“These days guitarists don’t do gigs anymore, they just sit at home playing over backing tracks, do a million takes, edit a perfect take together and present an image on Youtube of this amazing musician when in reality its all fake”
I didn’t actually say this but its the kind of thing I hear all the time. “Nobody does gigs anymore. What is the point: That’s what we have Youtube for!”; Is another typical thing I hear all the time.
Personally, I think that to consider myself a proper musician I need to play live. However the reality is that playing live is scary and it takes practise. Playing “virtuoso” instrumental guitar is VERY scary and I have found that it takes a LOT of practise. No, I don’t mean a lot of practise at home (although that helps!) I mean, a lot of practise playing Live.
B3 Guitar Gig
I have written a whole album worth of instrumental music that combines Piano Orchestra and Guitar over weird time signatures.This song caught the attention of a few amazing players: Paul Bielatowicz (Carl Palmer, Neal Morse) and Dave Bainbridge (IONA). So we organised a gig.
The video impressed them but they had no idea if I could play it live. This is the problem with bedroom players…promoters, agents and other musicians wonder: “Will they be able to play it live? or is their youtube persona/recording a completely engineered fake?”
As we played our respective sets one thing became clear: all the amazing guitar that I could play at perfectly at home was starting to fall apart live. I watched Paul flawlessly execute some of the hardest pieces of the classical repertoire (Paganini, Debussy, Bach etc) all with a smile on his face. This was followed by Dave Bainbridge who’s set sounded as huge and epic at it does on his albums.
I couldn’t understand it: I’ve played 1000’s of gigs including cover gigs, gigs in various rock bands etc but I felt I played really badly. This was only my second or third gig playing my instrumental music, but I could play it perfectly at home. What was going wrong?
This is what I realised: Paul tours the world playing impossible music with Carl Palmer, Dave Bainbridge has been playing his songs to adoring fans for over 20 years. These guys have a LOT MORE LIVE PRACTISE than I do. I realised that there is a massive difference to playing rock gigs in a band and playing instrumental music, where the focus is on every single note you play. I also realised, to my surprise, that I made more mistakes on simple melodies than the fast runs. Frankly this more than puzzled me, it downright made me angry!
It was time to make some changes. Here are some of the steps I took:
Get control of your Live sound.
I have realised that at the gig I was distracted by the fact that I wasn’t happy with my tone on stage. For me if my guitar sounds bad, I find it very difficult to play properly. On the night, what was coming back through the monitors just sounded terrible. At home it sounded great. What had changed? Lots of things: a bigger room meant I needed a bit more delay/reverb to fill out the sound. My sound was just all over the place. Playing at a louder volume made a big difference too. When I’d played covers or standard rock stuff, it was easier to hide in the band mix; here I was exposed: I knew it and it showed!
I don’t have a dedicated sound engineer and I don’t play arenas where its all taken care of for you. I play mainly small to medium clubs where you never know what or who you are going to get!
I didn’t need better gear or a bigger amp (30watts is more than enough) I needed consistency. Dave Bainbridge managed to get sounds just like on record. How did he do this? He brings his own monitors/miniPA system. Simple but clever! So rather than but more guitar gear: I invested in some Line 6 L3T monitors. I now know that what ever the sound is like out front, at least my sound on stage is going to be how I like it. And hear is the crucial thing: I can practise at home with my monitors and adjust the EQ and everything so that when I’m live I know exactly what I’m working with.
Rather than relying on micing and the sound engineers mix (I’m not having a go at sound engineers here!) I got a digital load box for my amp so I can send my exact sound to the desk and my band mates. This means I don’t have to worry about micing and feed back etc! I bought a Two Notes Torpedo Live.
This solution may be over the top for your requirements but the principle is this: if your sound is important to you, you need to get as much control over it as you can. Your guitar tone is your voice, you have to look after it!!!
Practise for a “Can’t fail approach”
Why is it that I was making mistakes on the easy melodies that I had played a thousand times at home? I was mystified!
