There’s no easy way to say this, so we’re just going to spit it right out. Guitarists: unless you’re Steve Vai, 90% of the time you spend on stage you will be playing rhythm guitar. It’s not that your guitar is unimportant, because it is. But people have probably come to hear you and your band play some nice songs, and your wailing lead tone filling every available beat is not going to go down well. It’s tough, we know, but here’s some invaluable tips to help you get a great live tone without ruining everybody else’s evening…
We’ve all seen great live bands. They’re the ones who make playing amazing shows look effortless: perfect sound, well-rehearsed, and probably great haircuts to boot. But we’ve all also cringed through sets by groups who’ve not done their homework, and have consequently ending up sounding like an orgy of homeless cats fighting over a fat family’s kitchen rubbish bin. It’s not pretty.
The thing is, great onstage sound doesn’t start when the drummer counts you in for your opener. No, it’s the product of weeks, sometimes months and years, of offstage practice, experimentation and – often – frustration with your bandmates. Because while it is certainly true that you can become a far better musician if you regularly practice at home, there are several lessons that only playing together with others can help you master.
And that’s the first tip to a great live sound: play with others, and do it as often as you can. If you can wing your way into a situation where you’re trading licks with players more experienced than you – or, better yet, more skilled than you – then you should come on in leaps and bounds in terms of timing, tasteful playing, and the art of understanding the dynamics of sound in an ensemble setting. Even when the music’s finished for the day, hang out with them, digest their stories and advice, and ask them about how they’ve overcome onstage sound difficulties in the past.
Your road-weary friends will definitely tell you you’ll need the right equipment for the gig. What’s the band like, for starters? Are you rock, metal, pop, country, jazz, or something else entirely? And are you going to be playing down the Dog And Duck on Saturdays to 30 inebriated people on a works do, or are you headed for Wembley Arena just round the corner instead?
These things all matter because, depending on the size and scale of your show, your choice of amp could make or break the gig. We’ve written plenty about choosing the right onstage equipment before, but it’s a topic that seems to polarize players. Ultimately, though, you will need a rig that will serve to best fit your band’s sound and image.
That might mean leaving your full stack at home if, say, you’re due to play a low-ceilinged 100-capacity room. You just won’t need the volume, you’ll deafen everybody onstage and in the crowd, and because you won’t be able to turn up past 9 o’clock on the volume knob, your tone will probably suck too. Of course, you can get round this with a power soak, but not all amps give you that luxury.
So, how do you make sure you have the right rig for your band’s needs, and how do you make it fit in with the other members of your troupe? The answer is a simple one: rehearsals. Band practice is the crucial time for you to hone your tone to perfection, as you’ll be able to tweak until your sound fits the music as a whole.
Whatever you do, resist the temptation to create your stage sounds at home on your own. It’s a cruel lesson to learn, but most homemade tones do not sound good in a band setting. Why? Because you’ll create sounds that work well unaccompanied, but just die when mixed with others.
Frequencies have a lot to answer for here. If you’re playing downtuned riffs or lower register stuff, you’ll need to watch out for the bass. If you’re not careful, you could end up with a muddy mishmash of a low end, which is no good for anybody.
Add too many highs into your sound, though, and not only will your live tone be razor sharp and brittle, but you’ll be fighting the singer(s) – and the drummer’s cymbals – for space in the mix. The way forward here is generally to boost the mids in your tone, although you’ll be able to use rehearsal time to see what works best for your group.
If there’s another guitarist in the band, you should also take the similar precautions to make sure you’re not both covering the same tonal ground. Many groups use the quick fix of having one guitarist playing a single coil guitar, and the other using humbuckers, but there’s plenty of other ways to get you sounding different. Tonally tweaking your guitars and amps together in the rehearsal room is probably the best way to get everyone feeling the most comfortable.
Of course, once you get to the gig, it’s not that unlikely that much of your careful preparation will go right out of the window. You might be a support act with no sound check time, for example, or you might just be playing in an unfamiliar setting – like the great outdoors – where the environment itself makes playing to your normal strengths impossible.
In this case, the soundman can be your savior (or, if you’re less lucky, your nightmare). He or she will be the one in control of your band’s fate, so be nice to them, and be prepared to help out in any way you can. After all, they want a great show as much as you do!
