(jam session etiquette according to me)
by Paul Goelz
c 1992, 1993, 1994

A dulcimer in a jam session can add or subtract from the end product, and since it is an "up front" instrument (in other words, you can hear it), if it is subtracting, everyone notices. This "essay" is an attempt to call attention to a much overlooked area which I call "Jam Session Etiquette." My intent is to pass along what I have learned "the hard way" about session playing and sensitivity to other musicians.

When I began playing music with others, it was such a thrill that for many years I was oblivious to the end product.....the music we were creating. It was a hard lesson to learn that it was not sufficient for a bunch of musicians to come together and be (mostly) in tune. I still remember a session many years ago in a basement with about ten hammered dulcimer players including John McCutcheon and Sam Rizetta. After a while, I noticed that the more experienced players were missing. I was having a good time, and could not understand what might be wrong. Later, I discovered that they had gone upstairs to play, and were playing much more quietly. I have a video tape of that session, and now realize what total pandemonium it was in that enclosed space with so many dulcimers! A lesson (more than one, actually) learned in retrospect......

Special added bonus:
A video of "Angleworm Wiggle" with Bob Spinner from that basement session. Note how chaotic it sounds. We were having FUN though.

Hammered dulcimers (and hammered dulcimer players) these days are getting mixed reviews from other musicians. There are a lot more of us now than there were 20 years ago. I have been playing for almost 20 years now, and I can remember when I was aware of perhaps two or three other hammered dulcimer players at the most in the entire metropolitan Chicago area! With those numbers, dulcimers just weren't a big presence in jam sessions, and no one seemed to notice. Nowadays, almost everyone has heard a dulcimer, and likely has been in a jam session with one or more, possibly with mixed results.

Although I prefer playing with a small group these days, my roots are with no- holds-barred jam sessions, and the following is what I would like to share about the "etiquette of jamming." It is aimed at hammered dulcimers but applies to other instruments as well. It is offered as "food for thought" more than as a rule book.

"What is a jam session, anyway?"

In my book, a jam session is a group of musicians who may or may not know each other, playing together informally for their own enjoyment. There may or may not be an audience, but the focus is on the musicians rather than the audience. With a few exceptions (see below), jam sessions are by definition open to all musicians. They often have a life of their own, ebbing and flowing with the addition or loss of musicians and instruments.

Open vs. closed jam sessions

Some jam sessions are not intended to be open to all comers. In my opinion, this is questionable at a music festival, but there may be occasions where musicians are attempting to play a particular style or create a mood, and this cannot be done if 25 dulcimers (or any other instrument, for that matter) show up.

Use discretion (remember that discretion means "be cautious but don't give up") if you:

A) Don't know anyone in the session.

B) Don't know the tunes that are being played.

C) Notice that the session is in a remote location or that everyone is sitting in a tightly closed circle with no space for newcomers.

D) Notice that the session may in fact be a rehearsal for a performance (more on this later).

E) Notice that in addition to the above, the skill level of the other musicians is considerably above yours.

(Remember that session in the basement? After I noticed where the more experienced players were, I did NOT join in. I realized that they had segregated themselves from the pandemonium for a reason, and that my skills were not yet up to playing with the delicacy required to fit into their session.)

In those situations, it is best to listen for a while without setting up your instrument (keep it visible, though), and see if anyone invites you to join the session. Another possibility is to play so that no one else can hear you. That way you will not interfere but can still play along until you get a better feel for whether or not it is OK to join in.

Jam sessions vs. performances

Some sessions are in fact mini-performances. If the musicians are known to be a performing group, if the group does not ordinarily include a dulcimer, and especially if you do not know the musicians, be cautious about joining in, since they may not be receptive to "foreigners."

Musical Styles

It may be hard to believe, but the hammered dulcimer is not universally appreciated! I used to think that as I was bashing away at my dulcimer that everyone else in the session shared my enthusiasm for what I was doing. It was a hard lesson to learn that I was not universally accepted in every jam session, regardless of my skill level or ability to play the tune appropriately. String band musicians in particular are sometimes less than appreciative of (and sometimes downright hostile to) the hammered dulcimer. However, before you condemn all musicians as lacking an appreciation for the beautiful sounds of the hammered dulcimer, consider that some musical styles (funky blues comes to mind right away) have characteristics that are not compatible with the sound of the dulcimer. Remember also that this subject (and, of course, any opinion expressed here) is highly subjective. I am merely attempting to lay the ground work for an understanding of the reaction the dulcimer produces in some musical circles.

General guidelines are:

If you are at a hammered dulcimer festival, don't worry about it (well, not too much, anyway). Musicians who may not appreciate the hammered dulcimer are there at their own risk! However, this does not negate the other points made in this discussion.

