Jam Session Etiquette – or “Summer’s Here and the Time is Right for Jamming in The Clubs”
April 27, 2023

Written by Doug Perkins

I’m currently doing an eBook for a publisher intended for people that know how to play guitar but now want to learn how to play jazz on it. One of my little advice “sidebars” in the book is about jam sessions, so I decided I would write something for JGS on the same subject.

Whether you’d played at jam sessions all of your life or have just always felt you should start doing so, I think you might find something useful to think about in what I’m about to say – I’ve played LOTS from when I was an early teenager both successfully and EMBARRASSINGLY, and I can tell you that you can learn a lot from either type of experience.

Before I get way into it, even if you don’t know where the jam sessions even ARE in your area, I can assure you that they exist. It’s a common practice for nightclubs – especially ones that feature live jazz and blues acts – to pick one of their slowest nights to be a “jam night” to try to get musicians and their friends to come in and spend money. These will typically be Monday or Tuesday nights, there is no “cover charge” – at least to anyone walking in the door with a musical instrument – and there will be a “house (or host) band”. They will play the first set on their own, and will then back anyone that wants to “sit in” to jam who are then called up from a sign-up list. So take a look on social media or an internet search and I think you will be surprised at what you will find.

Just in the paragraph I just wrote above, there are numerous little pitfalls you might fall into based on false assumptions that if you didn’t know could cause problems. The first one: everyone should bring their own instrument, with a few variations depending on the instrument that they play: Drummers will usually just bring their sticks and MAYBE a kick drum pedal (but only if the host drummer OKs that), and of course the keyboard player will play the piano or keyboard that’s in the host band.

For guitar players, that OF COURSE means bringing your own guitar, because expecting to play someone else’s guitar is both a breach of etiquette as well as forcing you to play an instrument that you might not be comfortable at all on. But there is an extra caveat for guitar players here: what if there’s no guitar player in the host band? That’s something you won’t know without either already knowing the instrumentation of the host band or just finding out when you come in the club.

BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, that means that you better throw a guitar amplifier into your car just in case as well. Don’t bring it in when you first enter the club, it looks presumptuous that they will even let you play or that you might think that the guitarist in the host band will move his rig for yours – and that kind of thing where you are controlling other people’s perception of who you are from moment one is going to be an ongoing theme in this blog.

When you go to sit in, you are doing it for a number of reasons and if you don’t handle yourself well, it could have a very negative impact on how your are seen as both a musician and a human being – and these are:

  1. Establishing yourself as a certain level of musician to others that you want to play with into the future – and assessing other musicians in that way as well.
  2. Establishing yourself as someone that others want to be around – and that includes not just the other musicians, but the bartender, club owner(s), audience members, and of course, the all important WAIT STAFF.
  3. The simple application of the golden rule of treating others as you want to be treated yourself is what this is all about. Remember that in general, all the musicians etc on this element of your area’s live music scene will be connected to each other in one way or another: The waitress might be the sister of that bass player you really liked (you tipped them, right?), the bartender might go to work at a brand new club you want to get your own band into next month. The people that really loved your solo will have friends they bring to other jam sessions you play, and will eventually be your fans to go to your own gigs in the future, and on and on. Reputations are made or broken by all of this stuff, so definitely think about this before you step foot into this realm.

The following is especially for those who are new to the world of the Jam Session:

I very much encourage anyone that all of this is completely new to to do the following: After you have asked around about where to go, show up at the sessions and decide which ones are the ones that fit what you are looking for the best: where you like the music that’s being played (or maybe sometimes just ATTEMPTED to be played) and has enough people there to make it worthwhile.  I would recommend that you keep a low profile at first and maybe not even tell anyone that you are a musician, and just observe both the players and everyone else I just mentioned as well. Take with you something to non-descriptively take notes with on these points:

  • The songs that were played and hopefully the keys they were played in – for sure the person sitting in or the host band leader will say that at least once, so it shouldn’t be hard to find out.
  • Who the host band players are, and what you do or don’t like about what they played or who they seem to be as people.
  • Who the people sitting in were, and what they did that seemed to really work and what didn’t.
  • Learn the names of the wait staff and owner / bartender if you meet them – that will help when you start to sit in and hopefully one day play there yourself.
  • Legitimately say something positive (musicians can spot a fake a mile away) to anyone that you can – even if it’s just that you like the color of their instrument. Anyone is a potential future musical collaborator, fan or friend.

The next thing to do is to put together at least a dozen tunes that are typically played at a jam session. By that, I mean that songs that don’t require much if any rehearsal and are well known enough for lots of people to probably know them as well. At least one of those should be a blues – and by that, I mean where you as a guitar player can play both the chord changes and also the single note melody. There are a TON of blues “heads” (another term for melody) out there, just look though any “fake book” and you will find some, but off the top of my head, “Straight No Chaser” and “Blue Monk” come to mind. Most jazz tunes are in flat keys for the horn players, so don’t call tunes in E and A etc unless there’s a really good reason to do so.

In the eBook that I’ve written that will come out later this year, the whole book was written with the goal of teaching jazz chordal and single note improvisation by using the chord progressions (or as I called them, “song structures”) to ten increasingly harmonically complex popular at jam session tunes. At the end of the book, the guitarist will not only know those ten songs and how to ‘comp the changes (short for “accompany” a soloist etc) and create solos based on the “guide tones” (the 3rds & 7ths of the chords), but also understand harmony enough to determine the correct scales for songs up to the level discussed in the book. The first one is for people beginning to play jazz, there will be another next year for going beyond that.

And speaking of “Fake Books”, besides having at least one (The Real Book is the most popular and widely owned), I HIGHLY recommend getting the amazing “iREAL PRO” app for your phone or tablet to bring with you to jam sessions. You can populate your copy with the chord progressions that you can put in any key instantly for thousands of tunes in every style – and make sure you get at least their “Jazz 1300” package immediately when you do.

iRealPro is also a play-along practice device with a bass piano(or guitar) and drums backing track and VERY CHEAP. And all the song packages are free at the forum, so make sure you take advantage of this great resource.

So that’s my suggestions on getting into the Jam Session scene, but here’s the most important suggestion I can make: It’s my experience that I really get nothing done without a deadline, so definitely make some on this subject. Especially if you’ve never played jam sessions before, a great way to do that is to get another musician friend to come along where you know you will lose face with if you”chicken out”.

Make no mistake about it, this kind of thing can be intimidating and unless you are really unusual, you will probably be nervous and play less than your best sometimes. But just get back up on the horse again later and eventually your positive experiences will be a lot more common than your embarrassing moments. Remember that even the great Charlie Parker had some very bad performances when he first started – and we all know how HE turned out 😉

Doug Perkins

April 26, 2023


For more, here’s a forum link addressing the subject of what tunes to play at jams, etc:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.