I did it. I played electric guitar live with the band for the first time. And by golly, it wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it would be. In fact, it was really fun!
Honestly, even though I’ve played acoustic guitar for many years, most of the time when I perform live, my duties consist of singing only. No playing. Why? I dunno. It just happened that way. What I’m trying to say is, much of what follows can probably be applied to live acoustic performance, too.
Anyway, on the road to live electrified performance, I did encounter a couple of conundrums. And they DID make me nervous. Here goes.
I just watched Bonnie Raitt play on The Colbert Report, and, much to my relief, she regularly looked down at her left hand to make sure she was in the right spot on the fretboard. You see, I’ve been working feverishly to get my chops to the point that I don’t have to look down as I sing and play simultaneously, moving my head away from the mic. Not so easy.
This proved more troublesome than I expected! If Bonnie Raitt still has to look, this must just be a challenge for every human. Here are some tips I got from some of my now fellow live guitarist/singer buddies.
When I asked my guitar teacher, Gino, about how to prepare for singing and playing live, he told me, “When you practice, don’t just close your eyes, actually blindfold yourself.” I was like, WHAT?! He knew I’d sneak a glance if I could. I admit, I didn’t use the blindfold, but I did close my eyes and play the song like a hundred times.
It was that pesky C#m transition that was still kinda freaking me out. And the fact that I jump all the way to the 7th fret at the verse. So I just practiced those transitions over and over. Funny, too, that jumping to the C#m was actually easier to do by feel than by sight. Who knew!?
Pick a focal point and keep your eyes there
It’s true, you don’t perform with your eyes closed. So my next tip came from Guitar World's Paul Riario, who performs a ton. He said pick a focal point and just stare at that, and DON’T LOOK DOWN! I was like, that’s all well and good, but what happens when I’m on stage and there are a million things going on to distract me. Plus, I don’t wanna look like a wooden automaton! I guess if I did that then I need to hope that my teeny bit of peripheral vision helps. But I did try to keep looking forward when I practiced as much as possible.
Hold the guitar neck so it’s in front of you
My friend Brett gave me this advice, and at rehearsal it proved to KICK ASS. I swung the guitar a bit so that the neck was more in front of me and I could maybe even glance down without moving my head to at least see that I was on the right fret. Brett also advised sticking a piece of bright tape or something on that fret I needed to jump to so it was super-obvious. I liked this advice a whole lot.
Unfortunately at the gig I had my mic up kinda high, because as a singer I find that helps me from going flat. Old trick. Look up a little and all will be well. But, duh, it’s not so easy to glance down at your guitar neck when your head is tilted up. Live and learn.
My education continues
We soundchecked the night before, as this gig was at an all-day festival, and most of our gear would be left on stage all day. But I took my Fender ’72 Pawn Shop guitar home with me. When I got to the gig, one of the other guitarists in the band said, “Give me your guitar, I’ll put it on stage and tune it for you.” Which, don’t get me wrong, was very nice.
But when it was time to put my guitar on to play, I realized the clip-on tuner I like to use wasn’t clipped where I could view it, and I had to spend more time than I liked affixing it and tuning up. Luckily, John, who plays lead guitar, took over bantering duties for me while I was preparing. Next time I will tune up myself from the start, or at least check that everything is ready to roll the way I am used to it.
A string thing
I really wanted to change my strings before the gig, but was forewarned not to, as keeping new strings in tune can be tricky. Next time I will give myself adequate time to break in a new set of strings. ‘Cause I want to sound as amazing as possible!
I love my 65amps London Pro guitar amp. I had it turned up to what I thought was loud during soundcheck. But you guys must know about volume creep. By the time we got to my electric guitar-playing debut, the band was louder than ever. I strummed a chord before we started and thought, “Nah, I need to be louder.” So I cranked it up another notch to 4. Yes, this IS one loud amp. It was a good thing I did, and it fit perfectly into the mix.
In the end I was moderately successful at keeping my mouth toward the mic. I felt good, I had fun. I knew why people play guitar live. The thrill was there! And my next thought, of course, was WHEN CAN I DO THIS AGAIN?!
In the next episode, I answer the age-old question: Why are tube amps so gosh darn heavy?!
You can see me playing guitar live for the first time EVER with my band, Summer Music Project, in this video. BTW, I was so focused on playing well, that I actually messed up the lyrics of my OWN SONG! Lol. No kidding! I don’t think anyone noticed, though. Did you?
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the co-producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.