Live at 3. Giengen Gitarrenfestival, Giengen, Germany (Jan 2018) [Photo: Nadir Sakiz]
This article is aimed at two audiences:
1) Musicians who perform, or who want to perform, on stage.
2) People who want to get a glimpse into what it's like preparing and playing a live show.
This post will centre around how I prepare as a musician who primarily plays solo acoustic guitar for my live show, but this is applicable to anyone who performs live. There is always so much more I could go into detail about (e.g. promoting your live show, approaching venues and promoters about performing, etc.) but this will focus on a live performance and what you can do to maximise its impact. Adapt the general approaches here to suit your show!
If you have ever seen me perform live, hopefully you enjoyed it, and hopefully you noticed that I've put a lot of work into my live show. Playing a live show involves so much more work than many people might assume. I always remind myself that my live show is why I'm playing music for a living - I am playing music I have written and putting it across as I intended it to be heard. When it goes well, it is the best feeling in the world, so I do my best to make it go as smoothly as possible.
Below you'll find everything I can think of that pertains to a good live performance. I have been performing on stage since I was around eight years old, and doing solo shows since age thirteen, so I've got years of experience on stage. There are, however, obstacles I still come across and that I learn to adapt to.
A short way of describing everything I am about to explain in detail is this: Do everything in your power to be in control on the stage, and you will feel confident and positive.
About how to be billed:
This subject alone will probably be an article of mine in its own right at some point. As I often say, the hardest part of what I do is actually explaining what I do. I'm not just 'a guitarist', but calling myself a 'fingerstyle guitarist' also doesn't get the message across to people. Plus, I also do a lot more in my show that isn't strictly fingerstyle (i.e. playing the guitar with my fingers) - I play with a plectrum, I sing, I play percussively on the guitar, and in the near future I plan on bringing the mandolin into my live show. 'Instrumental Guitarist' doesn't capture the energy of my live show. 'One-Man-Band' is a bit too vague, and doesn't get across the idea of the intricacies of what I do on the guitar. What I have found is that calling myself a 'Virtuoso Guitarist' gets the idea across a little bit better, but it is still not the ideal term. I'm still searching for it!
If you have any suggestions I would really love to hear them!
What 'One-Man-Band' sounds like in my head
Setting up the room
- Where can you put up the posters to show people that you are playing there, and to help people coming to your concert to find the room you're performing in?
- Where can you sell your CDs and other merchandise?
- Is there a way to get out to where people will be when they are leaving?
- Does the lighting in the room and on the stage look good, and will it look good in photos and videos?
- What's the ambience like in the room? Is there background music on when people are arriving that creates an atmosphere? If there isn't, bring an iPod (or something similar) that you can play some Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli from, their music works so well to create a nice atmosphere in a room.
Setting up the stage
Your goal during your soundcheck is getting comfortable on-stage. If you don't feel comfortable both with the sound and with the layout, you won't be happy during your performance. There is nothing that will throw you off more than if things aren't laid out in an easy and accessible way on the stage.
For me, I make sure that:
- I have enough room to move around the stage (not just standing in one position)
- I can see and access my pedals easily, and that I can see them clearly when I'm talking on the mic (particularly the tuner pedal)
- I have my monitors set up to the left and to the right so that I can hear myself well. As much as possible I will also have my acoustic amp behind me, so I'm cocooned in sound.
- I have a little table or area where I can leave things like my towel, some water, my picks and thumbpicks, string-changing tools (in case one breaks!)
