Hello Troubadourians! A few months ago, I wrote a column about having started giving guitar lessons to T, a friend from work. (You can find that column here: Things I Don’t Do… | San Diego Troubadour). I think it’s time to update you on his progress and hopefully give you some information and insight that might help you when you perform. When we started, T had never performed for anyone other than family. After a few lessons and with some encouragement from me, he accepted an informal invitation from one of his neighbors to play six songs for a dinner party she was having. Apparently, she had heard him practicing and thought he would be perfect for providing casual entertainment for her guests. It was a “stand in the corner and sing, get fed, go home,” type of gig. Or, as T described it “background music for rich people.” We’ve all been there at least once—for better or worse—and he did say that the food was excellent. The neighbor sent leftovers home with him and asked if he would be interested in performing for them again in the future. He left that answer sort of vague, but it’s always good when one gig results in offers for more gigs.
First “real” gig… Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. T was booked to play for a private party at a high-end restaurant by a large, local university. Certainly, an exciting first gig! But there was a problem… In virtually all of my previous columns regarding entry-level gigs, I assumed that people would be starting with open mic or coffee house types of performances where the PA would be already set up or at least available for the performer to use with some setup required. But what if it isn’t? What are the options? If you have the funds to purchase a small PA system—and the energy and vehicle to transport it—you can go that route. (If you choose this and need advice on what to get, you can email me at the address at the end of the column.) However, there are options that are easier, simpler to use, and less expensive. But what if you don’t have anything at all? This is the situation that T found himself in.
Required equipment… Let’s operate from the position that you are a solo performer—guitar and voice—and you don’t have a PA and aren’t going to buy one. At least not yet. What then is your minimum required equipment? Let’s get very basic and assume you are background music for a non-entertainment function, and you’re not trying to fill a large room. As an aside, this isn’t a bad gig situation, but more on that later. You may be playing a room that holds between 50 and 200 people but most of them won’t be paying much attention, so you’re only expected to “reach” maybe 15 to 20 of them. You’ll need to be loud enough to hear yourself and to be heard by whomever may want to listen, but most people in attendance will be involved in their own conversations so they’ll need to be able to talk over you. The basic setup would be an acoustic guitar amplifier that has a channel for a guitar and a second channel for a vocal microphone. There are many such amplifiers available with varying features and output power. I invite you to take a look online at websites such as Sweetwater where I’m sure you’ll find several that could work for you. But since I was furnishing the gear for T’s performance, let’s talk about that. I have an older Fender Acoustasonic 30 that I use as a monitor for my acoustic guitar. I’d never tried the microphone channel of my amp so there was a bit of experimentation required. I have a really nice EV767 microphone that works well for male voices, so we plugged it into the mic channel and T’s guitar into the instrument channel. With minor adjustments we had him dialed in and sounding great! That was easy for me, but it was at that moment that I realized how much I relied on years of experience to even get this simple setup working and sounding good—experience that T didn’t have—which is the reason for this column.
So, I started breaking everything down into simple steps as to what I did, even as simple as coiling and uncoiling the cables so that they don’t get tangled. (I should probably do a video on this…). Here’s what I taught him…
Amplifier: There are inputs for acoustic guitar and microphone. I demonstrated what each control—volume, treble, middle, bass, effects, does—and how they change the sound. We dialed-in a natural sounding tonality and level for both his guitar and voice and he wrote down the settings. I explained what to change if things sounded weird when he was set up in the actual room. This was kind of wishful thinking, because this is sometimes difficult for even experienced performers much less a rookie on his first gig. But I’ve since seen videos of his performance and it sounded excellent.
Power cords: Every modern amplifier has a detachable power cord. These are easily forgotten or lost. Pack one for everything that uses one and bring extras if possible. While we’re talking about power cords, make sure you have a quality extension cord that is at least 25 feet long. This can save your gig, especially if you are outside and the nearest A/C outlet is inside the building.
