This can be a terrifying experience, and we've all had to endure it at some level or another. By finding a few ways to prepare, however, and keeping a few things in mind, you can minimize the stress of the situation. The following tips should help:
- Buy a capo. I can't stress the importance of this enough. A capo is a small, cheap device that straps on to your guitar neck, and allows you to change the key of the song simply by sliding it's position around. This will allow you to play songs in keys that work for the people singing. Learn more about capos.
- Figure out good keys to play in. If you're singing with both men and women, chances are, you may have to adjust the key (using the capo mentioned above). A good rule of thumb is... the men should be singing most of the song in their lower register in order for the women to be able to comfortably sing the same melody an octave up. Learn to switch keys of songs on the fly.
- Try to prepare. If you think you might be playing for people to sing along to in a day or two, sit down and go through some songs that might work in that situation. Figure out good keys to play in, strumming patterns, song structure order (verse, verse, chorus, etc.) Find the starting melody note, and write it down so you'll remember it.
- Take the lead. When playing, try to sing along, and gently guide people by your actions as to what to sing next. Before you start playing, know you're going to play, for example, two verses, then a chorus, then a verse, then a bridge, etc.
- Don't flog a dead horse. If people don't seem interested in a song while you're playing it, wrap it up quickly, and move on to something else. If people stop singing along, and start to look disinterested, take the hint, and put the guitar down for a while.
- Relax, and have fun. You'd be amazed at how much other people's opinions of how good you are rely on how much fun you look like you're having. If something goes wrong in a song, who cares!? Laugh it off, and move on.