As someone who has been doing gigs for thirty three years, in a band that has always been known for putting on a decent live show, I’ve picked up a few tips. I’ve been lucky along the way that when we started out we had a few mentors who gave us a few great pointers as to what a band should and shouldn’t do when playing live.
The first couple of Tips are for guitars.
The first person to give us some advice was none other than Hank Marvin of The Shadows. His son Paul was our drummer. He is a nice bloke and we were lucky enough to rehearse at his house. He had a jam with us and then spoke to myself and our other guitarist. He imparted one simple bit of advice, that any guitarist may wish to consider. When you are simply strumming chords and the singer is doing their bit, let him have the limelight. When you are doing your stuff, come to the front of the stage and try and engage the audience. He also said something which still resonates. The average punter doesn’t remember the most technically proficient lick you play, they remember the catchiest one. Therefore when you structure a solo, have a few easy to play catchy riffs in there somewhere, so you can avert your eyes from the neck of the guitar and make eye contact with the audience. People want to watch a show, not listen to a CD !
The second great tip came from Alan Warner, Lead Guitarist of the Foundations, who has been a mate for years, writes guitar books and used to run a recording studio. Alan said that in a live set, have a bit of variety of sounds. He said that if you are playing covers, it is vital not only to play the riffs correctly, but to have the right sound. That will make your band stand out from the crowd.
The next tips are for Drummers.
For many years top session drummer Frank Tonto, who has probably played with anyone who is anyone has used the studio for the odd bit of drum practice. Many years ago, when my band was doing our first gig with Tony Cavaye on drums, Tony was rather nervous. Frank advised Tony that the secret is to channel the nervous energy into your playing. He said that “Once you get through the first bar of the first sing, you are home and dry”. He told Tony to make sure that the first song we played was one he could play with his eyes closed. Leave the really complicated stuff for later in the show. We followed Franks advice and Tony played a blinder. As a rule of thumb, if the drummer plays well, the band plays well.
Another bit of advice he gave was to make sure that come what may, the drummer can always hear the bass. If he can’t, then you don’t have a rythm section that can work together. When you set up, bear this in mind.
And a great tip for bassplayers.
The dearly departed bass player in our band, Paul Hircombe, got some great advice from Ray Randall, bassplayer of The Tornados. Bass players rarely have the chance to shine in most bands. Ray told Paul that he should put work in with the drummer, without the rest of the band around. Just jam around a bit and learn to really groove.ray explained that sometimes at gigs things go wrong. If the drummer and the bass player are on the same wavelength, they can turn anything around. This was always a useful thing to have in the back pocket if a guitar string broke mid song or a lead cut out. If the band can jam around rather than having to stop, it shows the audience that they are in control.
And for vocalists.
There are many tips I’ve picked up over the years. We’ve had some truly sensational singers in our band. All of the best ones had two things in common. They could sing and they could handle an audience. It is vital for singers to look after their voice. If you don’t take care, it can fail on you. If the songs require you to push your voice, make sure you know the proper techniques to do this. Invest in a few lessons. Make sure you have some water if you need it. One singer I knew, used to drink his water from a Smirrnoff Vodka bottle as he felt Evian wasn’t rock and roll! If your voice fails mid gig, you won’t deliver a good show. Punters will go home and not come back and the venue will think twice before booking you.
As to “giving a performance” this is something individual. You could not possibly compare the performances of Madonna with Liam Gallagher, but both have star quality. An audience has a different expectation of what Madonna will deliver to Liam Gallagher. As a performer, you need to decide what sort of style of performer you will be. For vocalists, clothes, hair, dance moves, shades can all be defining features of the performance. Of course this is true of all band members, but for the singer there is no hiding place. When I’ve advised younger artists on what to do, I suggest they watch some Youtube videos of live performances by the stars they most want to emulate. Make a list of the six things they do, which you most like during the performance. Make a list of the clothes they wear and any hairstyle and makeup. Make notes on what they say to introduce songs and what they say when the song finishes. Then try and visualise yourself doing a gig and what aspects of that you can use. A good starting point is to adapt what has worked well for other people and evolve that for your own show.
