I walked into my first writers round on my very first trip to Nashville eighteen years ago. There were four songwriters on stage in a line, and everyone was playing and singing together. I loved the energy and the way everyone's participation lifted the song. I've been to a whole lot of songwriter nights since then, and seen a lot of magic moments like that. But if you play writers nights, you know that unless there's a band doing the round together you're generally going to hear one person play at a time.
To be fair, the last thing any of us want is for someone to try to play along who can't "hang", as musicians say. Someone just noodling over your song is distracting to you and the audience, not to mention disrespectful. But when people join in and play or sing along, and do it well, the audience can't help but be drawn in. Playing with a group is what made me want to play music for a living, and is still my favorite thing to do. It's also something I think everyone that plays music should be able to do on some level, because playing with others makes you a better and more confident musician.
First of all, not every writer or player sings. If you don't sing or play with singers, it's very possible that you don't often play songs confidently all the way through. If you're a songwriter, you'll finish your own song, but if you're learning to play cover songs for fun you quickly find that without the vocal you're simply repeating patterns over and over. That's cool, and it's good for practicing your groove and chord transitions – but it's not nearly as much fun.
Playing with a group strengthens your sense of dynamics as a player. It's one thing to play a little more strongly on a chorus to build up the energy, but it's something else for everyone to lift the energy together. When you don't have to do all the work alone, you feel the energy more naturally and just get carried along. Once you've had that experience in the group, you'll be more able to recreate that feeling when you play on your own.
Lastly, playing with a group develops THE essential skill all good musicians have: to be able to keep track of more than one thing at a time. You need to be able to maintain your part while other things are happening around you. This can be intimidating and confusing at first, but once you have the mechanics in place you'll start to find that it makes the music more exciting. The physical part you play becomes something you can manipulate and adjust in response to the dynamics of the overall performance instead of something that takes up all your mental energy. This comes with time and practice whether you're in a group or alone, but again the benefit of the group is that you can make mistakes without the wheels falling off. On top of that, if you do make a mistake you need to catch up and fit back in with everyone else. There's no way to develop that ability without actually doing it…and even if it's challenging at first, the experience will absolutely help you grow as a musician. Your sense of timing and rhythm becomes sharper, along with your ear and ability to hear all the musical parts of a song individually as well as the collective whole.
If you agree that these are skills you can and should develop, the obvious next question is how to get there. And once again, the answer is probably simpler that you think. You've heard the expression before (thank you Nike): just do it.
But wait...I don't know how...I don't know that chord...it all goes by so fast...I'm not a musician...I don't want to embarrass myself...that's not what I do...
But it is. You write by stringing ideas together, lyrical and musical. No matter how many chords you do or don't know, there's a vocabulary there. Once you know a G chord you can recognize when someone else plays one. (Never mind whether you have to look, looking is allowed...recognition one way or another is the point, and the visual reinforces the sound). When I jump in to play a song I've never heard, I'm not reading minds and I'm not going to decide I know what's coming when I don't. I hang back and listen, or watch if I have to, and contribute when I have something to say. (This is the trap that some pickers fall into...you need to wait to hear where someone's going before you can go there along with them!). Even if your vocabulary is limited, I'm sure you can recognize whether or not you know the chords someone is playing. If you do, you can follow along. Maybe you learn a new chord in the process, or a way to use one you do know that you hadn't thought of.
The best way to get yourself started is to learn songs you already know by heart. We all have favorite songs we didn't write, or wish we had. Start learning to play cover songs! Not even to perform them but just because it feels good, and because it's the best way to build vocabulary. Look at the song from a writer's perspective...how does it flow, how does the beat feel, what are the different parts and how do they fit? Making this a thoughtful process makes it easier to pick things up on the spot, because you'll recognize a chord sequence or groove when you hear it again in a different setting. Play along with songs you can follow to build your confidence. You don't have to be able to follow someone else on the spot right away, maybe you never do...but if you look at the learning process as a muscle you can work out, it's not hard to imagine that you will build the skill. Work out every day and you get stronger. Simple.
I hold a group guitar class at my Music Row office called the Guitar Circle, where we do just that: in a small group, we learn and play familiar songs, and look at how the pieces fit together. It's an ongoing series that meets in six-week blocks; I have a Tuesday night session starting January 17 and a Thursday session beginning on February 2.
Short story: learning songs you didn't write makes you a better player and a better writer. Ultimately it makes you a better musician (whether you call yourself a musician or not). If you do get to the point where you can follow a song on the spot, it enhances your creativity because you become able to access more musical ideas more quickly. And did I mention that it's fun? So step one is to start learning some songs just because...this is practicing the learning process. Step two is playing songs with someone else....this is practicing execution of what you learned. Step three is where the magic happens...your musical mind starts to recognize other combinations of chords you already learned. Once you start to get comfortable you'll probably keep going through the process...it's the way I learned to play, and still is. Over time you'll find that it gets easier and easier, and the next time you find yourself at a guitar pull you might just jump right in.
By Dave Isaacs