Preparing for Your First Gig
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?
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…
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:
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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?