“The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.” – B.B. King
If you've already told anyone you play the guitar, you can be certain at least two things will happen in the near future:
You are in for a couple of months of enormous pain and suffering (also known as practicing).
Each time you are in a meetup with friends, you will be handed a guitar to play something for everyone to listen (and maybe yell as if trying to sing along). Yeah, guitars have a nasty habit of appearing out of nowhere so that you have to play something for everyone.
The first point is unavoidable. Just do it and get it over with. The sooner, the better.
The latter, however, is tricky.
If you are like me and love to play hard rock and heavy metal, then let me tell you straight as it is:
You are doomed.
The problem here is that unless you are in a very specific group of friends/family, you can't just grab a guitar and start playing your favorite Slayer or Iron Maiden songs. It just doesn't work like that. Sorry!
In this post, I'll show you how you can come up with a basic setlist of songs to practice so you'll be ready for any shit-test in any situation.
I think no player can consider them to be a real player once you gain a certain independence with your instrument.
If all you can play is just power chord riffs, yeah, you just might be the suitable choice for a hard rock band, but it sure as Hell won't get you any attention from the opposite sex (unless they just so happen to be of the rock sub-culture, in which case if you are a man looking for a woman, you are basically screwed).
It's fine if you love to shred and use lots of palm muting, I do too, but sometimes the situation calls for another approach.
I used to struggle a bit with this.
Picture yourself in a night party with your friends at one of their place. Suddenly, someone grabs a guitar and starts playing something. They all have a lot of fun, and when the song is over, someone asks:
"Who else knows how to play guitar?"
At this point, you can do one of two things:
Run for your life.
Step up and be a man/woman.
If you take too long to decide, there will inexorably be someone who comes out of the blue saying:
"My friend knows how to play", and of course, that friend is you.
At that time, there's no coming back, and you will have to play something.
Have you been in that situation before? I've been multiple times, and right now I'm going to give you two examples of what you can do: a correct and an incorrect approach.
The incorrect approach is what many expert teachers might even recommend, and that I will now cripple to its knees. These guys recommend improvising something, because they consider yourself as a musician, not a simple dorky guy who plays someone else's songs, which would be heretic.
Now, I don't mean to be disrespectful to these teachers (or maybe I do just a little), but that kind of attitude is way off. It's the kind of response you would expect from an all-powerful being talking wisdom from the top of their ivory tower meaning to cast light on all the wrong doing of the world.
No, it doesn't work.
People don't care if you are a great musician, at least not at this stage. They just want to be entertained, and the best way to do this music-wise is to play songs, especially ones that the audience knows and can hopefully sing along.
This is the kind of attitude that often leads people to rule you out as the weird nerdy guy who thinks he's way too smart for the rest of mankind to be worthy of their time and respect. Once again, it doesn't work.
Look, I could give a guitar to John Petrucci to play something for my grandma, and do you think he would start shredding his ass off? Well, maybe, but I'm pretty sure he'll play something more appropriately.
This, of course, leads to the meat and bones of what I want you to incorporate on your repertoire: the correct approach is to have a song setlist ready for when the need arises.
Of course, you cannot hope to have songs learned perfectly for every kind of audience, that would be difficult and off-point, but you can learn a couple of songs that will reasonably translate well into multiple settings that most people will know and will be happy to hear you perform.
By doing this, you'll bridge the gap between yourself and the rest of the people. Most people like others with whom they have fun, so you will not only be having fun altogether, but you will also improve your relationships with them. Yeah, no kidding!
OK, by now I hope I've made my point as to why you should have a setlist well prepared. Now, let's move on to how to make it.
Creating the setlist
There are three main aspects:
How many songs?
You should be ready to play a couple of songs. Just one or two won't be enough.
At a bare minimum, I would aim to have at least three songs. I would recommend five or more, but usually three songs should be pretty OK. You are not going to give a concert, but you should be able to play for more than a couple of minutes.
There's no room for extreme songs (sorry, Nuno Bettencourt).
Although this depends on the styles you like and that you would like to play, you usually have to make room for a couple of present-day hits. Yes, even one or two Taylor Swift songs would come in handy, but I prefer to stick to mostly classic rock songs which most people of many age ranges will recognize.