- I have a stand on stage for my guitar if I plan to change guitars or instruments during my set
- I can clearly see my setlist
- The stage looks neat, especially from the audience's point of view
The stage plan I use when I'm setting up my live show
Unfortunately, getting your live sound right is not always a straightforward procedure. It is tough to trust someone who doesn't understand your style of music intricately, and it is similarly tough to tell someone what you want if you're not exactly sure yourself. In many cases, if it's just you and your amp, you'll be the only one who can make changes! If you're new to getting a good live sound, a good place to start is to ask yourself this: Does the sound feel good? Does the sound you are hearing make you feel comfortable, and does it sound like 'the sound in your head'? If so, great! If not, think about what the sound in your head is like, and try to explain yourself in very plain language. Does it sound 'empty', or 'honky', or 'flat', or 'harsh', or 'boomy' ? If a professional sound engineer is on the gig, he or she should be able to help you to refine the sound. As a very general rule, when it starts to feel good to you, you're on the right track.
As an aside, a common mistake among solo guitarists is the mistake of looking for a huge "punch-in-the-stomach" bass sound like you would get at a stadium concert - this is usually not the right way to go. What I do is: I find a sound that makes me feel like I don't have to attack the melody notes too hard to make them stand out. From there, I make changes to my Mid-Range EQ and Bass EQ until I'm happy. I look for a live sound that gives me an impact when I hit hard, but is also well-balanced. One thing I am always clear about is that my live show needs volume. I don't need to be deafeningly loud, but I need to be as loud as a three-piece rock band if I want the music to have the impact it needs to have.
General sound tips (as they relate to solo guitar playing)
- If you use a capo on the guitar, you may need to boost the bass EQ slightly.
- If you increase your reverb amount, you'll also need to increase your mid-range EQ, as they will be fighting for the same sonic space.
- Reverb can be your best friend and your worst enemy. Not enough reverb or no reverb will make your playing sound un-fluid. Too much reverb means your sound gets lost. I always use a strong reverb effect when I play, and in some cases I will even use two reverbs at the same time, but I choose the overall amount myself depending on the style of tune or song I am playing.
A note about using reverb:
Reverb should serve two purposes:
- Reverb should fluidify your sound
- Reverb should create the correct atmosphere for your piece of music.
When we listen to an instrument acoustically, we are actually hearing some reverb from the body of the instrument, and also the sound of the instrument reacting to the acoustics of the room we are in. Hearing an instrument pickup (undersaddle/piezo/transducer/etc..) going directly into a PA system or an amplifier totally takes all of that natural reverb away, and we are left with a very harsh, clinical sound. We get some of that back when we use a reverb effect, especially if it's possible to EQ the reverb to focus on the mid-range of the instrument. On the other hand, this lack of reverb can be a good thing too. Reverb is the enemy of funk. If you want to play something funky on the guitar, choose a sharp, short reverb so as not to lose the 'pop' that funk music needs.
Choosing a set that will make you interesting and varied to the audience. Take a look at my setlist below. It isn't just the names of each tune, and when I'm going to play them. I write down things I need to remember to say, stories I tell, jokes, etc. Your setlist is a reference list. It's like a security net in case something happens on stage that throws you off. A lot of younger fingerstyle guitar players fall into the trap of 'not picking a setlist', imitating the practise of Tommy Emmanuel. The difference of course is that Tommy has nearly sixty years of experience performing, and has a strong following of fans who often know his entire catalogue of music. He has his live show down to a fine art. Your performances will probably not be anything like this! Starting off, you will probably play in pubs, clubs, at functions, at variety shows, and at small festivals. More importantly than all of that, the people you will play to will be a mix of family, friends, and people who most likely won't know your music, or anything about you. This is why picking the right setlist, and interacting with your audience - more about that later - is key.
Ideally, a mix of covers and originals (if you have original music) is the best way to go starting out. You want people to hear music they are familiar with, as well as to recognise your talent in interpreting and playing that music. People will also respect the courage it takes to play an original piece of music - don't overlook this! The most common thing I hear when I play to audiences anywhere is either "I really like that piece Marrakech, it's so evocative", and "Which album is Sailing to Shore on?" - people connect with music that moves them. Also, don't overlook the native music of where you are from. I am Irish, and I because I grew up playing Irish traditional music, I like to play pieces in my live set that are either traditional tunes, or Irish-influenced pieces. Global audiences love this because they don't get the chance to hear this music live, whereas we sometimes take the indigenous music of where we are from for granted.
