Easy does it. You’ve practiced enough, the band’s ready, the songs are there, the arrangements are good, the sound’s spot on… now get out there and Rock on Stage!
If you’re so far down the line that you’re confidently waiting stage left, ready to go on and headline the biggest stage at your home town’s annual festival in front of hundreds – maybe even thousands – of family, friends and fans, then you’ve clearly done plenty right already.
But things are not as simple as they might seem for guitarists: you’re often up there front and center stage with the singer, and the main focus of attention for most of the crowd. And while the singer only has to concentrate on his or her microphone (and some attractive posturing, of course!), there’s a whole lot more responsibility for a six-stringer. Guitars, amps, effects, songs, solos, amorous fans – you’ve got to be in control of all these factors simultaneously if you’re to rise to the top of the pile!
Nevertheless, you can make the battle much easier if you break your job down and take a few choice pieces of advice to heart. In fact, the path to becoming an idolized axe slinger can be more about mastering your mental approach rather than your mighty chops, so take a look at our list of tips that could help you become the thinking man’s (or woman’s) guitar hero!
1. Be cool – after all, you’re a rock star!
We all know this one from the example of over-trained athletes: they train extra for a competition over weeks or months, and on the day of the event itself, everything goes pear-shaped. Anxiety, fear of failure, cramps, cold sweats, you name it – these are all hallmarks of an imminent damp squib.
Many guitarists will have experienced this. You’re just a few bars before your biggest solo of the evening, and suddenly: blackout! Everything disappears. Chords, notes, the whole lot. You’ll have trouble remembering your better half’s name in this moment of hugely embarrassing proportions, let alone the first few notes of THAT DAMN SOLO YOU’VE SPENT EVERY WAKING SECOND OF THE LAST FEW WEEKS WORKING ON!
And no wonder: focusing everything on just one key moment in the period running up to show time can only lead to huge disappointment if it then doesn’t run as smoothly in the flesh as it did in your head. As well as making you feel like a bit of a fool onstage – even though the audience themselves probably won’t notice a thing – it’ll most likely knock your confidence, and your motivation levels too.
There is one remedy here: be cool. If you can, use rock ‘n’ roll’s sense of unquestionable coolness to your advantage. Believe that you are the master of your own performance. Only by doing this will you loosen up, relax, and nail the thing like a true rocker – cool, sexy and unapologetic!
And here’s another Golden Rule: after your last practice pre-concert session, or no later than a couple of days before the gig, let your guitar be just what it is. That is, a piece of wood with bits of wire stuck to it. Put it down. Go to the cinema, meet friends, cook something for your better half or go fishing instead. No matter what it might be, just do something that’ll provide a fun and positive distraction.
Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t mean thinking of yourself like a high-performance athlete, with certain criteria to meet and then better. It’s about authenticity, honesty and openness. Only by not overthinking the gig can you go onstage just as you should be: hungry and wild, but at the same time serious and full of the sparkling and contagious mood you’ll need to play your very best.
2. Together, we are strong
Some things can’t be forced. A band where the members are all close friends has an undoubted advantage over a group of individuals who just so happen to play together. Music is emotion, and the mental state of a tightly knit network – nothing less than such a setup should be referred to as a band, by the way – can always be seen and felt. A group with this ‘human touch’, or whatever you want to call it, will reflect this emotion in their music, and this will infiltrate the audience in turn.
Unfortunately, this is a factor that it’s almost impossible to have any level of control over. But isn’t the sporting world another example of this? Your team can be as well prepared as any, but you’ll always need a bit of extra luck to win gold. But ultimately, a group of average-skilled musicians who are the best of friends will be vastly superior to a set of super-skilled individuals who call themselves a band. Because harmony is quickly transferable, just like in music, between the players and their audience.
3. Don’t be a gear nerd (well, not too much of one)
There’s no doubt about it: guitars and amps are highly desirable pieces of equipment, and scarcely a week goes by in which many of us will not be lusting over one new piece of kit or another. Just talking about new gear eats into a lot of our precious practice time, because let’s be honest – when band members are not talking about members of the opposite sex, then guitars, amps and FX are what take center stage.
Of course, there will always be the basics that shape 99% of our sound. Even that 25th FX pedal, fifth guitar or third amp can only react to the musical ruts you’re probably destined to play in for the rest of your days. And of course, two intensive hours of learning new licks, chords or rhythm patterns are probably going to be a better time investment than trying that umpteenth new brand and gauge of guitar strings.
Bottom line: if you’ve got a problem with your sound, then target finding a solution, and don’t shy away from asking more experienced guitarists for their opinions. In this way, you’ll be able to improve your six-string skills in a much more deliberate way, and your sound will steadily evolve way more quickly than if you just give in to the temptation to try and bypass practice with a new guitar!
4. Mental Training
No time to practice guitar because work, studies or general life are taking up too much space in your head? Start some Mental Training then: it’s the instant problem solver whether you’re doing work, sport or leisure. This flowery 60s phrase sums up the idea pretty neatly, and the best thing about it is that you can use it to your advantage at any quiet moment.
Whether you’re in the car, at the bus stop, on your lunch break, or even on your daily jog, if you look for them, there are loads of little time windows you can use to rehearse and develop things like song structure, melody lines and even technical stuff in your own head. In there, of course, you can go as far as you want in thinking over the most important parts of your performance – just be careful you don’t damage anything if you go into subconscious air guitar mode!
This kind of brain training will make you feel more secure about the task at hand. It’ll break down everything you have to do into little manageable pieces, and with time the things you’ve initially been struggling with should become automatic and second nature. For all the noble goals of spontaneous rock ‘n’ roll, the security of being able to perform routine procedures in your sleep will never hurt you – training your head for the job is the only way to give your own mental creativity space to develop freely.
5. Turn it down a bit
It’s almost always the same: the younger and less experienced the band, the louder you’ll be on stage. OK, this might not the case 100% of the time, but usually, a group made up of older, more senior musicians will be much quieter onstage, with a more balanced band sound. But why is this?
Well, it’s a long road, being a musician for a lifetime, but time and experience generally show us that a controlled performance – one that exists to complement the overall musical result – is certainly more beneficial to everybody involved than the kind of routine that exists purely to dumbfound everyone else present (band and audience) with sheer volume and power.
That old “less is more” saying couldn’t be more relevant in this context. Its brings several advantages: you’ll hear yourself better, you’ll play better, the crowd in the first row won’t have their faces completely and unnecessarily melted, and – perhaps most crucially – the sound engineer will have a great basis to make your band sound great. If you’re all turned up to 11 on your respective instruments, this is never going to happen.
This tip will even hold true in the practice room, by the way. Because if you all turn down a bit, you’ll all have a more relaxed – and therefore hopefully more effective – evening’s playing. You’ve just got to be able to trust yourself to do it, and don’t be worried – everyone will still be able to hear you!
Follow these five tips, then, and before you’ve even got up on stage you’ll be giving yourself a head start when it comes to playing the shows of your life. We’ll be following this blog up in the next few weeks with some tips about the more physical side of Rock on Stage, but for now, why not drop us a line with some of your favorite bits of advice for playing live? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
First published: July 25 2014. Most recent update: October 16 2015.