We had a couple of jam sessions near here last week, and the contrasts between the two were something to write about. Now, one of the contrasts was in the number of people. In the local jam on Thursday night, there were six guitars. (Okay, maybe seven.) When you're in a local jam with that many guitar players, you have six or seven ideas of where the rhythm is. You might even have six or seven ideas of what a particular song's chords are! And few of the guitar players gave a thought to playing more quietly during singing or lead playing. The group was always pretty loud.
What do you do if you're playing in a jam like that? Well, for one thing, you don't try to make the rhythm into something it isn't. You aren't going to have a tight Jimmy-Martin-style rhythm in the group no matter what you do, so if you're playing one of those numerous guitars, just PLAY ALONG. Don't play loudly (the singers are drowned out already).
If you're playing a mandolin, play plain backup. Put your mandolin "chop" as close to exactly in between the bass's notes as you can. That gives the guitar players something to guide on, at least. If you're playing banjo, play simple backup or play it softly (or both), and when the time comes for you to play lead, don't try to throw in a lot of fancy playing-- just lead the way with clear, solid banjo playing.
And what happens when you get into a different kind of jam, where there are fewer players but they really know how to play? This was the situation on Friday night. There were two guitar players, and they both played lead and rhythm, but they stayed out of each others' way musically. They just played good solid rhythm, not very loud, when the other was playing lead.
We had two mandolin players too. Cousin David was playing the other mandolin. His mandolin would sell today for more than mine (my house, not my mandolin). But in spite of that he isn't uppity about it, and we played mandolins together very well. We had Murphy playing banjo, so that instrument was well taken care of, and we had a bass player and a fiddle player from time to time. Everybody laid out when someone else was singing or playing lead, and everyone played good, solid lead when it came to be his or her turn. We hadn't all played together (or even seen each other) in a long time, but the picking went great, and it was a lot easier to play this way than if we'd all been playing loudly all the time.
So what is the moral of this story? As Murphy said once in a story long ago, "No morals here." But the next time you're in a jam session, THINK about what you're doing when other people are singing or playing, and quieten down when others need to be heard. The music will be better, and a lot more fun!