It’s normal to get nervous before you play your guitar in front of people, be it a crowd of three or 300. In fact, a bit of nerves will probably even make you perform better. But too much stage fright can have the opposite effect, and stop you being best the guitar player you can be. Here, then, we look at why stage fright can be so, well, frightening, and give you some cool tips fighting, conquering and overcoming your nerves before you rock the stage!
OK, admit it. When did you last you suffer from stage fright?
If you’re a guitarist – or indeed, any kind of music maker – who’s ever played live, chances are you’ve experienced pre-show jitters as you wait around for showtime before taking those long steps up to the stage.
It’s a strange, unnerving experience with cold feet, clammy palms, weak knees, a racing heart, frayed nerves and that sinking feeling that everything you put so much work into learning has been wiped from your mind.
Now how did that tricky transition from the bridge to the chorus go? Drawing a blank when you’re expected to deliver is never pleasant, but the stage has to be one of the worst places for a brain-freeze.
Why we get scared before a show
Stage fright sucks.
Once your confidence heads south, even a long, thorough soundcheck may not help you get your groove back. Rehearsals prepare you for gigs, but they still can’t simulate that moment when the drummer starts counting off in front of a crowd.
It’s especially dispiriting when the band sounds terrible in that empty, cavernous hall during a soundcheck. Or when you’re worried about fussing with your new pedal’s unfamiliar controls, concerned about your restrung guitar’s tuning, or fretting over that new song you still haven’t fully mastered (a failing you’d never admit to your band mates).
And then there’s that pesky in-ear system that sometimes sounds so puny and leaves you feeling like you’re playing in a vacuum. Or that wireless harness that lets you down in the worst possible moments.
And to make matters worse, your new girlfriend, guitar teacher and music police-minded classmates just texted to let you know that they’re on their way and will be watching your every move.
Even the pros get nervous
There are many things that can give you the fear shortly before a concert kicks off.
And even if that sense of all-out panic starts to evaporate after the first song, stage fright is a specter that can linger.
It’s not just amateur musicians who struggle with that particular demon; even professionals are not entirely free of it. Even in the classical world, we’ve heard that drink and drugs are commonplace, with players in symphonic orchestras routinely reaching for beta-blockers or alcohol to deaden their dread before big concerts.
In the worst case, this fear of failure can be pathological, which is why the American Psychiatric Association has recognized music performance anxiety as a type of disorder.
Here’s what Mike Scott, guitarist with pop behemoth Justin Timberlake, has to say on pre-gig nerves:
What can we do to beat stage fright?
Something needs to be done about this; fortunately there are things we can do to ease the anxiety and keep the panic at bay.
We can start by looking at stage fright as an asset and embracing it for that boost of nervous energy it can give us. If we believe we’re too strong to let it torment us, a healthy helping of angst can be an excellent sparring partner because it challenges us to give it our best.
But you have to face the enemy and take the fight to the fright.
If you take it lying down, fear will kick your ass. But if you take the initiative, you can let your opponent’s momentum propel your performance and music to another level.
So let’s start with the fundamentals: attitude and equipment!
Have a guitar and amp sound you can rely on
First, you want to avoid taking the stage with any doubts about your sound not being up to scratch or that the balance of the various instruments’ levels isn’t quite right.
If you can’t hear yourself properly, you won’t be able to perform to the best of your abilities. On the flipside, if all the audience can hear is a blaring 4×12 cab, even the best of your abilities will go unappreciated. Trust us on that one.
For me, peace of mind starts with the certainty that I’ve got a good guitar sound.
The conviction that my trusty backline will deliver the tonal goods in ways that I know and love defuses a lot of my pre-gig jitters. It’s not hard to tell which amp is the right amp – quite simply, it’s the one you feel most comfortable using!
Keep your guitar fit for the stage
If you want to rock solidly, you’ll need some rock-solid wood and wire.
Make sure your guitar is set up well and change strings at least a day before (read how to do an awesome job of that here) the gig so you’ll have plenty of time to stretch out all the residual elasticity. Personally, I like to put a new set of strings through one band rehearsal and lots of wild bending before I play a show with them.
They may not sound quite as bright and fresh, but I find the tuning stability comforting.
Don’t settle for anything less than a good monitor signal during the soundcheck.
Whatever you source may be – an in-ear monitor or floor wedge – make sure at least one primary harmony instrument (a second guitar, keyboards or the like), a timekeeping component (snare, hi-hat), and the bass are always audible in your monitor.
Without these references to guide you, you’ll be flying blind and may find it hard to stay on course, harmonically and rhythmically.
By the way, we’ve done another blog that’ll help get you through the soundcheck process as smoothly as possible – read that here.
Practice makes perfect
Practice the difficult parts in your set more often than things you can do in your sleep.
Of course, it’s a lot more fun to play songs and parts that come naturally or that you’ve thoroughly mastered. However, every additional minute you’ve spent practicing a tricky part will pay dividends when it’s crunch time on stage.
Always play like you’re rocking the stage
Here’s a tip that the great Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi first gave nearly 400 years ago: how you train is how you will fight.
If you want to vanquish the foe that is fear, you have to perform practical exercises that condition your responses in concert situations.
This is best done by replicating the gig scenario in your rehearsal room.
If the space is large enough, set up your equipment exactly as you intend to do later on stage. This should accustom you to the setting and sound.
If your rehearsal room can accommodate a couple of people, invite them over for a condensed concert so you can practice in front of an audience.
Take it from me; a private little concert like this is perfect for exorcising the demons of dread.
But make sure you invite people who can be expected to listen with an open mind and trusted to keep their critique constructive.
Goodbye stage fright!
Do all these things, and I’m confident that you’ll soon temper, if not tame, your music performance anxiety.
And one last recommendation: it always helps to talk about it, so don’t be afraid to share your worst, weirdest or wildest experience with stage fright.
We’re looking forward to your stories about cold feet, clammy hands and a knotty stomach!
First published: May 13 2016. Most recent update: December 22 2016.