Preparing for Your First Gig

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger

u2 You’ve practiced for years. You’ve scoured thrift stores for the right wardrobe. You have a new set of strings, an amp that goes to 11, and you are ready to rock! There can’t be much more than that when preparing for your first gig, right? I mean, how hard can it be? You see bands all the time! Your friends encouraged you. “Look how easy it is!” they taunted. You watched videos of performances your whole life. We’re all human, right? Why do they get to rock and not me? Today it’s my turn! I thought of everything! I printed out set lists and bought gaffer’s tape*! Look at my hair, I mean, is there anything as perfect as my hair? Hold on there, cupcake. Preparing for your first show isn’t as simple as putting your gear in the minivan next to the car seat. There are probably things you didn’t think of, and that is where this article comes in. As someone who has tried their best, and failed many times, you can learn from my shame. *I use painter’s tape. It isn’t insanely expensive like gaffer’s tape. It keeps cords and set lists where you want them, without sticky residue.

Think You’re Prepared?

Make sure you can read your set list from a standing position.

Make sure you can read your set list from a standing position.

Good! We can start with the most simple thing: Do you know the songs you are going to play? Not just what they are, and in what order, but are they printed on a piece of paper with big enough font that you can read them? Can you read them when they are on the floor and you are standing? Yeah, Old English font looks cool and is oh so evil, but it might be a bit hard to read onstage. Keep each set to one page, and fill up the entire page with the titles of those songs. Sometimes it helps to put the key the song is in and who starts it. Does it start with a guitar riff? Be prepared towards the end of the previous song to get your sounds in order for the next one. Does the drummer count it off? Can he/she count to four? Can he/she count to four at the right speed?

These are things to address at practice. If you or someone else in the band is going to talk between certain songs, note that on the setlist. Sometimes it is good to go right to the next song with no talking, so make sure everyone knows this and is not standing around waiting for you to start the next song. Fifteen seconds of silence or confusion on stage feels like fifteen minutes when people are watching and waiting. If you have to switch guitars, come up with a system that makes it quick- either an A/B box or get someone who can hand you the new guitar so you can switch cables quickly and silently. It helps if this switching happens during an introduction or a story by another member of the band.

But don’t leave it to chance: practice this stuff. Being onstage can be disorienting sometimes, and if you can make changes to your gear/guitars quickly and effortlessly, you can concentrate more on the music.

Oh yeah, the music…

Learn the music. The audience should believe you know what you are doing.

Learn the music. The audience should believe you know what you are doing.

Of course, know the music inside and out. Practice until the intricate parts are as easy as strumming a G chord. If you are just strumming a G chord, do it with conviction, purpose, and intent. Audiences can sense a musical trainwreck, and if you are like me, a performer’s comfort level is pretty easy to see from an audience perspective. If you know your setlist backwards and forwards, it will be smooth sailing. If you keep forgetting the chords in the bridge, you have practicing to do. Yeah sure, you can bring an iPad or a binder and a music stand to remind yourself how to play your band’s songs, but…really? Tony Iommi knew the songs he was playing. So did Van Halen.

Knowing your songs (originals or covers) inside and out will help you pull off a confident performance. Plus, you don’t have to nervously swipe a screen or turn pages if your set gets cut short. You know why? Because you are prepared for anything. Because that’s the way you rock.

But what about the gear?

This is a fact: many gigs have been done with worse gear than you own. Only other guitarists will judge you by your gear, and that is mostly because they have much bigger personal issues. That being said, there are a few things to realize when gathering your gear to play at the local club:

It happens, but you're ready for it. Right?

It happens, but you’re ready for it. Right?

– Does your guitar stay in tune? Does it stay in tune all the way up the neck? There are many ways to combat tuning issues, but no one wants to sit through the guitarist tuning between every song. If you have to, make sure you can do so silently with either a headstock tuner (turn your volume down first) or a pedal tuner. If you use many different tunings, consider bringing different guitars or one of those new-fangled auto-tuning guitars that everyone is screaming about. This is what they are made for. The first time you use one live, you will realize their worth.
– When did you change your strings? I change mine the day before every show. I seem to have acidic sweat that kills strings. Don’t do it right before the show, as they need some time to stretch. Always bring spares (every gauge you use) and learn how to change strings really fast.

– Bring a spare guitar. Do you really want to change a string on a Floyd-equipped guitar when everyone is staring at you? What if it is a wiring problem that you can’t diagnose, let alone fix, onstage? Now it wasn’t too hard to pack that spare guitar, was it? Don’t have a spare? Tell a friend he/she can hang out with the band backstage if you can use one of their guitars as a spare. They will learn firsthand how glamorous it is. Save your gig money and buy a guitar. The time-saving aspect is even more important on multi-band gigs.

This is fixable, but not really at a gig. Bring spares.

This is fixable, but not really at a gig. Bring spares.

– Are your cables in good condition? Have spares for each one. If you plug in your guitar and you suspect a cable is bad, replace them all instead of trying to figure out which one it is between songs. Know your rig well enough to know what you can plug and unplug quickly, and get rockin’ fast.

– Spare batteries might be needed for pedals or an active guitar. I use an adapter for my pedals, but still bring batteries in case something goes horribly wrong. Batteries never die at home. It is always at a gig.

– A clock is always a good idea. Get a digital automotive clock and put it on your pedal board. No one wants to see members of a band looking at their watch or phone onstage.

