Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Campfire Method: How I Learned to Play Guitar

The Campfire Method: How I Learned the Guitar

By the time I was twelve, I had spent a lot of time camping with the Girl Scouts. Two weeks every summer and a few weekends each school year with my troop in the lodge were so packed with memories that they seem in retrospect to be a big chunk of my childhood.

There was always singing. Singing while we washed dishes, while we hiked, before and after meals in the lodge, and most of all around the campfire every single night. Friendships, dramas, adventures, and accidents all happened to a multiple soundtrack that I helped to make.

And by the time I was twelve, there were always several older girls who played the guitar. Oh my gosh. The epitome of confidence, usefulness, expression, cool.

Can I learn?

And one day at a troop campout, I asked one of them to teach me. As I remember it, it was totally spontaneous. I didn’t build up to it, I didn’t rehearse. I just suddenly said, “Hey, can I learn how to do that?”

She sat me down, plunked her guitar in my lap, and showed me two chords. They were D and A. She made chord diagrams for them (chord diagrams!) so I would remember them. She taught me, very patiently, how to strum a simple pattern: Down, down-up down, down-up down, down-up down. And she taught me one song. Yes, there are songs that only use two chords. Here’s how it goes:

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and (long pause for chord change) cry,

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you’re bound to (another long pause for chord change) die.

I could play an actual song!!! I went home, borrowed my mom’s guitar (and kept it for ten years, bless her) and played that song continuously for…I don’t know, a long time. My mom remembers. Apparently, I barely stopped to eat, and she got heartily sick of Tom Dooley.

Over and over and over

By playing that song over and over and over and over and over I learned a bunch of things. I learned my two chords, how to find them with my fingers faster and faster. I learned to strum my down-up down pattern. I learned to change chords in rhythm with the strum. (It was a great day when I didn’t have to have those two big pauses in the middle of Tom Dooley!) I learned to open my mouth and have words and tune come out while I was strumming and changing chords.

I learned a lot.


And then I started to gather. First I gathered more chords. “Will you show me another chord?” I learned G next, the easy version that just uses one finger. And suddenly there were a lot of songs to play.

Where do you get songs? I knew a lot of them to sing. But…I needed the chords. And where do you get chords? From other people’s songbooks!

Every Girl Scout guitarist I knew had a hand-printed songbook, a precious collection of all the songs she could play. So you borrow someone’s songbook (eventually, when yours has anything in it, you trade) and stay up all night copying. That’s what I did.

And then I’d play and play and play my new songs.

At the campfire

And then…I felt confident enough to play with other people. At the campfire. Here’s what you did.

You positioned yourself carefully so you could see the person with the clearest hands.

You learned really quickly how to read chords backwards—because you were almost always across the campfire from your model.

And when everybody started singing “They Call the Wind Maria,” you focused like a laser on that girl’s hands, following the chords as much as you could. You fumbled, you skipped those three chords that change really fast and landed triumphantly on the C you knew. The A minor appeared—you’d never seen it before, but you got your fingers in the right place. And you marvelled at the sound coming out of your guitar.

You felt the strumming in your belly, as if you were playing all of the five guitars around the fire.

And the next morning, you accosted the girl and borrowed her songbook. And copied down “They Call the Wind Maria.”


I recopied my songbooks in high school, so I don’t have that twelve-year-old printing. But here are some of the first songs I learned on the guitar:

Tom Dooley
The Banks of the Ohio
They Call the Wind Maria
Blowing in the Wind
If I Had a Hammer
The Flicker of the Campfire

Reading those titles takes me right back—to the glowing coals, the glossy wood of the guitars, the hands picking and strumming and fretting, the faces singing with me.

And here is the poem I wrote for a class assignment in high school, based on William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends

a clean brown

humming against
my belly


  1. Thank you, thank you, for writing this.

    Reading this makes me hopeful.

    And really wistful for campfires. I mean, really. It's been so long.

    I wish I recognized the songs you listed, but I am notoriously uneducated on traditional/folk/what-you-sing-while-growing-up songs.

  2. You've written my past! Then it was on to imitate Joan Baez's finger-picking, wearing those album tracks down to a crackle, till I could find it and play it, over and over and over...

  3. @Ty: You're welcome! Hmm, I wonder where you can find a campfire...we make them in our backyard all summer.

    @Paula: How neat! And you went on to perform!

    1. Azdecor là đơn vị chuyên tthiết kế nội thất văn phòng cao cấp tại khu vực Tp Hồ Chí Minh và các tỉnh thành lân cận. Với đội ngũ họa viên thiết kế được đào tạo kiến thức bài bản và thợ thi công nhiều năm kinh nghiệm trong nghề, Chúng tôi tự tin sẽ đem lại cho Khách hàng những sản phẩm đẹp với chi phí cạnh tranh. Mỗi một doanh nghiệp, công ty thì việc có một văn phòng làm việc đẹp, hợp phong thủy chuyên nghiệp, một văn phòng làm việc năng động thoải mái, lại vừa đảm bảo tính thẩm mỹ kiến trúc, cho nên chúng tôi công ty thiet ke noi that phong lam viec không những giúp nhân viên có một không gian làm việc tốt có thể vừa làm việc vừa thư giãn một cách hợp lý, một văn phòng đẹp sẽ giúp nâng tầm doanh nghiệp bạn trong mắt khách hàng và đối tác. Nếu bạn có nhu cầu hãy liên hệ với chúng tôi công ty thiết kế nội thất tphcm với nhiều năm kinh nghiệm trong lĩnh vực thiết kế thi công nội thất văn phòng.

  4. I love the scenes you create with your writing.

    I was with you - really WITH you!

    What an amazing gift.

  5. OMG, you are truly a genius! A vivid writer who paints pictures in my mind, with the joy revealing itself with each word. I love your photos, your courage, and YOU!
    How do I get on your distribution list?

  6. NM, I just subscribed!

  7. @Kellie:

    @Hey Jud!: Judith! How great to hear from you!

  8. That's a brilliant description. Exactly how I learned to play - although it was church youth group, a pastor's guitar, G and C, and a song I wrote myself to make playing the chords less boring - but otherwise, same idea.

    and now, years later and having been paid to perform here and there it's *still* how I learn something new. (tried formal lessons and found that without a song to play there was no incentive to practice.)

    Until reading this I never thought of how to pass the technique on when people ask to learn - I just demured "I don't really *know* how to play - I just do.."
    now i'll say: I'll give you what I started with and you see what you can do with it.


  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I love your vivid description in your stories. I learned how to play guitar in summer camp as well.

    guitar tabs

  11. Hi Bailey! Thanks! I think a lot of us learned there...

  12. I love to learn new instruments as well. 3 chords and a guitar and out comes the music. The best relaxation method ever.

  13. Fantastic article which is very essential for me as well. I am sure the article must useful to me as well. This is a very useful to me who like the article. Thanks a lot mate.
    Ben Barnes



  15. The album was too complex to play live and hyperinstruments, like the one he built for Prince, enable musicians to more fully realize their musical vision live. Chris


  16. nice article great post comment information thanks for sharing

  17. Thanks for the helpful information. Because, I just found out there is a very extraordinary article like this, thanks

    Toko Obat Herbal
    Obat Nyeri Sendi
    Obat Penyakit Jantung
    Obat Penambah HB
    Obat penghilang Milia


I'm excited to read your thoughts and reactions! Easiest way to comment: Where it says "Comment as," click the drop-down arrow and choose "name/URL" Then just type your name (and your website if you want).