Why Every Musician Should Play Music with Friends

What's a goal nearly every guitar student has on their bucket list?

Playing in a band.

 Loki and I live in 2010 with Hybrid Nightmares. Photo courtesy Stephanie Mazur Photography.

Loki and I live in 2010 with Hybrid Nightmares. Photo courtesy Stephanie Mazur Photography.

Of course, not everyone thinks they can do it when they first start. You might start with simpler goals like "learn Stairway to Heaven" or play a few chords, but sooner or later, no matter how introverted you are, you'll probably start getting the itch to play with other musicians eventually.

This is a great thing to aspire to, not just because it's fun and rewarding, but because it will improve your playing at breakneck speeds.

The problem is, most guitarists assume playing in a band is a long term goal - something to do later. 

I disagree. At most, it's a mid term goal (I'd usually recommend forming or joining a band as soon as you know barre chords and how to improvise solos, which can be done within 6 months), but realistically, you can start from Day 1 if it's a high priority for you.

Don't believe me? Here's 5 things you will learn much faster from playing with others:

 

#1 Rhythm, groove and feel

We all have a tendency when we first learn a piece to throw rhythm out the window and focus on getting the right notes.

When you're playing a song with others, the opposite approach is more effective. The band can't wait for you to find the perfect note!

This change in mentality will make you pick up songs much faster (ever tried reading tabs for a song you've never heard? How much slower is it trying to work out the feel than if you've already got the rhythm and groove in your head?), but it will help you improvise through songs that are past your current ability to play.

Here's an example: What I Like About You is really just 3 chords for 90% of the song (E - A - D - A), but the intro is quite fiddly for beginners to play. 

If you play the same rhythm of the intro over basic open chords, it will sound almost as good as the original, for a fraction of the effort. Yes, it could be considered 'cheating', but it's a legitimate skill ALL great musicians use. Adapt and adjust the song for yourself and the situation.

 Dave playing the Whitehorse Festival in 2016 with Jaspora. Definitely some challenging rhythm and groove in Calypso music!

Dave playing the Whitehorse Festival in 2016 with Jaspora. Definitely some challenging rhythm and groove in Calypso music!

 

#2 Listening and responding

Your metronome doesn't go out of time. But musicians do!

One of the first big challenges to overcome when you start playing with others is what to do when one of you makes a mistake. Do you slow down? Do they speed up? Do we just move on?

There's never time for a debate, so instead, we just react in the moment. If you're finding your part easy and your friend is struggling, slow down a little for them. If the reverse is true don't worry about little mistakes, just try and keep the song moving as best you can.

The best musicians in every genre are the ones who really know how to listen and feed off of the playing of the rest of the band. 

 

#3 Song structure

How many songs have you every played? 

Now how many do you know from start to finish?

If you're like most of us, you probably don't know anywhere near as many complete songs as you do riffs, leads or snippets.

This isn't a bad thing for your practice (I'm partly to blame, as I often tell students to ignore entire sections of a song if it's not relevant to our current goals), but it's a lot more fun to play a full song with others than it is to just play one or two riffs.

You're going to have to learn how to 'arrange' the song to make it complete

This doesn't mean playing everything identical to the recording, though. Only know the chorus and verse riffs? That's fine, play Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Chorus and decide on a big chord to finish on. Done!

Understanding how songs are put together will make it MUCH easier to learn other songs, as we tend to follow fairly standard conventions in western music that are repeated across many genres.

 

#4 Songwriting

Writing solo guitar pieces is hard. You have to make you instrument imply harmony (chords), melody (leads) and have a decent rhythm and feel. 

Trying to fit all of that into one solitary guitar part is not only challenging to write, it's usually pretty hard to play too!

Writing for a mix of instruments, by comparison, is the easiest thing in the world. 

Here's an example: Let's say you play guitar, you have a friend who's also guitarist and another friend who sings.

Get your friend to play 4 chords, pick the relevant scale to improvise over those chords so you can play a melody, and then get your singer to use the same scale to come up with a vocal melody.

There, you've got a full song arrangement done that will sound awesome with barely any planning involved!

At more advanced levels, writing for multiple instruments will help you understand their roles, making you a much more versatile and knowledgable musician.

 Naz and Salvador (brother and sister) performing live together. 

Naz and Salvador (brother and sister) performing live together. 

