Jazz Jam Session Newbie Do’s – 5 simple rules

There’s been a lot of talk about jam sessions recently on the web (is that due to a lack of paying gigs?). I’ve seen long diatribes on the subject – some sarcastic and mean spirited, some just so overwhelming that reading half of it discourages you from ever wanting to go to a jam session again. People get so bogged down in the “rules” that suddenly it’s no fun to play anymore. Trust me, you’ll learn all the detailed rules, but only from experience, not from reading about them. So, this is my attempt to give you 5 simple and important rules – enough to get you started. The rest is up to you.

I’m a fan of the jam session for a variety of reasons. Sure, I’d rather be at a paying gig, but when I’m not, a jam session is a great way to get out of the house, meet and play with some new people, listen and play some music. Even if I only get a chance to play one tune, it’s worth it to me. I think they are really valuable for musicians of all levels. Jam sessions are unique beasts for sure, especially to the newbie. There’s a lot going on and although it might seem chaotic at times, there really is an order to which it all comes together. They can be nerve-wracking, exhilarating, annoying, incredibly awesome or just plain awful. You never know what you are going to get… but I think the main point is get up there and try with the ultimate goal of making music as much as possible.

Here’s 5 Simple Rules to help you do that.

1) Learn the Lingo

There’s a couple of jazz terms that you need to know. They are like the legend to a map (does anyone use paper maps anymore?) and if you get lost someone else is the band might cue using one of these terms (verbally or using a gesture) and it really helps to know what they are talking about.

  • A typical performance of a jazz tune is HEAD –> SOLOS –> TRADING –> HEAD –> TAG (Optional)
  • Head – This refers to the melody of the tune. If someone says “head” or points to their head that means that as soon as the changes get back around to the top, the melody needs to be played. If the tune has a pick up, be ready for it.
  • Trading – Trading is what it sounds like, members of the group trading back and forth. Although this can be done in a bunch of different ways, most common at a jam session is 4 bars with the drummer, called “trading 4’s”. Often, someone will hold up four fingers to the drummer and they will nod yes or no, depending on what they want to do. Here’s how a common trading 4’s scenario:  Imagine that there are 3 soloists – tenor sax, guitar, and bass in that order. After the bass solo, the tenor player will solo for 4 bars, then the drummer will solo for 4 bars, then the guitar player will solo for 4 bars, back to the drummer for 4 bars, etc until you back to the top of the form and someone indicates that it’s time to play the head. Something to note: Trading can be any number of bars, but the most common is 4 or 8.
  • Tag  – Many songs end by repeated the last phrase (or part of the last phrase) of the tune. Every tune is a little bit different, so if you are unsure ask someone – like a teacher. Typically a tag is played three times.

2) Time is Everything

  • Really focus on locking in on the time, listening, and keeping things simple (Play a simple version of the melody, simple solo ideas, etc). Remember, if it doesn’t groove it doesn’t sound good.
  • Have a good sense of the tempo you want to play the tune. Be able to snap it or verbalize it. It may not stay at that tempo, but at least you can try.
  • If you’re a drummer start out really simple. Lock in with the bass player and worry just about the groove. If you find that you’re playing with stronger players and you feel like you can get more adventurous then do so. If not, then just lock down the time. Everyone will remember how easy it was to play with you!


3) Pick a Tune That You Know

  • After you’ve been doing this for a while you’ll have a bag of tunes to choose from. But when you are starting out, go ahead and plan what you want to play. There’s quite a bit of prep work that goes into learning a tune and everyone has done it. I’m working on a separate blog post about how I learn tunes (which I’ll link when I have it completed). There’s really no short cut.
  • How do you know you know a tune? When you have the form, the key, the melody and the chord changes memorized and internalized. When you can play it cold, without any warm-up. When you don’t get lost if you make a mistake. Where you have the melody in your head while you’re soloing and you can refer back to it at any time. I highly recommend practicing the tune at different tempos – including too fast for you and too slow. (Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.)
  • Also, don’t be ashamed to admit that you don’t know a tune and ask to play something different. There is nothing wrong with that. (And maybe that’s the tune you go home and learn for next time!)

4) Don’t Practice on the Bandstand

  • This is a big one. Take a short solo. Seriously, no one wants to hear you work through 6+ choruses of your favorite tune. Most likely musicians and audience alike will get bored or annoyed with you.
  • Good rule of thumb: 32 bar form or longer = 1 or 2 choruses. Blues or short form (16 bars) = 2-4 choruses.
  • That’s it. Keep it short. You can’t play all your killer shit on one tune anyway, so don’t even try. Plus there’s often lots of people at jam sessions that want to sit in. If you play a 15 minute solo, that’s 4 people who may not get a chance to play at all.

5) Be Social!

  • Listen to other solos. This is not only polite, but it gives you a chance to listen to someone else solo on a tune you know. If you’re lucky enough to be playing with guys better than you, it can be a serious learning opportunity.
  • Thank the audience for clapping. This is huge. I don’t care how badly you think you just played, or if you got lost or whatever you think went wrong – don’t beat yourself up on the bandstand. Smile, relax, thank the audience for their acknowledgment.
  • After the tune thank the guys that played with you.
  • Make it a point to meet new people. Jam sessions are as much about the hang as the playing.

Overall, try not to take yourself too seriously. Jam sessions are supposed to be fun. Have fun, be fun to play with, hang out and meet new people. If someone offers you their opinion or advice, listen say Thank you and leave it at that. They are trying to help you be a better player.

Want some more advice? Here’s a couple of links for you to check out:


For a humorous and sarcastic take on the jam session, check this out: Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide from All About Jazz

Have anything to add? Please do so in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “Jazz Jam Session Newbie Do’s – 5 simple rules

  1. One of the first jam sessions I ever played was at NAJE in 1984. I got totally floored by 13 year old Chris Potter. He was a master of all of this etiquette even at that tender age. To this day I probably haven’t heard anyone play any better on Body and Soul than he did that night. The kicker is that before he went up to take his chorus he told me he’d never played the tune before and was afraid.

  2. ल क-श ल – Chaiti ग य क – ‘Nazeem urf Nirmala Devi’Chaiti is sung in the month of Chait that falls in March/April as per the Hindu calendar.

  3. Hi Monica-
    Thanks for the helpful post! I’m putting together some jamming/improv resources for an ASU project called “Sound Explorations” (http://citme.music.asu.edu/soundexplorations/sound-explorations-project-home/).

    It’s funded by a grant aimed to help kids learn about various aspects of music, including improvising and how to jam, whether it’s jazz, freestyle rap, beatboxing, or any other kind of musical jam. I’ve included a link to this page in the course material so students can come check it out.

    Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *