One 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.