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Live Aid: How Live Performance Can Improve Your Playing

In pursuit of becoming a better, more well-rounded musician, I believe the most essential tool for any guitar player to utilize is live performance . While that may sound painfully obvious, I have encountered many talented"bedroom shredders" who find it im possible to translate their woodshed chops to the stage environment. A great many variables come into play when performing live that just cannot be approximated in any other way, be it jamming to CDs in your bedroom or playing in a garage or rehearsa l room with your entire band.

For me, playing in front of an audience was crucia l to my development as a guitarist. I first began to play live while in a ser ies of cover bands in co llege, and my abi lities as a player increased exponentiall y. For one, playing live helped me weed through many of the technical as well as creative obstacles that pop up in the live sett ing. Something as simple as rememberi ng to secure the gu itar cable by bringing it through the guitar strap (down at the strap button on the lower bout) is something I had to learn the hard way. I think we all know the horror of the guitar cable being inadvert ent ly yanked out of the gu itar while f lying through the air doing backflips, right?

Another painfully obvious idea is to make sure you have fresh-or at least work ingbatteries in all of your pedals. This line of thought can be applied to every supplemental piece of gear: be sure to have extra strings, cables, fuses , power strips, extension cords, etc. You can't expect the club, keg party or Bar Mitzvah where you are performing to have any of these things handy when you find yo urse lf in need . It's great to be able to effortlessly peel off 64th notes wh ile jamming along to Steve Vai's Flex-Able, but forgetting aboul these aforementioned small details can mean the difference between creative success and dismal failure in a live venue.

One of the main reasons pl ay ing live improved my ab ilities as a player is the powerfuI synergy that exists between a band and a live aud ience. That type of energy and awareness can never be duplicated in a rehearsa l room . I' ll admit to having had some deeply sat isfy in g play ing exper iences while jamm in g alone to Albert King records , but nothing can beat playing live for pure excitement and exhi larat ion . It is truly a "trial by fire" experience.

  • We all remember the very first time we stepped in front of an audience to play. For me, it was whi le I was in a high school band ca lled the Electri c Sheep, wh ich featured Adam Jones, later of Tool . As good as we may have been, our co ll ective playing ab ility dropped by about 50 percent whenever we played li ve. This is simply because we were no longer in t he safe, comfortab le enviro n- . ment of my mom's basement. Suddenl y, we
  • were confronted with nerves, broken cables, fa ulty outlets, broken strings and all sorts of obstacles that hindered our performance . But the more we played live, the more comfortable and confident we became onstage. I soon began to develop a tight rapport with my gu itar. For me, developing a command over t he technical idi osyncras ies of live performance led to much more sat isfying playing exper iences overall.

It was no different when Rage Against the Machine first began playing li ve. There was a high degree of frayed nerves associated with our first performance, wh ich took place in the highly pressurized environment of a living room in Huntington Beach, California. Our very first song was "Take the Power Back," which begins with a funky bass li ne. Because we were all so hopped up about f in al ly playing in front of an audi ence, bassist Tim C. started the song at three times the normal tempo, and it was a full-sca le musical disaster. But a negative exper ience is part of the learning curve it provides; get ting that type of cr isis out of the way is essenti al to the development of a band. Becoming more comfortable in front of an audience allowed us, as a band, to progress.

At th at first performance , even though Tim started the song way too fast, as soon as the beat dropped in, t he place ' exploded instantly, th ere was a huge mosh pit in the middle of the li ving room-1 st ill don't know how the damage was explained to this poor kid 's parents! For our band, that gig was a cathartic exper ience. That living room explosion was the culm in ation of all the years of hard work. Perso nally, I had spent so much time getting my " li ve" chops together, throu gh a series of often very crummy bands. With Rage , my journey brought me to music that I real ly bel ieved in , and music that we, as a band, played great togeth er. With Rage, there was also an instant connection between band and aud ience, and that connecti on only fueled our mission to keep writing songs and keep work ing hard.

Soon, wherever we went to play-be it talent night at Al's Bar in downtown L.A., or opening up for Tool at a major venue-we maintained a "scorched earth" po li cy. Our att itude was, "we're not sure who is going to make it out alive tonight, because we are going to bring some heavy shit!" Though that kind of confidence and intensity level grew from the relat ionship we had with the aud ience, it was initially forged by a so lid underpinning of co nfidence in our own abi I ities. In time , you become reso lute in the knowledge that you will give everything to the music and perform on a high level.

Each progressive move to a larger venue is like moving past locks in a dam. It's like the water level rises each time: you have to wait until your nerve and your sk ill leve l ri ses high enough before opening the door to the next level. Soon, we progressed to headlining clubs to headlining so ld-out clubs to opening for lce-T's Bodycount to eventually playing in front of hundreds of thousands of people at huge European festivals.

In time, a band's assuredness becomes almost unshakable . Rage co uld be in the midst of a disastrous show, like playing in the middle of a typhoon in Korea, and I' ll look ahead on the set I ist and see that we are going to end with "K illing in the Name." I know that all of the lights in the hall will come on, 30,000 middle fingers will be ra ised in the air and the entire au dience will look li ke it's on a trampoline. That's when I say to ll)yself "Thank goodness!" beca use I know that everyone will leave with a big, beaming smile.

Playing live on a regu lar basis will invoke a rising t.ide of co nfidence for you, and for your band as a whole. Your "floor" becomes higher: as time goes on, your bas ic "starting point" becomes much more evolved, and much more together. You know you will be able to deliver the goods on a high level, no matter what. And that level only continues to grow. When my rig gets ro lled out, either for the Tonight Show or for sharing the stage with U2 in front of 150,000 people, I know th at everything will be alright because the groundwork has been well-l aid .