I have some definite opinions on this subject! After playing in dozens of bands, trios, duos, and as a single performer in just about every venue you can imagine I’ve come to conclusions about what works and what doesn’t for performing musicians when it comes to their overall “look”.
The most important aspect should be – but sadly is often not – comfort. How hot or cold will the performance venue be? Will those conditions change over the course of your performance? Many years ago when I was involved with a local folk music venue that featured an un-insulated performance space heated by a big old pot belly stove, I watched virtuoso guitarist Guy Van Duser perform an entire show wearing wool fingerless gloves! Conversely, I have played shows when it was so hot that sweat made fretting the neck of my guitar a huge chore. I now know to always have a handkerchief or a dry wash cloth close by when I’m performing in hot places.
But what about clothes? I don’t want a shirt with tight sleeves to impede my playing so I always wear something loose or sleeveless if the temperature permits, or a comfortable sweater if it is cooler. Pants – same deal, the more comfortable the better, within reason. But hardly ever shorts (more on that in a minute). Footwear is often overlooked but if you’re going to be standing while you play (and you should – more on that in a minute too). Tony is partial to Crocs apparently, setting himself up for some interesting comments from his friends but if that’s the worst good-natured criticism a performer gets, consider it a victory!
The much larger question I think is this: just what kind of image do you want to project? I will break this down into men’s outfits and women’s outfits and at this point I’m pretty sure I’ll offend someone. But here goes.
Let’s begin with what men wear when they perform. Now, I’m not talking about rock stars who take things to extremes (think Steve Tyler vs. Iggy Pop), no, I mean the average performing guitarist whether it be a non-professional or a work-a-day musician in your local bar, coffee house or at a local festival of some sort. Their clothes choices are often a reflection of the type of music they are playing and their audience. Some extremes that I see all the time are the guys who do singles at various bars and think it’s just fine to wear baggy cargo shorts, flip-flops, a baggy wife-beater shirt (usually with big numbers on it) and a baseball cap on backwards. Their clothing statement is most likely – hey, I’m a regular slob just like you! Keep drinking, shout out the chorus to “Wagon Wheel” when I play it and we’ll get along just fine! More power too ‘em, I guess. There is certainly an audience for this judging by the dozens of these type performers who play every day and night in places like Key West. Are they taken seriously? Hell, no. But that’s not what they are all about. I get it. I just don’t choose to do it.
On the other end of the spectrum are classical guitarists who almost always wear ties and jackets when they perform. “This is serious music!” they seem to be saying with their look. This too is fine. A concert featuring classical guitar music is a world apart from a rowdy bar. I guess I just wonder about the value of being so darned uncomfortable when you play? Or maybe they’re just used to it. But jazz players who adopt that look exude coolness. Curious, yes?
OK, here’s where I’m really going to get into trouble. What women wear when they perform is a weighty subject (no pun intended. Damn. I’m in trouble already.) Women most definitely give much more thought to what they will wear in front of an audience. I once played in a band with a woman lead singer who would routinely change her clothes at least once right before every gig we ever played because something was just not “right”. She looked fine to me, but being married for many years I have learned that there is basically no correct answer when a woman asks you how she looks. Some women performers I’ve seen seem to think they need to show a bit too much, perhaps to keep the interest of the audience? Others go in the opposite direction and wear things like baggy, faded overalls. I know I said earlier that comfort is all-important but there are ways to accomplish this without looking like you just left the barn after mucking a few horse stalls.
You can make the argument that all this really doesn’t matter much at all. It’s all about the music, right? If your performance is solid and your audience responds then who cares what you look like? To me the bottom line is demonstrating respect for your listeners with every aspect of your performance and how you look up there is part of it.
But I must confess that I finally found a vest I like that I often wear when I perform these days, with a white shirt and nice jeans. Because Marcus Mumford just looks so damn cool.
Peace & good music,