One final tip is to also have something to say prepared for when a band member has to change a guitar, or do some other running repair. Nothing is worse than “embarrassing silences”
For the whole band.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts which I’ve picked up over the year.
1. Don’t have overlong pauses between songs. Try and limit the gap between songs to the time it takes to say “Thank you, this next song is called….”. Bear in mind for many songs the singer doesn’t sing for a few bars. he can have his drink of water whilst the rest of the band are playing. You should pre arrange that every 3rd/4th song he will give a little speel if you need to change guitars or have a drink. Try and get the instrumentalists to avoid “technical changes which involve “overlong” gaps between songs. As a rule of thumb, after ten seconds a dancefloor starts clearing if the next song isn’t starting.
2. Don’t moan about the soundman if you don’t like the sound. This is a classic mistake bands make. As far as you are concerned, he is God. If you irritate him, he can destroy you. Remember that he can’t hear what you can hear on stage. He can hear what the audience can hear. The stage sound is completely different. I’ve done the sound for many artists and it never ceases to amaze me that they don’t realise that you are not a mind reader. If you can’t hear, then ask for the monitors to be turned up. They are too low because the soundman doesn’t realise you can’t hear them. If this still doesn’t happen to your satisfaction, ask nicely again. Always ask before the show, what you can expect to hear in the monitors and sort it out at the soundcheck. If it is wrong, the soundman will only know if you tell him. I always buy the soundman a drink if he wants one and have a chat. It works wonders.
3. Don’t turn up late for the Soundcheck. If you do, you may not get one and then the soundman has no chance. It means you will not sound as good as you could.
4. Don’t have an overly complicated instrument set up, if you are a support band with a set time and a limited slot. A couple of years ago, our band played at the Waterats in Kings Cross. The band on before us had a fixed half hour slot and each band had a 12 minute set up time. They had about six keyboards and five different guitars for a four piece band. By the time they had got their equipment on stage, they only had 12 minutes of their set time left. They had 40 people in the audience, who were disappointed. By contrast, our five piece band set up in approx three minutes. It was a shared backline.
1. Work out the set list at the rehearsal before the gig. Work ou if any songs have overlong gaps between for instrument changes/adjustments. Make sure the singer has something to say if you do.
2. Speak to the promoter and find out what sort of crowd go to the venue and what sort of things have gone down well when the gig is booked. If there is any way you can tweak the set, that would be great. I will never forget playing a bike club rally in 1983 in Cambridgeshire. The President of the Bike club told us that it was his wifes birthday in passing and that she was fed up, because it had fallen on the bike club Rally. Her name was Jane and by coincidence, we used to do a Cover of Sweet Jane, by the Velvet Underground. When we played the song,we dedicated it to her and were doing it specially for her birthday. As it happened, it was one of her favourite songs and she was over the moon. Her husband was also over the moon, because he’d got off the hook. He gave us another £20, which was a decent amount of money back then. Since then I always, tried to do a bit of groundwork on the crowd, as best I could.
3. If you can afford it, get the vocalist and guitarists in the band to get decent wireless setups for gigs and always put new batteries in before the show, if you have any doubts about the battery life. This removes all manner of cables and means you can “have some fun”. I’d recommend a Shure SM58 beta UHF wireless system as the mic of choice.
4. If you want a good response, be prepared to shufle the set a little bit. Some audiences like slow, slushy songs, some don’t. be prepared to adjust slightly if something which normally works well, doesn’t get a great response. try and have a couple of substitue songs in the set.
5. Time the set, so you know how long it lasts. I’ve seen countless support bands who have saved their best song for the finale only to run out of time and not play it. If you know how long the set is, then that won’t happen. Allow a minute or two for problems. If you are running slow, drop the weakest song in the remaining numbers. Most venues will not let you run over.
I hope there is something useful in here. There can always be disasters that are unforeseen and cannot be avoided. We played a gig in Stockholm, where the PA blew up after three songs. That was that. In those situations, you just have to be philosophical, but for most things, you can put a bit of planning in.