Adam Pitts: 16 Songs Every Solo Acoustic Bar Musician Should Know
Adam Pitts is one of the best in the business. He’s one of the most talented players I’ve ever heard and unquestionably one of the best entertainers. Not to mention, he’s a damn friendly guy – which in the business of cover musicians is as important as all the other attributes needed to achieve success. And he understands the business of music. He understands how to balance playing other people’s music while he also writes and creates his own music. He lives and works primarily in the Raleigh area. I highly recommend going to one of his shows.
But for the purposes of this blog, what you should know is that Adam Pitts makes a living – a pretty darn good living – playing music. I asked him to write a guest piece based on “16 songs every solo acoustic bar musician should know”. What I got was way more than a list of 16 songs. I got a glimpse into the mind of a guy who has figured it out.
If you want to make a living playing music, Adam has certainly figured out one way to do that, and to do it well.
16 SONGS EVERY SOLO ACOUSTIC BAR MUSICIAN SHOULD KNOW
If I could travel back in time 10 years to when I was first starting to make a living playing popular music(covers songs) in bars, I would say this to my very stubborn former self:
“Former self, learn those damned bar room ‘standards’ you think you’re too good to play. Get off your high horse and do it now. Believe it or not, down the road it’s going to be a key factor in helping you make more money.”
While I can’t know for sure if my former self would heed the advice–back then I was out to change the world, one ‘wings and beer’-themed sports café at a time and stupidly headstrong–I hope that if you are an artist looking to make some scratch playing in bars and at weddings and parties, you’ll trust me when I suggest you do the same. Knowing how to play the ‘standards’ (listed at the end of this article along with a few other suggestions) can be a most powerful tool in your repertoire.
That’s right. I’m telling you to learn those songs – the ones you can hear any Joe Schmo caterwauling from behind a beat-up acoustic guitar at any typical dive around the nation.
Sound like anathema to your creative mission? It is in many ways. But consider what’s happening when Mr. Schmo is playing those songs. I can bet you that many of the people in the bar are singing along, doing the call-and-response bits, smiling and having a great time. This scene might strike your artistic mind as lame and unoriginal, but I can assure that the people who are singing along so hard that their faces are bulging with veins don’t feel the same way. In fact, I’d venture to say that it’s precisely when J. Schmo plays those all-too-familiar melodies a great deal of the people perk up and listen at all.
Why is this?
I’m no sociologist, but experience (i.e., reality) forced me to see that social forces have established certain customs when it comes to live music in bar environments long before you or I ever decided we were so talented that we would try and make people pay attention to our respective talents. It’s actually quite fascinating. Aside from the normal bar room revelry you can witness at any ol’ watering hole, how is it that people behave in an almost universal manner without there being a sign on the door instructing: “When ‘Sweet Caroline’ by Neil Diamond plays, everybody go ‘Bah bah bah!’ during the chorus.”?
If you want to be successful playing covers for income, then you really should give this phenomenon some thought. It’s a force to be reckoned with. And it has a great influence on people’s expectations when they enter into a bar room and see a live performer.
After dragging my feet for years, and after more shows than I can count being hounded by that one intoxicated person who seemed to rate my value on whether or not I could play one song out of the hundreds know, I decided I was going to learn the typical songs that the aforementioned character requested. If anything it was parry move to get them off of me so I could get back to playing what I liked.
While I was reluctant to acknowledge it at first, it didn’t take long to see the value in my decision. I saw that if I just made it a point to work in some of these songs in service to those in the audience who wanted to share a fun moment in a predictable and interactive way, it had profound effect. Sometimes it even made people stay tuned in when I would follow up with something less common. Ultimately, I became more able to hold the attention of the room throughout a long 10pm-2am type of gig, and my tips went up as well. (You’d be surprised how good a tipper the hounding intoxicated person can be if you just give them what they want).
It was actually kind of beautiful when I made peace with all of this. I felt a lot of frustration lift off of my person and seeing the result before me was like a demarcation of my being maturing. I came to accept that, quite simply, this is the way many people have a good time with live music and I should honor the job I’d been hired to do in these venues.
Yep. It’s a job. The sooner you can level with that concept, the sooner you can start seeing the result of putting together your song list to best serve people, their expectations and tastes. Don’t be offended that they get so excited about what your artistic mind might see as trite. Their excitement has more to do with what they get to do in response to these kinds of songs and how they get to share that expression with their friends and/or prospective hook-ups. Save your artistic expression for original music venues where people show up with a different expectation of seeing something new. Original music venues and bars are worlds apart.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with doing honest hard work. That’s what you’ll be doing by learning the following songs because not only will it be done in service to others, but you will have to force your mind to absorb musical patterns you’re not attuned to if some of these aren’t your flavor.
Over the years, I’ve tested the songs listed below in their effectiveness – with a few exceptions due to the constraints of my vocal range; those that I can’t do are some that are continuously requested, or I’ve seen colleagues do with great success. It’s remarkable how well they work to pull people in. I’m not saying be a complete tool and comprise your sets entirely of these songs. Just be sure to have them up your sleeve and learn as many of them as you can pull off.
And if in your heart you can’t resist a little rebellion, do what I do and put a creative spin on your song arrangements so that you’re at least having some influence in the process. (See my kazoo solo during “Santeria” below. It makes me feel like I’m at the helm of the joke at least).
Songs that every acoustic bar room musician should know:
1 – Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond
2 – Santeria or What I Got by Sublime (link: https://youtu.be/ody4bea7Jsc)
3 – Friends in Low Places by Garth Brooks
4 – Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show
5 – Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes
6 – Family Tradition by Hank Williams Jr.
7 – Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison
8 – Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet
9 – You Never Even Called Me By My Name by David Allan Coe
10 – Sweet Home Alabama or Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd
11 – Don’t Stop Believing by Journey
12 – Wonderwall by Oasis
13 – Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi
14 – Your Love by the Outfield
15 – Every Rose Has It’s Thorn by Poison
16 – Hotel California by the Eagles
Find Adam Pitts at http://www.adampittsmusic.com/