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The Joy of Playing Guitar Outdoors

Let freedom ring.

One of my fondest memories of living in Nashville was getting together with my songwriter friends to play music on the weekends. We’d all gather at someone’s house with a dish of food, build a fire in the backyard and sing our freshly penned songs.

There’s nothing like watching fireflies dance like embers in the evening air, the taste of an ice- cold beer, laughter, sharing stories, and the sound of guitar players jamming together in the great outdoors.

As we all know, music sounds different depending on the environment it’s played in. A small coffee shop with a tiled floor and glass walls will reflect sound differently than an expansive ballroom with high ceilings and carpeted flooring.

But I’m convinced it’s not just the acoustics of the environment. I believe that, as sentient beings, our perception of music is also affected by our surroundings, and that includes the decor, the mood of the audience, how we feel emotionally and whether we are performing or enjoying the performance. Playing guitar outdoors not only changes how we hear music, but potentially how we feel about what we hear as well.

All my performances here in Hawaii for the past seven years have been at outdoor venues. There are some stunning locations here, of course, and sometimes the weather conditions and sunsets are so perfect that you could play for hours and hours. However, one of the first things you learn about playing outdoors on a regular basis is that the sound will always be different, even at the same venue.

Performing and Practicing Outdoors

Humidity, air flow and wind direction all have a profound effect on your sound when playing outdoors. I find that my sound changes dramatically — and for the better — after sunset. In fact, I choose certain songs to play at that time, not only for the emotional impact they will have on the audience as they watch the orange globe settle on the ocean, but also because those songs will sound incredible in the evening air.

If the wind is behind me at a gig, my sound travels away from me, and I find that I have to try harder to hear myself sing and play. But when the breeze is facing me, it tends to blow the sound back in my face. This provides not only a very enjoyable way to monitor the performance, but a great opportunity to react musically to what I’m hearing.

Students often ask me how to break out of a musical rut or how they can find a ladder to a new plateau of musical expression. My first question to them is, “Do you practice in the same chair, at the same desk, and in the same room every time?” If the answer is “Yes” (as it often is), I suggest they take their guitar to a new location in the house, yard, staircase or even the park to enjoy the effects of an alternate energy and ambient environment.

The neck of a Yamaha guitar with an orchid and greenery behind it.

Taking an organic instrument like an acoustic guitar to a beach or park makes perfect sense to me. Acoustic guitars are naturally resonant works of art that self-amplify the music we play on them. I wonder if Mother Nature enjoys those resonances as much as we enjoy being in the presence of her beauty?

Changing your practice location to the great outdoors will invite new input and inspiration into your musical life. You may even find a spot that is so perfect for your creativity, you go there all the time for writing sessions and working on new ideas. Being in “the zone” this way allows the music to flow and potentially opens up new portals of creative information to download from the universal energy source.

When Inspiration Strikes

On sleepless nights, I often find the best use of time is to take my guitar outside, onto the back porch, and discover new ideas. The ear tunes in to the sound and resonance of the instrument when it’s dark, and I find that ideas flow better without the distractions of a busy day.

The musical piece in the video below was composed around 4:00 in the morning. The main melody, harmony sand the capo’d overdub all flowed through me and onto the guitar strings with relative ease.

In situations like that, I always make sure to record an idea of the arrangement and parts onto my phone, just in case I fall asleep again and forget the essence and feel of the composition.

The Video

As usual, I recorded the final music in my studio to capture the guitar tones with quality microphones. I had considered recording all of the parts outside, but there are too many extraneous noises on the farm where I live to do this beautiful instrument justice. The location where I filmed the video, however, does have wonderful acoustic properties, due to its slate floor.

The Yamaha LL-TA TransAcoustic guitar I’m playing here features lovely onboard reverb and chorus effects (no amp required!), to which I just added a small amount of hall reverb from an outboard signal processor for both rhythm parts, plus hall reverb and a touch of delay to the top note melodies.

The Guitar

Hybrid acoustic/electronic guitar leaning against the trunk of a small tree.
Yamaha LL-TA TransAcoustic guitar.

The Yamaha LL-TA is a western body style acoustic guitar that sports a solid spruce top and solid rosewood back and sides. The body resonance is warm, and full: perfect for strumming, picking and single-note lines.

The LL-TA also comes equipped with an excellent gig bag, ideal for taking your guitar to inspirational destinations!

The Wrap-Up

We’ve all watched a movie in a theatre or on the couch at home. Maybe you’ve even enjoyed a drive-in feature from the backseat of a car, or a concert while sitting on a blanket in the park. As you’ve probably noticed, the sound and overall experience are vastly different. The popcorn tastes different outside, the audio travels lightly on the breeze, and the emotional content of the visual has a unique effect on us in the open air.

The same holds true for music. Being sun-kissed at a festival or covered in mud while watching your favorite band is something we should all experience at some point in our lives. It’s raw energy, unconfined to finite wall dimensions. Music in the great outdoors changes you, expands your perceptions and leaves its mark on you forever.

Photographs courtesy of the author.


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