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.