There’s a scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral that can give me nightmares: in one of the weddings, a man and a woman with a guitar and a tambourine sit at the front of the church and sing ‘I Can’t Smile Without You’. It’s painful. Torture. Hippy Dippy Hell. And it haunts me every time I play the guitar in public.
However, I think there are ways to avoid the perils of Kumbahya Round the Campfire. So, if people are having a good time (and preferably drinking a little) and ask you to play a tune, here are some ideas if you’re feeling nervous:
1: Play songs people know.
Then they’ll sing and it’s more like live karaoke and there’s less emphasis on your voice.
2: Play songs you know.
Stick to tunes you know you can play and you won’t have to keep stopping and starting as you forget the word/chords/how to do that awkward barre fingering.
3: Work out what suits your voice.
Personally, my voice sounds really quite ok as long as I stick to a fairly low register - I don’t have much range - so work with what you’ve got.
4: Use the people around you.
I have a couple of friends with wonderful singing voices and I know on some songs they’ll sing a harmony that will make the whole thing sound really quite flash and much more impressive than if I sang solo.
5: Discover the cheat songs.
By cheat, I mean the ones that everyone will immediately go gooey over/sing along to/proclaim to be their favourite song ever. Current classic of this would be Hey There Delilah by the Plain White T’s. Good songs that are pretty, not too hard to play and that impress your crowd. There are several modern classics that fall into this category – Hallelujah would be another example. If you're looking to impress someone of the opposite sex, these are usually the tunes to do it.
6: Go back to the good old days.
Like karaoke, this is a great excuse for the cheesy numbers that are great songs everyone loves. Time to bring out Hotel California, Killing Me Softly and pretty much anything by The Beatles.
7: Throw a curve ball.
Add in the odd song people probably won’t know but that will sound good in a non-mainstream, undiscovered-gem way. Often these are personal favourites that really suit your voice. Mine tend to be something like Stolen Car by Beth Orton.
8: Do a cover version.
Try an acoustic version of a non-acoustic song. My current favourite for this is Mr Brightside by the Killers. Or take someone else’s cover – Johnny Cash’s version of One by U2 is easy but impressive, or Joss Stone's take on The White Stripes's Fell In Love With A Girl/Boy.
9: Have a set-list.
Keep in mind a small list of songs that cover some or all of the bases listed here, then you won't panic if you're put on the spot. I have some standard songs that always seem to come out and the nice thing is that, after you do it once, people often request one of them the next time they hear you play.
10: Kill the Hippy.
If possible make sure your outfit contains no flowers, dungarees, gypsy skirts, or raffia. Try to keep beards and long hair within reasonable limits. Try standing, rather than sitting, to play. Never let your audience sit in a circle. Don't play anything that could conceivably be part of a Kindergarten end of term show. On no account give anyone a tambourine.