Microphone: You’ll need a microphone that works for your voice. A generic microphone that works for almost everyone is a Sure SM58. Simple and virtually indestructible. As I said, I supplied T with a more “bougie” microphone because I have one but that isn’t necessary if you’re just starting out and on a budget. You’ll need a mic clip that fits your microphone. It never ceases to amaze me how often people forget these. Also, these things break at the most inopportune moments so bring a second one if you can. Buy a high-quality cable. It doesn’t have to the best pro-grade cable, but the bargain brand will let you down eventually. Again, bring two if you can. Most failures in PA or amplifier systems are related to faulty cables and even the best ones can fail.
Mic stand: A quality stand with a boom is highly recommended. You can get away with just a straight stand, but it can be uncomfortable for some people to play and sing into mic on a straight stand. But the Beatles did it for years so it can be done. I prefer a stand with a round base as they take up less room under your feet as compared to the tripod style stands. However, the tripods fold-up for better transport so it’s really up to you.
Guitar cable: A good guitar cable is essential. A high-quality cable will pay for itself. Again, it doesn’t have to the best pro-grade cable, but the bargain brand will let you down eventually. And again, bring two if you can. Pro tip: Some cables have a “silent plug” on one end which mutes the signal while the cord is unplugged and while you are plugging it in. This prevents the ugly clunk-and-crackle that you get when plugging a cable into a guitar with a live amp or PA.
Tuner: Have a tuner, either one that clips to your headstock or that you plug your guitar into. Don’t try to rely on being able to hear or use a phone-app tuner. In a noisy room these can be useless. It is essential that you are in tune. Being it tune is the starting point for every component of your performance.
Music stand: This is optional if you have your music memorized but if you plan to take requests for songs you aren’t completely familiar with, you’ll need a music stand. I recommend something sturdy that you can clip pages or books to. The cheap wire stands are nearly worthless, especially when holding a heavy book or if you happen to be outside and there is even the slightest wind…
Organizing the equipment for transport: Practice setting up, dialing-in, and tearing down everything you are planning to bring to the gig, just like you would practice your music. Have some sort of gig bag that holds microphones, clips, cables, extra strings, basic tools, and anything else you think you’ll need to perform or to have for an emergency. Make it as small and as light as possible but still holds what you need.
Pre-gig/post-gig checklist: Make a checklist of everything you’re bringing and check it off when you are loading your car to go to the gig, then check it off when you are loading up after the gig. You don’t want to rely on memory to pack everything—you may be nervous or rushed—and you want to have everything you need to play your best. Also, equipment is expensive. Don’t leave it behind after you’re done. Pack first, schmooze later.
Presentation: Make it look professional… and not just your outfit. Dress your mic cable down the stand and back to the amplifier. Don’t just have it hanging off like your robe over the exercise bike in you practice room… The same goes for your guitar cable. Dress it out so that you aren’t stepping all over it. Study professional performers. A real show at least starts out looking good and put together…
Stage presence/mic technique: One last thing. You’ll need to have stage presence wherever you perform. Literally practice in front of a mirror and watch yourself. It might seem weird, but you’ll learn volumes about what you do when you perform. When you look good, when you look goofy, when you make a “guitar face” —not necessarily a bad thing—and when you look stiff or relaxed. Learn how to work the mic—when to lean in and when to back off. Dynamics are what separates a great performance from a mediocre one.
How it went… I sort of gave it away earlier, but the gig went exceptionally well. T remembered how to dial-in the amp and I saw phone videos of most of the songs. These usually sound compressed and sterile but T sounded good and in tune. I was very impressed. So were his audience as he was offered two more similar gigs. Pro tip: No matter how bad you think it went, if they offer you more gigs, it was a good gig.
Final thoughts… I’m very proud of how far T has come and he is gaining confidence. More to do but it’s working. If your ego can handle the situations where you aren’t the center of attention, you can get these types of gigs fairly regularly. You’ll spend an hour or so, including setup, performance, teardown, schmoozing, get fed, get paid, go home. Or to another gig…
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)