Paul Hawthorne's Web Site

Bluegrass Jamming Pointers, Clues and Guidelines

Jamming with other people is one of the parts of making music where you can really learn what this art form is about and get a lot of satisfaction and pleasure as well as become a lot more skilled at it. One of the things that comes up periodically on the email lists and in workshops is a question about what is expected of a player in a jamming situation, and how does a jam "work". It is clear there is some kind of an expected structure which is seldom explained. These are a few good responses to that question.

The first comes from Dr. Banjo himself.

After years of teaching the "unwritten, unspoken rules of bluegrass jamming", I realized it might be nice to go ahead and write down the main ones as concisely as possible. I've been using these of late at the jam classes I give for all instruments, and encouraging others to do the same. All are welcome to reprint and use these pointers as long as my authorship is noted.

Running jam classes is fun and rewarding. It can really change people's lives-- there are so many folks who can play pretty decently and are highly motivated to jam, but just need a little coaching to get up and running with confidence.

Here's the "jamming pointers" outline:


Bluegrass Jamming Pointers

by Pete Wernick

Bottom lines:
  1. Be in tune. Before starting and whenever in doubt, use an electronic tuner.
  2. Be on the right chord.
    1. Remember the chord progression.
    2. If necessary, watch the left hand of someone who knows the chords.
  3. Stay with the beat.
It helps if you:
  1. Recognize common guitar chords by sight even if you don't play guitar.
  2. Help with the singing. Knowing the verses to songs is a key ingredient.
  3. Suggest songs easy enough for everyone to follow. Be aware of common denominators of ability when picking keys and tempos.
  4. Know the basics of simple key transposing, such as when capos are used.
  5. Help others be on the right chord, tuning, etc.
  6. Watch your volume.
    1. Allow featured singer/soloist to be easily heard. If you can't hear him/her, get quieter.
    2. When it's your turn, make sure you're heard.
    3. Be aware that your instrument (banjos especially) may not seem as loud to you as to someone who's in front of it.
  7. Know the traditional unspoken ground rules (see below).
  8. Give everyone a chance to shine. Be encouraging.
Traditional unspoken ground rules:
  1. Whoever is singing lead or kicks off an instrumental usually leads the group through the song, signaling who takes instrumental solos ("breaks") and when to end.
  2. Typical arrangement formats:
    1. On a song when there are few or no instrumental soloists: The singer starts tune any way comfortable, others join in, play until verses run out. Or the singer can give a solo to anyone willing, following format:
    2. On a song when some instruments can solo:
      1. Break ("kickoff"), verse, chorus,
      2. Break, verse, chorus,
      3. Break, verse, chorus
        1. [optional: add solo(s) and final chorus]
    3. On instrumentals, the same person usually starts and ends, with solos going around in a circle to those willing. Most common end: double "shave and a haircut" lick.
  3. Regarding solos ("breaks"):
    1. Breaks for songs generally follow the melody and chords of a verse.
    2. At the beginning of a song and following each chorus, the singer offers breaks. Head signals and body language are used to offer, accept/decline.
    3. If no one can solo, the singer just keeps singing verses and choruses to the end.
    4. If there are more soloists than there are verses of the song, some solos can be grouped together to give everyone a turn. Or the singer can repeat verses to lengthen the song.
    5. If there are more than enough spots for breaks, some soloists can take an extra turn.
  4. If an instrumental soloist starts late, listen for whether the break is starting from the top or from a later point in the song. If different players realize they seem to be at different points in the song, try to resolve it quickly, usually by falling in with the soloist, even if he/she is mistaken.
  5. When the lead singer doesn't start a verse on time, keep playing the root chord and wait until the singer starts before going to the chord changes.
  6. Sing harmonies on choruses only, normally. Verses are sung solo. But in less advanced jams, people may often sing along on the verses too, even if not singing a harmony.
  7. Use signals to help everyone end together: Foot out, hold up instrument, end after "one last chorus" or repeat of last line. Listen for instrumental licks that signal ending.
Etiquette stuff:
  1. Some key participants may have main influence over the choice of songs and who gets to do what. Be respectful of the situation. Fit in as invited.
  2. Instrumentalists, be mindful of when others want to solo or do featured backup. Give them space and take turns being featured. Don't compete!
  3. Re tuning: wait your turn. If someone is tuning, avoid any playing, or perhaps (if you're sure your instrument is in tune) offer notes matching the open strings of the other person's instrument.
  4. In more advanced jams, often the "classic" arrangement of a particular number is followed, including choice of key, which instrument solos when, harm ony parts, etc. However, if the classic version is in a key that doesn't work well for the lead singer, the singer calls the key and the others adapt.
  5. If you don't fit into one jam, look for another or start another, or just stay and listen. (Note if there are already enough of your instrument in the group, or if the speed or difficulty of the material is out of your league.) In some situations it's OK to play quietly in an "outer circle", not trying to be heard in the inner circle.
  6. Pay attention and learn from experience.


