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Preparing for Your First Ever Gig

You’ve been playing with your first band for a while now, and your great aunt Phyllis’ friend’s cat is having a birthday party. They want a band and your group is the perfect fit! Joking aside, gigs can happen anywhere and everywhere - you should always be prepared. This blog post is going to help you prepare for a gig that is approaching, or ensure you are ready for when you get that chance. 


Please bear in mind that this is advice for your first ever gig as a band!



Setlist/Arrangements

As tempting as it is to throw caution to the wind and for each band member to suggest a song they want to learn. You all may well learn it, though you must be careful and set some ground rules - this is something that should be done as soon as possible after you have started playing together.


If you are playing covers, what style are you going to play? I love Britney Spears as much as the next person, but you would play ‘Toxic’ if the rest of your set are covers of songs by Periphery. Decide on a theme, and work with it rather than choosing styles at random. If you really want to play that Britney song, then maybe you could do a version that fits with the rest of your music.


Other points to consider would be:


  • Arrangements of songs that are too long or too short. Only certain bands can pull off a 20 minute long conceptual epic, you may wish to shorten your version to retain the attention of whoever is watching you. If a song is too short, maybe repeat a verse or add a solo section?

  • A point taken from this blog post on learning songs - can you play the song with the band members you have? Maybe you will have to combine some guitar parts or use a pedal for harmonies.

  • How are you going to start or finish a song? Some songs have a ‘lazy fadeout’ and you would benefit from deciding on an actual end to the song.

  • How long is your set? Find out this information ahead of time, be prepared to remove songs whilst performing, or keeping one in reserve to add in if you need to.

  • If you have a long set time, you might want to think about saving the high-energy songs for last; every set should have a climax. However, you don’t want to start weakly, so save the slower numbers for the middle of your set.


Transitions 

I was toying with the idea of putting this in the previous section, but I think it warrants having a place all of its own. 


Transitioning between songs is something that a good band does well, but a great band does brilliantly. This is where you can talk to the crowd, introduce the next song or anything else that comes up. Having songs that move seamlessly into the next is a slick move that can give you the edge and make it really seem like you know what you are doing. 


Knowing instinctively how to do this is something that comes with practice, and I have witnessed a case where a promising band succumbed to inexperience in a crushing way. In the final stages of a competition to play at a big festival in the UK, a band thought they would impress the judges by packing their 20 minute set with as much original material as they could. Whilst technically impressive, they sacrificed the quality of their stage show and came across as self-indulgent. They missed out on their big chance to play in front of more than 20,000 people!


Band Etiquette

There is no such thing as being ‘fashionably late’, or being so ‘rock and roll’ that you can do whatever you want. Arrive early, preferably before you are supposed to be there, at least plan it that way. 


Introduce yourself to everyone, all of the other bands and especially the crew! The sound engineer is the one who will be ensuring your band sounds great - he is going to be your best friend for the whole night!


It also goes without saying, but watch all of the bands and stay until the end of the night if you can. An excuse like “I’m sleepy, I am going home” will quickly earn you a reputation. At smaller, local shows, it is quite common for a band to bring lots of friends to watch them play and then they all leave before the night is over - the room empties and it is plainly rude. You will also never be asked to play again.


You should also think about:

  • Plan the most efficient way of setting your gear up, work as a team if you need to. Though I have always found it easier to focus on your own gear, and the rest of the band on their own - this also involves finding out what gear is available at the venue and planning accordingly,

  • Having a full guitar stack is cool, playing with one on a big stage is magical. Chances are you don’t really need it though, and it is hard to justify the logistical nightmare and sheer size of the thing for a small show, 

  • Don’t linger in the way of the stage when you are not waiting to go on, no one likes it when someone is in the way and show time is fast approaching.


Stage Show

People listen with their eyes. If you don’t look good on stage, then it will be harder to get people to appreciate the sounds you are producing. Perform as a band of your style would be expected, and don’t be afraid to add a twist if you need to. 


The main thing is to avoid being a statue, and smile if appropriate. Though I think it’s more appropriate for someone’s face to convey the emotion found in the song they are playing. If you are playing a thrash metal song about political oppression and war, don’t perform with a beaming smile on your face - it is common sense! 


There is a common phrase, which is “the worse the note smells, the better it sounds”. This refers to the face a guitarist pulls when they are ‘in the zone’ and playing something that really resonates with them. I do, however, hate it when people play on this too much - overacting if you will. If you can’t do it naturally, at least make it look natural. 


One final point on this topic is that it is a good idea to try and coordinate your band aesthetic and this should come before anyone's personal style choices - if the band should wear dark colors, don’t let your bass player wear a neon green tracksuit!


Tone

Referencing my previous blog post that prepares you for playing with the band for the first time, you must pay heed to the requirements of the scenario and how to shape your tone for that situation. Many metal guitarists could do with rolling off the gain, and in doing this you may identify areas of your technique that need improving.


Setting the EQ controls on your amplifier may seem simple, but it is a skill in itself to understand how those controls react on your amplifier or pedal. Again, this is a skill that will require some trial and error; real world experience is often the best teacher. If you have a large ensemble then try setting up for a sound that cuts through easily by shaving away those low-end frequencies. 


The size, shape and capacity of the venue can also play havoc with your ambient effects. Reverb is essentially a large number of delayed, individual signals reaching someone's ears at a different time - these signals can be reflected and distorted, all of which results in a three-dimensional mental image of space. This happens in the natural world (hence terms like ‘cave’ and ‘hall’), and is often emulated by effects pedals. Although, if you are playing in a big venue and use that big reverb sound, it all compounds together and you will sound washed out. On the opposite end of the scale, you may wish to increase the mix level on the effect slightly. 


Playing without any ambient effects at all sounds stale, and unnatural - try and avoid this if you can!




My Pet Peeves

One thing I hate is people saying “thank you” over the microphone before any of the crowd has cleared, clapped or shown appreciation in some way. To me it comes across as arrogant, almost like the artist is expecting admiration for simply existing. As a performer, you are there for the audience, regardless of how many of them there are or who they are. As much as I love performing, and I’m sure you will too, it is nothing without having someone there to play for. 


I was once told to treat every show like I was headlining Wembley Arena (the most famous arena in the UK with a capacity of 90,000). I always try to live by this, and encourage my students too, providing that it is appropriate. So many times I have seen a crowd consisting of one person, and the band have simply stopped caring at this point - the onus is on you to give that person the best show of their lives!


Some songs have famous guitar solos, and  it is immediately noticeable by the average person if you don’t play it correctly. Whilst you may have the skill to improvise over the changes for ‘Sweet Child o Mine’, you really shouldn’t. On the other hand, many blues and rock songs have an improvised solo anyway, so it is inherently encouraged to do something of your own creation in that place. 


Finally, to further reiterate a point I made earlier, don’t over act whilst you are performing. It is cringeworthy, and off putting to almost everyone!


Putting It All Together

The main thing to take away from this is that you are going to be starting from scratch, and therefore bound to make some mistakes. This is normal, and you will learn most effectively from making these mistakes and learning how to subvert them in the future. 


The experience from performing live also helps you deal with issues you come across nowhere else. If you break a string in a rehearsal you simply stop and fix it, this is not something you can really do at a gig. I once played a show where the bass drum moved forward every time it was played, and the only solution was to hold it still with my foot until the sound engineer found a way to secure it - there is no book that teaches you how to deal with this!


If you can prepare yourselves appropriately, then all that remains is to have fun! 


Alex

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