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.
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Very interesting. I am an old music veteran, 54…been playing for ever and have always been acclaimed as an excellent guitarist. But my challenge begun in January 2019 when decided to challenge my self with very intense shredding techniques. Been practicing 3 hours a day, have archived over 150bpm laying 16th on chromatic scales, over 200bpm legato riffs. Yet…I haven’t been able to execute the same result I front of my audience. I finally realized this is a cognitive situation. My expectations to demonstrate where I am at now while playing live create this horrible tension that paralyzes my fingers.
And it’s very interesting to hear your experiences of this too, Peter! Especially someone who has been doing this guitar thing for so long, but is now changing up their approach. Such a big difference can be daunting.
The way we see it is this. A lot of live stuff – and particularly challenging techniques, like fast shred – is down to your level of comfort on stage, and your muscle memory. It seems like if you were more relaxed, you’d think about everything less and the riffs would just fly out without conscious thought on your part. Also, if you’re trying to recreate live techniques that are on the very edge of your abilities, that’ll make things harder. Once those 200 bpm speeds are second nature to you (maybe once you’ve masted 220 or even 240 bpm!) we reckon you’ll play them on stage a lot more fluently.
Those are just our thoughts though! Guitar is a constant learning process, even for those who’ve played for decades.
I jumped in at the deep end straight away. I was a total beginner in a local Guitar Group, who perform at local events such as Fetes, Churches, Gala Days etc. I couldn’t play a chord, lol. For a few months I sat at the back learning chords, then strumming patterns etc, until I could do it confidently. Then I started doing Intros & short riffs, at first my hands were shaking & I missed notes, but over about 6 months I got a lot better & now I do intros & riffs for quite a few songs. I think I was worrying before a Gig & when a song with an Intro was due I’d be nervous If I thought about it too much. Now I can get to the song & not really think about it & just do it. Now I’m actively looking for riffs & solos to add to songs. The audience seem to appreciate them.
That’s actually a really good way of doing it Kevin – just get out there and go for it! And you’re right, the more you do it, the more automatic it all becomes, and the more comfortable you get with performing in front of a live audience. And in six more months, we reckon you’ll be taking all the solos!
Stage fright… butterflys. Always, every time for 40+yrs. Know your gear is tuned and ready. Know your starting note. Know your singing note. TAKE the stage. Finish the segueway. Wait for the count-in… then drop into the groove. Butterflys… GONE… you’re too busy being a professional by then. End, wait, then revel in the applause, and on to the next. Wash, rinse, and repeat. thx, C.
Yep, it’s funny how the nerves can go away as soon as you strike that first chord! Especially if you’re well prepared – if not, forget about it.
Even though you’re a good guitar player performing on stage is a different thing. You always get butterflies in your stomach. But after striking your first chord and you find the audience enjoying then you’re good to go.
I remember when i had my first performance, i was so nervous in front of the crowd. With the tips you have given in your post, i know next time i will be very courageous. Thanks
The more you do it, the easier it will be 🙂 Good luck!
A quick tip on Stage-gitters: Since I am usually most nervous at the very beginning of the gig, we always put an “easy song” as the first song of the night. Something that is nearly impossible to mess up. Additionally, a song that has a strong rythem helps the entire band concentrate on the beat and coming together. For example, Ain’t no rest for the wicked by Cage the Elephant is what we frequently use as our first song.
This is a super-practical and useful idea Tom, and actually one we’ve used too. Kicking off a set with Livewire by AC/DC was always a great way to get warmed up without worrying about fluffing anything in the all-important first minute, especially for the bass player 😉 Plus something like that can actually help you build tension and momentum in your set, and get that rhythm going, so it works in a few ways!
One key point never mentioned in your article, that I find is vital…. learn how to breathe. Seriously.
We all do it constantly just to stay alive, but actually doing therapeutic deep abdominal and chest breathing is something you definitely need to practice like meditation, before your gig… Just as you spend time practicing scales, chords, rhythmic timing, and technique, and it may help defuse the counterproductive stage jitters enormously.
Two different guitar teachers I’ve had, recommended the same book, which offers useful exercises on deep breathing and meditation: “Effortless Mastery”, by Kenny Werner. Great read, and useful philosophies and approach to practice and performance.
You’re right Brian, and that’s a great point – breathing is a key thing we should have mentioned here! Get your breathing in check and focusing on the other stuff also becomes that much easier. We’re putting that book on our Christmas list this year 🙂
One sure cure of stage fright….imagine everyone in the audience wiping their ass!
Works for me..
Ha ha, we’ve heard about imagining the audience naked, but is is one step further 😉 Still, whatever works for you Scott 😉
Great read. You guys are the only manufacturer I know that also has a blog. I’ve been eyeing a few Grandmeister 36’s for a couple months, and your blog with real advice makes me want to support your brand that much more.
Thanks for the kind words Cole. We’re guitar players too at the end of the day, and we just want to use our site to help out other guitarists as much as we can 🙂 We’re happy you’re getting something good out of it, and we hope you love the GM36 when you try it!
Great, thanks!! Bizarrely there’s a technique (be careful with this) where if you’re nervous try and make a mistake and you don’t. I’ve tried this and it works! Reverse psychology….
Nerves are nothing to be afraid of.
Hmm, interesting technique Richard – we might have to try this one 🙂 But we could look daft if it doesn’T work for us 😉
great and funny stuff, indeed, but what is stage fright, when you are married? 🙂 but you’re right, when the first song is finished, stage fright goes! It’s like a fart – you know long before that it is uncomfortable, and when it’s finally over, you’re happy 🙂
We don’t know how to answer that Huey… but you’re right 😉
Cheers for another great blog guys, I learn so much from this site! My first gig was the worst for nerves, but it’s like Mike Scott says, after the first song it goes away and you don’t think about it anymore. The next gig is a little bit easier, and the next one too, and nowawadays I just get like a nervous energy before I go onstage. I find that if I don’t get nervous at all before, I probably won’t play as well as if I do!
Glad you’re enjoying the blog Ben, and that it’s useful for you! It’s funny, but we know what you mean about playing worse if you don’t actually get nervous before a show – always a bad sign 😉 Anyone else experienced this? Maybe it’s because if you’re not so bothered, you get less of an adrenalin kick and put less into it, or something… Would love to know if there’s a more scientific explanation for this 🙂