Pete Wernick, "Dr. Banjo", is renowned worldwide for his accomplishments and contributions to bluegrass music: the hot-picking force in several trend-setting bands including Hot Rize, respected author and teacher, songwriter, and long-term President of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Pete's website with info on his appearances, products and a more detailed bio is at

Pete's instructional books, CDs and videos include best-sellers in their respective fields: Bluegrass Banjo, Bluegrass Songbook, How to Make a Band Work, and many others. A pioneer in bluegrass music instruction, since 1980 his camps and clinics have inspired players nationwide and overseas.

Email to Pete at .

I met Charlie Hall at the Winfield KS festival the first year I went there. He is a fine guitarist and singer in the band Black Rose, courteous in a jam, and was probably was unjustly accused or at least misunderstood in the incident that led to the creation of the next set of guidelines.

Charlie writes: "In 1994, I violated one of Robert's Rosenberg's internal jamming precepts (listed here as number 8, I believe), and he wrote up this list of 10 rules and mailed it to me. I don't remember if he wanted it published or just to chastise me; probably a little of both.... I then formatted it into a "Commandments"-type format and published it in The Black Rose, the Pretty Dang Official Newsletter of the Black Rose Acoustic Society in Black Forest, Colorado.

" took me a good amount of time (approximately that of the Neolithic Era) to fix Robert's mangling of the English (we assume) language...."

Robert tells it a bit differently. "The Ten Jammandments originated after the '95 Mid Winter (Fort Collins, Colo.) Bluegrass Festival. I sent my friend Charlie Hall (from the Black Rose Acoustic Music Society in Colorado Springs) Ten Rules for Jamming which he edited and cleverly published as the Jammandments. Charlie actually deserves more credit than even he realizes. It was his lack of jamming etiquette (particularly #8) that served as inspiration to put on paper the guidelines for polite picking sessions.

Robert sent a more Old Testament form of the Jammandments, which I hope are in a sizing which will show and print well on 640X480 resolution systems. I believe you can change the font size in the browser for higher resolutions. I may present this as a set of printable gifs, one for each of the three popular resolutions.

I've taken the liberty of converting Paul's old printable Web page into a PDF keeping the same format. The Old Testament link above will get you there. This avoids having three different gifs.


The Ten Jammandments

by Robert Rosenberg, Jamming Juris Doctor and Moral Arbiter
edited by Charlie Hall, user of the English language

  1. Thou Shalt Tune Thy Instrument - There are too many good, cheap tuners around not to do this.
  2. Thou Shalt Listen - if you can't hear the lead instrument or vocalist, then consider yourself too loud.
  3. Thou Shalt Pass - when handing off an instrumental solo, try to follow a pattern either clockwise or counter-clockwise. If you want to skip the next solo or pass it off to the next picker, be sure that the next person is aware of the handoff. No one wants to start their solo in the middle of the song.
  4. Thou Shalt Welcome Others - open up the circle if others want to join. The jam can not be too big if people are polite.
  5. Thou Shalt Share in the Selection - Open the choice of songs to the pickers around the circle. Take turns. Don't monopolize the jam.
  6. Thou Shalt Try New Stuff - once in a while a participant may suggest original material or one that is out of character with the jam. This is OK (refer to Jammandments 2 and 4.)
  7. Thou Shalt Let Others Know When You Are Not Jamming - bands may sometimes be rehearsing and may need to exclude non-band members from jamming. If so, an explanation would be nice.
  8. Thou Shalt Not Raid - don't interrupt an active jam by calling musicians away to begin another jam.
  9. Thou Shalt Keepith Thy Rhythm Steadyith - Errors in rhythm are most difficult to overcome. Avoid adding or dropping beats. Play quietly if you can't keep up and pay attention (refer to Jammandment 2).
  10. Thou Shalt Not Speed - do not start a song too fast for the others to play. Once everyone has had a turn at the lead, the one may announce that the tempo is about to increase.


Email to Charlie at .
Email to Robert at .

Want more? Here's a link to a another set of guidelines on Bart Veerman's Jam Etiquette page. Don't forget to come back here sometime.

More to come here in the future too......


Text as noted ©1999 by Peter Wernick

Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 05 Apr 2007 by WF