their musical development. Led by veteran guitarist and vocalist Randy Lippincott and his band, the Warmdaddy’s jam offers a full, professional, stage-ready experience for participants. “Warmdaddy's is a pleasant, family-run dinner club that we’ve made our home for well over a dozen years,” explains Lippincott. “It's not your typical, old style blues juke joint."

Warmdaddy’s presented me with an entirely different experience than The Eclipse or The Bayou, which are smaller, more intimate venues. Warmdaddy’s offers a large, lofty restaurant style space and, in addition to the jammers present the night I was there, there may have been a hundred or so people still in the audience at jam time at both the tables and bar, an audience who clearly was there for the music. The Bayou can feel like you are playing to friends in Johnny Feds’ living room; Warmdaddy’s offered a stage-centered and boisterous larger crowd experience. At The Bayou, Johnny will often have, as co-hosts, guest musicians including singers, harp players and others leading the sets for the jammers, who help to set the tone for the evening,

Randy and the band gave me plenty of room and support to play that evening. After my first two-song set was done and I left the stage, audience enthusiasm extended all the way to the couple at the end of the bar. They actually shook my hand and insisted on buying me a beer simply because, as they put it, “We love good music.” This kind of connection is what it’s all about at the jams.

Finding Your Jam
Blues jams are open to all and they are easy to find. Some may have a small cover charge; some have none at all. Many bars, pubs and other venues that present music have designated evenings devoted exclusively to blues jams. Searching the term “blues jam” on the web for your area or checking the schedules of local blues or other music clubs will give you results. All you need to do is show up with your instrument ready to play and sign up on the sheet that usually appears while the host band is setting up.