You’re sat around a campfire with your friends. Everyone is fed and watered, the kids (if you have them) are tucked up in bed, there’s only one thing missing. A jam around the campfire!
We put our heads together at Zing Instruments HQ and compiled a list of our 20 favourite songs.
Ready to learn these songs? Cool. Here’s a breakdown of each of our 20 best campfire songs, with a clip of each song plus links to lyrics and chords. Enjoy >>
#1: Catch the Wind by Donovan
“In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty, I want to be in the warm hold of your loving mind”
This romantic ditty from folk 60’s sensation Donovan is an absolute treat and works perfectly round the campfire. Some wrote Donovan off as a Dylan wannabe back in the 60s, but this song puts him firmly in the land of the untouchables. Nice work sir.
#2: Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show
“I made it down the coast in seventeen hours, pickin’ me a bouquet of dogwood flowers”
This little treasure is one absolute monster of a campfire song! It oozes old country blues, with catchy lyrics and is instantly recognisable even if it’s the first time you’ve heard it. Written by master songwriter Bob Dylan, the song is pure genius. If you were to only learn one song from this list, choose this one. You’re camping audience are going to love it. (Bob Dylan wrote the song, but never actually released a version himself. Scroll to the bottom of this article to hear his version – it’s pretty cool too)
#3: Sugar Mountain by Neil Young
“Oh to live on sugar mountain, with the barkers and the colour balloons, you can’t be 20 on sugar mountain, though you feelin’ like you’re leaving there too soon”
From Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield period in the 1960s, this acoustic number is beautifully nostalgic, evoking images from his youth. The song is reflective, about the passing of time and growing up. All perfect themes to bring up at a campfire. The chorus is immediately familiar, even if you’ve never heard it. A cracker of a song.
#4: Dead Flowers by The Rolling Stones
“You can send me dead flowers every morning, send me dead flowers by the US mail, send me dead flowers to my wedding, and I won’t forget to put roses on your grave”
No campfire is complete without a Rolling Stones number. We listen to the Stones most days here at Zing Instruments HQ, so it wasn’t hard choosing a song that perfectly suits a bonfire scene. We opted for the country blues Dead Flowers, from 70’s album Sticky Fingers, as our song of choice. It’s simple chord structure, eminently sing-along-able lyrics, makes it an absolute killer track.
#5: No Woman, No Cry by Bob Marley
“I remember, when we used to sit, in the government yard in Trench Town”
This Marley classic has a soft rock steady beat that go down really well. With a chorus that’s almost made to be sung along to, it’s a dynamite song to pull out. The end of the song features an “Everything’s gonna be alright” chant that works great too.
#6: Stand By Me – Ben E. King
“When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see”
This song was made for playing under the stars! And the chorus, if people don’t sing along to ‘and darling, darling, stand by me’ then you’ve got a seriously tough audience!
Here’s a great version of the song to get you in the groove:
#7: I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight by Bob Dylan
“Close your eyes, close the door, you don’t have to worry anymore. I’ll be your baby tonight”
This romantic little ditty from Dylan isn’t on your average campfire guitar song playlist (but then isn’t your average song list – it’s the best on the internet – he says modestly…well, it probably is!). The song includes gorgeous references to the moon, essential in any rustic campfire song (“that big ole moon is gonna shine like a spoon”) and encourages wanton abandon (“kick your shoes off, do not fear, bring that bottle over here”). A superb choice.
#8: Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison
“Hey where did we go, days when the rains came, down in the hollow, playing a new game”
Overplayed at wedding, this is true, yet Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl remains a cracking number to unleash at your campfire. Plus you’re almost guaranteed that everyone know’s it, young folk and old. The ‘sha la la la la ti da’ line is a delight for your audience to sing along to as well, however out of key they are.
#9: Lady Midnight by Leonard Cohen
“I asked her to hold me, said lady unfold me, but she scorned me I was dead, and I could never return”
Talking about songs people won’t have heard, this is probably one of them. Lady Midnight, from master song writer Cohen’s second album was recorded while living in exile on a Greek Island. It’s a gentle, swaying ballad that’s a joy to play and has a lovely chorus.
#10: Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty
“She’s a good girl, crazy about Elvis, loves horses and her boyfriend too”
As chorus’s go, this has to be up there with the best of them. The verses build themselves up perfectly, to unleash the ‘and I’m free, freeeeeee fallin” chorus. If your campfire buddies don’t join in on the chorus on this one, you’re probably better off putting your guitar back it it’s case and calling it an early night!
#11: Good People by Jack Johnson
“Where did all the good people go, I’ve been changing channels on the tv show”
Love him or hate him, Jack Johnson makes incredible catchy songs. The stuff that crowds of people tend to love. That’s good news for you if you’re planning on playing a campfire gig. As far as good acoustic guitar songs go in the last few years, he’s contributed his fair share. With a catchy middle eight and solid chorus, ‘Good People’ is a winner. Just try singing the ‘boob tube’ line with a straight face and you’ll have done well.
