Friday, 9 July 2010

On Second Thought, Just Learn the Trombone

UPDATE: fixed the second song! Note to self, must actually make sure blog functions before posting it to internet... Now go listen!

The acoustic guitar is an extremely delicate instrument.

I don't mean that it's delicate because it's only made of wood, that it's fragile. I don't mean that if you bash it around a bit too much it goes out of tune.

The acoustic guitar is delicate because it is so transformative. One second you're that quiet kid who's spent most of the party sitting on a couch by yourself, the next you're the most popular person in the room and you have most of the party singing along with your strumming.

We all know, though, that that's not all there is to it. We all know about That Guy.

That Guy who always turns off the iPod halfway through the second chorus of your favourite Journey song, brandishing an acoustic guitar and a posse of fawning girls.

That Guy who swears he's too shy and unprepared to play as he enthusiastically reaches his hand into his own pocketful of plectrums.

That Guy who tells you that he's been working on a song for a while that's so meaningful to him, before launching into a really-over-the-top rendition of Jason Mraz's I'm Yours.

That Guy is not Folk.

Not to fear, dear Internet, there's still hope for you budding guitarists yet. In the same way that not every person with an axe is a fireman, not every person with a guitar is a cringeworthy douche bag.

I have devised a way for you to always walk on the right side of the fine line between Embarrassing Schweff and Coolest Person in the Room. Like many things in life, all it takes is that you follow a simple set of guidelines. Allow me to introduce to you,

Luke's Ten Rules For Acoustic Guitar Etiquette

(or, How to Be Good Folk)

1. Obey timing. Compare the acoustic guitar to an after-dinner mint, or a plate of fine cheeses: it's really meant to be enjoyed at the end of a long and successful evening. No one goes to parties to listen to you play. They aren't there to sit awkardly and politely as you croon out your tunes. Instead, wait till everything's winding down, a few guests have left so only the cream of the crop remain and everyone's too drunk to notice if you're rubbish anyway. Let the iPod playlist wear itself out before you introduce a guitar to your enthusiastic audience.

2. Choose the right song. There's nothing more awkward than one person singing to a room full of mute faces. Unless you're with a small group of friends don't try anything that you've written, unless you're asked to and encouraged. Instead, find a tune with a chorus that everyone loves, so while you handle the verses and bathe in that solo glory, you've got a whole choir of backup every time the chorus surfaces. Also, try to avoid the stereotypes. Keep Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah in your repetoire, don't be afraid to churn out Wonderwall if your playlist is running dry, but try to find a tune that's going to surprise your listeners, as well as make them want to sing along.

3. Be modest. I don't mean, oh no, I couldn't possibly play, oh really? Honestly? Okay, well I guess I kind of am the best at the party modest. I mean, wait for someone to hand you a guitar. Make sure the mood is right. Don't demand the spotlight. Be confident, but most importantly make sure you...

4. Share. Play your song, get the applause, then pass the guitar along. If no one takes it then you obviously did a good enough job that more people want to hear you again. Even better, find more instruments and more musicians and start jamming. Everyone loves a good harmony, and everyone loves a good sing-a-long. Being a team player is being the anti-douche.

5. Make them want more. Put on a good show but don't act like you're enjoying it too much. Being folk is about being cool and mysterious. If you're not sure what this means, just watch the Prince of Folk himself Robbie-Z at the end of this clip:

He's basically saying, you know what, I'm Bob Dylan, I can play my guitar really high up on my body and nobody says anything, you can yell 'more!' all you want. I basically own you guys.

Be careful not to fall foul of Rule #3 though.

6. Be good. This should kind of be obvious before you take your turn on the guitar. Make sure you're well practised, or at least provide a proviso before you get up there, something like, Well, I've only been playing for a few months so... This is especially important if you decide to strut your stuff in the style of Bob Dylan as mentioned above, and end up being absolutely crap. If you do mess up, smile, offer a charmingly witty response, and keep playing. Don't stop and start over. You will only make people mad.

