Jazz Jam Session Tips and Etiquette

If there’s one thing that divides jazz musicians more often than not, it’s jam sessions. Jam sessions can be one of the most enjoyable events that you participate in as a jazz musician, or they can be nightmares from which you think will never end.

Often there’s a fine line between these two types of jazz jam session experiences, and that line is defined by the preparation and etiquette of those musicians in the audience that are called up to jam over the course of the night.

While you don’t have control over the other musicians in the audience, you can make sure that you provide a positive contribution to the evening’s festivities by coming prepared and interacting in a positive way with the other musicians.

If you’re new to jam sessions, or have had a negative experience and weren’t sure why, this article will provide you with 10 jazz jam session tips and etiquette pointers that will guide you towards a positive jam experience.

If you’ve got a funny jam session story, or you learned a hard lesson on the bandstand, share it in the comments section below so that other musicians can learn from your positive and negative jam session experiences.

Preparing for a Jam Session

Even before you get to a jam session, there are a number of ways that you can prepare at home to ensure that you’ll have a positive experience on stage. Often times the worst jam session experiences happen because a musician is unprepared for the tunes being called, forgets their gear, or otherwise not ready for that night’s jam.

Here are four jazz jam session tips that will make sure you’re well prepared to take the stage and be successful at your next local jam.


Prepare 5 Jazz Standards

If you’ve been to a jam session before, you’ll know that they can go on for hours at a time.

Although the jazz repertoire is expansive, there are core jazz standards that are called at jam session more often than others.

The jam session house band and the jammers themselves will avoid playing a tune more than once during a single jam session. So, if you only prepare one or two tunes, and they get called, you’ll be out of luck for that night’s session.

The 5 tunes you learn don’t have to be all complex bebop tunes. You could even learn 5 different blues tunes, but just make sure you know 5 different melodies before heading out to the jam. If you’re unsure of what the best tunes to learn are for your local jam session, head down to the jam this week and write down the tunes that are called when players go up to jam. Then, start by learning a handful of those tunes at home.

You could also ask the house band, who will usually be happy to give you advice on which tunes to prepare for that particular jam session. From there, you can begin learning those tunes as you prepare to go up and play at the next jam session.

Here’s a list of 15 jazz standards that get called often at jam sessions:


Amps and Other Gear

Not having an amp at a jam is an issue that can be easily avoided.

If you’re familiar with the house band and know they have a guitar player in the group, you don’t need to worry about bringing an amp.

When you’re unsure about the amp situation, the easiest solution is to simply bring an amp. You can always leave it in your car, or at the side of the stage if it’s not needed.

Just be prepared for other guitarists to see your amp, and if they dig it, possibly ask you to use it when they go up to jam. You can say yes or no to this request. But, you’ll probably get asked, so maybe bring an amp you don’t mind sharing as it’s a good way to introduce yourself to the other guitar players in the room.

When it comes time to choose a guitar amp, bring an amp that’s easy to set up and has a solid clean channel.

Lastly, make sure it’s “Goldilocks” amp, one that’s big enough to be heard over the drums, but not too big that it takes up a chunk of the stage.

You should also double check that you have a cable, tuner, picks, guitar strap, and other items you’ll need to perform. There’s nothing worse than getting up on stage, and then forgetting a cable or a pick.

So do a quick check before leaving the house to make sure you’ve got everything you need…


Dealing With Nerves

It’s more than likely that you’ll be a bit nervous, especially if you’ve never been to a jam session, or it’s a new jam session and you’re going for the first time.

This is totally normal, and we’ve all been there.

One of the best ways to get over your nerves once you’re at the jam session is to just go up and play. Get it over with, like pulling off a Band-Aid all at once. Sure it might be a painful experience the first time, but you might be surprised how quickly the nerves fade away once you’re on stage.

And, if you’re still nervous during the actual performance, it’s OK. Just do your best, and with time and experience you’ll learn how to deal with your nerves, and even harness them and turn them into positive energy on stage.

Everyone deals with nerves to some degree or another, so just do your best, and know that you’re not alone if you feel nervous about getting up at a jam session.


Practicing with Backing Tracks

Even before you get to the gig, you can practice exercises at home to prepare yourself the best you can for jamming on stage.

One of the best ways to prepare yourself for a jam session is to jam on tunes you don’t know in your practice routine.

Put on a jazz backing-track or Band in a Box for a tune you don’t know, and practice either playing by ear, or reading a lead sheet. Play the chords and solo over the tune, as you’ll be required to do both at the jam, and don’t stop if you get lost. Instead, try and use your ears and listen for cues that can help you get back on track. If you get lost in a jam session, you won’t be able to stop the tune and start over.

So, practicing getting back on track if you get off the form at home is the best way to prepare yourself to deal with this situation on stage.