If you are at an old-tymey string band festival (Wheatland, for example), watch out. These festivals are attended by many "purists" who are often less than appreciative of the sustain that a hammered dulcimer lends to a session. String band music is very percussive, and the sustain of a hammered dulcimer destroys that percussive sound. Some string band musicians are also stuck in the 78RPM days, where the bands that they are emulating did not include a hammered dulcimer. There also is a certain amount of out and out prejudice, often born out of bad experiences with dulcimists who played too loud, out of tune, and/or who didn't know the tune. Join these sessions cautiously and be receptive to subtle signals such as being totally ignored or having the other musicians re-tune 1/8 step up or down (I'm not entirely kidding, either!).

If you are at a mountain dulcimer (Appalachian lap zither for you purists) event, most players are appreciative of the hammered dulcimer but wish that it was not so loud. Remember that the hammered dulcimer can easily overpower the mountain dulcimer. Get out your padded hammers!

Above all, remember that in addition to having a good time with a bunch of people who share a love of music, you are also part of a process of creating that music. Be sensitive to the end result.

"What if I don't know the tune..."

...be very careful about playing so that you can be heard until you can play something appropriate. Chords or counter melodies can be appropriate, but the watchword is TASTE. Unfortunately, taste is a developed skill and varies from location to location. What works at a dulcimer festival may not work at an old- tymey string band festival. BE CAUTIOUS!

"What if I do know the tune..."

...jump right in CAUTIOUSLY, but only after reading "Tuning Etiquette," below. If it is a quiet session where you can easily hear all the other instruments, try to fit in and not overpower the session. If it is one of those full-blast- Saturday-night-at-Evart-under-the-tin-roof-(after 10PM)-I've-had-my-coffee-and- feel-like-staying-up-all-night sessions, have at it and may the loudest dulcimer win!

"What if I am not the only dulcimer player?"

Watch the reaction the other dulcimer is receiving. If it is being totally ignored, apply the ground rules here and see if there is a reason. If it looks like there is no reason, maybe try another session. If the other dulcimer is being integrated into the session, remember what you have learned about jam session etiquette and join right in, but be careful of overpowering the session. You have a LOUD instrument, and it is easy to play too loud.

"How loud is loud enough?"

Listen! However, a word about loudness.... generally, if you sound smoothly blended into the session, you may be a bit too soft "out front." You have one of the only instruments where the sound board faces the musician instead of the audience, and it tends to make you sound louder to yourself than you do to the audience. I usually adjust my volume so that it sounds balanced to me, which usually means that I am a bit too soft (better to be too soft than too loud). However, if the session is fun and you get excited, is also easy to play too loud, since most dulcimers are capable of playing louder than other instruments. BE CAREFUL!

Tuning etiquette

As far as I am concerned, "in tune" is defined as being in tune with the rest of the musicians. It does NOT necessarily mean being tuned to A-440.

As a general rule, you should arrive at an event tuned to A-440, but be prepared to re-tune to the rest of the musicians unless the average number of strings per instrument is equal to or less than 0.34261 times the total number of strings on your dulcimer plus the square root of the Julian date. Seriously though, it is not polite to ask a bunch of strangers to re-tune (especially if there is a mandolin in the group) unless they offer. Your instrument may be considerably harder to re-tune than all the others combined, but they were there first! Yes, I do believe that this section applies to the other musicians too, but again, they were there first!

My rule of thumb is never to ask other musicians to re-tune. The theory is that newcomers to a session should tune to the session (which hopefully is at A-440 anyway, making the point moot), not the other way around. Bottom line... get there early.

If you are going to re-tune to a session, there are some do's and don'ts.

If you "get a note" from another instrument for the purpose of re-tuning, DO make sure it is actually in tune with the rest of the session. This may seem like one of those stupidly simple concepts, but remember that it is not a given that everyone in the session is in tune with each other.

DON'T ask for a note that has to be fretted, since fretted notes can be out of tune with notes played on open strings. The best way is to tune one string of your dulcimer to the session average (using your ears), and then use your tuning machine to tune the rest of your strings to that note. Some tuning machines can reset themselves to a "sample" note automatically. All others can be manually adjusted (by adjusting for A = 439, 438, etc.) until they indicate that the "sample" note is in tune. They will then tune all the rest of the notes to that "sample" note.

DON'T tune in the middle of a session! Go off somewhere and tune, and hope that they don't re-tune while you are gone. If you return and see that they have re-tuned and are smiling about it, try another session!

DON'T play out of tune!!!!

Suggesting tunes

In most sessions, tunes are suggested by someone, and then played by all. This usually happens either by asking around to see if others know the tune and then starting it, or just by starting the tune. In either case, there is some etiquette involved in the choice of the tune(s).