What happens if you burn through your setlist, and you have another 10/15mins to fill? Or, what about if the crowd LOVE you, and want one more tune before you go? Or, what about if the promoter says "We have an act who pulled out, could you do an extra 30 minutes if we give you some extra cash?". For these situations, have a few songs at the end of your list that you are not planning on playing, but that you have practised just in case anything changes. See below where I have three extra tunes on my setlist just in case something happens and I need them!
A sample setlist. Remember, you're the only one reading this! Write down whatever helps you.
Don't eat too much! I used to fall into the trap of doing a soundcheck, going for a burrito or a curry, and then feeling sluggish on stage - duh, of course I did! My body's energy was going to digest the food I had just eaten. Eat something that will give you energy before going on stage, but nothing heavy.
Leaving your belongings somewhere safe
No matter where I am performing, I will always leave my essentials (passport, wallet, phone, etc.) somewhere safe, and/or with someone I trust. Unfortunately, most venues you will play at won't have a dressing room that can be locked, and in a lot of cases if you are travelling solo it is really difficult to trust people unless you know them well. It is really important to be as alert as possible, and in some cases in the past I have brought my things onto the stage with me hidden inside boxes, underneath amps, etc. While the most important priority for me after a show is to get outside and talk to the people who were listening, another important priority is ensuring that my equipment gets packed up and put away safely. In the majority of cases, in my instance, it is not possible for the audience/public to access the stage, but if it is possible to do so I will try to talk to the audience and sell my CDs from a position where I can see my gear on stage.
Preparing your instrument
Making sure your instrument is in good shape for a performance is key. In my case I try to have fresh strings on my guitar, I replace the batteries regularly, I clean the guitar before I go out to play so it doesn't look dirty, and I make sure that I remember to have anything I need for the instrument for a live performance installed or inserted (e.g. a soundhole cover to stop feedback on stage, my guitar strap if I have taken it off, etc.).
Preparing your merchandise
When it comes to merchandise, this depends entirely on the setup of the show. Sometimes, there will be an opportunity to have a desk either outside or inside the concert venue where merchandise can be sold. If you have someone with you who can do this, great! You're on a winner. The desk is also a great place to meet the people who came to hear you perform. If this is not the case, the best approach is to tell people that you're going to be in a certain place after you finish, and ask them to come up to say hello. Bring your CDs and merch with you and sell them from there. Another point here is that you should bring a float of change with you. If you're selling CDs for €15, you should have a stock of €5 notes in your float! There is much more to be said about all this, but in a nutshell you will make a lot of extra money if you are clever about how you sell your CDs.
Look good on stage! Pick out an outfit that makes you look good, brush your teeth, make sure your hair looks good, and make sure that what you're wearing is clean, presentable, and comfortable. Also, be conscious of photos and videos that might be taken. I've often played at gigs where I wasn't expecting a photographer or videographer to be there, and I have ended up using their shots! Even if it's just a phone with a camera, you may end up using some of the photos and videos captured at your performance to promote yourself online.
On the topic of photos and videos, I almost always ask someone to take a video of me to use for my social media channels before each show, and I'll try to specify which part of my set to film too. If I were to upload the same part of 'Marrakech' each time I play, it would get boring for people who follow me online! If I change it up each time, people still see that I am busy performing, but they get to hear more of my repertoire too.
