How to be Popular at a Jam

In the last post, we looked at a few ways harmonica players have made themselves unpopular and gotten us all a bad name. This time we’ll explore a few ways to regain our credibility.

Every jam is different but these are general guidelines which should serve you well in most situations.

Be Friendly

Should go without saying really. Introduce yourself, be interested in what’s going on. Offer help to carry and lift gear. Be a pleasant person to be around.

Watch and Wait

If possible it’s a very good idea to attend the jam a couple of times with no intention of playing. Watch closely and see how things work. Get a feel for it. Meet people, get an idea of the personalities involved. Buy some drinks and enjoy listening. Is this even somewhere you want to play? Are you feeling it?

Never Play Uninvited

Again this should be obvious. If you haven’t been invited or okayed it with the jam-leader, never ever just walk up to a mic and start wailing. Seriously. It’s about the rudest and most arrogant thing you can do. You will not be welcome back. Same goes for chugging away from the audience. If you’re not on stage, don’t play.

Know the Key

There is little more embarrassing as a harmonica player than to launch into your big solo only to find you’re in the wrong key and suddenly all eyes are on you for entirely the wrong reason. Ideally, you should find the key before the song starts, the band leader will probably call it when he announces the song. Pay attention! If you somehow miss the key there are a few strategies for quickly finding it. I’ll look into these in a future post.

Listen, Listen, Listen

This is probably the most important piece of advice for playing with others. You need to fit in with what’s going on around you and contribute appropriately. Is the song a really straight 12-bar? Are there breaks? Is there a bridge? Do some of the jammers already appear to have a tight arrangement? You can’t play if you don’t have a plan for fitting in. 

Never Over-Play

Related to the above point. The old maxim “When in doubt, sit out” is imperative. It is far better to play nothing than to play something sour or inappropriate. Not every song needs to be drenched in harmonica wailing and chugging, nor does every song need a six chorus harmonica solo. Speaking of which….

Watch the Band Leader

There will usually be someone on stage who is “in charge”. It’s usually the person who called the song. They are directing. When it’s time for your solo they will give you a sign – usually as simple as eye contact and a nod. They’ll be doing the same for the guitar players, keyboard players etc. Assume that you’ll play one chorus. If they want more you’ll get another nod. They should also signal the end of the song, usually by raising their hand in the air and dropping it during the last bar.

Be An Ambassador for the Harmonica

All of this is really a long-winded way of saying you should treat everyone at the jam, and the music, with respect. Be aware that you’re probably fighting an uphill battle anyway thanks to those idiot harmonica players we were talking about last time. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. It’s our job to get out there and change people’s minds.

If there’s one golden rule to bear in mind at all times it’s as simple as this: Don’t be a dick.

I’d love to hear about your jam experiences or any further tips or advice you’ve learned. I’d be happy to share them on the site.