At a recent arena show in Japan, our columnist plays to the back rows alongside Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, who Pete Thorn says is a master at focusing his energy outward.
The explosion of social media has been, in many ways, an awesome thing for guitarists everywhere. Instagram and YouTube have completely changed how music is shared, promoted, taught, and consumed. Those with developed talent have a direct avenue to reach the world and share their musicianship and artistry. Indeed, many incredible players have achieved fame through social media alone. And those who are learning to play have a never-ending source of educational material. No matter what, however, the live stage (as well as the recording studio) is and always will be a different animal. Your YouTube and Instagram guitar and video chops might be great, but when it comes time to play in the studio or at a gig with a band—actually in front of people—you don’t want your performance to fall flat! This month, I’ll offer up some suggestions to assist making the leap from a “social media musician” to a full-fledged, gigging player.
Practice playing with time. A common issue I notice with many players on YouYube and Instagram is that even though they can play shredding lead licks quite cleanly, their time and groove is lacking. Rushing is quite common, but even the most blistering shred licks should still groove! Eddie Van Halen has always been my No. 1 example of a player with ridiculous lead skills, but also incredible groove.
It stands to reason that if you only practice alone at home, you won’t gain the experience of locking in with a drummer. Tip: Use something like a DigiTech Trio, Singular Sound BeatBuddy, or just program a beat in your DAW of choice. At the very least, use a metronome!
Practice (and excel at) rhythm guitar. Sure, B.B. King managed to have an incredible career and barely ever played rhythm guitar. But for the rest of us, chords and rhythm are a necessity. Maybe rhythm guitar isn’t the most exciting thing to watch in an Instagram video, but it’s likely what you’ll be doing 94 percent of the time if you’re in a band. So, don’t forget to practice your rhythm chops and, again, don’t forget to practice with timekeeping of some sort. It should go without saying, but rhythm guitar needn’t and shouldn’t just be the boring filler between solos.
Stratocaster rhythm master Nile Rodgers reveals some of the secrets of his incredible rhythm style in this video, with breathtaking right and left hand interplay.
If your rhythm playing feels stagnant, do yourself a favor and search “Nile Rodgers Giggin Tips” on YouTube. At about the three-minute mark, he provides masterful and valuable insight into his infectious, groovy, and hooky rhythm style.
Another terrific example of a guitarist with killer rhythm chops is Steve Stevens. His parts in songs like the Billy Idol classics “Rebel Yell” and “Eyes Without a Face” are integral to the songs, and not just chordal harmonic filler. If you search “Steve Stevens - Riffs, Chords, & Warm Up” on YouTube, you’ll find a clip of him discussing and playing both of those songs in detail, as well as showing us how to play a classic Led Zeppelin rhythm riff—properly.
Play to the back row. It’s one thing to sit right in front of a camera and execute something perfectly for a video. But it’s a completely different experience when you’re onstage, in front of a crowd, and with a low-slung guitar around your shoulders. When you are shooting a video, your focus tends to be on perfect musical execution, not unlike recording in the studio. Try doing that in front of an arena crowd? Boring!
A drummer friend of mine once told me, “You have to play to the back row.” That means you want to make the person sitting in the nosebleeds feel like they are in the front row. You have to try and connect with those people way back there. The bigger the venue, the more important this becomes. I’ve had the good fortune of standing onstage beside folks like Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi and Melissa Etheridge, and witnessed how they do this.
Think you’ve been playing “Whole Lotta Love” correctly? Compare notes with Steve Stevens on the Led Zeppelin classic, as well as his own signature riffs for “Eyes Without a Face” and “Rebel Yell.”
Both Tsuyoshi and Melissa share a similar, almost Springsteen-like stage presence. The bigger the crowd, the more they rise to the occasion. Their physical and facial gestures are big, and they almost always keep their energy focused outward at the audience. They don’t just look at the first few rows, however. They look all the way to the back, and they point back there at those people as they move around the entire stage. While doing all this, which takes a ton of energy, they still keep cool inside. It would be easy to ride off the rails, so to speak, which could affect things like their time when playing or their pitch when singing. But even while outputting a ton of energy towards the audience, in their minds they are focused and controlled. This keeps everything in check musically.
When it comes to music versus performance, keep in mind that it’s always better to throw your heart and soul into an energetic performance and flub a few notes, rather than just standing up there and focusing on perfect execution. Work towards being both the guitarist and the performer you’d like to see if you were in the audience. It takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, it’s positively a blast to just get up there, let loose, and go for it.
Until next month, I wish you great tone!