Warming Up & Practising
As much as possible, try to make your warm up on the day of your performance start as early as possible. Getting an hour or two of practise in over the course of a day won't tire your hands out, whereas practising intensely before a gig will do that. While it is always a good idea to play through what you intend on playing on stage, I also think it's important to play things that make you feel good right before you go on stage. Sometimes, I will do something as simple as groove over two chords, or I'll play a Chet Atkins tune I like, or I could just be strumming. If you feel good walking out on the stage, chances are you will play well. I can't stress enough that practising in the lead up to the day of your performance is just as important as practising on the day of your performance. True mastery of both a piece of music and of an instrument comes from repetition. If you regularly practise your live set you will feel multiple benefits; your hands will feel strong, mentally you will feel more confident on stage, and your muscle memory will carry you through to the point where you will spend more time listening to your music while you are performing live, rather than thinking about it!
Before going on stage
The best thing to do before going on stage is to make yourself totally calm. Getting hyped up or excited is probably going to be a disadvantage to you, as it will cause you to play too hard. I try to become as calm and as positive as possible before walking onto the stage, because it helps me to settle into the show as soon as I've started playing. If you feel nervous, the best thing to do once you get onto the stage is to tell people that you feel nervous and that you would like their support! This will get people on your side straight away, as everyone wants to see people perform well on stage, and over time you will relax into the setting of the stage.
Playing on stage
The number one issue that people face when they play live is that they play too hard, and they often don't realise that they are playing harder than normal. When I say 'hard', I mean to say that they use more force than normal when playing their instrument, and thus cause more tension in the hands and arms. It is natural that your adrenaline levels would be higher than normal when going on stage, but this is what makes you react more forcefully to your guitar. If you find this happening, consciously make yourself play lighter, and you should find a big improvement in how your playing feels and sounds. I often find too that when I get excited on stage (or if I get really into the music) I tend to play harder, and I have to consciously pull back to make myself play fluently. I write "PLAY LIGHTLY" on the top of every setlist to remind myself not to play too hard.
In a nutshell, talk to your audience! Have fun with them! Everyone in the room is out for a good time. The more you bring your personality onto the stage, the more people will want to listen to you. I don't feel like I am any different on the stage than I am off the stage. I try to explain what my tunes are about, the feelings they evoke in me, where some of the musical ideas came from, and which influences I'm drawing from. I tell stories about places I have travelled to, experiences I have had, and so on. The point here is that giving people context to the music often helps them to get the point of the music much better. A piece of music on its own can be very evocative, but giving people the vision you have for a piece of music, and then expanding upon with the actual music itself, hits people a lot deeper.
Talking to the crowd in Giengen, DE [Photo: Nadir Sakiz]
Knowing your audience
Another very salient point here is that knowing what audience you are playing to is very important. I am acutely aware that in a lot of cases, I am playing not only to musicians, but to the general public. I am also now at the stage where I am playing to people who have heard me perform several times. In my opinion, my job as a performer is to entertain the people who come to see me, no matter who or what they are. People have different levels of appreciation depending on what their musical background is, and what kind of people they are. I find that musicians will talk to me about my technique, and the chords I choose, where non-musicians will talk to me about how a piece made them feel, or what it reminded them of. Chris Thile put it well when he said that he tries to straddle the musical line between the cerebral response and the visceral response. I am also aware that if I am performing at a festival or venue I have played at in the past, the people listening to me may have seen me perform already, and they won't want to experience the exact same show twice.
If something goes wrong on stage
"I made a mistake!"
"I hit a bum note!"
"I forgot a piece of that tune!"
"I think I lost time there!"
"I forgot the words!"
If any of the above happen, or if anything along the lines of the above happens - that's okay. Chances are, most people in the audience won't recognise that anything has gone wrong, and the ones who do will understand! I always remember that people who come to my shows are on my side - even though I want to do my best for my audience, they also support me and they want me to do well. They are not there to laugh at me if I make a mistake - they are there because they like my music and my show.
On the subject of mistakes, Adam Rafferty wrote an excellent article about mistakes and how you as a performer interpret them vs. how the listener interprets them.
Other things that can go wrong are things such as:
- Getting too warm
- Getting too cold
- Equipment breaking down
- Noise in the background
- Over-eager audience members (to put it nicely!)