If you are a newcomer to jamming or to the particular session, it is best to let someone else suggest tunes for a while, until you get a feel for the type of tunes being played and a feel for the etiquette involved. Here's how it works:

If you are the only one who knows the tune you are about to suggest, one of two things may happen when you start it. You may end up playing it alone if everyone else is not willing to "jam" with it, or others may eventually join in. It helps to pick a tune that at least one or two others already know. However, pay attention to the kind of tunes that are being played. If they are consistently not "festival favorites" (such as Rag Time Annie, Golden Slippers, etc.), don't suggest one yourself. Instead, see if you can pull something different out of your hat, rather than change the mood and suggest a tune that perhaps everyone else would "rather not play again for a couple of years, thank you very much!"

If the other musicians are playing tunes "up to speed," don't suggest a tune that you can't start or play at the proper tempo. By the same token, don't start a tune too fast either. Jam sessions (usually) are not contests, and it's no fun to blast through a tune uncomfortably fast.

By now, you have probably caught on that there really is no "correct" key for a tune. Depending on the instrument, any tune can be played in any key. However, there are "customary" keys for almost every tune. If you suggest a tune, it is customary to start it in the "customary" key, unless you announce ahead of time that it will be in a different key. Depending on the tune, it is sometimes refreshing to play an old standard in a different key. Most tunes are easiest to play in the "customary" key, since they were most likely composed on an instrument that played in the same range of keys as your dulcimer. There are, however, some tunes that are easier to play on the dulcimer in a key other than the "customary" one.

A good example is the Westfalia Waltz. It is usually played in Michigan in "G" and relatively fast. Elsewhere, it may be played slower and in "D." Be especially sensitive to the possibility that others in the session may not know how to play the tune in a different key than they are used to.

Generally, once a key has been settled upon, the tunes that follow will be ones that are customarily played in that same key. This is because 1) Most common fiddle tunes are in "D," and 2) Most musicians don't like to change keys (ask any banjo or Appalachian lap zither player!) Banjo players will moan and groan about a key change, but they will then whip out a capo and do it. Appalachian lap zither players will either use a capo or just sit there and smile (a little). Maybe that explains why you keep getting dirty looks from the mountain dulcimer player when you alternate between "D" and "C" ????

Fortunately, you are playing an instrument where it is relatively easy to change keys. Not everyone is so lucky! So, if there are banjo or Appalachian lap zither players in the session, be kind and don't change keys on each tune.

An additional word about keys..... The hammered dulcimer can change keys instantly. However, some instruments usually accomplish a key change by using a capo or actually re-tuning. Be sensitive to these instruments if you suggest a tune in a new key. Banjos, mountain dulcimers and sometimes harps are prime examples of instruments which commonly require re-tuning to change keys.

"How do I know when to stop?"

Aside from the wisecracks, there are several answers to this question, such as "when it is finished" or "when you get tired of it." However, in actuality, it is relatively simple.

Generally, in a jam session, tunes are played longer than the normal two to four times through. Several factors enter in to the decision of when to stop, such as: Has everyone caught on to the tune? Have any newcomers joined the session while you were playing? Has it gotten dark while you have been playing the tune? Getting hungry? Have to go to the bathroom? But seriously though, tunes are generally played two to six times through, and at least once or twice more if someone has just gotten the hang of the tune or joined the session in mid-tune.

"HOW do I stop?"

This is a bigger problem for newcomers than it needs to be. There are many subtle clues that enable seasoned players to signal each other that the tune is ending. Sometimes it may seem as though ESP is at work, but in reality, it works like this.....

After the tune is "established" (in other words, played several times through with everyone participating), it becomes possible to end it each time the end of the tune (usually, the end of the second "B" part) comes around. As the last part of the tune is being played, several signals are possible. The most overt is a raised foot by the leader of the tune (usually the one who started it), but other commonly used methods are yelling "last time," "goin' out," or words to that effect. Significant looks shared among the musicians can substitute for yelling or foot raising if no one is sufficiently coordinated to play and signal at the same time. Suddenly playing an obvious variation on the "B" part during the last few notes can also signal the end. In any case, just like in scouting, be prepared to stop (but don't actually stop unless everyone else does) each time the end comes around. If the tune does not end there, then be even more prepared the next time around. Eventually you will be right!

A footnote to this (no pun intended.... well, maybe a little one...) is that it is quite normal when you try to yell "goin' out" for the first time while playing, for the actual words to sound like utter gibberish. Don't worry... with a little practice, you can learn to talk again.


I hope that I have not discouraged you or taken any of the joy out of jamming. The intent of this piece was merely to raise the awareness level of my fellow hammered dulcimer players so that we can all make better music together. If it weren't for the hundreds of jam sessions that I have participated in over the last 20 years, I probably would not be a musician today. Performing and recording have their places, but as far as I am concerned, jamming with old and new friends is what folk music is all about (but don't ask me to define folk music!)

So........ go forth, be fruitful and dulcify!