Campground Picking and Singing : Jam Etiquette     by Ernie Hill

A huge part of the festival experience are the jam sessions and song circles that continue around the clock throughout the festival campgrounds. There are campers who claim they have never seen a stage act because the only reason they attend is to jam. One can easily encounter campground pickers who are as proficient and entertaining as many of the booked performers. You'll even see some of the booked performers jamming deep into the dawn's early light. For instance, the world famous Walnut Valley Festival jams vary from contest conscious, intense pickers, seeking trophies and fame, to yearly reunions of old friends who will gladly welcome you into their camp to share whatever you have to offer in the way of a song, to beginners who are looking to hone their skills. 


Here are a few tips to help you find the right jam and/or song circle, and how to tell the difference between the two, so everyone involved can have a really great time.

A pickin’ jam and a song circle are two different things. 

A song circle is a group of folks sharing songs they know amongst each other and whoever is around to listen. Sometimes the soloist presents a sing-along, sometimes he or she just wants to play a song for everyone. It is so important to recognize what is happening and go with the flow. If you do not know the song, hold yourself back from playing. Your turn will come around. If you do play along, and recognize the chord structure and rhythm, then play along, but quietly. Never just start banging away, you could very well wreck the moment for the soloist. Remember, these circles and jams are not free-for-alls, they are music sharing experiences, so whether it is a song circle, or a picking jam, always: listen, learn, appreciate, join in only if that is appropriate for the moment, and wait your turn while you appreciate the situation.

A pickin’ jam is usually just that, with the focus being on instrumental breaks passed around the group. It is so important, if you are new to these folks, and even if you aren’t, to listen to the proficiency level of the jam. Can you hang? Also remember, when the break comes around to you, and you pass, it usually becomes understood that you will pass on all of the breaks, so if you can hang, hang. Never strum along to a tune you are not familiar with, instead, try to absorb the music and get a feel for the chord progressions and rhythm before you strum along, and please be mindful of your volume. Never strum so loud that you are drowning out the soloist. Share the music.

First of all, tune, tune, tune. Tuners are cheap and easily available.  If you do not have a handy clip on tuner, then grab your phone and download one of the many free tuning apps which are plentiful and back-lit! There are capos with built in back-lit tuners too, so search the web and go for it.

Tune to pitch before you arrive. If you find that you are not in tune with the particular jam where you feel most comfortable, step away far enough to hear the music, and make the necessary adjustments without interrupting. ("Earl's Breakdown" may have been written while someone was trying to tune.)

Second, roam around and find the level of picking and singing that best suits your capability. Remember, everyone is here to make music and it should always be fun but... not everyone wants to pick with everyone else. You will encounter perfectly friendly people who are very serious about picking with their friends whom they only see a few times a year and may have a limited time schedule to re-hash and re-live their best pickin' moments. Do not feel jilted, rather, just listen and enjoy and walk away having learned something. Most pickers will accommodate a beginner for a little while, but many beginners enter the jam arena thinking that they will absorb each and every technique and nuance by watching very closely, and even interrupt a song to ask a question... "What is your favorite kind of guitar? What kind of pick do you use? How many hours a day do you practice? How many guitars do you own? What kinda dang geetar ish' at' anywaysh"? Will you go slower so I can write down the chords? Gotta light? Would you like your fries super-sized? GRRRRR!"

Third, if you really want to be heard, avoid big circles. Circle jams pass the tune around. Remember the average song is about three minutes long and if the jam you choose has twenty or more pickers, well, go figure. If you are shy, try standing alone in your own camp, or in some other suitable shaded area and just start pickin' and singing. It won't be long until you are joined by wandering others and ... there you go!

Fourth, and most important, enjoy yourself and make sure others enjoy you. Don't be intrusive, wait your turn. Listen to everyone else instead of worrying about what you're going to play. Observe  individual camp etiquette. Are they non-smokers? Are they playing only gospel music, bluegrass only, is this a John Prine jam? Am I darn tootin' sure I can take a break at this speed or will I de-rail this train?

Scout out the jam situations. Get acquainted. Ask to join a circle. "Is this an open jam?" "Mind if I join?" and remember...later. "Later, would you mind showin' me how ya did that?"