The Heartwood Beat, Issue 6: Campfire Courtesies

Justin and Me in High SchoolOne of the great rewards for becoming a skillful guitar player is being able to sit down with a total stranger at a campfire, bus stop, wherever—and make music. I recently had an experience like this leading a singalong up at Diablo Lake, Washington. The other guitarist in our group, who I’d never met until that night, just sat down next to me as I took my guitar out, and when I gave him a chance to play a solo halfway through “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” he launched into a gorgeous cascade of notes, as if he were inspired by the Milky Way stretched over our heads.

While he played beautifully, I had a hard time following him when it was his turn to play a song. He never made eye contact, and it wasn’t until halfway through an instrumental verse that I realized he’d wanted me to play a solo. Playing with him reminded me that even some expert musicians don’t learn the basics of communicating with other players. So here are some tips for leading other musicians. We’ll call them…

Five Campfire Courtesies

1. Choose an appropriate song

If you want to play with other people, choose a song within their ability. 12-bar blues is a great common denominator. And there are hundreds of great folk and rock songs that just require three or four chords.

2. Prep ‘em

Most songs, even if they’re simple, have something funky about them—an extra beat at the end of the bridge, a really quiet second verse, etc., and most musicians appreciate a heads-up before you start.

Along those lines, unless they’re obviously competent soloists, it’s nice to ask people if they want to solo before you start the song. I can’t count the times I’ve mortified a non-improvisationally-inclined jamming buddy by ambushing them with a “Take it away, Jenny!”

3. Call out the solos

This technique is ubiquitous in bluegrass circles, but appears to be unknown by almost everyone else. Which isn’t surprising: If you were only raised on rock, you’d assume that band members only communicated by telepathy—they rarely talk to one another during a song. That’s because they at least have the structure of the improvised parts planned out beforehand (who will solo, and how long it’ll be). But to jam with people, you need to play more like bluegrass musicians, even if you’re sitting around a Duraflame log swilling 40’s and playing AC/DC covers. Listen to live bluegrass, and you’ll hear things like, “Let’s hear some of that gee-tar!” and “How about a little harmonica now?”

4. Give ‘em “The Look”

The Look is the universal signal for “I’m done with my solo” and “This song’s about to end”. You’d think it’d be easy to give people an unambiguous facial expression, but often people think they’re giving me The Look when in fact they look like they’re really getting into their solo, or they have gas. So how do you do it? Simple. Raise your eyebrows.

5. Kill it with a swing of your axe

This helps everyone to end the song at the same time, especially if the song ends with a ritard (a gradual slow-down). Right before the last chord, raise the headstock of your guitar, bringing it back down as you strum the final chord.

All this talk of campfire singalongs reminds me of what a great instrument the guitar is. It’s portable enough to strap on your back, and it provides beautiful accompaniment for the human voice. And this reminds me of my favorite Far Side cartoon. A group of cowboys is sitting around the campfire. One cowpoke turns to his buddy and says, “Hey Hank, why don’t you pull that thing out and play us a tune?” Sticking out of Hank’s impossibly-stretched-out back pocket is a grand piano.

Comments 11

  1. First I tried remembering whether my buddy Justin, singing next to me in the photo, tore his left or right ACL, but I couldn’t. Then I tried reading the coke cans and logos on the hats–couldn’t. Then I saw my watch, which I’ve always worn on my left hand. That photo’s been flipped.

    I have played left-handed guitars, but not in polite company.

  2. Hey Rob, wonderful lesson! Thank you so much for the tips. Communication is such an overlooked aspect of playing with people it’s unbelievable! The raised eyebrows or a nod of the head with eye contact is a great way to communicate nonverbally with other musicians. Would you mind to possibly chord out Train’s “Calling All Angels”. I love your chord and lyric charts and it’s really a great song for the acoustic. I’m working on key transposition, and I think the song can be played all first position with a capo at the first fret. Is this correct? Anyway, thanks again and love the newsletter.

  3. Great advice. When I played bass in a band years ago we had a drummer whose praises I still sing to this day, and it isn’t because he played a lot of fancy solo type stuff, although he certainly could. It’s because he played consistently and we could communicate nonverbally. It made for a pretty tight rhythm section. Never underestimate just keeping an eye on each other.

  4. I have one more communication tip to add: a kick in the leg.

    The other guitar player in my four-piece cover band “tends” to forget MY solos that follow his solos. He just gets so into his solos, head is down looking at the fretboard and he won’t look up for “the look,” even on the last beat of the last bar of his solo. SO, sometimes when I really do mind if he forgets about me, I kick him in the leg during the last bar of his solo. Not too hard, of course, but, hard enough to get him back down from the ecstasy and let him know that “I” am next and he shouldn’t get back on a verse after his solo…. 🙂

    Great tips Rob!

  5. I am a beginner who has lots of chords but seems to be rhythmically challenged. Love your newsletters but wonder if there’s room/demand for some “entry level” guidance on basic strumming patterns for particular songs. I notice some of the songs on your site have strum patterns displayed, but I have to confess that I am having real trouble learning this aspect of playing the guitar.

  6. Hey Ignacio,

    Glad you’re digging the newsletter! I’ve gotten some positive feedback r.e. the interview you posted on your site too–thanks again for doing that.

    I have no recollection of the event in that photo, but I don’t think the ball was aimed at me. People didn’t start throwing crap at me until I performing with Tilted Blue. 🙂

    Jamie, learning how to strum without a teacher is hard! Make sure you check out this article to get started:

    I’ll try to address strumming more in some upcoming newsletters, too.

  7. Great post! Have you thought about helping those of us who have gotten so deep into music theory, band practice, electronic gear, shredding, or [insert your obsession here] that we’ve forgotten WHAT to play for our friends on an old acoustic around the campfire? I’m not trying to get you to tab-out a bunch of songs. But can we collectively come up with a list of the “Top 10 Cool Campfire Songs Every Guitarist Should Know How to Play (Or Fake)”?

    Let’s rule out the old folksongs that make everyone groan — like “She’ll be coming around the mountain”. [Hey, I like it, but it is a hard sell with my friends.] I’m thinking of 3 and 4 chord songs that have been on the radio so much since about 1960 that everyone in the crowd knows how to sing the chorus, at least.

    You started us off with “Take me home country roads”. Let me add another one that everyone can sing along to and isn’t hard to fake on guitar: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimowe …)”

  8. Hey John,

    I love that idea! I just got back from a week at guitar camp, so I have lots of songs in mind that could be contenders.

    I’ll start the poll in my next newsletter.



  9. Thanks for the article.

    I might add a couple things:
    –Do not play too loud when you are accompanying another voice or guitar.
    –If you are the rhythm, play a steady groove that’s consistent to follow for somebody improvising. It isn’t your job to improvise the groove.

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