These days, your amp will be put through the PA at most venues, even at smaller places. This is perhaps something to think about when coming up with your onstage sounds in advance, as the setup will be slightly different at most shows you go to.
Another way to approach this is to send your signal directly to the PA system by using a DI (direct input) system – this will result in you having a consistent sound from show to show, and, if you’re brave enough, you can even travel without a cab! (OK, OK, most of us aren’t brave enough to do that yet, but there may come a time in the future when it’s the norm…).
When the show starts, you can still continue to tweak if necessary. If you find your guitar’s not cutting through, give the mids a boost, or ask the bassist to turn down a bit (yeah right!). Don’t forget, though, that what you hear onstage during a gig is probably not what the crowd out front is hearing. If you can concentrate on having a good time, and you can hear yourself up there, that’s where your job ends and the soundman’s starts.
You can repeat this whole cycle as a kind of loop. After the show, if things weren’t perfect – and they rarely are, even if it was a great gig – look at what didn’t work, and go back to the practice room with the band and see what you can do about it. If nothing else seems to be solving your problems, try that most unrockstar-like of tricks: turn your amp down a bit. It might not seem cool, but it really can work wonders for your sound in the band!
We’re sure this wasn’t an exhaustive list of tips, by the way, so why not help us all out a bit by adding yours? After all, we’re all in this music business together. And the more advice we give each other, the more we can all improve…
Edit – September 4th 2014
Just in case you’re struggling with instrument frequencies overlapping, here’s a handy chart to help you work out where you might be going wrong! Enjoy!
First published: August 29 2014. Most recent update: October 16 2015.
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Do you have a hi-res version of the frequency chart where all the small print is readable? Thank you!
Hi Ethan, sure – drop us a line on our Facebook page and we’ll send it you there! (We can’t attach files here.)
Last Saturday I had a live production and had to mix a rockband. While the guitarist was tuning his sound and amp, there was a big difference between his clean/rythm level and his solo level. Instead of turning the solo level down (which than sounded awfully thin and it lost it’s fullness), I asked him to put a compressor in his solo effect chain, so he did and the level was just a tiny bit higher than the rythm level (like it should be and what I like), but the sound was so awesome, had body and it stood out in the mix without killing other instruments ant vocals.
But be carefull with too much compressing, because it can mask fret noise, string attack and it can even make it sound muddy/less defined.
The attack of the compressor should be around 50ms, the hold should be around 20ms, the ratio about 3.4.1, a softer knee (so it won’t kick in very hard and fast) the threshold and make up gain is something to do on hearing what it affects, so that it is not sounding like I mentioned above.
Well, the above is a little guideline, but if you know what you are doing, you can setup the compressor just how you like it, my setup isn’t always like above, it could be completely different, but the above is a start.
THanks for taking the time to write this Tinjo – this is a useful guide. And yes, before you other guitarists out there start turning up your compressors to 11: don’t turn them up too much, it’ll not sound good 😉 Like Tinjo says, experiment and see what works best for your individual playing style…
I am a Dutch sound guy and I met a few guitarists using compressors on their solo sound. When they play rythm like in the verses of a song, the compressor is off and when they have to solo, they turn on their solo sound through a compressor. The volume isn’t louder, but sound louder because low volume passages are closer to high volume passages when high volume passages are pushed down a little bit, so it will sound a little louder without being louder and it sounds fatter.
For me as a sound guy, I like that a lot because the pre amps of my mixingdesk won’t blow when the guitar player turns on his ear blowing solo sound haha.
That’s an interesting point Tinjo, thanks for sharing it with us! We all know that country players use a lot of compression for stuff like this, but the idea of it pleasing a soundman during solos is a cool one too 😉 It means you get a decent sound to play with, and the guy on stage should also be happy with his solo tone – everyone wins 🙂
I have played tons of shows with different bands as a lead guitar and rhythm. Part of this article is right, some of it wan’t correct. Lead playing is crucial to any band. But Steve Vais leads though good, check out his leads with DLR are in places, that work in songs. Lead guitarist by experimentation can feel out whether it needs melodic leads in verses. Bluesy solos in part of the solos, arpeggios to finish the solo. Maybee screaming but tasteful single notes.
It’s almost sad how people write these articles. Theres somethings money can’t buy. One is that I am smoking at lead guitar player.