 

#5 Your Love and Enjoyment of Music

I can remember my first rehearsal with Hybrid Nightmares, after having just finished my VCE exams and gone through all the Uni auditions.

We only had drums, bass and one guitar, with a bunch of semi complete songs.

I started playing the songs, learning the riffs and the structure, and had great fun.

Afterwards, back at home, I went to practice some other songs, and a strange thing happened.

Playing original songs, with a group of friends and musicians, was so much fun, I had lost the interest in playing other people's music completely. I just didn't want to pick up the guitar for that purpose any more.

THAT is how much fun it is playing with others. It's the ultimate way to enjoy music (though perhaps a few soloists may disagree).

It gave me purpose for my practice. I was no longer playing a song just because it seemed ok, I was practicing my scales ready to solo at band practice next week. I was speeding up my picking not because I wanted to win any speed records, but because I wanted the fast sections of songs to sound better at band practice next week.

One of my students, Alice, put it best in her lesson recently. When I told her that the other students normally in her lesson couldn't make it that week, she said "Aw...but it's more fun with the others."

 

So how do I start playing music with others?

Even if you don't have the inclination to start or join a full band at the moment, you can experience the fun and reap most of the benefits in other ways.

 

Group Lessons

First, if your music teacher of school offers any collaborative lessons (not group lessons where everyone is working on different material - that's not the same), take advantage of them.

In our group classes, for example (almost all of our classes are in groups), beginners may try playing the same part in time with each other. More advanced students will often improvise while the others play the chords.

This is not the same thing as playing along with your teacher.

As teachers, we adapt to your playing. We've got tons of experience doing it, and that's what we're here for. 

Fellow students don't do that! They'll try to play in time with you, but they'll make mistakes, they'll occasionally lose their place, and that's the part where you'll usually learn the most. That's where you learn the art of playing with others.

If you don't have a teacher or guitar lessons at the moment, some schools run one-off workshops and masterclasses which you may be able to take advantage of. Get in touch with your local school or music shop.

 

Find friends or family in your network who play

In the US, nearly 20% of people play a musical instrument.

That means, in all likelihood, 1 in 5 of the people you know are potential jam buddies.

Give them a call and ask if they'd like to play some songs with you. It doesn't need to be anything formal (I used to work at a photography studio where Friday lunchtime was guitar jam day for all the players there), and it doesn't matter if you're at different skill levels, because different parts in a song almost always require different levels of technical proficiency. Just choose the part that you're most comfortable with.

One student, Stuart, regularly plays with his sons who are both also learning the guitar. Not only is it a fun way to spend time together, it's great for motivating and inspiring your family members in their own musical pursuits.

Another of our students, Peter, is the master of playing with friends. He's got a mate who he regularly catches up with for drinks or dinner, and they'll spend some time playing a couple of fun chord songs together.

Through these catch ups, he's met other guitarists and now it's just one of those things he can just do with other musicians - pick up a guitar and play together for a while (in fact, I think I need to try playing with more of my musician friends more often like Peter does!)

It's a great way to strengthen friendships and have more fun with your mates.

 Bumping into some fans on our 2016 Japan tour. Band's can take you to some pretty awesome places with some pretty awesome people!

Bumping into some fans on our 2016 Japan tour. Band's can take you to some pretty awesome places with some pretty awesome people!

Start your own band

Band's don't have to be started with the end goal of World Tours and Fame and Fortune (aka Expensive Working Holidays and Playing For Exposure for you cynics).

You might decide you'll only play Nirvana covers in your garage every Sunday night for fun, and that's perfectly fine.

The trick is finding musicians with the same goals as you. It's no good having two members who want to exclusively jam together, one member who wants to tour 11 months of the year and one member who wants to release monthly prog albums online.

I'll put together a more detailed guide soon, but to get you started, just find a few people you get on with who have similar musical goals and interests to you and start rehearsing!

 

If you're still unsure about the idea of playing with others, chances are it's just a lack of confidence holding you back.

So let me mentally prepare you with these 3 final points:

  • Musicians learn just as much playing with beginners as they do with masters. Don't feel like you're wasting anyone's time just because you think they are more proficient at their instrument than you, because that's irrelevant.
  • Playing with others is a skill like anything else. The sooner you start, the sooner you'll master it.
  • Like most things on the guitar, repetition is key, not large chunks of time. Try committing to a fortnightly catchup with one musician friend to begin with, and slowly build it up from there if you're enjoying it.