Getting Better at Guitar: Play Well With Others

This post is in no way to meant to be judgmental to the scores of guitar players that are perfectly content playing within the confines of their own personal environment. Realistically, that is the vast majority of the guitar world: Players who play for their own enjoyment and nothing else.

But is was a famous 19th century German Field Marshall who said, “No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” And much the same could be said for playing guitar. Or as I like to put it, “It’s all well and good until the drummer starts.”

Playing with other people can be hugely disruptive, but also highly educational. Maybe that solo you have perfectly crafted at home just doesn’t seem to work once other people are involved. You may also find that some of your favorite tones don’t sit well in a mix of instruments. Even if you have no desire to gig, learning to play in the less-than-sterile environment of a group setting will make you a better player no matter what your aspirations.

Truth be told, even for experienced musicians jam sessions or jam nights can be intimidating and/or frustrating. If you happen upon one with a couple self-anointed guitar slingers, jam nights can devolve into a noisy game of sonic one-upmanship. But true guitar slingers know how to play “in” the song rather than “on top” of the song. Ultimately, the goal of playing with a group is to make the song better, and not just insert “your solo” at every available opening.

A potentially more productive alternative is to find a couple people – or even just one other person – and work on developing a set of songs you like to play. Songs provide context and goals, and help develop structure, listening skills, dynamics and phrasing. These are all critical aspects of playing, and much harder to develop when only playing alone. And unlike a pure jam session, there is less of a competitive element and more of a shared vision. This does not mean that you can’t improvise, but the secret to a great jam session is good listening skills and dynamics. Learning songs with people teach those skills. Who knows, you might like what you hear, and decide to venture out to a local Open Mic night.