Only Eddie Van Halen himself plays lead better than me.
Hi Brian. We’re not dissing Steve Vai at all – far from it. And we agree that lead playing is essential for most bands! But our point in the article is this: most of the time, you will be playing rhythm parts. You’re not soloing throughout the whole song, and you need to make sure your rhythm parts fit in with the rest of the band. This is a fact. Again, maybe guys like Vai are the exception to this rule 🙂
We’ll take your word about you being a smoking lead player, but only if you send us a video of you proving that you’re better than everyone apart from Eddie 😉
I agree with Kevin… whole heartedly. I am our bands lead guitar/sound guy/manager. The thing I always run into is OTHER sound engineers have OTHER ideas of how YOUR band should sound. Sometimes this is very annoying… sometimes it’s a beautiful thing. Learn from the good ones, and once you learn who the bad ones are, stay away from them. I’ve had professional sound engineers – who have ran our sound before – come and listen to us @ a venue where we ran our own sound… and after the show they would come up to me and say “you are a way better sound engineer than me.”… which isn’t entirely true, but I DO know how i want my band to sound. Hopefully all of this makes sense to you lol.
Very interesting Michael, and yes, it does all make sense 😉 We wish more sound engineers would be like that (i.e. being willing to admit something else could be better and hopefully changing their approach in future because of it!)… Thanks for sharing this: hopefully it’ll inspire more of our readers to consider looking after their own sound from now on.
I agree with this to a fault. I’ve played lots of shows where the sound engineer asks someone to turn down then later I find out that no one could here them. At practice we all find a volume that works well and isn’t overpowering anyone when we play live that’s what we go to. If you want us to play any quiter and no one can hear me. If you want me yo play louder you can mic me. That’s how we work. Always assume all they can do is vocals and learn to mix yourself.
Thanks Kevin! And we agree, in some situations you can only trust yourself to get that best band sound. Using the rehearsal room and sound checks to hone in on the best volume levels is always a good way to go too. We’re happy there are other players out there who don’t just think the volume needs to be up to 11 at all times!
d.i hmm, well that’s when you can trust sound engineers or have one. Our bass guitarist didn’t care for a long time, miced or not miced. Could we d.i your amp?…sure he says…resulting in a few gigs where he sounded like shit with his fretless bass and a gig where the sound guy asked him to put all the treble out of his amp. He now just put a deffect sticker on the d.i port because he was getting sick of it, so i gues that’s the scare of people going d.i and losing amp control behind some hobbyist soundguy. I appreciate good sound guys who help and give tips fir the better but some are more intrested in the light setting then sound or just don’t give a damn. If it’s outdoors and the soundguy asks if we would like to go d.i to safe the sound and to keep it good sounding,we’d probably say yes then cause we all know that sound can vanish in thin air quickly sometimes on open podiums.
Yep, interesting points Arjan. We definitely need to do some kind of educational video on the Red Box and DI stuff, because too many guitarists/sound guys just don’t really know how to use it to its full capabilities, just like you explain here. You don’t want to risk a bad live experience! Outdoors and indoors can also be totally different. It is not easy to be a sound man 😉
Aha, basic error – comment above updated!
Can anyone help?!?!
Using my GM36 in a band practice situation the other day and was getting (extremely annoying) and pretty much uncontrollable feedback from the ‘Lead’ & ‘Ultra’ channels…
I have a TC G System that I use to switch amp presets via MIDI and some of the tracks we play use the crunch and clean channels whilst others require the lead & ultra channels…. For example, sooks or heavier parts within a track… Whenever the GM is in the clean or crunch channel all is ok but then switching to these lead & ultra parts caused instant feedback which would shroud out the playing and be pretty much unusable.
I’ve heard some people swap the stock tubes out – would that help?
Hi Neville. Sounds like swapping tubes won’t help, and this is a physical problem: namely, the speaker is sending feedback into the pickups of your guitar. Try increasing the distance between you/your guitar and the speaker, and change the angle to the guitar amp. And of course: activate the noise gate! 🙂
Hopefully one or a combination of these things will sort you out!
Also, why not just include this ‘Global attenuation selection’ as an update to the GM36 app?! Instead of building something entirely new!!
Hmm, definitely something to ponder 😉 We’re always looking at building in new things like this, so we shall add it to the wishlist!
