It’s happened to many a guitar player at one time or another. You’re at home one Saturday afternoon, quietly minding your own business, when suddenly the phone goes. It’s your mate, and he’s in a bind: his band’s rhythm guitarist has had to cancel the gig, and they need a last-minute replacement. So, if you answer yes to that call, (a) you’re a brave person, but (b) what can you do to prepare yourself for playing a live show with such short notice? Here’s four things we’d recommend you try…
First things first: you should probably only offer to dep for an AWOL musician if you’re in a decent position to do so, and can realistically do a decent job of it. This might sound dead obvious, but it’s true. Don’t just say yes for the hell of it, or to help a friend in need! If you’re not prepared, it could come back to bite you later on.
There are many factors that could affect your decision to play as a stand-in, including the location of the gig, the band in question and their material, and the general expectations of the gig. If it’s a pop-rock covers band down the local pub, for example, you’ll probably feel far more comfortable than if you’re going to be playing originals in front of paying punters who expect more bang for their buck.
Now, there are plenty of musicians – pros included – who make a decent living from depping for others. Some keep incredibly busy diaries, and can be playing for a different band every night of the week. But for most of us, it’ll probably be less regular, and therefore more nerve-wracking – which brings us to our first piece of advice…
1. Don’t panic!
Taking on a show as a stand-in can be a terrifying experience, especially if it’s your first time. It will get easier, trust us! But more on that slightly further down the page.
For now, though, you need to focus on the matter at hand, and get on with preparing for the show.
A great thing to remember, if you’re nervous, is that it’s in the band’s best interests to give you as much help and support as they can before the show. If it’s a covers band, they might be able to tailor the set to songs you already know. If it’s originals, make sure they give you as much info as possible beforehand.
Basically, the more you know about the show in advance, the less of a step into the deep end it will be – which brings us swiftly on to the things you can do yourself to make depping as painless as possible.
2. Do your homework
Even if the gig’s only a few hours away, there’s plenty you can do before showtime. As we’ve already said, getting advice on setlists is an absolute given. Once you know it, print it out, or write it out, and take at least a couple of copies with you (that you’ll lose one somewhere along the way is almost certain!).
You can use the setlist as a kind of cheat sheet too: use it to write down chord progressions you might not be familiar with, note any changes in tuning, whether a capo is needed, and even what key each song is in. Certain cover bands transpose songs into lower (or higher) keys to fit around the vocal range of the singer, so it’s important to know you’re going to be playing in the right one.
If there are songs on the setlist that you don’t know well, use any time you have to brush up on them. Listen to the originals, work them out by ear or using tabs, play along – and repeat. The more you get the songs into your muscle memory, the more you’ll relax, and the better you’ll perform on the night (more advice about how to do that is just here, by the way).
Another great thing to do is check out the band you’re going to be temporarily joining. If the gig’s in a week or two, you might have the chance to catch them live in the flesh, which is perfect. If not, though, search for them on YouTube or Facebook: chances are they’ll have recorded versions of songs online somewhere, and maybe even some video recordings of shows.
All this can really help, because you can already start working out the group’s dynamics, how they set themselves up onstage, even how they dress for the stage. The more you can find out, the better chance you’ll have of seamlessly fitting in with the band at your gig.
Finally, if you don’t know it already, scope out the venue if you can – as well as the way to get there. Making sure you’re going to arrive on time is crucial, as is knowing a little bit about what to expect from the concert room itself. Basic advice, yes, but we know a few stand-ins who have come a cropper by not doing their homework first.
Once you’re at the venue, then, it’s time to set up your gear – and you’d better make sure that’s all in order too…
3. Look after your gear
We’ve written whole blog posts about this topic before (here, and here) because it’s something every guitarist – no, every musician – should do, regardless of whether you’ve got shows coming up or not. Hell, even if you just play to yourself at home a couple of times a week, you should still be looking after your gear and keeping everything in tiptop shape!
But if you’re about to play live, it’s absolutely crucial.
You need to make sure your rig is in full, reliable order at all times. OK, there are things that can happen onstage that you can’t plan for – breaking a string mid song, drunk punters spilling beer or vomit on your kit, exploding drummers, etc. – but everything else is firmly in your hands.
This means bringing all the spares you’ll ever need with you to shows in a little gig survival pack: gaffer tape, strings, leads, picks, guitar tools, amp tubes, a torch, pen and paper, batteries for FX pedals or active pickups, the aforementioned setlists, maybe even backup amps and/or guitars, and more. Be prepared for anything to happen, and as a stand-in, it’ll fill you with confidence to know that you’re well set to deal with any unusual gear-based situations that may occur.
Looking after your gear also takes place offstage, of course. Keep your guitar well-oiled and looked after at all times, and the same goes for your amp and any pedals and other accessories you may have.
When it comes to your amp, get your settings down before the show. If you use MIDI, get some presets sorted (more on how to do exactly that right here) that’ll cover all the base tones you’ll need. Work out roughly what basic amp settings you’ll need for the gig, and tweak your EQ accordingly ahead of time. If you’ve got the luxury of choosing between amps, take the one that’ll suit the gig best. A full stack is not going to fit in with an acoustic covers band, no matter how cool it is!
