The holy fire, the terrible songs ....

What Does a Drummer Do At Campfire Sing-Alongs?

It’s not easy being a rock drummer around a campfire.

This wonderful song book appeared a couple of years ago, handed down from a friend of a friend at a three-day motel party in Palm Desert. The chords-and-lyrics book had been printed, photocopied, and tabbed—pure magic in a three-ring binder from Staples.

It has just about every grand, beloved and ridiculous song you could ever want to sing around a campfire, from “King of the Road” to “Don’t Stop Believing.”  You haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen a drunken mom belting out Pat Benatar in the orange-yellow glow of a campfire, while her filthy children dance in the shadows. 

This songbook has become a mainstay of the many California camping trips my friends and all of our families enjoy in the mountains and on the beaches. Every camp night, just as the s’morefest is winding down, the guitars come out and everybody sings along.

I’m the lone drummer in a sea of guitarists and singers. I’m not a percussionist, and certainly not one of those oh-I-also-play-seven-other-instruments-and-produce-records sort of “drummers.” I’m just a plain old “1-2-3-4!” rock drummer. It has its place, but for most of my drumming life the campground wasn’t it.

Over the years I’ve tried everything from banging rocks together to fashioning crude drum kits from various pots and beer cans—the stuff a frontier drummer might try. I even attempted clapping along, but clapping at a campfire hootenanny is right up there with trying to whistle a harmony: not cool, and not welcome.

And then I discovered the secret: I started packing a simple egg shaker along with the rest of my camping gear.

That changed everything. When the guitars come out now, I grab one of my camping shakers and deliver a simple backbeat. It provides the guitar players with the support so often necessary to get them to finish a song they hardly know, and it gives everybody else around the fire ring even more of a reason to dance under the stars.

Most importantly, the kids love it. I’ve learned to bring an extra box of shakers, maracas and tambourines. Leave them on the assembled camping chairs and watch the insanity. The guitar players are guaranteed to have huge smiles on their faces, even as they struggle to play along with the cacophonous polyrhythm.

Isn’t that what camping is supposed to be all about?

Watch one of these videos for some quick shaker lessons. And while I cannot provide a copy of the Magic Song Book—the songs are not mine to give away—I can say that it’s easy enough to save your own lyrics-and-chords collection for private use. Song websites are everywhere, but Ultimate-Guitar.com is an established site that pays royalties to composers and publishers.

Steve Coulter is a rock drummer who writes novels and runs media operations in his spare time. Campfire photo by David Leo Veksler.

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