7. Keep your eyes open. Literally. Please don't close your eyes when you sing. Or I will find out from someone and come to your house and punch you in the head.

8. Don't dedicate songs. Unless you wrote the song, and it has some sort of meaning behind it, and making a dedication somehow ties in to an elaborate plan to propose to that person later on that evening, and it will make a really nice story to tell your grandkids. Otherwise, don't dedicate the song to anyone.

9. Respect the instrument. If you're using your own guitar, fine, go to Townshend on it when you've finished if you really want to. However, if you've borrowed this guitar from a very generous host then make sure he or she knows that you know what you're doing with it. Ask before you retune, politely request a capo and thank them when you're done.

10. Smile. Don't take yourself too seriously. Have fun and make sure your motives for whipping out the guitar are to do so. That's folk.

Oh my, all this talk of guitars is making me kind of sick of the instrument. How about we find some folk that's a little different this week?

Below is Ben Sollee (SOH-lee), a Kentuckian who makes music about politics, love and his young son, and leaves all the guitaring up to his various duet partners. Instead, Sollee opts for the cello, an instrument I find pretty hard not to fall in love with (I even played it for a few years in elementary school, bowing out gracefully at the peak of my career after a hugely successful rendition of Yellow Submarine with the Ox Ridge Junior Orchestra). Like so many frustrated musicians, Sollee has found a way to break free from the traditional parameters of his instrument and dramatically transform the sound that comes out of it.

I don't know if there is such thing as cello etiquette, but if there is, Sollee has definitely discovered it.

PS: You can download these links directly from the internet by right clicking on them and going to 'save link as'. I think everyone needs a little bit of cello bluegrass-folk in their iTunes and I hope you'll agree.

Prettiest Tree On The Mountain--Ben Sollee.mp3
Something, Somewhere, Sometime--Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore


  1. The punishment for committing Number 7 would be most warranted.

    Open Mic nights are certainly home to some of the worst folk-charlatan types. They abuse the format of open mic to pursue a kind of dick measuring competition.

    Great post. Great Folk at the end too.

  2. Best rules for guitar etiquette I've ever read -- and funniest too. You would THINK #6 would be obvious, but I will never forget (or live down) the time in my early twenties when, after a few (ahem) meatballs (and I think we all know that by "meatballs" I mean "too many vodka tonics"), someone handed me a guitar at a party after I insisted I could play. Well yeah, I COULD play, if you count strumming G, D, and Em over and over again (with no vocal accompaniment) as playing. Finally, someone took pity on me and gently pulled it away.

  3. Hahahahaha, I loved this! Especially enjoyed the invitation to "go to Townshend" on one's own guitar :)

  4. Anonymous3.7.12

    Great article!

    I have a friend who breaks almost all of these rules. He's very new to guitar but "plays" and "sings" like he thinks he's the dogs bollocks. Now I just need to find a way to show him this article without it being massively obvious that it's a comment against him.

    I'd also add 2 more rules - based on his habits:

    11. Know when to stop. Be mindful of the audience participation and if their interest is starting to waver in a particular song then wrap it up nicely and move on to something else. For example, just because American Pie has 6 verses that doesn’t mean you should sing all of them – there is a reason why most people only know the radio-edit version.

    12. Know your vocal limits. Everybody wishes they had the vocal chords of the biggest and best musicians history has to offer but sadly you probably don’t have that gift. In these instances make sure to sing in a register that suits your vocal abilities. There are many ways to achieve this such as playing the song in a different key either by changing chords entirely or through the use of a capo. Nobody will notice once you take the lead and they will follow suit. If you are singing way above or below your vocal register it’s really obvious and you are almost certainly singing out of tune and so just because the original track recording has the artist singer higher by one octave it doesn’t mean you have to do so as well! Be aware of this and let the men sing in the lower register and the women in the higher register. This also means that more of your guests will join in as they are less likely to feel embarrassed if they think they can actually “hit” the right note with the rest of the group.

    Again, excellent article!