Charles playing drums at the Pig N Whistle in Hollywood

Sitting in Without Getting Kicked Out: Navigating the Jam Session

Charles playing drums at the Pig N Whistle in Hollywood
Charles behind the kit at the Pig N Whistle Blues Jam, photo courtesy Todd Taylor

I’ve always been fascinated and excited by jam sessions.  The idea of walking up on stage and playing music with musicians you’ve met only moments ago can be quite an exhilarating experience.  For me, jams are a great test, not of what I know, but of what I don’t know.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize what needs to be improved in your playing when you are going purely on instinct, without the luxury of a rehearsal to start with beforehand.  But for me (and a lot of musicians), that’s the fun part!

I also never fully appreciated what it takes to put on a jam session until I was asked to be the house drummer for  the “Cat’s A Reno’s,” at one of the longest running blues jams in Hollywood, California; the historic Pig N’ Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard.  Not all jam sessions are run the same, but a brief explanation of the process goes something like this: the house band is in charge of bringing in all the backline gear (amps, PA, drums, mics, etc.) and the jammers show up with just their guitars, basses and sticks.  Some clubs provide all or some of the backline gear and other clubs provide just the venue. Either way, the house band is in charge of setting up and tearing down all of the gear each time.

My experience up until this point was only as a jammer; I would just show up with my sticks and play.  And in all honesty, I never gave much thought to whose drums I was playing.  I would pay my cover charge at the door, buy my drink and wait my turn to play.  But it wasn’t until I was the one loading in my drums, playing the opening set, watching other drummers play my drums, packing them back up and loading everything back into my vehicle that I gained a new understanding of how jams are run.  So, after spending the last eight or so months being the house drummer at a regular jam, I thought I might be able to provide some helpful tips to drummers wanting to get the most out of going to them.

For me, jams break down into two simple components: your performance and your attitude.  Let’s talk about attitude first, because I think it is just as important (if not more so) than your performance and playing ability.

If it’s your first time attending a particular jam, I would start by getting to know as many people there as possible.  I’m not saying you have to run around the room introducing yourself to everyone; quite the opposite actually.  I would find a good seat, get yourself a drink (it’s a good idea to support the establishment that you want to be playing at) and observe.  Who does what in the band?  What kind of kit is the drummer playing?   Is there a signup sheet for jammers?  You can get a lot of these questions answered just by observing what’s going on around you.  Then, just sit back and get ready to enjoy the opening set.   You might want to make little mental notes of what songs the house band plays in their set and compare it to the next time you see them  play.  Do they play the same songs every week?  Is there a different bass player this week?  It’s worth mentioning that a lot of house bands get substitute players for their other gigs from the jams they play at.  So doing this homework now could pay off later.

The time to go and say hello to the drummer is after the house band finishes their set.  It’s best to wait until the musicians are off the stage before introducing yourself.  Remember, the faster the house band can get off of the stage, the sooner the jammers can get up there and play.  So the last thing you want to do is slow down how long it takes the drummer to leave the stage.  Personally, I like to make my introductions fairly short; a simple hello, really enjoyed the set, etc. – but it’s totally up to you.  Your attitude in these situations is very important.  You want to avoid sounding pushy and aggressive.  I would suggest sounding more like a fan of music and not a salesperson for yourself.  The same is true when talking with the other musicians in the crowd. By all means, let them know you play drums, but don’t let your attitude make them wish that you didn’t.

I usually don’t go to a jam and expect to play my first time there.  So, once I’m done introducing myself to the house drummer, I’ll go back to my seat and listen to the jammers.  After attending the same jam a few weeks in a row you start to pick up on what types of songs they do.  This makes you better prepared when you do go up there and play.  Now on to the playing! Let’s say you’ve been going to a jam for a couple of weeks now and are ready to sign up.  You put your name down on the list and now it’s your turn to play.  Now what?  Simple. Show everyone how great you are, of course.  Well, not so fast my friend.  Your attitude now is more important than ever.

First things first; thank whoever called you up on stage and say a few complimentary words to the drummer leaving the stage.  Keep in mind, you’re a guest in their home and politeness goes a long way.  I can’t count how many times a drummer has walked right past me on the way to the drums and not said a single word.  I won’t be offended if you don’t like my playing but at least say something!  And give whoever is playing before you the chance to get off of the stage without making them feel rushed.  Once you’re behind the kit, evaluate the situation.  What do you have to adjust to feel comfortable enough to play?  Seat height?  Snare stand angle?  Ride cymbal?  Whatever it is, make those adjustments but be courteous and respectful to the drum set.  If you’re adjusting the angle of the tom, make sure you loosen the bracket before you turn it.  Is the rack tom rubbing on the bass drum?  Snare drum hitting the bass drum hoop?  Things like this are important to remember and can easily be an afterthought when you’re in a hurry.  But believe me, the owner of the kit will certainly appreciate it.  Also, take a second and introduce yourself to the other musicians on stage and don’t start tuning the drum kit.  If something sounds really weird or bad, I would motion for the house drummer to come over and look at it.  I remember one night when a gentlemen spent five minutes tuning my drum kit before the jammers could start a song.  Not only did he cut the set time short for the other jammers on stage, but the drums sounded exactly the same after he tuned them as they did before.

Now that you’re situated and fairly comfortable behind the kit, it’s time to play. Here are a couple of things that I think are helpful to remember; don’t overplay.  I mean this in all senses of the word.  Relax, don’t tense up and hit harder than you normally do.  Watch your volume; try your best to blend in with the other instruments.  And don’t be afraid to play time.  What I mean is, don’t be afraid to sit back there and groove.  Don’t feel like you have to be flashy to make a good impression.  It’s quite the opposite, actually.  If you see the other musicians on stage and the crowd moving and grooving along to the song you’re playing, you’re doing well.  If they give you a solo in the song, play a solo.  If they don’t, I wouldn’t use the song as your vehicle for a solo.  And most importantly, keep your ears open and have fun!  After you finish playing your songs, thank the other musicians and exit the stage as quickly as you can.  I would also thank the person that runs the jam and the house drummer for letting you play.  I think it’s a good idea to stick around after you’re done playing and listen to the other jammers.  It gives you more time to network and talk with the other musicians there.

Unfortunately, there are times when you sign up to play and you don’t get called up on stage.  Most of the time this happens because they ran out of time or accidently skipped over your name.  Don’t let that discourage you and don’t make a big deal out of it with whoever is running the jam.  We’re all human and mistakes happen.  If it’s something that happens time and time again I would just find another jam session to go to.

I feel this is important to keep in mind in all musical settings, but jams especially.  You’re not a drummer; you’re a musician whose instrument of choice is the drums.  And what do musicians do?  They play and create music.  I treat playing music like having a conversation.  In order to have a meaningful conversation you need to be able to hear and listen to what the other person is saying.  That is essential in music.  When you’re playing with musicians you’ve just met, listening is the most important thing.  If you focus on listening to the other musicians, you won’t have time to think about what you’re playing; you’ll just be reacting and playing – music.

Good luck and happy drumming!


Note: this article was featured in Issue #39 of Drumhead Magazine. This issue of Drumhead also happened to have an article remembering Ed Shaughnessy, Charles’s friend, mentor and drum teacher. Ed was a giant in the drum world and will be long remembered by many. We knew him as a kind soul with a ready wit, and also a patient and helpful teacher with so many wonderful stories to tell. We will miss you, Ed.