“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you are reading this, it is likely that you play music at some level. Maybe you’re a solo performer, maybe you’re in a band, or used to be in a band, or maybe you are practicing hard and hope someday to perform for a live audience..
There are few things more satisfying than playing music for real, live listeners, or for some of us, more terrifying – at least at first. Who knows what motivates anyone to shed the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to get a song to performance level; but It must serve some kind of evolutionary purpose. The drive to write or to master a piece of music can seem sometimes like an instinctual, primal expression of freedom, and at other times like a lifetime jail sentence, complete with recurring torture sessions.
But we do it anyway, millions of us, day after day, night after night seeking some kind of reward.
The intent of this post is to discuss the elements of guitar performance that aren’t always considered when you are focused purely on the music itself: the stuff around the edges, the afterthoughts and the stuff we always wish we would have thought about harder before taking the stage.
The Reason I Mention It
It’s funny how major decisions just kind of happen on their own sometimes without much real thought.
On a recent, lazy Sunday afternoon I was hanging around the house watching baseball. Out of the blue, I suddenly decided that it was time to get back into a band. It had been more than two years. It was great having weekends off, and having time to write my books, do the blog, teach guitar and do some other things, but it was just time to get out and play live again.
The crazy thing is that, the very next day, there came a phone call from the singer in an old band. He had never stopped gigging but things had changed, and he was was forming a new band. They needed a guitarist.
It was one of those coincidences that you swear, somehow was no coincidence. Call it synchronicity, serendipity, psychic causality, spooky action at a distance, whatever you call it, it felt right. I told myself I was ready, but was I?
In a day or two from getting the call we were off to the races. There were about forty cover songs to learn or, at least, relearn. The first gig was only a month away and lazy practice habits over the past three years of being mostly “gigless” had left me rusty and uncertain about performance details once taken for granted.
Lazy isn’t really the best word. I had been playing and teaching and writing all the while, but practicing takes on a whole new meaning when you know you’ve got to get up on stage in a few weeks time, in front of real people, and deliver the songs. Whether you are an experienced musician who has been in many bands or you are just starting out in your very first band, you may find you have to radically change the way you think about practice once you commit to performing a real gig. Once you say yes to a band, everything changes. The word “practice” seems a lot more like “work”, and you are suddenly a nervous kid again just starting out, and questioning all of your experience and abilities.
“You can’t hire someone to practice for you.” H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
When you are just playing for pure pleasure, you can spend your time, noodling around, learning fun riffs, parts of songs, running scales, practice sight reading, and not worrying too much about whether or not you are really nailing that fast part, memorizing the chord progression, or grasping the overall song structure. (Has anyone seen the bridge?)
When you are practicing to reach performance level, you are carrying a much heavier load. There are other people counting on you knowing your part perfectly: your band, for one, the audience for another. In this case, the band consists of four members: a lead singer: a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. If we count the the singer’s tambourine, we can call it a four piece.
Being the only guitarist in a classic rock cover band, and without a keyboard player poses some real challenges. There is no place to hide. You are the rhythm and lead guitar at once: not much room for error, sloppiness, or indecision in this band. Luckily, I’ve been in several previous bands with the same scarce lineup.
With these things in mind, I started to think about how to approach preparing and practicing. Now, with two gigs under our belts, I can look back and share some of the things I had to re-think through this time around. Hopefully it can be of help to you if you’re just starting out, auditioning, or thinking of starting a band of your own.
“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde
Here is a list of things I found myself paying the most attention to once I committed to the job in the band.
1. Solos (To copy or not to copy)
You have several options when it comes to the guitar solos, you can play the solo note for note, improvise your own solo, play parts of it note for note, or simply try to play something like the recording.
I have a thing about learning the exact guitar solo from the original recording. If you are in an original band this is not a factor (you’ve got to invent them) but if you are in a cover band it is a big decision.
Over the years, I have settled on an approach that seems to work pretty well. I always attempt to learn and play solos note for note. I see it as a challenge: as a way of proving to myself that I can copy the solo note for note. In other words, that I’m good enough to figure it out and nail it! If something is just too difficult to learn in time for a gig (or if it is simply too long and hard to memorize in time) I will improvise something else in the meantime while I continue to work on the recorded solo. Once I have it down, I will start playing it on the gigs.
If you choose to improvise your own solo, be sure to pay close attention to the chord progression and bass line that’s happening during the solo – not just what’s happening on the record, but what your other band members are actually playing. Many times, I have worked out a key-chord-scale strategy for the solo section using the recording only to discover that the band is not playing the exact chords behind the solo that are on the recording. When in doubt, just ask the other members to walk you through exactly what they are playing. This is just as critical when you are copying the recorded solo, so it’s best not to take anything for granted.
2. Chords Inside Out
Working out the chords to a song is by far the most important part of doing a cover song. Don’t take anyone’s word for what the chords should be. The tablature, chords and Youtube videos on the Internet are consistently wrong. Trust your own ears. If you are to the point that you are playing in a band, you are most likely accomplished enough to know when something sounds right or wrong. If there is any question about a chord always go with what your ears are telling you – even if you have the quote “official” sheet music to the song.
It is helpful to play through the song using nothing but chords, even when the actual part in the band is to play a lead line, a fill, or a riff instead. This enables you to get a feel for the overall structure of the song and if you ever forget a lead part, you can at least play the chords and not get totally lost! Knowing the chords from start to finish also comes in really handy if you ever have to do a purely acoustic version of the song because the power goes out !