I would recommend you choose songs that have lyrics, of course. Most everyday, non-players out there have a hard time connecting with music without lyrics (the exception would be classical music), so choose songs that can be sang. There are some exceptions to this rule, however, which I'll show you from my setlist.
The best songs in my opinion would be those you can play that can be easily recognized just by strumming its chords. There are a million songs that use just open chords that people know and they work like a treat.
Let me show you a couple of songs from my setlist:
Poison - Every Rose Has Its Thorn (video)
This song is an all-time classic. This rocky-country song is great to play for anyone ranging from your grandma to your significant other, or significant-other-wanna-be. This song is very easy to play, which you can play entirely using just open chords.
Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven (video)
Another song that virtually anyone will recognize instantly in the Western hemisphere. This is a great song that everyone will love to hear you play, and is also uses a lot of open chords. The intro section has a few chords with fingerpicking that will require some practice, but it's not difficult.
In case you didn't know, the solo from this song was voted as the best solo from the Classic Rock's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos. You don't require advanced technique to pull it off, but it still sounds great, so definitely check it out.
Guns N Roses - Knockin' On Heaven's Door (video)
Yes, I know it's originally a Bob Dylan's song, but it just happens that I love GNR's version of it, and because this is my list, I include it (so sue me!).
This song uses just four open chords: G, D, C, and Am. Very easy, yet very nice to play.
Guns N Roses - Don't Cry (video)
Yes, of course I'm a GNR fan, but for this list, I'll try to keep it simple and include just two of their songs (though I know many more).
You can play this song with open chords Am, Dm, G, C, and additionally the F barre chord. That's it. Definitely add it to your arsenal.
Kiss - Comin' Home (video)
You can go ahead and play most of Kiss' songs from their 1995 MTV Unplugged, which all work fine on any acoustic guitar, but I believe this is possibly the easiest to learn.
You use virtually all open chords, with the addition of the dreaded F barre chord (are you practicing it?).
Rolling Stones - Dead Flowers (video)
I just love this song. I'm not really a Rolling Stones fan (although I vouch for them over The Beatles), but this song resonates a lot with me. Very easy to play and sing, and guaranteed to make everyone else sing along.
Just use the open chords D, A, and G. Piece of cake.
Should I sing them?
Even if you are not even an average singer (like me), you should still give it a shot. Some songs need the voice to be full or even recognizable, and so you should put a bit more effort and learn the lyrics by heart.
There are a couple of instrumental songs you can play that would be cool for most people to listen to, that obviously are an exception to this rule.
As a general rule for these, you should not attempt to play any piece which is too complex (virtuoso), as most people might misinterpret that as showing off. Needless to say, most people do not take that positively.
If you are into classical music, you can certainly learn to play some songs and you'll be great playing them for any adult (teens and children might not be interested).
Here are a couple of examples:
Bach - Boureé in E minor (video)
This short piece is pretty easy to learn, you don't need to be an advanced player. My only concern with this is that it took me quite a while to learn it by heart, but maybe it's just me. Simple, yet classy.
Isaac Albeniz - Asturias (video)
This is a great song to know for acoustic guitar. As a matter of fact, I'm learning it myself, but it's quite long and it will take me some time to get down. Although it has parts that are quite difficult to play, others are quite easy, and you can always slow it down a bit so that you don't get crazy about it.
Agustín Barrios - Las Abejas (video)
This one I learned many years ago. It's not easy to play as it is, but you can make many tweaks to make it much easier to play, in addition to playing it slower than in the video. It will be a great exercise for you to practice your fingerpicking and moving your hand all around the fretboard. Everyone will love it.
How about playing your own songs?
This is a bit of a wildcard.
If you are a songwriter and have composed a couple of songs already, I would say go for it. If you don't feel confident with your songs, then take it easy, just play someone else's songs and you'll be fine, although you should work towards building your confidence ASAP.
There's one tip I will give you. If you do play one of your own songs, do not, and I really mean it, do not ask the others if they liked it after you played it. Remember that you want to play while presenting an image of confidence so that the listeners will enjoy it more, and asking for validation after playing your song is quite a buzzkiller. Don't do it, trust me.
Having a setlist ready is like being part of the Boy Scouts: you have to be always ready for action.
If you are never caught with your guard down, it'll be much easier to project an image of competence, so that others will take you more seriously and they will also enjoy your company much more once you prove you can make them have fun.
Now, start practicing your songs.