Hitting a bad note or getting lost in chord changes can result in glaring embarrassments on stage. But there are worse things, at least in terms of turning off an audience or making yourself look like the fourth Stooge. On more occasions than I care to admit I’ve done the latter — from tripping over my own cables, uplugging my guitar mid-song by stepping on the cord, slipping on a wet spot and landing on my butt, once even breaking my tailbone in the process. And there are more subtle issues of stage appearance and craft that can also muck up a potentially good performance.
Here are 10 common onstage issues to beware of that can be easily cause musical or physical accidents, or turn off an audience:
• Improper Volume: It’s great to rock out, but if your band is too loud for the room you’re going to alienate people. Not just audience members, but club owners as well. During sound check, use a long cable and try to get as far in front of the stage as possible to hear the overall volume projecting from it. Also, if you’re too loud as an individual player you’re going to make it hard for the band to play together well and you’re going to irritate your bandmates. So be careful with on-stage volume, too.
• Cable Snags: Cables have a way of becoming tentacles, and tentacles can pull you down. If you’ve got a pedal board or even a tuner – and you should have a stage tuner — that doubles the amount of cables you need to plug into your amplifier. Add in cables for microphones, another guitarist, a bassist, the snake… and soon the stage is a spider’s web. You can trip over any of those cables or slip on their rounded surfaces, and they can become tangled in your pedal board or with each other, limiting mobility as well as posing a hazard or unplugging your guitar. To avoid this, be responsible for duct-taping down your own stationary cables if you have time, including the mike cable.
• Slippery Surfaces: If you’re playing a multi-band night there’s sometimes just minutes to set up and perform, but take at least a few seconds to scout the area where you’ll be standing and moving around for spills and other slippery patches. A spilled beer can result in a severe ankle, back or leg sprain. Lube and graphite can dump out of road bags. If there’s a wet or suspiciously shiny spot on stage, wipe it down with a bar towel, napkins, toilet paper — whatever’s handy — before hitting the first note.
• Guitar Maintenance: Stay on top of the condition of your instrument. Plug in and play anything you’re taking on the road — even if the road only leads to a bar across town — before you leave the house. Getting to the gig with an amp that won’t fire up or a guitar with no output, excessive noise, mechanical tuning issues and the like is bad for you, your bandmates and the audience that’s come to hear you play. Wipe down your bridge, saddle and pickups after every gig. Sweat can cause them to rust and buzz. Be sure your frets are all capable of producing notes. Keep the jack tight. Overlooking a small detail can create a big problem.
• Bad Grounding: Make sure your guitar, amp and, if you’re singing, microphone are properly grounded. Getting a full-on electrical zap to the lips can hurt more than a little. Bring the same kind of current tester you’d use to check a wall plug. If it lights up when you touch its ends to the microphone, that’s a problem. Such problems can often be cured by flicking the grounding switch on your amp or by using a ground lift with the amp’s plug. More complex issues will require the sound engineer’s attention. Hopefully you’re not playing that role as well. If the problem can’t be cured with a simple maneuver from the stage, it’s possible the grounding wire has come loose on the electronics of your guitar and you’ll have to check inside the cavity in the body that houses the pots to investigate. Look in there a few times a year anyway, just to make sure things are in good working order.
• Weak or Absent Banter: Silence can be awkward, especially from the frontman of a band. Be sure to speak to the audience as if they’re friends and you’re all in this together to have fun. If things are going wrong, don’t complain. The audience probably doesn’t know. Never apologize for making a mistake. The audience probably didn’t notice. But above all, don’t be a shoegazer. Also, if you’re telling jokes or talking politics, know your audience. Both can burn bridges as quickly as they can build them.
• Power Levels: Many clubs, especially small rooms that don’t typically feature national touring acts, have poor stage wiring or use fluorescent lighting. Both can produce buzzing, and the former can cause your rig to sound awful, browning down your amp and interfering with the efficiency of your pedalboard. To keep your tone consistent and your rig firing on all cylinders it’s good to invest in a power conditioner. Efficient units start at under $100, which isn’t a gigantic investment.
• Attire: No matter how often you hear the argument that the music is the only thing that matters, appearances matter, too. If you’re courting labels, mangers or booking agents, or just want to have more audience appeal, dress like a band. Devo is an extreme example, but having a decisive style of dress — jackets or just long sleeves shirts; Doc Martens and t-shirts: flannel and Doc Martens; eyeliner and black; whatever — helps make a band look like an appealing cohesive unit. And how you dress is interpreted as a direct reflection of who you are as an artist.
• Impedance Issues: Electrical impedance is important to the performance and health of your gear. If you plug your 8-ohm rated amp output into a four-ohm rated cabinet, that cabinet’s speaker is likely to die an early death. This extends to cables as well. Never use a guitar cord to power up a speaker cabinet. Something’s gonna give. You might be able to get away with this for a gig, but in the long run impedance issues can bring everything to a halt.
• Pedal Board Problems: Pedal boards are often a source of trouble. They bounce around a lot in their cases, so connections become loose, cables get strained, parts can snap off. Pack your pedal board as securely as possible for transport. And periodically go through the board from pedal-to-pedal, tightening input and output jacks and checking wiring. If you’ve got multiple effects loops routed, be sure your switching controller is in prime shape. Just one bad pedal or misrouted loop can bring an amp to silence.