If you’ll be using plenty of FX, and playing famous songs that use effects like delays, do yourself a massive favor and dial in the settings at home before the show (ask the band for specifics if you can). You’ll be taking so much pressure off yourself that way, and come the gig you’ll be able to focus on the music as much as possible, and not getting your sounds right. Trust us, there won’t be any time for that.
All this said, though, there’s only so much you can do in preparation, especially if the gig’s last minute in nature.
But, if you really nail it…
4. Do it right, and you’ll be doing it again
When it comes down to it, nobody can expect too much of you if you’re a stand-in – unless you’re one of those depping pros, of course.
But do a great job, and we can almost guarantee that you’ll be asked back. Networking among musicians is extremely important, and a good reputation goes a long way, particularly in local and regional scenes.
If you’re punctual, polite and competent, you’ll win the trust of the band you join, and that could lead to more shows. It could also lead to more bands hearing about you, and that in turn could result in more stand-in jobs, more experience, and more fun.
And that’s all there is to it! There are, naturally, other things you can do to help your cause when it comes to this sort of thing: learn loads of popular songs and keep them in your active arsenal, or go to some local jam nights, which can be really helpful in boosting your onstage skills – particularly when it comes to improvisation – when playing with strangers.
Most of all, though, have fun doing it. If you spend the whole run-up to the show dreading what’s to come, then no one’s going to have a good time. Not you, not the band, not the crowd. And that’s just a waste of everyone’s time.
So, how many of you have played a gig as a stand-in before? How did you cope? We’d love to know, so leave us your experiences in the comments section below…
First published: November 21 2014. Most recent update: October 16 2015.
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As an emergency substitute guitar player you must have the attitude of a confident warrior who is always ready to fight. If you know the songs by heart even the chords are transposed you must not fear during the gig. A true blooded guitar player will always have the ability to play on the spot because he or she is a well-rounded musician.
This is a good description, Victor! As a stand-in guitarist you always have some kind of battle on your hands each time you perform, so the warrior idea is a great one 🙂
Nice article. A few weeks ago I received a call at 8pm on a Thursday from someone who said that their guitar player just walked and wanted to know if I could fill in. When I asked when was the gig, he said “tomorrow and Saturday night”! Yikes!!! I have never heard of this band and I was refered to the by the singer in my regular band. I Received the setlist at 9pm and started practicing them. I was lucky I’ve giged several of the songs already and most others I knew of, but never played. Three of them I have never heard before. I stayed up ’till 1am and took a half day off on Friday. I was able to pull it off and had a GREAT time! But I sure was nervous!!!!
Thanks for the kind words, Phil! Yes, being a stand-in can be scary as hell, especially the first time you do it! But it gets better the more you try it, and like you say, the feeling when you pull off a great job is awesome. You certainly didn’t have much time to get learning things, either, so kudos to you 😉
I have accepted a few gigs as a stand in and the experience really depends on the professionalism of the band…do THEY have the songs down, does the drummer keep good time, do the bass player and drummer groove… I will say no if I don’t feel comfortable with it. I was in a motorcycle accident in 2011 and couldn’t play for a few months so a friend filled in on guitar at the gigs and I just sang…he did a great job and we were very happy about it.
Great points, Mike. The drummer is so important in cases like this, as they really have to hold everything together, and as a stand-in you’re looking to them to lead you at all times. Sorry to hear about your accident, but glad your stand-in friend managed to do a great job! Hope you’re back playing again now…
I’ve done this a few times, I’ve done rhythm, lead and bass, and I found lead to be easiest. With the rhythm held down the song sounded correct, so I could just play along and then add some fills and such then keep the solo in key and everybody was happy. Bass I just faked it and followed the rhythm player. But rhythm was tough, trying to hold everything together and keep some spontaneity.
Interesting that Lead was easiest for you, Bryan! But also understandable, as the lead player is less holding down the band’s groove, and more augmenting it. For a bassist or rhythm guitarist, you’ve got to lock in with the drums straight away. More freedom as a lead, but still, you’re brave to have tried all three! Thanks for the valuable feedback…
I filled in as a second guitarist and background vocalist for an all original funk/blues/reggae band last summer. I listened to a few tracks in advance and sang a few songs at a rehearsal so I didn’t step in totally cold, but I still didn’t know quite what to expect with just a few chords jotted next to the song name on a set list. The leader/guitarist was very gracious and had me take a ton of solos. I really enjoyed the open format and freedom to get in the zone and go. I had a blast and did another gig with them the next week. I think the key was to just do what I do, within the context of their music, and not worry about it so much.
That’s great advice, Mark, so thanks for sharing! We think that personality also has a big role to play, and leaving any rockstar ego at the door is the way to go. And for you, it led to more gigs – the ideal situation right there…
Don’t know if this is what your are looking for but had to fill in twice when acts didn’t show up but probably easier if a solo act still have to think quickly how to carry on without repeating yourself
Hi Ed, and thanks for your comments! Interesting, and we agree it must be easier to do it as a solo act… Less to worry about, that’s for sure!
Great read, very useful! I’ve been asked a few times to dep for a mates band before, but always turned it down because I had no idea how I could pull it off. The tips here might make me say yes next time! Awesome work guys, keep it up!
Thanks for the kind words, Tom! Go for it, and let us know how you get on if you do ever decide to take the stand-in plunge…