Now, I realize some reading this have no intention or desire to play in front of anyone beyond their immediate family (and maybe not even them). Which is just fine; the reactions of others are really not the way you should gauge your results or the quality of your music, and in the end, just who is it you’re playing for? If you immediately say, “why, myself or course!” you are on the right track.
With that in mind, first I’ll delve into the nuts and bolts of being prepared and how that plays a huge part in the way a performing guitarist is perceived by the audience. The reactions the player can expect to get are variable enough from the get-go, so why start with battling the perception the guy with the guitar looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I’ve seen many supposedly professional guitarists spend way too much time fiddling and diddling with their gear before they play a note. To anyone watching, such a waste of their attention may prove to be fatal no matter how accomplished the player might be. Do a thorough inspection of your gear and of course a very brief sound check well before you intend to start your show. Even with a simple set-up like I use (plugged in guitar, small amp, a few pedals to tweak the sound; a mic, capo, tuner, picks and the all-important bottle of water close at hand) there are always details that must be double checked well before I play. Doing so gives me a few minutes to relax and confirm the first few tunes I’ll be playing.
How important is it to know what tunes you’ll be playing? For me, very important. I’ve played with some excellent musicians who abhor set lists, viewing them as an exercise that stifles creativity. Well, I guess that can be true to a point. In spite of having set lists - especially when I’m playing with one of my students at the Brew - there must be some leeway. Fulfilling requests if at all possible is one time you should always stray from a set list; it’s the best way I know to get the listeners on your side. But NOT having a set list or at least a list of your songs in view (with things such as capo settings) often leads to uncomfortable gaps between songs. DO….NOT….WASTE….TIME…..BETWEEN….SONGS!!! In my opinion, that is the number one shortcoming of most bands and single performers I see. In casual settings that are not anything like a “real” concert the attention of the listener can slip away very quickly. And it can be really, really hard to get it back. Talking to the audience between songs is another thing altogether and these days it is something of a lost art, sad to say. The best performers I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear - both seasoned and sometimes very well known, down to the local guy banging out some tunes, all of them know that there is no better way to establish a connection. Don’t overdo it, though. Random banter can be fun but the people listening want to hear more music!
In conclusion regarding audience perception, really the best way to seem like you know what you’re doing - even if you don’t….a little anyway…. is to do your best to give off a positive vibe. The listeners are on your side and if you look like you’re having a good time, they will too. It’s really as simple as that. Don’t ever, ever apologize for mistakes. Make light of them if you can, or just pretend they didn’t happen.
Now, on to the question of how the performer stays prepared to ensure he or she looks like they know what they are doing.
You must expect mysterious glitches will happen, even if you didn’t change a thing during and after your previous gig. This is why I normally bring along two of everything, within reason of course. The more electronics you use, the better the chances something will go wrong. It’s almost always something mundane and basic: a connecting cord that suddenly decides to quit carrying a signal; a power cord that you didn’t connect or didn’t push hard enough into a socket; a digital tuner that needs a new battery (remember how you said you were going to change that after your last gig?).
The most well-known glitch that goes back to the days - OK, centuries - before any electronics were even in existence: a broken string. Although I don’t have that happen very often these days because I change my strings frequently and don’t strum as hard as I once did, it still rattles me because it’s so shocking when it happens. It was doubly bad when I played an electric guitar about 50% of the time when I was performing with bands because the difference in tension on the neck on an electric guitar when a string breaks knocks most of the other strings totally out of tune. So the choice was: keep going and hope no one noticed how out of tune I sounded or finish the song ASAP and get right to the string change. Little side note here. Always always, always, have a spare set of strings close at hand, maybe a pair of needle nose pliers too.
Seasoned players know how to take that in stride and if you can, chat up the audience while you’re changing the string. I’ve mentioned this before in this space, but one of the most remarkable things I ever witnessed happened when I was playing with a singer/songwriter and we were at Passim in Cambridge, opening for the legendary Tom Rush. It was my first time playing that very, very prestigious club and I could tell a hundred stories about the five nights we played there but they are for another time.
Almost at the start of a song, Tom broke a string. He finished the song without batting an eye but the dangling string was obvious to everyone in attendance. Without any fanfare, Tom took a new string out of his case and went through the process, all the while telling the jokes he is famous for and never letting on he was doing anything out of the ordinary. And then he did the most remarkable thing: he tuned up again while STILL joking with the crowd and then immediately launched into his next song! Remember - this was well before the days of digital tuners clipped on the headstock; he had to do it completely by ear. It blew me away and when I mentioned it to him after the show he just smiled and said something like: yeah, I’ve had to do that a few times. (!)
He was…..prepared. And the audience appreciated it, even if they didn’t know it, if that makes any sense.
Looking like you are in control 100% of the time is vital if you want to be perceived as a professional, even if you’re not!
Peace & good music,