I was at a Jon Gomm masterclass (acoustic guitar virtuoso) and I asked him how he practises to play such complex music live. He says that he slows it down to a point where it is so slow “that he can play every note with his eyes closed with enough time think about exactly what note it is, the fret and string number, and what finger he is using”. This means practising SUPER SLOW and not speeding it up until you can play it perfectly. Most of us practise at a speed that is a few clicks slower than we can comfortably manage: this approach to live practise was very radical for me. It takes a lot of patience but it works.
Video your gigs, video your dry runs! No matter how much you think you are jumping about, you probably aren’t doing as much as you think. Its brutal, but watching back your live videos is THE WAY to improve your performance. I used to never watch live videos back because it can spoil the memory of a great gig. So I usually leave it a few days and then get a note book and pen and watch the videos back! Ouch! It hurts but it will make you a better player.
Play standing up!
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I know loads of players who never practise playing while standing and wonder why they can’t execute those big stretches when playing live. Besides, its better for your posture and gives you less back pain in the long run!
Write a proper setlist!
Don’t just write the song order. Include notes on what you are going to say between songs. Write on the key of the songs and any FX patches you might use. Top tip use a fluorescent highlighter pen for the important bits so that it shows up under the stage lights!
Practise your stagecraft patter!
What I mean is, play the songs in the order that you are going to do them. Practise your guitar changes, practise your fx changes etc. Also practise talking to the audience, know what you are going to say: tell people about your song, plug your website, plug your CD, thank the audience and thank the venue and sound crew. You don’t have to be a raging comic extrovert, but you are not in your bedroom now, the audience want to know that they are getting something a bit different at a live gig.
So the audience have gone to the effort of coming out to see you and you bore them by staring at your shoes all night like a bunny in the headlights! Top Tip: Pick three points in the room and look up. Practise looking up on that insane lick that you love and pull the “I can’t believe what my fingers are doing look” . Trust me, practise this at home, it’ll be worth it and the audience will love it! Having said this I have found that people often are more impressed by some thing that looks visually impressive than your hardest lick that you played with your head down! Like my former guitar teacher Iain Scott (at the Guitar Institute) said of one of my exam performances: “Dave has a gift for making simple things look really complicated”. Still makes me laugh today. I’ve made this my mantra when playing live!
If you are going to improvise…
Know what key the solo is in, write it on your set list. Remember a live gig isn’t the time for pulling something new out of the bag that you can only just pull off when practising at home. A gig is not the place to try something way out for the first time! Practise some stock licks, make sure you have a few ready for each solo. Don’t get caught short of inspiration. And if it happens, just smile and don’t turn round and blame the bass player!
Don’t be a tool!
Being polite, not going over your allotted time slot, not being to loud and remembering key peoples names will ensure your gig goes better, and that you get future gigs.
Don’t wait till you are perfect: Just go for it!
Despite everything I’ve written, it will still go wrong! But don’t wait till you are awesome, become awesome by being rubbish live and improving by practising playing live.
Despite my previous advice on soloing: I know, we’ve all that moment when you are playing with great musicians, you are lost in the moment and you go for something insane and it comes off and you can’t believe it. The thing is, if you never try to do gigs you’ve already failed.
Here is the advice that I got before my first gig from Brian Holmes who played 1000’s of gigs in the 60’s (He also gave me my first guitar)…. “If you play badly people will remember your name for a night and then forget you. If you play well people will remember your name for a night and forget you”…so basically have fun, cos gigging is one of the coolest things you’ll ever do!
Last night I played a 60 minute set of my instrumental music, and it was awesome! I’ve done 5 gigs since the B3 gig and refined the performance at each one. Last night I really felt that I was delivering a great performance for the audience for the first time. There are still things to work on, but I know that when I go on the Europe/US tour next year with Dave and Paul that I will be ready to deliver a great performance!
I wrote this blog in 2014, since then I have done 2 tours playing guitar with Dave Bainbridge (IONA) and played many many more gigs of my own album. Although, I still feel pressure and make mistakes, I can really reinforce the main point of this blog: Playing live takes practise, and the more you do, the better you get. I’m definitely much more relaxed and confident (and competent). I’m still learning with each gig…
If you found this helpful or want to share your tips for getting out of the bedroom and playing live, please comment below!
Here are a few more blogs that might help.