What’s your favorite kind of jam session? Do you love playing in unison with other fiddlers or do you prefer to be the only one in the hot seat? Do you prefer taking improvised solos on the fly or playing crafted breakdowns? Do you like to sing or is that best left to someone else? Everyone enjoys doing different things at jam sessions and there’s a jam for every taste.
In this post, we’ll talk about our three favorite styles of jams: square dance-style jams, swing jams, and of course, classic Texas-style jams. (Psst: you’ll find each of these three jam styles at our Fiddle School Mountain Retreat in August 2021 and beyond).
Square Dance-Style Jams
A square dance-style jam is where many fiddlers play each tune in unison. You may also hear these jams referred to as “old-timey” jams. This style of jam is popular in many different genres of fiddling, from Irish to old-time sessions and more.
- So many fiddles! The sound of lots of fiddles playing together at once is beautiful and uniquely powerful. And you get to contribute to it!
- Lots of support. If you don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight by yourself, a jam like this is the perfect answer. You get to play your tunes with the help of your fellow fiddlers. If you get tripped up, the song goes on and you can jump back in.
- A great community builder. Jams like this are a great reason to gather with other fiddlers in your community and create bonds with them. Over time, you can build up a great shared repertoire and get to know the nuances of the other fiddlers to make the jam even better.
- Uses shared knowledge. Jams like these require that the fiddlers know the same tunes and play them the same way, more or less. Establishing this shared knowledge is a great way to grow as a musician and build community, but it does take a little planning ahead, like any jam.
Swing and Western Swing jams are usually based more around “songs” than “tunes.” What’s the difference, you ask? Simple: a song includes sung lyrics while a tune is instrumental.
In a swing jam, an instrument usually plays the “head” or melody of a song to introduce it, then the singer sings it, then people take solos, and the song ends with the melody one more time. This format leaves space for different instruments to shine and incorporates lots of variety throughout the form. It also allows for improvisational solos, which neither square dance nor Texas-style jams do.
- A chance to improvise. In swing jams, you’ll have the opportunity to take an improvised solo. It’s a great time to be creative and put your chops to work. When you play your solo, you’re participating in a song’s musical “conversation.”
- Lots of variety. Swing jams rely on many different instruments to alternate taking the lead in a song. This creates an engaging sound for the listeners and an engaging format for musicians. Fiddles, voices, and other instruments can all find a place to shine within a swing tune.
- A different repertoire for a different setting. Swing jams call on a different repertoire than fiddle contests or Texas-style jams. This is your opportunity to bring out another side of your musicianship and play swing songs from the 1920s-1950s that you’ve learned for just this occasion.
- Highlights different skills. Swing jams are a great place to sing a tune, try out a solo lick that you’ve transcribed, or bring in some subtle fills that you’ve learned.
Texas-style jams are my heart and soul. In these jams, one fiddler takes the “hot seat” and a couple accompanists (up to three) back them up. The fiddler stays and plays several tunes in a row: anywhere from three to dozens, depending on the situation. The tunes are planned out in advance and the fiddle is the only featured instrument (no improvised solos here). These jams focus on crafted variations, rhythmic feel, and the connection between the fiddler and their accompanists.
- Small and intimate. Texas-style jams are small for a reason: since the fiddle can easily become drowned out by too many backing instruments, three accompanists is about the limit to maintain a tight sound and keep the focus on the fiddler. This creates an environment where each musician can deeply connect with the others in the circle.
- Fiddle-focused. When it comes down to it, Texas-style jams are centered on the fiddle—period. In these jams, a fiddler really gets the chance to show what they’ve worked on and what they can do. For fiddle lovers, this is a dream come true.
- Rhythm-focused. Just because these jams are fiddle-centric doesn’t mean that the guitar plays a small part. On the contrary, good accompanists are what make a Texas-style jam really shine. Without good rhythm players, a great Texas-style jam can’t happen.
- A place for variations. Unlike square dance-style jams, Texas-style jams are designed to feature variations in a tune. The fiddler will usually introduce the melody of a tune first, then add in variations as the tune develops. When you listen to a fiddler’s version of a tune, you can often tell which fiddlers they listen to and look up to based on their choice of variations.
This only scratches the surface of some types of jams we love. Jam sessions are their own unique worlds with their own culture and etiquette. Like snowflakes, each one only happens once. Now take what you read in this post and go find a jam session you love (or start one!) Maybe we’ll see you there.