Jazz Jam Session Etiquette

As well as being prepared before you play, you’ll need to make sure you know how to act and interact with the other musicians when you hit the bandstand.

Often, how you interact with other musicians, and how you treat the jam session process, will dictate if you’re invited back.

Being friendly, asking advice when needed, and being courteous to other musicians and the house band can go a long way in establishing a positive rapport with everyone involved in the jam.


Ask to Play

Rather than jumping up on stage between tunes, it’s always best to talk to the host band, either before the jam or between sets, to ask when you can get up and play.

Often there’ll be a queue for jammers or some previously made arrangements of when people get up and play, so be sure to check in before setting up your gear.

Another popular way to run a jam session is to have a sign-up sheet, where you just put your name and instrument and a tune you want to play or actually sign up to a jazz standard that’s been pre-chosen for the set.

Checking in is a common courtesy that’ll go a long way in building a solid rapport with the house band.


Call the Tune

Once it’s your turn to get up on stage, go for it! Don’t be shy, everyone is at the jam session to play jazz and have fun.

When you get called up, tell the house band the tune you want to play right away to give them time to prepare any lead sheets or ask any questions before you start.

Avoid asking the band what they want to play. The band is there to support what you’ve been learning and what you’re working on.

And, asking the band can lead to a comedy routine where they name a tune, you say you don’t know it, you name a tune, they don’t know it, and round and round you go.

Best to just name the tune, give them a chance to grab a lead sheet if needed, and start playing.


The Count In

Now that you’ve called the tune and everyone is on the same page, you may need to count in the tune if the bandleader doesn’t do it for you.

You’ll know if you’re supposed to count the tune in if nobody does it for you, the band all look at you, or they ask you to count it in.

When counting in the tune, make sure you’re facing the rest of the band so they aren’t caught off guard, and that you’re speaking audibly.

Many a train-wreck can be easily avoided by counting a tune in audibly and confidently.


Time Management

The tune is now in full swing. The melody has been played, there have been one or two other soloists, and not it’s your turn to bring your jazz improvisation skills to the jam session.

When soloing at a jam session, the most important thing to keep in mind is the length of your solo. There’s nothing worse than having someone come up and take a 5-minute solo, especially when the rest of the band took one or two choruses at most.

As a best practice, keep your solos to within 2 or 3 choruses per tune. Short solos keep everyone interested and engaged, and prevents tunes from dragging on. If it’s a busy night, the host band will be especially thankful for your time consideration.

The other time consideration you need to be aware of is the amount of time you spend on stage jamming tunes. After playing through a couple of standards with the host band, check to see if there’s anyone else waiting to play. If there’s a large line of jammers, it’s likely that you’ll have to wrap things up after a few tunes, or even one if it’s busy.

After you’ve played, stick around and listen to the other players. Jams are perfect avenues for getting to know musicians and learning about the local jazz scene. As well, it’s just common courtesy to listen to the players that sat in your audience when you jammed on your tunes.

If you do have to excuse yourself, for work or to put the kids to bed, tell the other musicians. Take a few minutes to say thanks and make your excuses. This way you’ll be able to leave early if needed, but you won’t put off the other jammers if they think you just came to play and take off right afterward.


Wrapping it Up

Now comes the big finale. The solos have been played, the head has been played out, and it’s time to end the tune.

There are a number of ways to end a jazz tune, but more often than not you’ll be ending with a tag. A tag is a restatement of the melody in the last few bars of the tune, usually the last 3 to 4, but this can vary depending on the tune.

You can even bring up how you’d like to end the tune with the band before you start the song, which will avoid any awkward moments where each of you goes into a different ending and the whole tune falls apart.

Just to be safe, it’s always best to have a few classic jazz endings for guitar under your fingers so you can be light on your feet and go with what the band does in the moment.


Thanks and Follow Up Woodshedding

After the jam, be sure to thank the house band and let them know you appreciated the session. Often the host band is composed of professional musicians who make their living from playing gigs such as hosting jam sessions. If there’s a tip jar present, contribute what you can to show your thanks for the evening and jam session experience.

After a night of jamming, the only thing left to do is start preparing for the next jam.

The best way to prepare for your second jam session is to work out any holes in your playing that you found cropped up in that week’s jam. So, if you found your comping at faster tempos wasn’t cutting it, work on that this week. If you’re minor ii V I lines weren’t happening, focus on those lines during your practice time.

And, most importantly, if there was a tune called that you couldn’t play because you didn’t know it, learn it. This way you’ll have one more tune at your fingertips that you can jam on next time.

