If you’re going to just sit around the backyard fire pit or a campsite or on a beach somewhere, no problem; what you hear is what you’ll get. Just keep in mind that sunlight, wind, heat from camp fires and humidity are potentially problematic for your guitar. If you can afford a “beater” that sounds OK, my advice is to leave your nicer instrument safe at home. I speak from experience on this! My first “good” guitar, a 1970 Martin D-35 went with me everywhere and exposure to the variables I mentioned probably contributed to it needing some major repairs like a neck reset after a few short years. But I do have some great memories of those times so it may have been worth it. Maybe.
I knew a bar owner many years ago in Newport, Rhode Island who had what would now be considered a vintage Martin D-28 that was essentially the house guitar at his bar. The poor thing spent plenty of days sitting out on the dock outside his bar or lying on the deck of his sailboat moored there and although it had many, many battle scars it held together and played just fine. So I guess there are exceptions!
Anyway, assuming you are going to be performing in a bit more of a serious setting and you’re planning to use some sort of amplification here are a few things to consider.
The first thing, which may seem obvious but is often overlooked is access to power. This allows you to use amps and PA systems. But I’ve played many gigs where a convenient outlet was nowhere nearby and because of this I always bring along multiple long heavy duty extension cords, plus a power strip or two (if I’m playing with others who need to plug in). Also, throw a 3-prong to 2-prong converter in your gig bag. Hopefully you won’t need it – ungrounded outlets are a definite hazard – but at least here on the Cape where there are many very old houses I’ve needed the converters more than once. Just be very, very careful to avoid touching a mic and an amplified guitar at the same time if you’ve forced to use ungrounded power.
There are some small battery powered amps and even small battery powered PAs out there but to be honest, I’ve never heard one that comes close in sound to a powered system. I own a Roland AC-33 that is….. OK. At best. If I’m forced to use it (as I will be when playing a beach wedding in a couple weeks) I’ll make the best of things but I’m not thrilled at the situation. When I was in Italy last year I head a very good street musician who was using a high end amp that was powered by a 12-volt battery with power converter. His sound was outstanding but lord, I don’t want to lug all that stuff!
You will probably find that the settings on your amp and/or PA when playing indoors will need some tweaking when playing outdoors and this goes beyond additional volume. One of the most common mistakes I hear from players outdoors is boosting the volume without turning down the bass end a bit. It’s easy for the bass end to overwhelm the balance with then the amp is turned up much higher than you’re used to. Have a friend stand some distance back in the area where your listeners will be and do a sound check. Even with personal monitors (recommended!) it’s almost impossible to get an accurate idea from the player’s perspective of what is actually being heard out front.
And that gets to speaker placement. Unless you are fortunate enough to own one of the new Bose L1 systems that have no feedback even when placed directly behind the performer you risk feedback from regular speakers when they are behind you. This can be mitigated somewhat by using an equalizer and a limiter but these things will affect the sound quality overall. My quest always has been and always will be to get the most natural sound possible from both my acoustic guitar and my voice. This can best be accomplished with good quality mics but feedback is even more of an issue with mics compared to plugging an acoustic/electric in directly. The giveaway is sound quality. This is part of my quest!
If I’m using a PA and I don’t have access to monitors I will place my speakers fairly close to me and at least parallel to where I’ll be sitting or standing. I’ll often try to “cheat” a bit and move them slightly behind me, which helps. Omni-directional mics are a must. But finding that optimum point where I can hear what’s coming out of the speakers and not get feedback is a challenge each and every time.
This gets me to the last little bit of advice. If at all possible, show up at least an hour or so before your performance. That way you can deal with the little problems that are sure to happen: physical set up location limitations, equipment glitches, and many other things. I probably don’t need all the extras I carry along, from cords to strings to power outlets to even such mundane items as clothes pins to hold my music to a stand if it’s windy but experience has shown that it’s better to have these things than not.
In a perfect world I have a professional sound guy to worry about these things and I just show up, tune up, plug in and play. But that ain’t happenin’ any time soon!
So, enjoy the outdoor playing experience! It’s fun and organic, for lack of better description. Just be prepared for some surprises because you WILL get them when you play outdoors.
Peace & good music,