SouthEastern Bluegrass Association

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An Introduction to Bluegrass Jamming:
Chapter 1: Preface

By Tom Barnwell

Editor's Note: This excellent article is a must-read for anyone interested in Bluegrass music. For readability, we have divided the article into 10 "chapters", as follows:

Chapter 1 Preface
Chapter 2 Instruments
Chapter 3 The Structure Of A Bluegrass Song
Chapter 4 Backup
Chapter 5 Breaks
Chapter 6 Lead Singing
Chapter 7 Harmony Singing
Chapter 8 Song Selection
Chapter 9 Bluegrass Jamming Signals
Chapter 10 Jamming Etiquette

StringsWhen I first began seeing bluegrass jam sessions up close, I could not believe what was happening before my eyes. I clearly recall the following scene which occurred in a parking lot in Lavonia, Georgia more than twenty years ago. Four men were standing together with instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass), and from the conversation, I could tell they had just met. After they had tuned their instruments, one of the men suggested a song (I think it was the old North Carolina fiddle tune Water Bound, but I am not sure) and he asked if the others knew it. The banjo player said he did, but the other two players (mandolin and bass) said they did not.

"Oh, it’s easy" said the guitar player, and the banjo player kicked it off with a full verse break. By the fourth beat of the kickoff, all the instruments were playing. After the kickoff, the guitar player sang a verse and a chorus, and then the mandolin player played a wonderful break. Next the guitar player sang another verse and chorus, only this time the chorus was sung in three-part harmony, with the mandolin player singing tenor and the bass player singing baritone.

Remember, these are the same two men who seconds before had said they did not know the song. The song finished up with another banjo break followed by a final verse and chorus (again in three-part harmony). The whole performance was excellent, seeming as tight to me as many of the acts on stage.

And it was not a once-in-a-weekend occurrence, for as I watched, the men repeated the same type of performance many times on many different songs. I was hooked. It was clear that just as I was hearing this music for the first time, the musicians who were playing the music were also hearing it for the first time themselves, and they were personally delighted with their new creations.

A magic afternoon for them and me alike, provided by four men who may well have never even learned each other’s names and may have never seen each other again. Their music, like much of the music in bluegrass jam sessions, was only performed once, and to hear it, you had to be there.

What I witnessed that hot July afternoon long ago was the wonderful legacy left to us by Bill Monroe, a legacy from the time when he invented bluegrass music over fifty years ago.

You see, when those men were playing together and were making that wonderful music, they were operating under a set of mutually well-understood rules. These rules allowed them to seamlessly construct wonderful music, and even learn new songs, on the fly as they performed.

At the same time, these rules allowed them tremendous freedom to improvise and show-off their individual skills. Because of the rules, each of the musicians knew exactly what was expected of him in each part of the song, and so long as each player played by the rules, the music worked.

So what are the rules? Well, I don’t claim to know them all. For years, I have read everything I have been able to find about bluegrass, but, being a musician of modest accomplishment (that means I am not very good), I only know the basic rules. I will begin with the general rules, and then I will get more specific.

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This article Copyright, 1997 by the SouthEastern Bluegrass Association.

The author would like to extend special thanks to Selwyn Blakely for his valuable input, and to Scott Woody, Mike Flemming and Gerald Hooke for their valuable comments.

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