Preparing for a concert the right way
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.
Tip! 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.).