From the Basement to the Stage
By Dave Eichenberger
Oh, sure, you practice for several hours a day. You transcribe those complex double-handed solos in your head while your boss is yelling at you to answer the phone. You left hand taps on the steering wheel in perfect ⅝ time while the left hand is firmly in ⅞. You have a Les Paul, Tele and Strat, and know how to get the best tones out of them. Your YouTube channel has half-a-million hits. Everyone tells you that you are a great player, but they haven’t heard half of what you can do. Are you ready for the stage? Maybe, maybe not. There are important skills that a performing guitarist must have to be successful, or you might as well stay in your basement. Here are some tips that will help you ascend that staircase, and see the first rays of light through a crack in the door.
First, the Music Stuff
Of course, you should be able to play your songs (original or cover songs) properly without thinking about every single note, because there will be too many distractions to concentrate on everything with the intensity you do in the basement. This isn’t just for you virtuoso-types, either. Even a punk band that rarely uses chords with a major 3rd should know the music and the lyrics well, without having to read them (unless, you just joined the band or are subbing for someone else). Know exactly where you stomp on that chorus pedal, and practice the pedal tap dance we all do, as it is more difficult to do that in front of a crowd than it is at home. Sight lines to cue the drummer and bassist aren’t as clear onstage either, so figure out how you can set up to see each other if you have to cue off of other players. Also, protect your hearing! This isn’t a joke, either. Stage volumes are usually much, much louder than any band practices. Hearing damage is real, and it doesn’t repair itself like a scratch on your arm. Even cheap earplugs in your pocket is better insurance than nothing. Many times (especially on multi-band gigs) there isn’t a soundcheck at all, and it isn’t like most places have an actual qualified soundperson on staff with enough time to get each band dialed in. Trust that it will be loud.
Be a Diplomat
Playing live means it takes work to actually get the gig. You have to be able to use the phone, email or social media to actually get the gig. But the days of dropping off demo tapes has been over for a decade. You get most gigs these days by old fashioned networking. Get to know a more popular band in the area, or someone who works at a local club. Personal connections are how most of the world works together these days. It is no different in music. From getting that first local gig to getting to play the EnormoDome in your town, it is generally about who you know. Work on your people skills, as this is no time to be a brooding artist. Smile, help people out, know the people who work in the local music stores, go see bands in town and be brave enough to introduce yourself to them.
These skills also come in handy when dealing with other bands, or conflicts between your own band members. Step up and be a leader now, and you will have more control over your musical life. This might be hard for an introverted musician like I am, but I had to work through it, or else I’d still be in my basement.
Things can and will go wrong at gigs. From amps blowing up, a bassist saying he couldn’t make the gig when you are already set up, to getting double booked (all of which has happened to me), you gotta make it right. When you get ready to play and you have no sound, and then stare down at your monster pedalboard with 13 patch cables realizing it could be any one of them (or something else entirely). You might not be able to fix the immediate problem (like dragging that bassist out of bed), but you can think quickly, and do it with a smile. Stressed people freak out everyone around them, and don’t make your problem anyone else’s. Do what you have to do to get through the gig, and deal with it later. It is just one gig, and it doesn’t define your entire musical life, though it feels like it at the time. Isolate the problem, come up with a good solution, and leave everyone around thinking better of you before the problem arose. In other words, be an adult about it. Problems will happen, with gear and with people, but get and keep the show going, and people will remember it.
Be a Customer Service Agent
Though I never go out into the crowd and ask how it sounded (unless they are a really close friend I trust), you have to make some face time with fans and the person who booked you, as much as I hate that term. I would honestly love to hide backstage the whole time, but honestly, people love that personal connection. Maybe it will help more CDs, and maybe it will translate into a new booking, but until we are big enough stars, we can’t afford to hide.
We’ll also have to get our own band motivated if we are playing a less-than stellar gig. We might have to calm down a spouse or partner who sees their husband talking to people at the merchandise table. We will have to be accommodating when another band treats you or your band badly at the show (although don’t be a floor mat).
Be a Multi-Tasker
The more we do, the less we can rely on someone else. Get your video editing and graphic design chops up. Learn how to use a camera. Have a band Twitter, Instagram or Facebook account? Most attention spans are tiny these days so you have keep feeding the feed all of the time. Learn how to build a website, and keep it current. A Facebook band page isn’t a substitute (remember MySpace?). Stay on top of new technologies. This isn’t much different than having any other business, though. The idea is to pay less for others to do this work that you can learn to do yourself. The more you do this in your band, the more valuable you become to the band.
But I Just Want to Play Music
Good news here is, you totally can! But that means that someone else will take care of that, and you lose an opportunity to learn new skills, all of which will come in handy at some point in your life. Running a band is as difficult as running any kind of business, with the added skills of learning to play guitar. I learned these skills as I needed them: when someone asked me for a card, I realized I had to learn how to design business cards and get them printed. When Facebook doesn’t allow me to design my own band page, I had to learn how to do it, so I can add things Facebook won’t let me. You can just play music, but why just excel at one thing? That’s no fun.
Have you ever had a terrible gig? What went wrong, and how did you solve it?Learn how to build a website, and keep it current.