Submitted by Tom Nordlie
Thanks to Kosher Metal, the best all-metal page on Facebook, for letting me post this rant. If you read it someplace else, Kosher Metal is where it came from. Go check ’em out!
Okay, so I’ve played in a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of; I was also the sound man for a bar band for a few years. Almost every gig I was associated with happened at a house party, recreation center, high-school auditorium or a beer joint. I can’t tell you much about making it in the music business. But I can tell you a whole lot about performing with a new band at low-paying/no paying gigs. Which is where almost everybody starts.
Some of these tips come from my own experience, others were told to me, or demonstrated to me, by other people.
Here we go…
1. There are three basic things your band has to do to sound good — be in tune, play on time, and don’t make any major mistakes in executing the parts of the song in their proper order. The “in tune” part has to be handled at the gig (and for science’s sake use a tuner, nobody wants to hear “bauuuuawawa” between songs); lots of quality rehearsal will help you be on time and avoid messing up.
1a. Keep in mind, even if you have the above three bases covered, other things can derail your performance — stage fright, emotional freak-outs, people getting too wasted to play, etc.
2. If possible, play gigs with bands you know and like. They might be willing to help you out if there’s some unforeseen problem, like a guitar amp stops working in mid-set.
3. Make sure everybody in the band has all the gear they need, BEFORE you pack up for the gig.
4. Start your set with an easy song — an easy song makes it a lot more likely that everybody relaxes and gets into the right frame of mind for a good performance.
5. If it’s a paying gig and somebody’s collecting money at the door, make sure these three things are agreed upon before the first guest arrives — A.) How will the money be split? B.) Who will collect the money? C.) When and where will we meet to split up the money? Make sure that the discussion includes somebody from the club/bar/party/whatever and somebody from each band involved.
6. At rehearsal, practice making quick transitions from one song to another. If you don’t, your live shows will be punctuated with long, boring silences as you sip beers and talk amongst yourselves about what song to play next. Which brings us to…
6 1/2 — HAVE A SET LIST — Don’t ever step onstage without a set list. Even if you’re only gonna play one song, everybody in the band has to know what song it is. Also, follow the order of your set list.
7. Everybody’s got to MEMORIZE the arrangements of the songs. This sounds stupidly obvious, but lots of musicians rely on visual cues from their bandmates to decide when to start playing a different part of the song. Maybe that’s okay for a jam band, but if you’re playing freakin’ metal, chances are that everybody’s got to hit the riffs with pinpoint precision if you’re gonna sound good. You can write out simple charts without any need for musical notation. Here’s an example for the first part of “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath…
Intro riff (guitar only) x 2
Intro riff (full band) x 2
Verse riff x 2, vocals to Verse 1 start as soon as riff starts
Lyrics to Verse 1
Finished with my woman/’Cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane/Because I am frowning all the time
Transition riff x 2
Ideally, everybody in your band should know the full arrangement of every song you play — even the parts where they’re not doing anything. You don’t want people jumping in too soon or too late.
8. At the gig site, have somebody babysit your equipment so that it doesn’t get stolen, broken, tampered with, etc. That means, as soon as your gear has been loaded in, somebody needs to stay onsite and watch the gear all the way up until showtime. This goes double if you set up and sound check, and expect to play first. Babysitting gear is a boring job so maybe have several people do it in shifts.
9. At this level, you are not going onstage to be a rock star, you are going onstage to send the fun meter into the red. Save the standoffish attitude for when you’re riding in limousines. Talk to the crowd, thank them for showing up, tell a joke, and play each song like it’s the last thing you’re ever gonna do. Enthusiasm can make the difference between a competent-but-unexceptional set and a thrill-packed onslaught-o-copter/skullsplosion of metal madness that people will talk about for years.
10. Do a Sound Check (if allowed) — Even if you’re running your own PA system and only have a couple of microphones, make the most of your sound reinforcement opportunities. Take an hour in the afternoon or early evening, set up the microphones, play a few songs and adjust the mix. If you have monitors, pay special attention to getting the vocals good and loud in the monitors. If your band will play first, put a strip of masking tape across the mixer, write down the instrument going into each channel. If your band won’t be playing first, get some paper and write down all the settings for each channel on the mixer — channel number, instrument, gain, volume, tone settings, effects settings, monitor volume, etc.
11. Be polite to the locals — If you have a gig at a bar, you’re gonna rub elbows with locals who hang out at the bar in their free time. One or more of them may say hello, or strike up a conversation. It’s best to be friendly, if possible. You’re not obligated to buy them drinks, or give them rides, or let them play your band’s instruments. But don’t blow off someone who’s just saying “how are ya?” And maybe try to pay attention when they start talking about the time they helped Mr. Earl Scruggs change a flat tire or whatever. If any of the locals feel like your band is an okay bunch of people, they might look out for you. True Example — A really scary biker once grabbed a guy by the face and threw him against the side of a building, on behalf of a band I worked for.
12. Be nice to the staff — Nothing will get your band permanently banned from a club faster than disrespect for a doorman, bartender, server, manager, owner, owner’s girlfriend who’s sort of a manager, etc. Even though your band’s supposed to be the focus of attention, the club personnel may look at you as a temporary guest in their world. So you might get a super-pissed reaction for hijinks like drawing band graffiti on clean surfaces, throwing drinks around onstage, or complaining about the club’s accommodations.
13. If you don’t know anything else about PA systems, know this — when the gig starts, turn ON the power amps LAST, after all the other PA components have been turned on. When the gig’s over, turn OFF the power amps FIRST, before any of the other PA components have been turned off.
13a. Also, know this about PA systems — always start with the mixer’s master volume controls turned all the way down for the main speakers and the monitors.
14. If your PA set-up involves more than 1 or 2 mic cables, you need to label all of the mic cables AT BOTH ENDS with a number or letter, so that you can identify them later. Use masking tape and a ball-point pen. At shows with multiple bands sharing one PA system, this is imperative to help the sound tech keep track of what channel has what instrument.
15. Always have a flashlight. Always have duct tape (so you can tape down cables and areas that might cause a member to trip and fall).
16. Decide up front what your band will do in case something has to be fixed mid-set — changing a broken guitar or bass string, changing a broken drum head, replacing a microphone, etc. If something breaks in the middle of a song, what will the remaining members of the band do? Carry on with the same song? Play a different song? Have somebody play a solo? Stop altogether? There’s probably no right answer, you just need to pick one and do it.
17. Your vocalist(s) should not drink cold beverages onstage. The reason — cold liquids cause the vocal cords to tighten up, making it harder to vocalize and increasing the risk of injury. Vocalists should always request bottled water to be at room temp.
18. Try not to let bands be added to your gig at the last minute. Oh, man, this one can be a pain. If you have any say-so about the house/bar/facility where you’re playing, make sure the band line-up is finalized at least one day before the gig. If extra bands have to be added, make them play after the bands that were already slated for the gig.
19. Don’t play any unfinished songs or covers that you’ve never rehearsed. When you’re a more experienced band and so popular that people will lap up any oddball thing you play, THEN you can get away with that stuff.
20. Don’t do stage moves for the first time onstage. Here’s a fundamental law — you will perform as you have practiced. So if all your practice has consisted of standing still in a cramped warehouse intently focused on your performance, then tonight at Shifty’s Beer Barn is not the place to start leaping around. Not if you expect to perform competently. One exception — at the end of your last song, everybody can get silly. You’ve finished the job, it’s okay if things falls apart for the last 30 seconds.