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5 Mistakes This Guitarist Made on Stage

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When I was tasked to write an article on five mistakes I’ve made on stage, I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to come clean with my clams, to let go of my guitar-based gaffs, so that we may all laugh and learn. I’m hoping this article won’t fall on deaf ears, but then again, we’re all guitarists here, so…

…I kid! I kid! But really, I don’t. From personal experience gigging on guitar, I know how we are on stage. But multi-instrumentalists should take note: these errors could have been made by any young, naïve musician. Some are more specific to the guitarist’s particular wheelhouse. Some are more generalized. All of them will be listed below, starting with the easiest to correct, which was…

That Time I was Entirely Too Loud (AKA, my entire career before turning 25)

I can’t point to a specific instance, because before 2010, it was every instance. Now, this is a common mistake, particularly endemic to guitar players. So I’ll just say it flat out: Don’t turn up. Simply don’t do it—not unless someone you trust (but not the drummer) tells you to. If you can’t hear yourself, figure out some sort of in-ear monitor solution. Or put your amp on a stand near you. Or better yet, have a modicum of confidence in your own playing.

See, every time you turn yourself up louder than necessary, you’re not only taking the focus away from the music and putting it on yourself, you’re also giving your instrument a bad name.

So yeah, don’t do that.

That Time I didn’t Listen to my Bandmates’ Advice

This one is for the bandleaders out there, and it’s pretty simple: If you ignore the advice of all your supporting players, the music is going to suffer.

An example: apropos of nothing, I decided that my band (Adult Situations) should start playing shows without a set-list, letting the “music tell us where to go,” which actually meant that I called the tunes while my bassist and drummer began to froth at the mouth. One song in particular, they flat out refused to play—I believe the phrase they used was “Solipsistic garbage”. Unfortunately, right before the big show, I learned that the lady I had written this “solipsistic garbage” about would be in attendance.

Ah, youth!

The whole show was humming along until I smirked at my bandmates and began the song nobody else wanted to play. Turns out nobody wanted to hear it either: it sank like a lead something-or-other; our entire performance was lackadaisical, and what’s worse, we never recovered; the energy of the show just sagged from that point, and the applause grew dimmer and dimmer from thence forth. Don’t believe me? I have the board-recording to prove it.

Now, if I had only listened to my bandmates—people I trusted with my musical soul—in the first place, we would have played a much better show.

So yeah, don’t do that.

That Time I Clashed with, hmm, let’s see…Everyone

This is another particularly guitaristic mistake I’ve made—and to some extent, that I continue to make, because it is very hard to correct. As a jazz guitarist, I often played in combos with keyboard players, which could engender some tonal problems. See, a jazz standard might have a passing dominant seventh chord, but in the directives of jazz that’s very light instruction: there are many ways of embellishing such a chord, and these embellishments are often entirely dependent on what everyone else is playing. Many a time I found myself playing a chord with a sharp or flat 9, only to hear the keyboardist playing the natural 9—which is musical gobbledeegook for saying that we clashed in exactly the wrong way.

Forget about the harmonic problems, the rhythmic ones rear their head just as much: a keyboard player could be inspired to play some fancy quintuple figure behind a sax player, where I might simultaneously opt for triplets, and the result could very well throw the drummer off.

If there’s a more general takeaway, it’s to avoid these sloppy rhythmic incongruities, as they drag the whole band down. When I look back at some of my biggest clams, the rhythmic clashing stands out, and it sometimes even keeps me up at night.

So yeah, don’t do that.

That Time I Quit the Band and Packed Up My Gear – Mid-Solo

In my twenties, I played with a trumpet player whose personality repelled band-mates as lepers repel limbs. Indeed, the epithets and sobriquets he hurled at his rotating cast of support were of the sort that I would get fired for repeating them here.

On my last gig with him, he said in my ear, “there you go [messing] up again all over the place.” This was the moment I decided to quit. Unfortunately, this was the exact moment I decided to quit: he pointed at me to signal, in his ersatz James Brown way, that it was time for me to solo; instead, the audience was treated to a guitarist calmly unplugging his guitar, wrapping up his cables, and leaving the stage.

Did it feel great? Absolutely. But here’s the problem: I didn’t count on the rest of the band—friends whom I cared for dearly—refusing to hire me after seeing that meltdown. I also didn’t think they’d tell their friends. But such is life. Soon, I was persona non grata within a whole cadre of musicians, just because I did not think things through.

So yeah, don’t do that.

That Time I Wore a Tank-Top on Stage (I Have Hairy Shoulders)

On the surface, this has nothing to do with music. But it has everything to do with performance, and if you don’t take this advice, you could very well lose the gig: dress for the situation. Whatever the gig calls for, wear that. Concerts are visual events—people want to see how you play, how you move, how you look; if they weren’t visual, people would just stay at home, where things are free.

The particular outfit that comes to mind involves me, a pick-up gig with a band I didn’t know, and a tank-top. I did not familiarize myself with their style or their fan-base. I only fixated on their music—and the fact that it was hot that day. So I wore a tank-top. Look at my bio pic and you might have an idea as to why that was a horrible choice. Not only did I lose the gig, I felt super uncomfortable on stage the whole time, and my performance suffered to boot, because all I could think about was how out of place I looked in a lineup of sleek, handsome hipsters.

So yeah, don’t do that.

Well, that’s all I’m willing to share at the moment. I do have other stories, but B&H said that posting them might get me in trouble with legal or HR (what can I say? Being a gigging musician is fun). Do you have your own mistakes that you’d like to share with the world? Let us know in the comments below!

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I'm a former soundman who worked with bands in the late 70s. One thing I picked up quickly was how sound was only partially controlled by me from the board. Guitar players would crank up their amps and override my overall stage sound balance since I couldn't turn them down. I would have to tell them not to crank up their volime since they were miked and it was my job to do so, but old habits  die hard. Another thing I needed to do on a regular basis that introduced me to very high sound levels was when I needed to physically check the speaker towers to hear whether a change in sound quality was due to a blown speaker or just a disconnected cord.
What saved my hearing was getting ear filters. These filters are different from plugs in that they contain diaphragms that attenuate sound level pressure above a certain level (I think it's 90db). Thus I could hear everything clearly at a normal volume regardless of how loud the actual sound was. 
I still have those ear filters (which I purchased by mail from an ad in "Modern Recording" magazine at the time). They serve me well if I ever get into a situation where the souls level is high.
The problem with ear plugs is that they block all sound, even the sound you need to hear such as a siren or cars honking at you. They are good for situations when you work in noisy environments like factories, but when you need to be able to hear, they are not a good choice.
At 62 I can still hear pretty high frequencies that are usually the first to be "lost" with aging. I feel that the ear filters I had worn at the time have saved me from hearing loss that afflict many others at my age or younger.

Hi Bari,

Good call on the ear filters! I need to get some of those for when I'm doing the live sound of an unruly guitarist's show...

One thing you might not want to do is a Pete Townsend windmill when your rhythm guitarist leans in your direction.  I did that once and he took one in the chin.  For the rest of the night, he never came near me again.

Yes, I can imagine that would be bad!

That reminds me of a story: In the eighth grade, I broke my arm at band practice because I was so into the music that I started jumping up and down. But the thing is, I'm not very good on my feet, so I tripped on the instrument cable and fell over. I was playing bass at the time - the instrument belonged to my bandmate - and when the bass came down, it landed on my wrist, fracturing it immediately. 

The bass player's reaction?

"My bass!!!"

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