It’s also a good idea to rehearse the chords to the song using several different voicings. When you can mix and match your voicings using open chords, barre chords, partial chords, inversions, triads and diads, you can really open up a song and take advantage of the different ways of expressing the same harmonic content. Maybe the best reason for this however is that you can keep things interesting for yourself – even in the simplest three chord song.
“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” – Confucius
Being in a band can cost a fortune. There are so many things to consider when it comes to gear. Are your guitars up to snuff? Do you have at least two dependable guitars of professional quality? What about cables, extra strings, capos, picks, guitar stands, gaffers tape, towels, tools, all that stuff. This is not meant to be a checklist, just a way of reminding you not to be caught off guard. Everybody’s list will be different- only you can really know what you need.
Make sure all your gear is up to the task of playing the gigs you will be doing. After committing to this new band I realized that since I was not in a rock band for three years, I had sold a couple electric guitars (times are tough all over) and now had to scramble to re-acquire some of the things I needed to play in the new band.
4. Planning Your Sounds and Effects
One thing that doesn’t receive much attention is the work involved in making sure you have your gear set up to do the kind of switching from song to song, part to part, and sound to sound. Practicing the music is only the first step. The next step is to make sure you have all the required sounds and effects dialed into your gear. In other words, can you go quickly and easily from that clean, chorus sound, to the crunchy rhythm part, to the sustained screaming solo sound and back? When you need to? Every time? Without missing a beat or flubbing a chord because your busy stomping on six different pedals?
The ability to get just the right sound for the part is an art in itself and takes just as much thought as the music does. Over the years, I have gone from keeping it simple (because that’s all I could afford) to having a million effects pedals, and then back to keeping it simple. As usual, simple wins again as far as I’m concerned. The trick for any guitarist in a classic rock cover band is to have three or four (or less) great sounds and stick with them.
Everyone has a different way of doing things. I have settled on the somewhat old school approach of using three preamp settings: clean, crunch, and lead. I loop a few effects and use them sparingly. Sometimes, if it is a song that uses all three sounds, I will use the lead channel for the whole song and just use the volume and tone controls on the guitar to gradually increase the volume and therefore the amount of gain and sustain.
Using the volume and tone controls on the guitar to achieve the desired tone is the way most of the early classic rock guitarist did it anyway. There wasn’t many effects pedals on the market in those days. I have found it only makes sense that if you are trying to accurately copy a part, the best way is to do it the way the original guitarist did it. Use the volume and tone controls on the guitar! Try it- you might just like it, and it will save you a lot of money and frustration.
“Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” – Winston Churchill
Whatever your chosen method, when it comes to effects, be sure to practice the sound switching too. If you’ve got to stomp on a pedal or two , twist a knob, or switch a pickup, it has to be at just the right time or you risk missing a note or a chord. Our first gig this summer was outdoors, and it was so hot, the switch on my wha-wha pedal kept sticking in the on position. It’s the kind that you need to literally stomp on to turn on and of (called a pedal switch). People must have thought I was going crazy if they saw me stomping on the thing the way I did. It must have looked like I was putting out a fire. I kinda was.
The point is, you don’t want the equipment getting in the way of your ability to play the music. Keep things simple and practice the sound and effects changes as if they were just as important as the notes – because they are!
5. Vocal Parts
Lucky for me, I don’t do much singing other than some backups. But just like the effects, you’ve got to practice even the simplest singing parts while playing the guitar part. It’s way too easy (and way too common) to practice your vocals in the car on the way to the gig, thinking you’ve got them down and then find out that it’s impossible to focus on the vocals while you’re playing that tricky guitar riff. Just sayin…
6. Standing Up (Really)
To a non- guitarist, this one might seem crazy, but I know every single guitar player can relate. Be sure to rehearse all of your songs standing up! That is of course, if you intend to be standing during your performance. It’s amazing how strange it feels to play standing up after doing all your practicing sitting down. Some chords, runs and licks can become downright impossible if you have not practiced them standing up. Trust me. You don’t want this to take you by surprise.
The best thing you can do is to practice every song standing up, the second best thing to do is to practice while sitting down, but position your guitar at the exact same height and angle that it rests at when you are standing.
A guitarist I know (ahem) once had to ask for the keyboard players stool just to play the intro riff to “Long Cool Woman”. He hadn’t practiced it standing up – ever, before hitting the stage to find out that it mattered.
7. Setup and Teardown
Anything you can do to make the setting up and tearing down process easier will pay off big time in the stress avoidance department. My basic strategy is to have as few pieces as possible to carry on and off the stage. Even though you might have a million items, try to consolidate as much as possible into as few cases as possible. You don’t want to be going back and forth from the truck with a bunch of miscellaneous stuff falling out of your arms. You’re gonna be tired after a four hour gig. Save yourself time, trouble and trips by investing in some strong road cases and gig bags that minimize the back and forth. As a general rule, the more wheels, and the more stackable, the better.
There is so much more to think about when it comes to preparing yourself to play a live gig, but I have tried to focus on the most important things – in my experience anyway. The important thing is that you get out there and do it. Go make music. Do it your way. You’ll make mistakes. There will be good days and bad days. You might feel like quitting sometimes. Don’t worry. Just do the gigs, go home, practice, then go out and do it again. The rewards will surely come, and they will be indescribable.
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – Francis of Assisi
I hope this post was useful, or at least interesting. Drop me a line if you have any further tips, tricks, suggestions or comments.