The Fearless Five

 

A couple of summers ago I was invited to a party thrown by Rob, a friend who had this annual bash every year. I’d met him when his keyboard player Diana, a friend of mine for some time, recommended me to play a flute part with their band for an upcoming memorial service. That performance had gone reasonably well, but for this party, Diana told me to bring my guitar. Great. I was rather anxious to re-introduce myself as a guitar player, since I’m much better at guitar than I am at flute. 

 

I brought my guitar, secure in the knowledge that I would be a solid addition to any jam the universe might throw at me that fine Saturday afternoon. And a fine Saturday afternoon it was. Middle seventies, sunshine, slight breeze, truly wonderful people (maybe a hundred of them – when I said this was a bash, it was a BASH) and two stages. The big stage was for Rob’s rock and roll band later in the evening, but there was also a smaller stage set up for the many individual and small group performances that would precede them. I looked forward to a memorable affair.

 

And yes, it was memorable. I quickly realized that there was no jam intended at all, but I was welcome, encouraged even, to perform three or four songs. I started going through my mental inventory of performable solos. Wait, what were the words to the second verse of “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”? Better not try that one. What about “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind”? No, the guitar part is tricky and I hadn’t played it in over a year. Maybe the Beatles’ “I Will”! No, that’s too sappy for this hip crowd. 

 

All stressed up and nowhere to go. I realized that what should have been a fun performance would be a disaster if attempted. I simply was unprepared for one of my life’s great pop quizzes. It should have been so easy. I probably knew at least a hundred songs that, given a couple of days to prepare, I could have done a credible job performing at that party. Had I known the format when I was invited, I’d likely have been proud of the result.

 

But no, my guitar stayed in its case as performer after performer did their thing, some pretty darned good, others not so much. The phrase “self-loathing” comes to mind. I left early and inconspicuously. I vowed, never again.

 

I came up with a concept I call “The Fearless Five”. In a nutshell, I should always have a minimum of five songs which I can perform fearlessly on a moment’s notice. I don’t want to just survive the experience, I want to thrive. I want other musicians to hear me and think “I’d like to partner up with this guy.” These songs are my calling card. To this end:

  • I will likely have more than five I could do, but I will have five identified. I can make substitutions for a specific occasion, but I want to quickly identify my basic set. 

  • I know what key I will play them in. Once in a key, I can generally figure out chord progressions on the fly. However, the key has to fit my voice throughout the entire song and accommodate any signature guitar parts. There’s nothing worse than starting a song in the key of G, then realizing that when I get to the chorus, it’s just too high for my voice.

  • I have to know all the lyrics. Nothing says you’re unprepared like not knowing the words. Granted, I’ve used cheat sheets before, but this is my Fearless Five. If I have to read the words, I can’t really perform the words. I want to tell a story, not just mouth words. These songs should flow properly with no stumbling.

  • Like the lyrics, my guitar parts need to be well rehearsed. Especially the instrumental parts should be well-prepared and worth listening to.

  • Make these songs my best stuff. No filler, but five songs I can look at after performing and say that I gave it my best shot. The occasion generally won’t accommodate five songs. However many of these five songs I wind up doing, I should look back and say, I did the best songs I know.

 

After over fifty years of playing guitar, you might think this would be easy. It isn’t. I’ve found that it takes continuous work on these five songs. Enter our current predicament.

 

Many have wondered what they would do during shelter-in-place conditions. If anyone has ample time for special projects, I do. My problem has been a lack of initiative. I’ve been so utterly thrown off by our need to distance ourselves from each other, that I’ve let routine lapse. But I’m finding that forcing myself to do some of the things that I used to take pleasure in is working. I can’t go out for breakfast and a book like I’d done since I retired. But I recently started forcing reading back into my breakfast routine, even though I’m eating at home now. Walking had been hit and miss, but after noting a correlation between a good walk and a good sleep, I’m back to doing this on a routine basis, even if I have to do it at night.


As for guitar, I just didn’t see the point. But about a week ago, the weather turned nice. I saw a choice: Go outside and walk or stay inside and play. I simply had to get out of my house. Then a third option came to mind. Play guitar outside! I set up a folding chair on the porch just outside the main door of my house. It has a ledge where I could put my capo and a couple of picks of different thicknesses.

Shin the Musician

Last update: May 8, 2020

The John Shinnick Web Site

My front porch setup at night. I use it during the day.

It was comfortable and ergonomically good for singing and playing. But what to sing? Well duh, how about starting with a review of my Fearless Five:

  • Song For The Asking (Simon & Garfunkle)

  • Paper Moon (Various)

  • Everything Is Broken (Bob Dylan)

  • Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind (Lovin’ Spoonful) 

  • Pamela Brown (Leo Kottke)

Yeah, I like this as a starting point from which I can pare down to get to however many is appropriate. I can even make a substitution if I feel comfortable with it. Depending on who is listening, likely candidates are:

  • I Will (Beatles)

  • I Used to Love Her (Stones)

  • Never Going Back (Fleetwood Mac)

  • Far Away (Mark Knopfler)

  • In My Life (Beatles)

This gives me a wide variety of songs for impromptu performances. I like ‘em all and if I practice enough, I’ll have ten songs ready. But only five will be my best. Only five will be fearless. The rest is gravy. With these, I’ll shine. It’s all about me.

So after working up the concept, I went to an annual party put on by the leader of our church music program. The good news was that I was ready. The bad news was that I was ready for the wrong thing. This time it WAS a combination jam and sing-along. As so often happens, we had a bunch of musicians, each looking for someone to take charge. Someone who could not only play songs, but could lead them. I quickly found that due to the very nature of my Fearless Five, none were fit for a jam. They were all rehearsed and indeed selected to be played by me and only me.

 

I need a second, Elite Eight. These songs won’t need as much polish. The emphasis, rather, will be the need for them to be of a straightforward chord structure (so the other guitar players can play along) and recognizable (so the other singers can sing along, at least with the chorus). I need more than five because in a group setting, musicians are notorious for not knowing how to lead songs. Strange but true. If I can have eight ready, that should take the pressure off. Why Eight? I quickly came up with eight and alliteration here is a good thing. It might just as easily have been the “singalong seven” or the “nice nine”. I came up with such a list after this party, but I’ve forgotten it. But here’s a start:

  • Take It Easy (Eagles)

  • Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles)

  • I Used to Love Her (Rolling Stones)

  • The Last Time (Rolling Stones)

  • Green River (CCR)

  • You Won’t See Me (Beatles)

  • You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Beatles)

  • I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better (Byrds)

Not perfect. With some thought, I could readily come up with other, more suitable songs for this list, but this is a start. 

As you might guess, playing on the porch has had a side benefit. I’ve developed a waving relationship with many of my neighbors who walk by. I’m about thirty-five feet off the sidewalk, so I don’t need to wear a mask. I confess that I haven’t been singing with any real projection in my voice (which I really should do if it’s real practice) and I’ll often stop to wave at someone if they’ve waved at me. Many do, though no one has stopped to listen for more than a few seconds. I like to think that at thirty-five feet they can’t hear me well enough to make it worth their while. Perhaps they just don’t want to intrude. I don’t take it personally.

 

Again, I’m having to force myself to practice these songs. I find doing them on the porch far more enjoyable than inside, though in the end it’s far more enjoyable doing them inside than not doing them at all. In the end, fearing the pandemic is bad enough. But when it’s over, fearing that I’ll have nothing to play would be inexcusable.

The recording, lyrics, and back story to "My Brain Is Too Small", a song I wrote and recorded in 1990.