- Strings breaking
- Realising you've forgotten one of your tools (capo, picks, etc)
All of these things are things you have to make your own preparations for. In my case, I know that I overheat on stage very easily. I always have a towel and bottles of water on stage to counteract this. I remember at the Freepsum Guitar Festival in Germany, the stage was freezing cold, and the performers were all saying how cold it was - I loved it! It was one of the best performances I ever did, because the climate of the room suited me. Equipment breaking down is unfortunate, and unless something is obvious, the only way is sometimes to do a process of elimination until you find what is wrong, and either change it or remove it from your signal chain. Noise in non-performance venues (most festivals/pubs/etc) is something you have to try to block out. Actually, it's sometimes nice not to have a totally quiet space as it can be a little bit more atmospheric than a silent room. Everything else is a mental game: If you dwell on something that could affect you, it will - so ignore it! Do the best in the situation you're in. If you can change it, change it. If you can't change it, adapt to it.
Thanks from the stage
Write down on your setlist the people who should be thanked at each gig. It is only right, in my view, to publicly appreciate the people who make a concert possible. It is also important to do so because a bad reputation travels very quickly! I always make sure to thank:
- The sound engineer
- The audience
- The promoter
- The crew/staff
- Any other acts
- Anyone who helped me that day, in any capacity
After the show
In many ways, to me, the period after the show is just as important as the stage show. After I finish on stage, I make an effort to get out to where the crowd is, and to speak to as many people as I can! Show the people who came and listened to you perform that you appreciate their support. I like making people who come to my shows feel like they are part of my journey as a musician, because that is the truth! The reason I can continue to do what I do is because people spend their time and their money listening to me, coming to see me perform live, and purchasing my music.
- If you are playing in a venue, town, or area, where you will be playing again, make sure to announce that date from the stage, and if possible have tickets there ready to buy on the night. People will be on a high if you give a good performance, and if they want to see you again, when better to sell them tickets than immediately after they have just seen you?
Personally thank the people who made the gig happen
Seek out the sound engineer, the promoter, the venue staff, and anyone else who helped to put everything together, and thank them in person. I have often found, especially in restaurant/café/background music gigs, that it's not the guests who will talk you up to the booking agent, but the staff. If the staff are on your side and like what you do, you will be asked back. At a bigger level, if you treat venue staff with respect, you will be shown respect and you will be asked to play there again.
If your gig goes badly
Sometimes, a gig can go totally pear-shaped. This can be our own fault, or it can be through no fault of our own. If you feel like what made your gig bad was your own fault, don't dwell on it! Identify what you were not happy with, and work on it for the next time you play. If it is not your fault, you have to let it slide! What you have to remember, no matter if you've played the best gig or the worst gig or your life, is that there will be more gigs in the future. Blindboy from the Rubberbandits put it well once in a radio interview: "If you cook a bad dinner, you just say 'Ah well, I made a bad dinner, I'll make a better one tomorrow'". Apply this to gigs too. As long as you learn from a bad gig, it's just a learning curve.
- Your live show is more than likely where you will earn the majority of your income as a performer. People will pay for an experience - so give them one!
- Ninety percent of your live show should be planned, practised, and polished before your gig happens; the other ten percent is getting into the right mind-frame on the day.
- If anything that could affect your performance happens on stage, don't let it get to you. Adapt to it, and keep going.
- If you settle into the groove of being on stage, and you enjoy yourself, the audience will enjoy you. People love seeing other people doing what they love to do!
- Meet the people who listened to you as much as possible.
- Always remember why you are performing live. You are performing live because you love what you do. 'Taking the easy way out' at a gig (e.g. "I won't bother bringing my amp, I'll just go directly in") is where things start to go downhill. Don't fall into that trap. Love what you do and work hard at it!
Loving what I'm doing. Giengen DE, January 2018 [Photo: Nadir Sakiz]