If you’re playing on a hard stage, putting a
drum rug in front of your amp—or even just
setting it on a small moving blanket—can
tighten the sound by taming brash, early
reflections. Photo by Andy Ellis
Sometimes, the stars align and a gig goes
just perfectly. You arrive early at the
venue, there’s time for an extensive soundcheck,
the crew is top notch, and the room
sounds just right. Your rig is totally dialed
in and the band is ready to fire on all cylinders.
During the gig, you’ve got the packed,
enthusiastic crowd in the palm of your hand,
there are no equipment or musical mishaps,
and you leave the stage feeling awesome.
This month’s column isn’t about any of that.
The Big Picture
In the grand scheme of things, the most
important thing to remember is that when
people come to see you play, they are on your
side. They want to be entertained and they’re
rooting for you. Sounds simple, but it can be
easy to forget when things start going wrong
onstage. If the audience expected perfection,
they could just listen to your record. What
they want is a show.
Strings can break, amps can blow up,
you might forget the chords to the bridge.
It’s how you spontaneously deal with
adverse, difficult situations onstage that can
actually make a decent show a great show,
even more exciting than it would have been
if everything went smoothly.
I recall a White Stripes performance on
Conan O’Brien that’s a perfect example of
this. During a guitar solo, Jack White ran
over to Conan’s desk, laid his guitar flat
on it, and proceeded to play a slide solo.
But when he strapped the guitar back on,
the cable pulled out! Realizing he was in a
predicament—and making a split-second
decision—White dropped the guitar, ran
over to the vocal mic, and finished the song
with just drums and vocals, giving it a 110
percent effort. And I swear, it was better that
it happened that way. It made for a totally
exciting and unique performance.
Sound and Equipment Issues
Sometimes venues simply just don’t sound
good. The subwoofers might be under
the stage, creating lots of bass and rumble
or the stage could have a hard wall right
behind it and have a low ceiling, making
the sound loud and chaotic. The PA and
monitors could be terrible. Whatever the
scenario, it’s always important to remember
that the audience doesn’t want to know
about any of it. They paid to be there and just want to have fun. It’s your job to rise
above and if at all possible, find solutions.
Let’s talk about a few tricks.
When playing on a stage that’s especially
loud and live, I ask the local crew if there’s an
extra drum rug. These are normally used to
keep drums and hardware from sliding around,
and most clubs will have them available. I use
them in front of my amps and cabinets to help
kill some of the liveliness of a hard stage. They
can also help warm up and tighten the sound a
bit by killing brash, early reflections.
If the stage sounds chaotic, try angling
your cabinets up towards you and more
directly at your ears by using some wood
blocks under the front edge of the cabs.
You’ll probably want to turn down a bit when
doing this, which will usually help the overall
stage mix, thereby improving the front-of-house
mix and lowering the chaos factor.
When it comes to volume, I believe a band
should settle in around the drummer. In a
perfect world, you shouldn’t need monitors
at all—except for vocals, of course—to hear
each other. If you are doing a soundcheck and
things sound loud, harsh, woolly, or just all
wrong, try turning off the PA and monitors
altogether and starting from that point. Play
together and then slowly fill in the gaps, getting
only what you really need in your wedge.
For me, I’m good to go with just a bit of kick
drum and hi-hat, some lead vocal, and my own
vocals. Less is more in a room with bad sound.
If the music train starts to derail during your
show, do not panic. This is the number one
rule. Everyone makes mistakes every now
and then. Warren Haynes says, “mistakes are
opportunities” and this can be true. If the
singer forgets the words to the bridge, it might
be time to try out those new licks you’ve been
working on. It’s important to always have one
another’s backs when gigging, and you never,
ever want to bad vibe anyone for making a
mistake, at least not onstage. Save the “what
happened there?” discussion for the van ride
home. Remember it’s just music.
Big Gigs, High Pressure
Zakk Wylde was once asked what he does to
prepare for big, high-pressure gigs like television
performances. His advice was essentially:
Don’t do anything different than usual.
Play the song just like the last 80 times you played it in the bar or theater or your own
bedroom mirror. Guess what happens the
second you psych yourself out by thinking,
“this is a big gig, everyone’s watching me, I
better not screw up?” You screw up. If I’m
doing TV and I feel nerves coming on, I’ll
try to mentally picture Zakk giving me this
advice. It helps me get my head in the game
and back to what’s important—the music.
The last trick is one that I learned from Chris
Cornell. Sometimes, when doing TV, you
may have to perform an abbreviated version
of a song by cutting the guitar solo or possibly
dropping half of the second verse. This
can be hard to remember in the heat of the
moment, especially when you’ve performed a
song many times with a certain arrangement
and are suddenly forced to play it differently.
What I do is put a sign by my pedalboard
that simply reads, “REMEMBER.” That’s
it—one word. Just looking down and seeing
that will be enough to jar your memory, and
you’ll do exactly what you need to do.
If Keith Can Do It
I once saw Keith Richards screw up the intro
to “Brown Sugar” in front of a stadium crowd.
He made a funny face, shrugged, kept calm,
and carried on. And the crowd loved it!
is an L.A.-based guitarist, currently touring
with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album,
, is available through iTunes and
. Read more about his career at