As a guitarist, I’ve definitely played my fair share of live gigs. I’ve clocked anywhere between 400-600 shows (and I hope to make that number much larger). When playing shows, everything moves faster and faster until it’s your time to play, and at that point, there are a number of things that you shouldn’t have done to make sure that the show flows as smoothly as possible.

1. Bring only one guitar

I used to bring only one guitar to my shows. My thought at the time was “I love my guitar and wouldn’t want to have to ever play another one” so I figured that as long as I’ve put a new set of strings on fairly recently everything would be fine. This was quite possibly one of the stupidest lines of thinking I could have at the time! With that mindset, I played many shows where I would be praying to the gods of rock that my strings don’t break. And of course, the shows where my strings did break, thus forcing me to readjust my parts and playing on the fly (not to mention having the entire guitar kicked out of tune by a quarter step).

2. Forget to tune

I am OCD when it comes to tuning my guitar. There have been countless times on the road (in fact, most times) where I would be watching the other bands play before or after our set, and invariably, when something wasn’t sounding good, it was either the guitar or bass that were out of tune. At that point, the singer doesn’t really have a solid base to jump off of so that invariably, there is a lot of crappiness coming out of the speakers. If most guitar players kept their instruments in tune this wouldn’t happen nearly as much. I tune between every song, and even during parts that I’m not playing. If I’m super out of tune I will opt to tune my instrument rather then play.

3. Bring only one instrument cable

This is another big no-no. I cannot count the number of times where an instrument cable has crapped out on me (or my bandmates). The first thing to always check when you have a rig emergency (eg., your sound disappears), after checking to make sure you didn’t lose power, is to check your instrument cables. It is now second nature to me – as it should be for you! As well, having extra cables on hand will give you points especially if you have to lend it out to a headlining act (if you’re an opener).

Speaking of interesting side stories about opening up for bigger bands, one just popped into my head. MKIO used to carry our own sound system on the road for crazy situations. It wasn’t much, but it serves as a great emergency backup if for whatever reason the venue doesn’t have a sound system ready to go for the show. We were opening up for 16 Volt in Sacramento, CA. We show up and they really had nothing there in terms of live sound support. They did manage to get powered main speakers into the club, but nothing to mix with. So we essentially saved the show by having this on hand – we set our system up and helped run sound for the night (in addition to performing), and got wads of points from 16 Volt, with whom we partied with afterwards. I feel like they became very fond of us that night.

I cannot tell you how many times having a backup have saved our asses on the road. On to the next item…

4. Play too loud

Now this is subjective, and also depends on the type of music that you play; but in general, make sure to keep your amplifier volume at a nominal level. Especially if the type of band that you are playing with has a lot of quiet, subtle parts, you don’t want to drown out the music and singer. Also, keep in mind that you are on a stage. That will essentially direct your speaker cabinet pretty much in direct line of sight with the audience’s ears. You might not be able to hear yourself as well, but trust me, if your audience hears your guitar more than the vocals they will hate you for that! This is especially true if you play in a mostly electronic music based band – I went out on the road with Android Lust last summer with my regular MKIO rig (which is a huge tube amp with 4×12 speaker cab) and I think that next time out with them I’ll definitely be bringing a small combo amp to the gig. But if you’re playing punk rock, noise music, or even if your goal is to have a loud sound, then by all means turn up. MOGWAI is a great example of this – they play instrumental post punk indie music and their shows are LOUD – but the sounds are a beauty to behold.

5. Stand in one spot, unmoving, on a huge stage

This is another pet peeve of my own – again, touring on the road has showed me this time and time again, if you are just going to stand there like a statue, looking straight down at your guitar and not interact with the audience at all, you might as well just stay in your bedroom. Seriously! When playing live, you have a stage, people are looking at YOU, and listening to YOU – give them something that they’ll never forget. Lose yourself in the music – forget everything else, and let your body get into it. Make your instrument an extension of your self.

Feel the music.

6. Arrive late for a sound check

This is always a really awkward one – being a little late is all right, but one to two hours is kind of unnerving. Your best bet is to arrive early. Not only does the show run smoother, but the promoter and sound engineers will remember you. Invariably, especially when on the road, you will run into bumps in the road – but being on time communicates respect and invariably makes everyone feel good.

7. Practice

You shouldn’t have to practice at a gig – this is your time to shine! (Though make sure to warm your fingers / voice / limbs up for the show). Make sure to spend at least a little time every day practicing your instrument. Be very disciplined about this – and when it comes time to play, you won’t have to think. You only will have to feel the music.

Our physical existence sometimes gets in the way of what we are trying to express. Especially our muscles – I’ve noticed that for myself, if I don’t keep a daily practice when I play shows I am focusing too much on making sure I’m hitting the right notes. I make sure to play a little bit every day so i don’t have to worry come show time. It is the difference between being good and passible to being great and exceptional. If your entire band practices their own instruments, there is a good chance that you guys/girls will perform exceptionally well.

8. Not have a backup of your backup

In my experience with electronic rock bands which rely on technology to supplement their show, these bands many times rely on electronic backing tracks. I can’t count the times that these systems have crashed. If your show is being run from a laptop, bring an extra laptop. And have a backup for your backup. No joke! When we (MKIO) went to Algeria, Air France decided that our $3000 rack with our Digi 002 and wireless in ear system was worth losing. Lucky I brought a backup – an Avid M-Box in my suitcase was able to replace the Digi-002, but Tash had no ears. I’ve seen a popular band have to ditch playing their entire set because their iPod broke.

This also goes for anything and everything else. I’ve mentioned it above but extra cables, tubes, guitars and amps are always a good thing to have on hand.

9. Get wasted before the show

In my opinion, it never is a good time to get wasted – but if you are going to pound those beers, make sure to do it after your performance, not before. I’ve played with people who were wasted and it’s not fun. Everything goes out the window in terms of performance and vibe when you have a player stumbling all over the stage, slurring vocal lines and fubbing notes. Though if that is your ‘thing’, then go for it.

10. Not have fun

Lastly, remember that this is music. Stop taking yourself so seriously!! As an audience member, people are much more comfortable when YOU are comfortable on stage. The audience will know when you feel nervous. The audience will know when you are trying too hard. Relax, feel the music. Be yourself. Try to just channel the music as much as possible. Turn off the little voice in the back of your head that is being too critical. Close your eyes and feel it. There is only so much time we have on this planet, and if you are lucky enough to have a stage, you owe it to the audience to put on a stellar performance. Really, NOTHING matters except the part where you get to share and create something magical with an audience. Don’t waste that by thinking about yourself. Let all the practice that you have done assure yourself that your muscles will do the right thing when called on.

If you’ve done everything in this list, then you are (IMO) well on your way to become a well rounded live performer. There are a lot more things that I didn’t cover here, but this is a great place to start. Until next time, thanks for reading another Hacking The Sound article. Please pass on to your friends if you’ve gotten anything out of this.

PS. make sure to sign up for the Hacking The Sound mailing list to receive updates and future product offerings. I promise that I won’t harass you. ;)