Thursday, 1 April 2010

How to play a damn good gig

Of course, all of this is my opinion and is garnered from my own meandering experience, but take from it what you will and add what you think is missing.
Too many times I’ve been to gigs and been disappointed by otherwise good bands. Writing songs and playing them in front of a crowd is one thing, but playing a good gig…well, that can be a whole new kettle of fish.
I’ll just start with a list of ideas, and then embellish them as I go:

1) Practise
Goes without saying really, but I’m surprised by how many bands even do this wrong. Don’t even think about booking that gig until you practise your metaphorical set enough times that there aren’t any moments where you all stop and say “lets go over that bit again”. If you’re playing a new song at that gig, practise that the most, then practise that with the rest of the set until it feels as played-in as the other songs. And for god’s sake, don’t announce at the gig that “this is a new song so it might be a little wobbly when we play it”. Nobody cares about your new song if you can’t even play it! You want to announce “Hey! This is our new song and its the most ass-kicking thing we’ve ever written!”, and then prove yourself right.

2) Set List
Make sure you time all of your songs, give them a rough length (with some “give or take” seconds either side to accomodate for playing it faster/slower on the night), and then give yourselves an extra 5-10 minutes to your combined song lengths to take into account the gap between songs where you may change instruments/tunings, talk to the crowd, have a quick sip of water, etc. Don’t remember your set length to the second, or you’ll be sitting there before each gig with a calculator adding meaningless seconds together; round each song to the nearest minute or half-minute. Remember that set times aren’t always exact anyway, but always calculate a set that is below your allocated set time. There is nothing cool about playing longer than your alloted set time, nobody likes it and it annoys the organisers, sound people, the venue and the other bands.
Take time to construct a good set order. This can be tough for a first gig, sometimes it takes 2 or 3 gigs to see what songs invoke what reaction from the crowd and where its best to place them. The order of the set depends on your band and what impact you want your band to make. Its a good idea to start with a blazing opener that’s not too long and is representative of your band’s sound, and finish with something upbeat which has a strong ending and makes the crowd want more; the best gigs I’ve been to are where once the last song was played, I felt that the set wasn’t long enough because it was so good it flew by too quickly!
Of course, there are exceptions, this rule is just a general “one size fits all” that tends to work with most bands. With my own band, because we are a bit more progressive (or “up-our-own-arses”) and have longer songs, we tend to open with a song called “Monolith” which, as the title suggests, is about 7 minutes and takes a while to build up. It allows the crowd to warm up into us and, especially at earlier gigs, gives them time to realise a band is playing and get into the live room. There’s nothing worse than playing a blazing opening song only to finish and see people still walking in!

3) Gear and setup

This bit is directed especially at guitar players. You’re all too loud, you have the wrong amp and its at the wrong settings. When there’s more than one of you, one is always too loud and it’s generally the wrong one. You have too many pedals and you take too long to set them up. Rant rant rant…
Its simply not good enough that you have your own stuff and it sounds good in your bedroom. Particularly in metal bands, you know that “scooped” sound where you crank the gain, turn the mids down and it sounds chunky and washy? Its rubbish. The electric guitar is an instrument which is designed to sit in the mid-range frequencies with the vocals – cut out the mids and you’re left with the bass and treble frequencies, and nobody can hear you over the drums and the bass guitar.
Speaking of bass, just because it has “bass” in the name does not mean that it’s required to turn the bass knob as loud as possible. Low bass frequencies can create an overwhelming “boomy” sound which not only shakes the venue into oblivion but also drowns out everything in existence. Bass players want a punchy and defined sound, so play with those lower mids and be careful with that bass control.
The worst part about guitar players is their love of being loud. I know this, I am a guitarist myself. I am aware of power amp saturation and how good it sounds, but if you went out and bought a 100+ watt amp then be prepared to probably never hear that much power amp saturation. The truth is, you guys don’t need to be that loud at a gig. Even at larger gigs, chances are your amp will be mic’d up anyway so the uber-headroom loud noises you dream of will elude you until you’re playing a stadium. My main live amp is a 50 watt Laney which sounds brilliant, and ever since the first time I got a 50 watt amp I have never once thought about going above that power rating.
If you have a solid state/transistor amp, you don’t want to be that loud anyway. Power clip on SS amps just sounds horrible.
If there are two guitarists, make sure that you have practised with your gear in a practise room where you’re able to set your levels to “gig volume”. Getting the balance right is tricky and takes a lot of compromise, especially with the size of most guitarists’ egos. Just remember that the average joe probably won’t care about how tricky that guitar riff is or how awesome the major 7 inversion you play in the verse is. Whats important at the live gig is hearing the vocalist clearly and hearing the groove. Once the kick drum, snare, bass and vocal levels are set right, you have the formla for a great live sound. As far as guitars go, they have to fit into that template – basing a live sound around the guitars is useless unless you’re an instrumental guitar-noodly type like Steve Vai.

