The saying “it’s all about the music” is only half the truth, especially when it comes to live performances. There’s more to playing on stage than playing well. The shoegazer aesthetic of the alternative rock era is over, and it’s time to put blood in the music every time you and your band step up.
Here are 10 tips that guitarists should consider to pack more punch and pure “wow” factor into live performances, and leave audiences eager for their next gig:
• Get a Tuner: This seems so embarrassingly basic that it should go unsaid, but I still attend shows where I hear the guitar player “twonking” away on strings between songs. This is a sound nobody in the audience wants to hear, and unless you’ve got a great ear and can tune in a nanosecond, tuning by ear takes much longer than you might think. It’s also a mood killer. Imagine hearing Pink Floyd play the beautiful architecture of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” followed by David Gilmour taking 15 seconds to tune up. That’s like chasing down a sugar cookie with garlic. With so many great chromatic tuners priced at roughly $100 or less, you have no excuse for not using one.
• Set the Pace by Pacing the Set: Vary tempos in your song selections. Consider clustering fast songs, then ramping down a bit, and then going back up. If things have been frenzied for a while, take it way down – maybe even strip down to a slow acoustic piece or let part of the band sit out. Too many bands make their show a blur by playing too intensely all the time, or the converse. Variety in tempo and feel is crucial to give the audience new things to latch on to as the performance goes on. Keep them guessing or surprise them instead of giving then more of the same. Of course, there are exceptions, like the Ramones, but if you’re slugging it out in the clubs today, variety in general will spice up everybody’s life.
• Push the Sonic Envelope: Regardless of genre, there are things you can do to make your performances sound different. Use effects to conjure interesting variations on your core tone. Carry a few guitars, since they’ll sound apart from one another. Or use both standard and alternate or open tunings. It seems like the average fan might not be aware of these subtleties, but psychoacoustics is a tricky business. Sound doesn’t need to be rationalized by the brain to be recognized and enjoyed by it.
• Speak Up: Be sure to address the audience. They want to feel like they know you, and speaking to them – telling them what songs are about, cracking the occasional joke, just asking “How ya doin’?” or “Y’all having fun?” – provides a connection that helps make a concert a communal experience.
• Gear Up: What’s always shocking is how many bands practice to have a tight set, yet get derailed by gear failures. Be sure every bit of your gear – cables, amps, tuning pegs, bridges, etc. – is in good shape before you take the stage. Sure, occasionally a pedal or something else will go haywire. That’s life. But never take an unproven item to play a show. And check all the functioning parts of your guitar. Something few guitarists consider is the effect of sweat on hardware and electronics. A bridge with rust from sweat will create as much buzzing as a club’s bad wiring. A loose connector on a pedalboard will create buzz and audio “clunks.” Do sweat the small stuff.
• “You Got To Move”: …to borrow a line from the great bluesman Fred McDowell. Standing like a rock on stage with your guitar in your hands is okay if you’re John McLaughlin or Allan Holdsworth, but you’re not. Don’t be afraid to tilt, sway and charge around as the music inspires you. Part of the thrill of seeing Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Sharrock, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King and other greats was seeing them feel what they were playing as reflected in their facial and other movements. And if you don’t feel the music as you play it, maybe it’s time to reconsider what you’re doing.
• Battle for Soundchecks: Many clubs try to get away with line-checks or to check only the headlining band. Try to get a sound check of at least one or two full songs. This may not always be possible, but it is incredibly beneficial. It allows you to double-check and tweak your amp tone in the context of full band performance, balance stage volumes, be sure monitors are working and that all the instruments are miked properly. It also lets you know what playing in the room sounds like, which may effect how you set your reverb or certain effects, or simply give you the confidence to play your best. It also lets you check on club soundmen, who are sometime less than aces. My band Scissormen recently played a very well established Washington D.C. tourist dive where I discovered the soundman attempting to get my electric guitars into the house p.a. by taking a direct line out of my wireless receiver and bypassing my two amps. Incredibly stupid… So watch these guys. For every great house soundman there are 10 hacks.
Also, set up as quickly and efficiently as possible. This will give you more time to soundcheck. If a member of your band is lagging and spending more time drinking beer and taking to friends than getting his drum kit set up – oh, did I say that? – tell him or her to get it together. You’re there to have fun, but also to do a job and all of the items in this list are part of being professional.
• Dress Like a Pro: Have a look on stage that says more than “I just got off work at the gas station and came straight to the gig.” Of course, that can also be a look, but consider Bruce Springsteen’s ultimate “working man” persona. Sure, he dresses in a factory shirt, jeans and boots, but the handkerchief in the pocket is a calculated touch, and his jeans and shirt are always pressed and crisp.
• Own the Room: Before you strap on a guitar and start swinging, take a moment to stroll around the room and eyeball the patrons. Check out the nooks and crannies, and when you get on stage, put on your guitar and then take a deep breath and a moment to acclimate to the environment. This helps eliminate stage anxiety, if you have any, and gives you a sense of ownership and mastery of the space. Sounds new-age-y, but it’s practical.
• Get Your “Thang” On: Every great player has his or her own moves. Think of Jimi sinking to his knees and playing over his guitar’s neck, Pete Townshend’s scissor kicks, Chuck Berry’s or Angus Young’s duck walk, Danny Gatton’s stunt playing, Eddie Van Halen’s early-career acrobatics, Springsteen’s stage-length slides (How does he do that?), Stevie Ray’s behind-the-back picking and the list goes on. Find a show-biz move you like – or better yet, invent one – and make it your own. Your fans will love you for it!