15 thoughts on “Jazz Jam Session Tips and Etiquette”

  1. Guti

    A couple of contributions. First: that rule about not bringing real books does not apply to every jam or situation. It depends on the level of the musicians, or whether it’s your proposed tune (no books!) or you’re “helping” (getting a bit of help is ok, be it on paper, on tablet or on a napkin).

    Second: it has been said that nerves are a normal thing; you’re worried about them, just the same as you’re worried about scales, melodies and tempo. It’s a “technical” and absolutely normal part of the business, I absoutely agree. Just for the same reasons, be ready for not getting a great sound, or not doing much “art”. Unless you’re a terrific player, surrounded by terrific players and a dedicated sound guy in a wonderful hall (which is quite unusual for a bar), the music you’ll make will not probably be your absolute best, so to speak. You’re in an unknown environment, with new peers, no rehearsal at all, making a first and last take, and unexpected things will happen (a string breaks, a guy plays a note that gets you out of track, a waiter drops a glass, one of your stagemates is drunk). You’ll never control a jam. Relax; just try to play your best, to be flexible to overcome unexpected problems, to fit… and to listen a lot and make music together. That juggling is actually the funny part of this, not the wonderful music you’ll make (most probably you won’t). Don’t be disappointed if the musical results are mediocre, and don’t evaluate your experience based on that.

  2. Yuri

    This is one of them most important topics in growing as a musician. I’ve had my share of off moments on stage: because the singer asked for a transposition I messed up, because my gear sucked, because I didn’t know the tunes.
    One night, playing on the beach, I met this singer/guitarist. He knew everything in every key. I mean everything, from world music to samba, jazz and rock. He even told me he was preparing a Japanese and an Italian set, just in case of some wedding or corporate event… Crazy! And he could play percussion while handling his double neck acoustic. That was obviously a tremendous lesson for me, as by that time my idea of being prepared included nothing more than sounding “fast” or “complex”. You won’t impress anybody by lacking the fundamentals, that I assure you!

  3. Baroness Lips

    I spent months and years learning to play Eruption. So no matter what the tune, whenever it’s my turn to solo I just play Eruption. which is cool since Eruption is the only solo I know how to play and people seem to dig it.

  4. munkienl

    Get a tablet and IrealB. fantastic app with 1600 standards you can just download for free. just chords but that’ s enough. Horns can play the melody. If you have to play the tune in a different key, just transpose it.

    One more tip. Usually there’s a piano player. Don’t play chords. Wait for your solo like the horn players.

  5. Mariano Jose Conget

    I think most of what it`s said is good and useful. Evidently one should call an F or a Bb blues, although in jazz you may also think of C, G, Ab and Eb blues. It will be challenging when a singer changes the key, a very common issue. I agree w Lance in having control of your tone. Once you work over repertoire to experiment you chops, having control of your tone is essential as much as to dintinguish whether is going to be an acoustic or an electric bass in the room, so you can make out which kind of projection your lines will need to be heard. Always jammin in the same room i’ve found necessary often to use two AYB amps, or just a homemade 18w tube amp with a 10″ speaker, perhaps carried on stack w another 10″/box paralell extension.

  6. Jeff

    Don’t forget to enjoy the experience. Your experience can be either based on a very limited egocentric platform, or be expanded to be inclusive of everyone at the jam session. Humans start out as selfish infants with the potential for maturity and development to where they aren’t just about themselves.

    The experience of truly coming together at a jam with a variety of jammers and the audience is worth the price of admission; i.e. leaving your ego at the door.

  7. Roberto

    A friend of mine (professional jazz musician) once adviced me never to take a Real Book to a jam and that I must knew the tune I was going to play, but never read.
    Altough I play since many years, I’ve never been at a jam, but I find the article excelent.

  8. Allen

    I had an awful experience the last time I went to a jam session. The bar is in my village and Wednesday is jam night. They play more rock and blues style so I went with my blues harps. When I started to play it sounded terrible. I looked at the guitarists to check what key they were playing in and then checked I had the correct harp. I parped again and still it was really off. I felt quite embarrassed and exited the stage. Later I checked with the guy who runs the session and it turns out that he had down tuned the guitars and bass to 432Hz to suit his voice. needless to say I was quite rude with him. It’s a small village so need for long term disputes but I haven’t had the confidence to jam again.

    1. Guti

      I know this was like two years ago, but Allen, this story about downtuning guitars is the most utterly absurd thing I’ve ever heard of. It’s a way of guaranteeing nobody can take part in the jam. Don’t let your confidence fall; it’s that stupid singer who should go back to study.

