Making Music – Tales of Playing Well With Others from our Guitar Noise Readers

From Tom Serb, author of and frequent Guitar Noise contributor:

When David asked me to share some thoughts on playing with others, I figured I’d tell a story or three about my experiences over the years. But the more I thought about the topic, the more I realized that playing with others couldn’t be captured in a single (or several) anecdote (s). I started jotting down things I’ve learned, and they ended up being more proverbs than parables. Here goes my random list of hard-won advice:

Don’t share your gear with someone you haven’t seen play. A polite ‘sorry, I never let anyone play this guitar’ is rarely more expensive than the repair bill might be.

A good way to meet folks who play is to take an acoustic guitar to a park or beach on a warm sunny day.

Don’t ever think your chops aren’t good enough to play with someone. Johnny Ramone didn’t play so well either, and he did ok.

Don’t ever think your chops are too good to play with someone. That person may end up being a brilliant writer and need a brilliant guitarist someday soon.

If you’re auditioning for folks, make sure you play the song you play the best.

No matter whom you play with, have fun. There’s a reason we call it ‘play’.

It’s always polite to show up already tuned.

People who don’t like your playing probably just don’t understand much about guitar.

People who love your playing may not know much about guitar either.

Always carry extras (picks, strings, cords, batteries, etc.)

If you’re with other people and you can’t figure out what to play next, play some blues. Everybody knows a 12-bar progression.

Don’t do bad things in public places. The police will not be gentle with your guitar.

If you’re really gotten plastered at the party, and you think your playing is getting better and better… you’re wrong.

Learn a Beatles song, a CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival) tune and a Dylan number and you’ll find you can play at least one of them with just about everybody.

If you want to jam on something with complicated chord changes, write out a couple copies of the progression and keep them in your guitar case.

If you play with people a lot better than you are, you’ll get a lot better very quickly.

If you get lost, follow the bass line.

The one who calls the tune sets the tempo.

Keep a pencil and paper in your case. You might want to jot something down to play at home later.

Stay away from the messy food until the playing is over. Strings do not like hot wings as much as you do.

If you screw up, keep playing.

If you’ve worked out a set list, write it out on a 3×5 card. You can tape it to your guitar and always know what’s next.

Be polite to everyone. Everybody knows somebody… they might know people you’d like to know too.

Gear does not make the musician. Don’t be ashamed of what you have to work with.

Don’t worry about not knowing enough. If you can play 3-4 chords, there will be some song you can play along with.

If somebody plays something really cool, compliment him or her. Maybe he or she’ll show you how it’s done.

Don’t be the last one to go home. The last one to leave is hardly ever the first one invited back.

From Phil, Guitar Noise reader:


You wanted our experiences? Okay.

About eighteen months ago, I was back in a rut with my guitar playing, so I joined a guitar class. It’s a pretty sociable affair, as we all learn together in a group, of varying ages and abilities – I’m forty-five, for example.

The teacher is a great guy, but frankly, one hour a week is a bit limiting. To be honest, at £12.50 a lesson (the guy has to make a living) the money would probably be better spent on guitar tab magazines with cover CDs, but the class has three advantages: (1) it gets me out of the house once a week; (2) we all go down to the pub afterwards and chat over a beer (not just about guitars); and (3) the teacher organizes a ‘live’ performance evening once a month.

Well, the money is worth it for the socializing and the live performance. At the second one I went to, there were a bunch of talented teenagers all shredding away and playing riff-based stuff, me playing and singing bar-chord-based rock and punk with the ‘house drummer’, and a bloke fifty-eight years old (but looking younger) playing Substitute by The Who – music I could identify with. I got chatting with this guy and we started a ‘band’. At first, we were three guitars, with me occasionally playing to bass. Then we found a full-time bass player, and recently a drummer. We make a point of practising stuff individually, and rehearsing together before we perform. The fun of performance is greatly enhanced if you know what you’re doing. Secondly, we pick out individual players, particularly youngsters, who have no band of their own, and offer to back them on pre-arranged numbers of their choice. Thirdly, our bassist and I offer bass guitar support on request – provided we know what songs we’re wanted for a few days before the gig.

The audience consists mainly of the players, their friends, family and other supporters, so it’s always friendly, even if we ‘cock up’ occasionally (and we all have at some point). We have dedicated amplifiers and drum kit, and a PA and soundman. It’s evolved into a real fun event once a month.

One tip: the thing that puts more people off from doing this is a fear of forgetting the chords and the lyrics (especially for those who have underestimated how difficult it can be to play and sing at the same time). I unashamedly keep the music to hand on a music stand within visible distance. I know it’s not ‘cool’ to have a music stand on stage for rock, but it’s not ‘cool’ to mess up either, and we all get nervous on stage. How many orchestras are you likely to see without music stands? Not many, and those guys are professionals.

We play about three ‘band’ songs per month and keep them changing. We choose them democratically. This means that I often end up playing songs that I thought I didn’t like, or wouldn’t have thought of myself. That’s the best thing that has ever happened to me musically, and I’m way out of that rut now.

From Tony, Guitar Noise reader:


After reading Making Music – Part I, I wanted to write and share my own experience with group playing. I hope you will find it useful, and share it with others in a future essay.

I’d been playing about five years when I was invited to participate in a new music group being formed at my church. The invitation came in the spring of 2004, shortly after the death of our fourteen year-old son, and I was immersed in depression and anger, barely able to function day to day, much less exert the energy to practice guitar on a regular basis. In addition, I had never played together with anyone at all. I was afraid, and didn’t know how well it would work, but my wife felt it was just what I needed. She couldn’t have been more correct!

The first practices were awkward, and that first live performance was nerve-wracking, but as the months went along, I became more and more comfortable. I also began to emerge from the black hole in which I had hid myself since our son’s death, and even performed a duet with a fellow band member the week before Christmas. I’ve come to look forward to our weekly practice sessions, and my personal practice time has been more productive than ever. I’ve progressed and learned more in nine months than I had the previous five years.

Having a musical brotherhood has been a true gift from God. I’ve been inspired to go beyond strict rhythm playing, and have been studying music theory as I work to improve my lead playing, as well as branching out into fingerstyle Gospel music. Sites like Guitar Noise, and those who contribute their time and talents to them, have been invaluable to me. Thanks to everyone for all you do.

Also Check out… Making Music – Playing Well With Others (and other rules Mom gave you to live by)