Performing Live? Here’s What Guitarists Should Know to Prepare
So you got that song down pat? Here’s what you need to know about performing it live.
Performing live music is certainly no easy task.
There are some things you’ll have to prepare for, and some things you can ignore (like your friends who are excited about the gig, but only add more pressure on you to perform better).
Let me jump right into this. Here are some key things to be aware of for live performances.
Be Prepared to Lose 40–60% of Your Motor Function
Rather than quote Google-able science, I’m going to tell a story.
The first gig I ever did was for a massive birthday party at a venue with a stage and hundreds of people. I was a bass and rhythm guitar player, playing in a (mostly) family cover band.
We switched instruments for certain songs, so that kept things fresh. But it also meant we had to practice more.
We practiced a five-song set for over a month, and played each song so many times I kind of got sick of them. I practiced every day on my own, too.
But little did I know: endless practice was exactly what I needed.
My knees were weak, arms were heavy. But no vomit on my sweater already, or mom’s spaghetti.
(Sorry. Back to performing.)
We got it done. No big dilemmas and no major mistakes. My hand cramped up during a song, but I shook it off and finished the set.
You see, if you feel even the least bit of nervousness in giving a presentation to a group of people, you will experience a kind of fight-or-flight mindset. That’s where you are reduced to your basic instincts and base level of training.
In playing the guitar, you can easily lose a large chunk of your motor function when nervous. That’s why we practice our asses off.
If you train consistently in self defense or combative sports, under duress, you know you can perform what you’ve trained for.
Same goes for playing the guitar.
We often take for granted how much fine motor skill is required to play a guitar.
We have to press the frets just enough to hit the right notes. We have to sync our hands constantly, and above all, we must play to a tempo (among many other things).
So if you think you got a song down, be confident enough to play it well enough 5 times in a row. Without difficulty.
Having that muscle memory down really helps once you hit the stage, and the lights and crowd start to make you nervous.
All you do is execute at that point, so practice well and often. And be confident enough to know that if you make an error, you know what to play next to recover.
Stage Presence Matters — Be Confident
If you’re an acoustic player, you may have it easier. You’ll need to focus more on your play though, as the audience’s attention will be on the music.
No crazy Angus Young/David Lee Roth moves.
But if you’re an electric guitar player, it’s another story. People are more likely watching you, as well as listening to you play.
Most electric guitar players play with a band, too. That means mistakes may be easier to hide in the mix!
I hate to say it, but I really do recommend practicing in front of a mirror or camera. Play a whole song, and take a moment to watch yourself.
Man, when I first did this, I looked like a dork.
But once I recognized my dorkiness, I was able to improve it.
Here are some tips for electric guitar players’ standing sets:
- move around: if you’re in one spot on the stage, it may get boring to look at after a while. Move around and feel the music.
- be humorous: if you need fresh ideas, watch a Steel Panther concert. Those guys are funny. I especially enjoyed their “Crazy Train” cover. Watch Michael Starr imitate Ozzy. That was hilarious.
- take a wide stance: it’s okay to stand still every now and then, especially if you’re back-up vocals. But at least try and look cool. Take a wide stance, bob your head, and feel the music. The movie “School of Rock” actually has some fun pointers that help here.
- move with the band: one time, I was playing bass and our lead guitarist walked right beside me with the singer. Immediately, we started bobbing our guitar headstocks (and mic) up and down, in sync, 80’s metal-style. The audience started to smile. We did more of that stuff. People loved it.
- if you’re having fun, so is the audience: have some fun on stage! You don’t need to jump and do the splits or anything crazy (leave that to the singer). If you’re having fun dancing around and making funny faces, people enjoy that stuff. You’ll need a sense of humor, though.
A small stage is still a stage. You are the highlight once you step onto it. Make it count.
Do a Solid Sound Check
Way before you perform, make sure you do a thorough sound check.
I used to check the mics by having staff stand at the middle and back of a venue. I start doing my best (but awful) Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime impression. That covers the lows.
Then I do the regular “mic check, 1, 2”. That covers the mids.
Then I do a crazy falsetto. That covers the highs.
Then we do the same with all instruments alone, then together.
Then we try a song.
Then we test the monitors.
Based on the feedback for each, if the mix is good, we keep our settings tight. If we need more treble to cut through the mix, we adjust.
After a few gigs, I realized that sometimes when I don’t do a proper sound check, people don’t even bother listening. They might not even know that you were on stage.
And it’s frustrating if you’re chilling in the back of a concert and you can’t hear anything.
Just make sure to do a good sound check for your band mix, volume levels and echoes (in smaller venues).
A Few Last Pointers
Here are a few last words of wisdom…that are totally unoriginal and were imparted to me by other more accomplished musicians.
- Get used to crowds by performing in front of family and friends before a concert. Treat it like exposure therapy.
- Seriously, practice your proverbial nuts off until you’re super confident.
- If you feel nervous, that’s normal. It’s simply being aware that a good performance is important.
- Dress comfortably. Yes, be presentable, but when your blazer or pants are riding up your backside, it makes for a terrible experience.
- Maybe have a beer before hand. It’ll kill some of the nerves, as long as you aren’t intolerant to alcohol, or a light-weight drinker.
- Have a lot of water by your gear. Between songs, you’ll want to wet your throat and re-hydrate.
- Network after the gig. Gigs are most fun when you get other opportunities to play music, or meet really cool people you can learn from.
- Have a good time. if you look and feel nervous, people will cringe. If you look relaxed, focused, and confident, people will look forward to it.
That’s it! A lot of bullet points here. I hope it helps those of your rocking in the free world.
Go get some, good luck, and godspeed!
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