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Kani Ka Pila/Jam Session

A jam session – or “kani ka pila” depending on your location – can be one of the most fun ways to share music and learn to play the ‘ukulele. It’s usually a relaxed environment where beginners and pros alike can play their favorite songs and take tuns leading the group.

Some people in the past have made comments about my etiquette page and wondered why there had to be “set” rules. There doesn’t. But usually there is a common format that is followed and it’s good to be familiar with it. Here are the basics and more (as I know them) about jamming in a large group.

The Circle:

Most jams occur in a circle where everyone is more or less facing each other and “equal”. Each participant gets a turn to play and lead everyone else in one song. Song leadership is passed from person to person around the circle.

When it’s your turn to pick the song, have one in mind that isn’t too hard and that you know well enough to lead. If you want to share duties or request that someone help you with one part or another that’s acceptable. (For example, if you know somebody knows the cool picking intro, ask them if they can play that.) Or, if you are a total beginner, most seasoned jammers are happy to step in and lead your favorite song for you as long as they know it.

Depending on the level of the group, you can call people out for solos. Solos usually progress around the circle as participants take turns in the spotlight. If there are more solo-ers than the song reasonably has time for, call out a handful of solos and then hopefully the guy playing the next song will call a different handful.

Balancing Sounds:

Kani ka pila circles tend to have a lot of beginners (which is great). Beginners tend to play loud. That means there are usually a lot of people who play loud. Loud isn’t a bad thing, but when the ratio of singers to ‘ukulele players just strumming along is 1 to 30, it’s hard to be heard unless you have mad pipes. If everyone knows how to sing the song, by all means play loud and sing your brains out, but if someone is leading a song people are unfamiliar with and you can’t hear the vocals, soft is way better.

Keep these things in mind and it should be easier to hear everybody when they have the right to be heard:

  • Play your ‘ukulele quieter when:
    • Only a few people are singing
    • Somebody is taking a solo
  • Play your ‘ukulele louder when:
    • You are leading a song that leans on harder chord changes no one else knows
    • You are soloing
  • Sing louder when:
    • You know the song
  • Sing quieter/don’t sing when:
    • You don’t know the song


I have been to jams where a sound system is available for the guys who “know what they are doing.” I don’t like that. It skews the glory of the jam towards only the guys who are better than others (and the ones who probably need glory the least). If everyone else isn’t amped up then it’s as if they were just playing along at a concert. Granted, the person leading the song gets heard, but at the expense of a really beautiful vibe that is created with an acoustic circle gathering. I’ve also seen guys bring their own amp to a jam. Unless you are playing bass or steel guitar or something that has to have an amp I think that’s a little like instigating that you “deserve” to be heard. That’s not what a jam is about.

In the End:

Some people get really anal about doing a kani ka pila the “right” way. There is no right way. As long as everyone is respectful and has a good time, it’s all good!