“Have fun, take sunglasses, and be prepared for your tone to suck.” This acidic three-pronged statement of advice/warning succinctly sums up the sentiment among many guitarists who have braved the notoriously unpredictable world of the open air gig. Now, fun and sunglasses are right up our street: no problems here. But tone-wise, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, with a little preparation and know-how, you’ll be able to rock the open stage just as you would a normal gig.
Whether it’s as players or spectators – or both – all of you will have been here at some point. It’s a lovely summer’s day, the crowds are out in force for bunch of great live music, and the first band’s about to start. Then, that all-important first G5 power chord rings out – and it’s a disaster. The guitar tone is thin, weak, and before you know it, every note has vanished like a proverbial fart in the wind. Well, at least we can blame the meteorological conditions for that last part.
But thankfully, the peculiarities of weather and the spitefulness of Mother Nature aside, there are certain things we can do as guitarists to maximise our chances when stepping into the great outdoors to play.
The first thing to realise is that playing an outdoor show can be radically different to playing a typical indoor gig. Now, that might sound obvious, but it’s definitely worth stating. Factors like the weather, the season, and even the time of day you’re playing can work either for or against you. And that’s before you’ve even plugged in.
When you do finally get to shift your gear to the stage, chances are – unless you’re the headliner – you won’t get much in the way of a soundcheck. No, schedules are tight at events like this, and once they’ve checked your levels, you’ll probably be expected to just jump right in and do your best.
If you’re a guitarist who likes to take your precious time setting up before a gig, this may come as a bit of a shock. Gone are the luxuries of tinkering with your amp’s EQ settings for an hour during a lazy mid-afternoon soundcheck – nope, at a festival it’s 15 minutes of mad rush after the previous band has finished, just to get all your stuff to the muddy, windy stage. After that, you’re in the hands of the sound engineer, who you’ve probably never met in your life before, and the elements.
So, what can you do to keep your tone shipshape in this situation?
Well, perhaps the biggest difference between outdoor and indoor shows is the lack of walls and ceilings when you play outside. Sure, you’ll (most probably) be in some kind of stage area, or maybe on a makeshift construction like the back of a flatbed truck, but what you most certainly won’t be in is a room.
When you play a “normal” show – OK, there is no such thing as a normal show, but you know what we mean – your guitar sounds, and the sounds of the whole band and the crowd, will be getting reflected back into the room off the walls, ceiling and (if you’re unlucky and no one’s showed up to watch you) the floor. At an outdoor festival, this can’t happen, and the result is that many guitar players feel their tone loses something, becoming thin and weedy as it dies in the air.
This might not necessarily be the case, of course, and don’t forget that what the audience is hearing is not exactly the same as the sounds you will be hearing from the stage. This is the case for indoor gigs too, but the difference can be even more pronounced in an external context. The crux of this point is that, when playing an outdoor gig, satisfy yourself with what you can hear onstage, and then let the sound engineer look after what the crowds hear. If you can do that, you’re halfway there.
If that’s not an option, though, you can try fattening your guitar tone up in a number of ways. The most obvious thing to do is to add some mids. They might not be cool, and they might not normally be what makes you tick, but they can help if your sound is dying before it reaches the first row!
Some amps will sound great if you just boost the mids on top of your established tonal settings, but on others, you’ll need to cut down the bass and treble levels too. You probably won’t have too much experimentation time on the day, but if you can, try a little knob twiddling, and don’t be afraid of extremes. You never know what might help your tone on the day.
An added bonus of EQ tweaking outside is that you can use it to separate your guitar in the mix. Too many low frequencies, and the bass will drown you out. Too many highs, and as well as sounding abrasive and reedy, you’ll be all over the vocalist and the cymbals. The secret is to find a happy medium, and mids can be your saviour here.
Another tonal trick to help replicate the sounds of an indoor room is a little reverb or echo. Just adding a smidgen of an echo or a slap-back delay to your dry tone can really work wonders in an outdoor setting. Again, it’ll depend on the style of music you’re playing – it’s probably a no-no for death metal, for example – and the size of the space you’re in. Used well, though, you’ll get the aural impression you’re not really playing outdoors at all.
If those are things you could or should do to help your chances outside, then here’s something you should resist: the temptation to turn your amp’s volume up more than normal. Blowing everyone’s ears onstage is not going to help anything, and you will not sound better! Do yourself a favour here, and leave the question of sheer volume to the sound guys.
Now, no matter how big or small your amp is, you’ll need extra volume in an outdoor context. Many guitarists – and engineers – favour the old-school miked up cab method, but there’s also a growing group of supporters for using DI inputs to go straight into the PA (in fact, read our previous blog all about that right here). A technique that is also gaining ground is a mixture of the two, which will allow the sound guys to mix and blend your sound to perfection.
Are you noticing a recurring theme here? Because we are, and it’s this: when you’re playing an outdoor show, trust the sound engineer. Why? Because ultimately, it’s their job – and not yours – to make sure what the crowd hears is top notch. You’ve got your own tone, and it’s the engineer’s job to transmit that successfully to the audience. It might be tempting to want to control the whole process yourself, but there’s just so many factors you can’t regulate when you’re cranking your amp in the great outdoors.
In that sense, playing an open air gig is perhaps not too dissimilar from playing an indoor concert, and there’s not too much you need to do differently in order to succeed. What’s more, it’s probably summer, and the crowd will be there to soak up the sun and the sounds, not dissect the minutiae of your tone. So why not turn the last part of that guitarists’ cliché on its head? Have fun, take sunglasses, and be prepared the let the tone gods (otherwise known as engineers, in this case) guide you.
And if it all goes to pot, two out of three ain’t bad.
First published: July 18 2014. Most recent update: October 16 2015.