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.

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