#12: Wonderwall by Oasis
“Today was gonna be the day but they didn’t throw it back to you”
Where would a list of modern campfire anthems be without Wonderwall? Reluctantly, we added it (not because it’s bad song, we actually quite like it – just that every best campfire song list on the interweb includes it). It’s a sure-fire crowd pleaser that you may as well throw in the mix though. Plus, it will make your audience more tolerant of more obscure songs like Lady Midnight (see above).
#13: Sing by Travis
“If you sing, sing, sing. For the love you bring, won’t mean a thing. Unless you sing, sing, sing”
With a perfect banjo playing in the background (if you have a banjo, definitely have them accompany on this one) this jangly guitar hit from 1990’s indie stars Travis is a perfect blend of slightly obscure (that’s a good thing, sometimes) and instantly likeable revelry. Also, it incites people to sing, sing, sing in the chorus, which is never a bad thing (depending on your company).
#14: High and Dry by Radiohead
“Don’t leave me high, don’t leave me dry”
Radiohead are one of the most respected bands of the last 20 years. And rightly so. They have contributed massively to the canvas of modern music. That’s why we had to pick one of their numbers. Their number High and Dry was a no brainer really. In Radiohead terms, it’s quite palatable and pretty easy to make a decent stab at.
#15: Yellow by Coldplay
“You know I love you so”
The song that catapulted Coldplay to worldwide renown, Yellow is another modern classic to add to your campfire set list. There’s a few Coldplay numbers that you reproduce by the fireside, but Yellow has to be pretty high up there. It’s almost their most famous track too, so even your grandma will have a sing along (exactly what kind of campfire is this?!)
#16: Man on the Moon by R.E.M
“Let’s play Twister let’s play Risk…yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”
Aside from having blatant product placement (Twister, Risk, Monopoly, the guys must have made a killing!) this quirky pop song is going to go down well. It’s rather tricky to play, so make sure you’ve practiced it before you go belting it out. But once you’ve got the chorus licked (that’s the tricky bit) then you’ve got one helluva song to entertain people with.
#17: I Will Follow You Into The Dark by Death Cab for Cutie
“If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks, then I will follow you into the dark”
Another tricky song to play well (learn it before you unfurl it) Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark” is an indie song of almost hymn-like proportions. The lyrics are pretty morbid, but the sentiment of the song is spot on (we said this wasn’t your average campfire guitar song list. That’s why we had to include this number).
#18: Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol
“If I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world”
What a great lyric for a campfire! It works particularly well with two guitars (one playing the lead bit and the other the rhythm) but it can be played fine on one guitar too.
#19: Friday I’m in Love by The Cure
“Monday you can fall apart, Tuesday, Wednesday you can break my heart”
Another indie classic that’s well off the beaten track of typical campfire songs. The song sounds great on a solo acoustic guitar.
#20: With Or Without You by U2
“I can’t live, without or without you”
This song has to go on the list because it’s an absolute gem. It satisfies everything a good guitar campfire song needs to be: catchy, familiar and you can sing along to it. It’s a slower number too, to mix things up.
So there is our top 20. However, as we come across other numbers that work well we add them below. Here are some bonus tracks to throw upon the fire, if you get my drift ?
Bonus: COUNTRY ROADS – John Denver
John Denver’s classic is a must for any campfire gathering.
I mean who in their right mind isn’t going to enjoy a bit of ‘west virginia, mountain mama’! In fact I’d be surprised if you got past the first verse without people joining in!
Here’s a great cover by Michael Liebler
Bonus: THE JOKER – Steve Miller Band
For a bit of fun, why not throw in Steve Miller’s ‘The Joker’. It’s got that distinctive opening riff that’s easy to play and the chords are simple as anything.
Everyone appears to have the lyrics of this song indelibly printed in their brains, and will join in effortlessly on the seminal line: “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker”!
Here are three guys having a blast with it.
Bonus: GRACELAND – Paul Simon
Paul Simon’s 1980’s classic ‘Graceland’ (from the album of the same name) is a fantastic song to play. Great chords that are pretty simple, wonderful words, and most important a super catchy chorus.
Here’s a brilliant interpretation of Graceland by internet sensation Josh Turner:
Here are the lyrics and chords
Some considerations before you decide to play at your next campfire:
1. You have to be able to play it by yourself and it sound right.
2. Probably needs to be at least somewhat mellow.
3. Should have some kind of outdoors/nature related theme, or at least be somewhat happy, with a sing-along type of feel.
4. No crazy stuff… the low lighting and sometimes awkward sitting positions of a campfire scene is not a good time to show off.
5. You need to be able to sing it. Just because you know how to play along with a song on your CD doesn’t mean that it will sound meaningful to anybody at all when you’re out in the woods. Therefore, pick songs with vocals that you know is in your range.
6. You are probably not going to be bringing your best guitar out into the woods, so don’t pick songs that you can only play well with your best guitar, due to lower action or whatever.
7. Quite obvious, but it needs to be something that will sound good on an acoustic.
8. No complex tuning on multiple strings… retuning in the dark out in the woods would kinda suck.
These tips originally appeared on a thread in an Ultimate Guitar Forum
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.