  9. Rafael

    Hey, great Article, thanks Terence & Matt!
    Jam Sessions are so essential to IMPROVE your PLAYING, to make Connections with local musicians and to enjoy playing live music interact and improvise ! For me, it’s also important to GET TO PLAY with better or let’s say MORE EXPERIENCED MUSICIANS than me, that’s when you really learn a lot on the spot, you improve your playing. What always really works for me is to get in early, even before the house band plays, introduce myself to one of the house band musicians and have a little chat with them. I can guarantee you that when you come on time for when the house band starts to play, you’ll have much more chances to get to jam as one of the first and so put faster your nerves away! I too often have seen a House Band playing his Set and the musicians who come to Jam get in the venue only when the Jam begins or even later! For me it’s so a disrepectful attitude! SO GET TO THE JAM EARLY and LISTEN TO THE HOUSE BAND, they have been working hard their tunes/standards to play them on stage! I’ve also been in the house Band for jams and it nerves me when there’s only a few people when you play and suddenly come at once all the musicians to jam when you finish your set. So get early at the jam, TALK to the people, you can learn a lot also talking with great musicians! I’ve been to a jam in Barcelona and got to talk with Jorge Rossy (ex Drummer of Brad Mehldau), Man, he’s so cool and funny, not arrogant at all, playing and jamming in a small forgotten Tapas Bar in Barcelona, for me that’s inspiring! After this I’ve seen him also in a Gig playing Piano and his son, Felix Rossy on Trumpet, MAN Awesome music and great persons!
    So, to come back to Jams! At the beginning of the evening it can be much easier also to check if there’s even a guitar amp on stage, thanks Lance for the great commentary, you’re totally right! I’ve been to jams where I had to bring my Amp, great way to locate the guitarists and get to chat with them!
    KEEP THE FORM OF THE TUNE!: It happened to me many times that I forgot the Form in the middle of my solo, or worse comping a soloist! That makes angry ! Listen to CUES of the Musicians (mostly Drummer, Bassist, but also the others on stage) and the best clear way to get out of this embarassing situation in the moment is to PLAY THE HEAD/MELODY. Drummer might do a Cue like Rolls, Fills to tell you : Hey! now comes the A Part! (For example). Or the Bassist might play clear and simple Harmony I-V, II-V-I,… and not substitutions or complicated stuff. So LISTEN to the Band! Of course, after having lived these situations, I practiced hard Keeping the Form playing solos and comping, so KEEP the Form of the Tune! Have Fun at the Jam!

    Cheers from Switzerland and thanks again Terence and Matt!

  10. John

    Learn to play rhythm guitar like a pro. Once you get known, they’ll all want to jam with you. It’s an old saying, but good rhythm players are rare;y out of work.

  11. Lance

    Thanks for the great article Terence and Matt! I am exactly at that point in my development where I try to jam as much as possible to break through that “stage nerves” barrier. At least I assume it will get easier with more stage or jam time. My first night at a local jam spot here in Cape Town was a total wreck for me. I couldn’t hear myself. It was so bad that I quit my solo on “Green Dolphin Street” half-way through. Other guitarists playing before me had the same problem. The rest of the guys had no problem though. I was devastated that my preparation was wasted and that I looked like a fool on stage. After some introspection, I realised that I could not blame the sound guy or anyone else. The house band did not have a guitarist and hence the stage was not set to accommodate a guitarist. The following week I arrived early with my amp, amp-stand and all the plugs, adapters, cables, etc that I might possibly need to rig a good on-stage sound for my guitar. I made it available for all the guitarists and it went great! Lesson learned? Take control of your own sound, even at a jam session.

  12. Matt

    Having played gigs before, I was amoed to sit in at a jam session in new town. Not having thought through what sitting in with strangers might look like. Needless to say, I called a tune I didn’t know the head all the way through. And I had my real book. Learned that is a cardinal sin apparently. Have enjoyed watching them play, but been way out of the loop on how to get back in there. This article helps frame the approach. Thank!

  13. Jim C.

    When you call the tune, NAME THE KEY! It’s best if you have learned to play the tune in the standard key in which it is typically played. (Of course, it’s even better if you can play it in ANY key, but that might be a stretch.) Now, if you’re also a singer, you may have had to transpose the song out of the usual key. Better tell the band before they assume it’s going to be in the standard key and kick it off in that key, with you in another! Recipe for Train Wreck! And, if you are calling the tune but there’s a singer in the band, (a) of course, you need to check the key the singer is comfortable with before getting on stage and calling the tune, and (b) you’d better be in a position to play it in whatever key the singer names! In situations like this, if you’re not yet comfortable playing anything in any key, it might be best to find out in advance what key the singer prefers for that tune and woodshed on it the week before calling it at the jam.

  14. Scott

    Thanks for the article on Jamming. A couple of other tips would be; wait until given a cue to start your solo. I have seen many newer jammers just jump in and start soloing right over a regular player. Also, ask where you should sit or stand. Again, many newbies park themselves right in front of someone or put their amp or horn right in your ear. You should always give courtesy to the house band.

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