With regards to my band, a lot of our setup is stripped back for a great live sound. We are a three piece, with guitar bass and drums (and the guitar player making some attempt at vocals >_>). We know our levels, and we know how to set our gear so that the bass and guitar parts compliment each other rather than compete with each other. We don’t have many effects, except the odd fuzz pedal or boost for certain sections of songs. The sound guy loves us because we take about 5 minutes to soundcheck and get a good sound, and as a result people have told me that we sound pretty huge for a 3 piece band.
If you can get your live setup down to a T, the sound guy will love you and will be able to work with your sound to get the best mix possible. No matter how much of a douche the sound guy may be, be nice to him. Good or bad, he is there to make you sound good, and he can only do that if you cooperate.

4) During the gig
Talk to the crowd. Please, please, please for the love of god, talk to the crowd. Especially if you’re new to the scene. We want to know who you are, we want to know what the next song is called, we want to know what you wrote it about. We want to be able to approach you afterwards and tell you how much we enjoyed your set, we want to know where you’re playing next and what your website is.
The whole “mystical silent band” is no way to get a fanbase rolling. If nobody knows anything about you, why would they turn up to your next gig? If you come off stage and just hang around your friends and isolate yourself from everyone else, how will you know what the crowd thought? By all means, don’t go out approaching people and asking them how amazing they thought you were. But let yourselves be approachable, and let people have a quick chat. You’re not too busy to have a quick word with anybody, especially if they want to tell you how good you were.
Talk whilst you’re on stage too. Ask everyone how they are, what they thought of the band before you or how excited they are about the band after you. Mentioning the other bands at the gig is a definite “must say”, the other bands will like it and will probably give you a shout out when they’re up. Say what the songs are called, tell them what they’re about. After all, a live band needs to have personality, and this doesn’t need to reflect the music. You don’t have to be a badass if you’re in a metal band, you don’t have to be enigmatic and creepy if you’re in some ambient electro rock band. Killswitch Engage are one of my favourite live bands to watch, because even though they’re chuggingly heavy, they have an immaculate sense of humour and they don’t take themselves so seriously that they can’t have fun on stage.

5) Watch the other bands
Chances are, one of the other bands offered you a slot on the gig. Pay your respects and stick around to watch them. Watch all the bands, don’t just leave after your set (unless its something urgent like another gig). If the other bands have stuck around to see what you’re like and then once they’re on stage they can’t spot you in the crowd, what do you think that says about you? If they see you at the front listening to their music, then they’ll do the same for you, either at this gig or the next. Watch their set, then approach them and tell them what you thought. Be honest too – whilst a band may not appreciate a stream of abuse about how much you hated their music, they also don’t appreciate a string of brown-nosing comments that aren’t genuine. I know that personally I have really appreciated when people came up to me after a gig and told me what was wrong with a set as much as what was good about it. Bands always strive to improve themselves, so constructive criticism is good! If a band isn’t always striving to improve themselves, then watch them fail…

That’s all I can think of for now, my brain’s a bit exhausted and I’m starting to rant a bit too much. I hope my advice is useful to some people, and if anyone wants to expand, add or even contradict what I’ve written, feel free!

Keep loving music,

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