This is reproduced with the permission of the author, Edward Pollak, Ph.D.
Appropriate jam etiquette should ALWAYS be observed. If you're a novice, stay in the background & play quietly until you get the hang of it. (This is the musical equivalent of "lurking.") No one is impressed by a newcomer (or old timer) who insists on playing over everyone else's vocals and breaks.
Rules of etiquette tend to differ from jam to jam and especially between Old Timey and BG jams. In BG jams, all pickers are expected to vamp or chop or play back up licks behind the vocalist or whichever instrument is given the nod to take a solo break. In Old Timey (OT) jams, it's common for all banjos and all fiddles to play the melody in unison. This behavior would quickly make you persona non grata at a BG jam. Many OT jams frown on banjo players with finger picks (and possibly resonators) because such instruments overpower the more traditional-style pickers. Playing Scruggs style at some OT jams is liable to get you ridden out of town on a (f)rail
BG jams will often welcome an OT banjo player and even offer him/her solo breaks but you must obey BG etiquette and not keep frailing, etc. over other people's breaks. The key here (and in most group playing) is to maintain eye contact with whoever is leading that particular song. This is usually, but not always, the vocalist or in the case of instrumentals, whoever kicked off the tune. I see lots of novices wondering why no one gives them a solo break. There are usually three answers: 1)The leader tried to give you a break but you were too busy looking at your fingerboard. (Dobro players are notoriously guilty of this particular sin.) 2) The leader didn't feel you needed a solo break since you'd already (effectively) taken your "solo" break(s) albeit while the vocalist was singing or the mandolin was trying to be heard for his solo break. Sometimes I get the impression that new jam participants try to play too loudly and too much so that those standing around will know that the newcomer has some ability and is, therefore, deserving of a solo break. Rest assured that you can give people a feel for your skill level just as easily with a few well chosen back up licks as you can with a raging "solo break" played over the vocals. 3) The final reason you may not get a break is that the jam leader(s) are being insensitive boors. Sometimes this is a momentary lapse and sometimes it is a persistent personality flaw but don't jump to conclusions too quickly. I have heard people say "that jam doesn't like new comers" when I know for a fact that is not true. Give a jam a couple of tries before deciding that the participants are simply too inbred to deal with.
Another truly annoying habit (not necessarily restricted to novices) is evidenced when someone continuously "noodles around" on his/her instrument between songs. People are often trying to TUNE between songs and do not, therefore, appreciate such an activity. If your noodling around is a (not so) subtle way of suggesting the next tune, then just go ahead and suggest the next tune! If your noodling around is just a way of showing others how good you are, it is unnecessary, and just plain annoying. If your noodling around is an attempt to practice a particular tune or lick, move away from the group and practice in a corner by yourself.
Last but not least, a note for long time jam participants: Go out of your way to be welcoming and helpful to new comers. They represent the future and growth of the music and jam sessions we all love.
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