Likewise, I’m just thinking the same thing Paul has said above here…
Moreover, from the article “When the show starts, you can still continue to tweak if necessary. If you find your guitar’s not cutting through, give the mids a boost, or ask the bassist to turn down a bit (yeah right!)” … if you’re using a programmed GM36 (like I am) and you cranked the Mids as required – as soon as you change patches/presets – you’re mids are likely to have gone again (and you can’t spend your entire set cranking mids! – and there’s no way in hell the bassist is gonna turn down haha!)
Ha ha, you’re right about the bassist, that’s for sure 😉 I guess in your case you could just make a selection of live presets with the mids stuck up to 11 – use these for shows, then you’ve still got your normal presets for times when you don’t need those mids…
Thanks for the tips and the useful chart. I’ve recently picked up the Grandmeister 36 and I’m enjoying all the features included.
One thing I do find surprising with the GM36 when it comes to controlling levels is that the powersoak feature cannot be assigned globally like the presence and resonance controls. I personally would find it much more useful to tame the amp for a rehearsal or some home use that applies to all my presets than having to program it in to each and every preset.
Hi Paul, and thanks for the feedback. Yes, we can understand where you’Re coming from, and a few others have said the same thing. Consider it on the official feedback list that we’ll be consulting when we come to build new things! And thanks for the kind words – enjoy your GM36!
I am a Grandmeister 36 user at home and stage, and I am fully satisfied
with it. Great use, great tone. Of course there would be very few improvements, but absolute perfection is not of this world !
Like all guitarists, I ask myself a lot of existential questions. Tone – Cabinets – gear …..
I have carefully read all of the chapters of your blog, and I was very surprised at the high quality of responses I am always asked.
I rarely have read such of explanations : simple clear and usefull;
not like forums where you can find everything, and after hours of reading, we know almost nothing.
Thanks to you I understood a lot of things.
Thank you very much
Many thanks for your wonderful feedback, Patrick! We always try our best to keep the answers as simple and straight as possible. The best thing is, we’re learning at the same time – we get some very intelligent questions 😉
We’re really happy you are enjoying your GrandMeister, and hopefully you can gain a few more tips from reading this Blog. We will carry on asking all of those existential questions for a long time to come…
All the best from the Hughes & Kettner team!
PS. Of course, if you have some tips on how to improve the GrandMeister, we would love to hear them! In the past, we have actually used certain suggestions from our players when making new amps…
Just keep the volume to where you can hear yourself on stage, let the sound guy do his job, if it happens to be a bad sound guy, maybe try listening to the mix from the audience perspective. Be ready to add more mids than on your practice room, and cut some highs or boost them according to the room. Finally like the other comment said, do not be afraid to roll the gain down, sometimes less is more. It really just depends on the place you’re playing at and the acoustics. Outdoor, is different to indoors, and some indoors are different to others.
Couldn’t have said this better ourselves Adrian! Rolling down the gain knob is something we probably should’ve mentioned too. And yes, sound engineers definitely deserve more respect and credit than many musicians give them! Especially outside, when it can get really tough. Cheers for reading…
Excessive stage volume leads to ear exhaustion quickly. I always start quietly and work my way up to balance my stage volume from my combo amp. We have even switched stage order to put players in locations where levels are more pleasing to them. Drummers are not always the worst offenders. Love these blog posts!
Thanks Rocky, and that’s really interesting! But with technology making smaller amps sound better and better, the way forward is surely quieter stages. Who needs 100 watts these days, really? And no, we must admit we’ve known certain drummers who were OK at times 😉
I’ve played a lot of live shows and this Couldn’t be more true. Set up, go out the front and listen, And adjust to compliment the mix, even back off your gains when playing heavy stuff.
You will be amazed at how heavy you can sound with less gain on your amp but sound much clearer. A lot of metal guys make the mistake of too much gain, and you end up with a wall of shit, not a wall of sound. Most importantly, chat with your engineer, they have probably forgotten more about live sound than you know, and the better they can help you sound, the better everyone looks.
Thanks Luke, and yes, we also think it’s all true! The thing is, it’s not very cool to tell people to turns their amps down, is it? 😉 We should all just listen to the sound guys on the day, though, as they’re the ones in control!