Uh oh. This KT88 busted on the way to the gig. But you have a spare, so all is good.

Uh oh. This KT88 busted on the way to the gig. But you have a spare, so all is good.

– Make sure your amp works when you leave the house. Clubs have notoriously unstable power, and I am pretty sure they all pay off the local electrical inspector to look the other way. My fuse (buried deep in my amp) blew at a club with unstable power about five hours from home. I had to say over the microphone, “Does anyone here have an amp in their car?” Someone actually did, and the show went on. Spare amps aren’t always possible due to size and cost, but now I have fuses taped to the inside of my cabinet (tubes too). I also bring a spare pedal that replicates an amp when plugged directly to a PA. You also don’t need a big amp, especially if the sound is run correctly and everything is miked.

The Hot Stack for Tele has a stack design to eliminate hum, and is wax potted to prevent squeal.

The Hot Stack for Tele has a stack design to eliminate hum, and is wax potted to prevent squeal.

– Pickups squeal like the mating call of an unladen swallow? Perhaps upgrade with low-noise wax-potted ones. While many clubs have dastardly neon lights that hum and buzz through many guitar amps, at least your pickups won’t squeal on your way to Super Tight Chug Town.

Oh yeah, don’t forget this either…

I know! All you wanna do is rock! Just a few things to consider: Try practicing with the band in the same configuration you will have at the show. Most practicing is done with clear sight lines and clear hearing lines with the other members. Live shows are generally with an unfamiliar room and/or PA. The more you know your stuff and can handle the pressure of a live gig, the better prepared you will be. Things always go wrong at every show.  A diva doesn’t keep the show moving; it is the inner MacGuyver that can solve any problem quickly, rationally, and is ready for what the world throws at him/her. All that should be left is to have fun, turn up, and rock out.

Have you played your first gig yet? What songs did/will you play?

Written on March 17, 2015, by Dave Eichenberger

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Comments (7)

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Nice article!

    My first gig was at a college function. My roommate at the time was learning English and wanted to sing a rock song on stage. So we put together a rag-tag bunch of players. The lead guitarist was a friend who had been playing for less than a year and had massive stage fear. The drummer was a guitarist who had last played drums 3 years ago. The bass player was another guitarist who was the only guy we could find to play bass. I myself had a little experience playing with a choir, but hadn’t been on stage since 3rd grade.

    We all had stage fear in some form or the other, but managed to keep it in check by pulling each others legs over it. Rehearsals were awesome! We followed step one here to the letter, planned the whole set as if we were facing a real audience, kept short breaks where the singer talked and we switched/tuned guitars. And it really paid off at the actual gig. We didn’t have backups at the time, but i understood why they’re important after one guy dropped one of our guitars. Luckily, it wasn’t more than a minor scratch and just needed a tune up.

    We had a short list of three songs. ‘We will rock you’ to start out, followed by Wolfmother’s ‘Joker and the Thief’ and ending with Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’. During our cover of ‘We will rock you’ the bass strap gave out, and i had to help him get it back on before rushing back to do the solo. Other that it was all smooth sailing.

    We didn’t do particularly great performance wise, but it was the best time of our lives being on stage! The stage fear ended after we started and it was just euphoric after that. It kept us awake most of the night later, laughing at all the goof ups on stage. And that was also when i truly understood why people would want to pursue music instead of a ‘real’ job despite all the pitfalls and the uncertainty. Being on stage is a drug as potent as any other! I certainly hope i get a chance to perform again in the future.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Sweet article

    Glad my band has never pumped a shot to my face like that for being terrible.

    My drummer and i were 19 our youngest members where 17. We’d been together about a year before we really considered playing our first gig, None of us thought we were ready and decided to just keep practicing. I was told you’ll never be ready unless you take that first step. So i landed up blindsiding the rest of the band and booking us into our local venues open mic night.

    We played an all original set and throughout the set my mic stand wasn’t tightened properly so my mic kept rotating away from me! They don’t teach you how to deal with these things so i just followed it around! The whole experience was amazing though and we loved every minute of it. Our bands actually still going.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    I probably wont ever play a first gig
    Everybody wants to do that shitty core metal shit and I wanna just do 60’s 70’s stuff
    I can’t ever find anyone to even jam with cos all they wanna do is fart on their 8 string guitars it feels like im practicing for no reason 90% of the time

    • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

      Heres a tip, try looking?

    • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

      i do really like to play 60´s 70´s or even 80´s music. im really into blues and rock n roll

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Never actually got to gig with my band, which in hind site was probably a good thing because now I’m older and a far, far better guitarist I can look back and cringe at how bad our songs were and how badly we performed them. But it was a really fun time and we got to rock out really loudly at rehearsal and buy equipment that made us feel like we were a decent band even though it just showed we had spare cash and little talent. I got up and tried to jam with a drummer and bass player one night years later at an open mic night which could have gone well if I didn’t discover that I suffer from paralytic stage fright. I was shaking so bad that my wife could see it from 25ft away apparently. That was also when I discovered that I had no rhythm skills at all since I had never bothered to learn or play along to a cd track. After that my wife told me that I should go and learn some covers, which actually really helped. Now I can play comfortably at parties and on YouTube, but I doubt you will ever be hearing my name used in the same sentence as Rock Star.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Well, this article has given me encouragement. I can’t (but, for the most part, can) wait for my first gig.

    Now, if only I could find other people who don’t mind playing Smiths covers every once in a while (well, other people besides my brother, haha).

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