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How to Play a Solo Concert: Advice for Guitarists

Solo guitar concerts are a mesmerizing display of musical prowess and intimate connection between the performer and the audience. Whether you're a seasoned guitarist or just stepping onto the stage solo for the first time, crafting an engaging setlist is paramount to a successful performance. In this guide, we delve into the intricacies of selecting music, balancing styles, reading the room, and ensuring a memorable experience for both performer and listener.

Setting the Stage

Preparing beforehand is paramount for a successful solo guitar concert, as it sets the foundation for a polished and confident performance. The time invested in preparation not only ensures technical proficiency but also allows for creative exploration and emotional connection with the music. By investing time and effort into thorough preparation, a guitarist can approach a solo concert with confidence, creativity, and readiness to deliver a captivating musical experience. From mastering the intricacies of each piece to cultivating a resilient mindset, the journey of preparation is integral to the artistry and success of a solo performance. Here are some essential ways a guitarist can prepare for a solo concert:

1. Selecting Arranged Guitar Music vs. Improvised Standards

The first step in crafting your solo guitar concert is deciding between arranged pieces and improvised standards. Arranged guitar music offers a structured foundation, allowing you to showcase your technical proficiency and interpretation skills. Pieces like classical guitar arrangements of popular tunes or jazz standards adapted for solo guitar provide a solid framework for your performance. However, you may find that it takes extra practice time to learn the arrangements. It also gives you less wiggle room for making changes to the setlist on the fly. I like to use a handful of arranged pieces in my concert repertoire while the majority I perform from familiar jazz standards.

This choice depends on the type of guitarist and what kind of experience they have. While improvising standards allows for spontaneity and personal expression, it can be difficult for players who are not experienced in this type of playing.  Practicing improvised solo guitar at home can help improve your improvisational skills and musical intuition. Jazz standards, blues progressions, or even pop songs can serve as the canvas for your improvisational exploration. This is a difficult approach in the beginning but it pays off when you are able to perform a larger repertoire without needing to practice arrangements beforehand.

2. Finding Balance Between Styles, Tempos, and Keys

A diverse repertoire keeps your audience engaged and showcases your versatility as a guitarist. Balance fast-paced jazz tunes with soulful ballads, intricate arrangements or compositions with catchy pop melodies. Varying tempos and keys adds depth and dimension to your performance, preventing monotony and keeping listeners enthralled. Although I am a jazz guitarist primarily, I try to incorporate a variety of genres, styles, keys, and tempos.

Set-up a blank template setlist for your performance and choose songs by style. For example, I might start with an uptempo bluesy song to get the mood going, then shift to a minor key latin song at a medium tempo. I make sure that they are in different keys. Then, I might play a familiar pop song that the audience can connect with. I would end with a romantic sounding ballad. After planning the setlist like this, I will choose appropriate songs that could fit these descriptions. Think of your repertoire in broad categories: How many of your tunes are ballads? How many are popular numbers? Do you play in the same key too often? Transitioning seamlessly between styles creates a dynamic and cohesive musical journey for your audience.

3. Choosing Songs with Simple Melodies

While technical virtuosity is impressive, simplicity can be equally captivating. Select songs with simple, memorable melodies that resonate with your audience. These songs not only showcase your ability to convey emotion and musicality but also make it easier to craft compelling arrangements for solo guitar. I specifically recommend playing songs with melodies that contain mostly quarter and half notes. This is because busy eighth note lines will be troublesome to harmonize with chords on a solo guitar concert. 

As a solo performer, you are faced with a difficult task. You do not have other musicians to rely on, so playing some simpler melodies will make things easier. Consider folk tunes, pop ballads, or traditional melodies that evoke nostalgia and familiarity. Focusing on highlighting the beauty of the melody through your interpretation and expression. It suits the nature of a solo performance.

4. Embracing Harmonic Complexity: More Chords, More Possibilities

Contrary to intuition, songs with more chords can actually enhance your ability to create captivating arrangements. Embrace the complexity of chord progressions, utilizing inversions, substitutions, and embellishments to enrich your performance. As a solo performer, you can go wild with reharmonizations and chord voicings. You don’t need to worry about letting the other band members know. You have the license to explore the harmonies.

Songs with many chords can actually be easier for solo performances because they lead you through the performance. A song with only 3 chords will get dull quickly and be tricky to make interesting as a solo performer. Explore jazz standards with intricate chord changes or contemporary pop songs with lush harmonies. These songs provide a fertile ground for creative expression, allowing you to weave intricate tapestries of sound with your guitar. Lush sounding chords with simple melodies may be the way to go for solo jazz guitar performances.

5. Choosing Familiar Songs

While complexity has its place, it's essential to strike a balance between challenging arrangements and audience accessibility. Choose songs that people are familiar with, whether it's a timeless classic or a chart-topping hit. Familiarity breeds connection, drawing your audience into the emotional tapestry of your performance. Avoid songs that are overly complex or esoteric, risking alienating your audience. Opt for melodies that resonate universally, transcending musical boundaries and fostering a sense of shared experience.

As a solo performer, you may find that even songs with vastly different styles tend to gel together. The tone of your solo guitar will be similar throughout the setlist. So, we can alleviate this problem by stretching into wildly different styles and keys. Variety is the name of the game.

6. Reading the Room and Adapting Accordingly

The ability to read the atmosphere of the room is a crucial skill for any performer. Pay attention to the energy and mood of your audience, adjusting your setlist accordingly. If the crowd is lively and energetic, lean into upbeat tunes and spirited improvisations. For a more intimate setting, opt for soulful ballads and introspective melodies.

You may want to prepare some alternative songs for your setlist. This way you can swap out songs on the fly. Nobody wants to listen to a heartbreaking ballad on their birthday party night. Engage with your audience, inviting them on a musical journey that resonates with their emotions and experiences. Flexibility is key—be prepared to pivot and adapt to the ever-shifting dynamics of live performance. A little bit of extra preparation can go a long way.

7. Enjoying Yourself and Conveying Positivity

Above all, remember to enjoy yourself on stage. Your passion and enthusiasm are infectious, creating a positive atmosphere that permeates throughout the venue. Channel your love for music into your performance, allowing it to shine through every note and chord. Connect with your audience on a personal level, sharing stories and anecdotes that enrich the musical experience. Embrace imperfection, reveling in the spontaneity and authenticity of live performance.

The most important thing you can do is to convey authentic emotion. Although the above advice will help you improve your performances, at the end of the day, it is authenticity that counts. Don’t go through the motions thoughtlessly. Don’t zone in to the arrangements and forget the emotional character of the songs. Your job is to create the vibe of the room and you do that through expressing yourself.

Get Out There and Perform!

The journey of preparing for a solo guitar concert is not merely about mastering the technical aspects of performance, but also about cultivating a deep connection with the music and the audience. It's a process that requires dedication, discipline, and a willingness to explore the boundless possibilities of musical expression. By carefully selecting repertoire, balancing styles and dynamics, and honing their craft through diligent rehearsal, guitarists can create an immersive and unforgettable experience for both themselves and their audience.

Ultimately, the solo guitar concert is a celebration of the intimate connection between performer and listener, a shared journey of emotions, memories, and moments suspended in time. Through meticulous preparation and heartfelt performance, guitarists have the power to transcend barriers, evoke emotions, and create lasting memories that resonate long after the final note has sounded.


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