Performing music live comes with many challenges, so the least thing you can do is be prepared! Because if you’ve got your guitar parts down so well you can play them in your sleep, you’ll be more relaxed on stage, you’ll perform better right from the first song, and you’ll possibly not even miss a beat when someone in the front row throws beer on to you, your precious FX pedals and your amp. This is how we do it…
As the David Gilmour in a Pink Floyd tribute band, it’s my job to faithfully replicate the great man’s playing as closely as I can (read more about that in detail here!).
Copying another guitarist in this way is certainly not the most creative six-string exercise you can do – but learning licks from the greats is something we’ve all done at some point. And one thing’s for sure: this gig has taught me some rather instructive lessons.
Learning from the greats
In fact, the vast majority of us guitarists would agree that borrowing from past masters is a good idea.
Recycling riffs and reinterpreting classics can school you in all four of the big Ts – taste, touch, timing and tone.
It’s unquestionably an important – if not the most important – step in the learning journey of a musician, because immersing yourself in the creative accomplishments of another artist helps give you a deeper insight into the philosophy behind their compositions.
It can even help decode some of the magic behind their mojo.
Muscle memory and learning parts
For my part, I’ve discovered something interesting while attempting to mimic the masters: I have no trouble playing a tricky part if I don’t think about what I’m playing and just let my fingers do the work (provided I’ve rehearsed the part until it’s second nature).
The notes seem to flow intuitively, as if I’ve programmed my subconscious mind. It’s like the source code of an operating system – never seen, but always running the show.
How to own the music you’re playing
If you’re able to submerge yourself in the part, infusing it with your style – which is often a product of your quirks, preferences and, yes, limitations – it feels like you’re taking ownership of the music.
And if your mind is free to embellish the part because you’re feeling it rather than faking it, you certainly succeeded in internalizing the composition and arrangement.
Doing all of the above on stage
All that’s great, but the moment I start thinking about what I’m doing on stage, it often ends in disaster.
A wrong note, a poorly phrased lick or – worst of all – a brief blackout is a seismic event that leaves me shaking.
I’m not a fan of mistakes, even if they are only human. And I hate my own, even if that’s not a good idea, as we will soon discover!
Practice makes perfect… almost
If you’re like me, you want to nail every note, and that pressure brings your subconscious fear to the fore.
Instead of relying on moves honed in countless practice sessions, the mind starts to panic in its frantic search for the right fret.
If you pause to think about how a lead part consists of a long string of notes that have to be played at the exact pitch at exactly the right time, then you start to appreciate what a complex performance you’re asking your brain to deliver.
The four big Ts (taste, touch, timing and tone, remember?) alone require a frightening amount of thought if you actually start thinking about them.
And if you do that at crunch time, you may just draw a blank and freeze up.
Your brain on autopilot
But there’s a silver lining. Much of what we do, we do subconsciously because the underlying processes are etched into our hard drives.
They’re so deeply ingrained that we can handle a little variation on each theme.
We don’t have to worry about all those synapses firing in the background, so we can perform simple-yet-complex operations such as breathing, eating, walking, mowing the lawn, driving and drinking beer without a lot of conscious deliberation.
And this works in our favor when we’re playing guitar.
Just play it!
As Charlie Parker, jazz saxophone master and boss-man of bebop, so succinctly put it: “Master your instrument, master the music, then forget all that bullshit and just play.”
Perhaps that’s the solution. Be as relaxed and loose as you can possibly be, and as focused and concentrated as necessary – that’s the Zen-like mindset you ought to be aiming for when you take the stage.
If you’re relaxed and you do make a mistake, you’ll be able to save the moment with a slick move.
As Miles Davis, the Jimi Hendrix of the trumpet, famously said, “If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”
Or, you know, just play the wrong note twice so people think it’s the right one.
Stage fright before show time
We all know that sinking feeling five minutes before the show starts and you suddenly can’t recall the first notes or chords of the intro. Stage fright has struck.
So you start fumbling away, hoping that it will all come back to you backstage in the dark.
By all means, run through that part once more if it gives you confidence.
But when you step up to the bandstand, chill and let the music flow. A bandmate of mine once said that the parts that gave you the most trouble in rehearsal, and therefore require countless takes from the top, always seem to click best on stage.
Turns out that he was right, and there’s a lesson in that.
So put in the hard work; then rely on the chops that you’ve practiced over so many hours, and seize the moment with all the swagger of a rock star!
A bad note is not the end of the world
And if something unforeseen happens or you miss your cue, brush it off.
It’s not a train wreck. Most people in the audience are there to have a good time and don’t get off on counting mistakes.
And if you do get one of those fault-finding fools at your gig, remember this: it’s you and your crew, and not that ungracious critic, who put in the energy and effort to be able to perform on stage in front an audience.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor, because playing live for your fellow man and woman is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world for us musicians.
Don’t worry, be happy
So if you make a mistake, be happy about it. Seriously!
Any slip-up at this gig will make you more confident at the next.
As much as they hurt in the moment, mistakes are the building blocks of experience and, later down the road, the gateway to musical magic.
The best lessons are often painful, and those are only learned through trial and error. And like pain, mistakes serve a very important evolutionary function.
So feel the burn and evolve.
Now forget everything you’ve learned, grab your guitar and let it rip! That’s what I’m going to do, if only I could recall how that part goes…
First published: February 17 2017. Most recent update: February 17 2017.