How It Works

What is an old-time jam?

A bunch of musicians sit or stand more or less facing each other. Probably there’s a mix of fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and/or bass players, but don’t let it stop you if you play something else. One person names a tune and what key it’s in, and then either they or someone who knows how the tune goes starts it off. Often this start with with four beats of rhythm to establish the tempo and key, then launches into the tune. Everyone else joins in to the best of their ability and keeps playing the tune until the leader indicates it’s time to stop or everyone gets sick of the tune and stops on their own. Stopping time is usually indicated by someone shouting “last time” or “one more”, or by sticking out their foot to indicate the last time through. I’ve been calling that an “open” jam, to indicate that anyone can call a tune to play.

There’s another style where one person acts as leader and has a list of tunes to pick from that’s known to the participants, so they can prepare in advance. I’ve been calling that a “structured” or “instructional” jam, but I don’t know if that’s the best term for it.

A bluegrass jam is similar, except instead of everyone playing the tune at the same time, most people will be playing accompaniment while the lead and improv breaks are passed around the room, one person at a time. Bluegrass jams will often include songs, with sung lyrics. This is less common at old-time jams, but I don’t see why that has to be the case.

Smaller jam sessions may take other forms, including having a few melody players take turns sharing a tune with accompaniment, while the other melody players listen and don’t play.

We’ll be working mostly in a structured old-time style at Slower Than Dirt jams, with a list of tunes to be played being announced in advance.

What do I need to know before I can play?

  • You should probably know how to tune your instrument, or at least to recognize when it’s out of tune so you can ask someone else for help tuning it.
  • You should be able to play basic melodies — “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the like — on your instrument. While we’re hoping to help out people who are just getting started with jamming, it’s probably not the best place to learn the very basics of how to play your instrument.
  • If you can read sheet music in standard notation or tab, that’ll probably give you an advantage on the tunes we provide sheet music for, but since most other jams will be about learning tunes by ear it’s certainly not a required skill.
  • If you’re playing guitar, it will be very helpful if you know what it looks like when other guitar players are playing certain chords: G, D, A and C will probably be most useful at Slower Than Dirt.

What should I bring?

  • Yourself; not wearing perfume, cologne, or other fragrances, please.
  • Your instrument(s) and accessories you like to use: capo, mute, tuner, etc.
  • Something you can use to take notes, if you’re the note-taking type.
  • An audio recorder, if you want to record anything.
  • If you already know some tunes, maybe a list so you can call a tune you know.

Where is it?

The Seattle Public Library lets us reserve meeting rooms in its branches for free, once per month. Mostly we’ve been using the Lake City branch, but because anyone can reserve the meeting rooms, sometimes they’re booked. We’ve also used the Northgate and Northeast branches, and will be trying the Greenwood branch soon.

When is it?

Generally, it’s the third Saturday of the month, from 2-4pm. But check the upcoming jams list on the home page for updates — sometimes we can’t book the room on that day, and it’ll be on the second Saturday, or the fourth. If there’s a time that works better for you, let us know and we can think about shifting the times around.

Why a “slow” jam?

There are some great long-running open jam sessions in Seattle. If you’ve been playing and jamming for a while and are good at picking up new tunes by ear or accompanying tunes you haven’t necessarily got memorized, I absolutely recommend you check them out. Heck, even if you don’t play at all, I recommend at least going to the Tuesday night jam at the Wedgwood Alehouse a few times to get a feel for what a large open jam is like.

I could have sworn that there used to be some open jams which started with a slow jam for beginners, but when we came back from Folklife in 2012, we couldn’t find any. And the one advertised slow jam at Folklife wasn’t particularly slow. Frankly, the regular jams can be kind of intimidating if you’re not already used to playing like that. If you learn better from sheet music than by ear, say, or if you’re nervous about playing in public. There’s nothing wrong with that, and a bunch of the people you see at the open jams probably started out in the same situation.

Update: As of August 12, 2012, Sarah Comer has started hosting an old-time jam at Dusty Strings on the second Sunday of the month, from 1:30 to 3:30. The first half hour is a structured slow jam, followed by slightly less slow, and then the second half is an open jam. Go to that one, and then come to the Slower Than Dirt jam the next weekend!

The Slower Than Dirt jam aims to be as intimidation-free as possible. We’ll be playing tunes slowly. Very slowly. We’ll try to have sheet music and tab for at least some of the tunes. We’ll be playing in an otherwise-quiet environment, not in the back of a noisy bar. We’ll have electronic tuners you can use. We’re beginners too, and we’ll be learning along with you. And when you get sick of playing slowly and want to move on to one of the other jams, we’ll be happy and excited for you.

Why don’t the videos/recordings sound like the sheet music?

That’s probably the biggest difference between classical and folk music. With classical, what’s written is what gets played (allowing for what’s written to be “improvise here”). With folk music, everyone plays a tune a little differently. The same person might not play it the same way twice, or even the same way during repeated sections in the same playthrough. That’s part of the fun of learning tunes by ear — listening to how different people play the tune and picking out for yourself what you think the bones of the tune are so you can flesh them out yourself in your own way.

More info…

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