There are different kinds of “chops” one can have. Playing by yourself to a click or metronome with your DAW is worlds apart from actually having other musicians in the room and interacting with them. It’s almost but not quite an entirely different skill set. Not that the first set of skills don’t benefit the second: having solid home practice chops are nearly invaluable when playing with others as you’re better prepared walking in the door, but it takes learning – and retaining the ability – to take cues from one another and vibing as a group to become a fully well-rounded musician.
Unfortunately, like home practice chops or any other muscle memory exercise, your band skills can atrophy quicker than you realize if unused. There’s nothing worse than unexpectedly feeling weak as a kitten when you’re used to feeling strong and powerful. Especially at that moment when you realize “Wait, I was playing great at home last night..but oh, wait.. I was sitting down…in my chair…” Not quite the same, is it? The easiest analogy to make is that of a boxer. You can’t be on top of your game, you can even try to stay in shape – but take a few months off from sparing, and rust sets in.
Case in point: I cut my teeth on live work. But before that, I had a great teacher. My childhood mentor, the esteemed Chuck Biel instilled very strong practice ethic in me, but I must admit I’d let a few things slide of late. Not like you’d hear it in any of my SoundCloud links, that’s the opposite of the problem. The problem is, I’ve gotten too comfortable doing that alone. Thanks to learning the ins and outs of fly-out gigs from my time teching for Quiet Riot, I’ve done two gigs where I’ve shown up in a different town and played a previously-agreed to set list without a hitch. With musicians I either hadn’t played with in years, or had just met. No problem, you’re all pros, you play the set, done. But lately I’ve been doing way more home recording of this type (blogging, demos) than gigging, and much to my chagrin, it was starting to show when I attempted to resume preparing for the latter. I recently jammed with a friend in the hopes of doing another live project and found myself feeling much like one imagines a fish out of water would. Not like I was going to die, mind you, just like I might have wanted to. Uncertain, floundering, as if I might lose it at any second. I got through the songs, but what used to be second nature was an effort. A task that it shouldn’t have been. I didn’t like it. At all. Here’s some of the things, had I remember my own training and had DONE them, that would have prevented that:
Practice standing up (!!): This almost can’t be stressed enough. Particularly if you’re a rocker, playing sitting down puts your hands and arms at a completely different angle than playing standing up. Jazz musicians suffer less from this because they wear their straps high, but as far as Rock goes, too high and you’re in danger of having the dreaded guitarmpit. No one save those who like their guitar jammed up into their armpit are into that. Not faulting anyone who prefers the guitar high, but if you don’t – your guitar changes height when you stand more often than not. Practicing standing puts your hands in the correct position for whatever desired coolness length you have set your strap at – within reason of course. If your wear your guitar down around your knees you’re pretty much on your own. I tried.
Play the songs in your chosen set list all the way through, start-to-finish: Another seemingly no-brainer, but it’s so easy, particularly if you’re the home recording type. You get used to stopping at the slightest mistake and starting over. Great for a flawless (sometimes inhuman) take, not so much in the real world. An audience is not going to be down with you starting a tune over eight times no matter how much they were into you at first.
ALWAYS listen to the drummer: Vibing with a drummer is the coolest thing you can do as a guitarist in a band, especially because people aren’t at all expecting you to. The stereotypical guitarist is in his/her own world hanging out until he/she gets to solo. For some of us it’s natural to do that, and doesn’t take long to remember how if you get out of the habit. Even if it isn’t natural, however -don’t be that guy/gal that doesn’t try. Just don’t. Lock in with your drummer. Your bassist too. In fact, you should remember/learn to take cues from any/everyone in the band. Become a machine. Vibe as a unit, and your solos will sound that much cooler if/when you do take them. People will be more interested in listening overall, because “These guys sound TIGHT!”
Not just as a fail-safe for yourself, but as a courtesy to the other musicians you’ll be playing with: Regularly check that your gear is firing on all cylinders!!: This one is easy to overlook, especially if your gear is generally somewhat reliable. That’s a gift, but not one you can count on for the duration of your lifetime. Also, if your go-to thing at home is amp emulations, it’s easy to overlook your actual gigging amp over time should you curtail your live work. It’s inevitable, though – eventually things are going to break down. You can change your tubes regularly and do everything you’re supposed to, but internal components like resistors can go bad. So it’s a good idea to have your amps serviced regularly. Your amp is like your car, it needs servicing every few months/(hundred) thousand miles or so. Yes, even if you haven’t been using it as much lately. My amp, a 1986 Mesa-Boogie Mark III has been across the country and back with me, and of course I re-tubed it religiously. But unavoidably over time capacitors and resistors go bad in amps, and this last time I fired her up she didn’t sound as world-beating as I’m used to. There was a weird bleed between the channels, indicating something in the switching was going south. A quick trip to Mesa-Boogie Hollywood and a five-day turnaround fully rectified that. My Boogie is back to sounding like it wants to kill everyone. In a good way, of course.
It almost goes without saying, but regular set-ups and re-strings of your guitars are mandatory too. When I’m gigging I change my strings every night. Why take chances? You are checking your intonation every time you re-string, yes? Please do, you’ll be glad you did. In addition, check your cables, power connectors to pedals- everything.
It’s kind of implied with the “listen to the drummer” bit earlier, but to repeat and expand upon the original edict, PLAY WITH (many) OTHER MUSICIANS. No, seriously. Do it. As often as possible, with as interesting and varied a set list as you and they can come up with. Robert Plant & Jimmy Page are in their 70s and regularly jam with musicians half their age. If they’re still pushing themselves, shouldn’t we be? Always be learning, striving to improve – always be stretching as a musician.
What do you to do to keep from feeling stagnant?