Fingerstyle wizard Pete Huttlinger shares his secrets for sounding great onstage.
Playing gigs can be a very rewarding experience for you, your audience, and even the soundman. (These days there are more women mixing sound than ever, but for simplicity I’ll stick to “soundman” in this article.) My credo is simple: “Everyone from the ticket-taker to the soundman, the usher to the venue owner, and of course, the audience, will have a great experience when I show up.” This has served me well for decades, and over the years I’ve learned that being well prepared is at least half the battle. With that in mind, I’d like to share a handful of tips that may help you have great gig experiences too.
Guitar Check: Everything in Order?
It all starts here, right? Your first order of business is to be sure your guitar is in good working order. Is the action adjusted so you feel you can play your best? For the kind of gigs I do—solo fingerstyle instrumentals—the action can make or break a gig. If it’s too low, the strings will buzz, the sound will be thin, and I won’t be able to get any meat out of my guitar. But if it’s too high, my left hand gets worn out halfway through the show. Adjusting neck relief and action is something many players can handle themselves (for details see “Time for a Neck Adjustment?”), but if you don’t have the tools or know-how, getting a pro setup is one of the best investments you can make as a gigging musician.
Are the strings new or should they have been buried last week because they are D-E-A-D, dead? Whenever possible, I like to change strings before soundcheck because I want to give the soundman an accurate representation of what the audience will hear during the gig. Think about it: If you do your soundcheck with dead strings, the soundman may feel a need to bump up the high-end frequencies to compensate for your deep, thuddy tone. But then when it’s showtime and you’re playing a fresh set of strings, the sound will be too bright.
Is your guitar strap okay or is it going to break or pop off in mid-song and launch your guitar into the third row? Believe me, it can happen. Do yourself a favor and check your strap from time to time. Pay close attention to the slits that encircle the strap buttons. Eventually they stretch out and lose their grip.
If you have onboard electronics, periodically install a fresh battery. Nothing is worse than the crackly sound that occurs right before your pickup dies. And if it can die during your favorite piece, it will. It has happened to me and it is not fun. Change your battery once every six months and you won’t have to worry about the pickup going out.
Be prepared: Carry a small pouch or kit containing extra strings, a string cutter, small screwdrivers, a truss rod tool (confirm that it’s the right one for your current guitar—not the one you were gigging with last year), extra picks, a spare capo, spare batteries, several cables, and whatever else you’ll need to get through the night. You will need this gear—it’s a cosmic rule—so it’s a good idea to make a checklist and review it before you leave the house.
I realize “acoustic amp” is an oxymoron, but if you do use an amp, choosing the right one can be a daunting task. There are many excellent acoustic amps on the market and over the years I’ve owned quite a few of them, including a SWR California Blonde, a Fishman Loudbox Artist, a Roland AC-60, and an AER Compact 60. I’ve even used Fender, Peavey, Marshall, Carr, and many other electric guitar amps onstage.
My personal favorite is the AER Compact 60. It’s a bit pricey (about $1,200 street), but I love that it’s small and light (it weighs just over 14 pounds), it fits in the overhead compartment on Southwest Airlines planes, it has a very deep and full sound, and it’s very reliable. In fact it works so well for me that I bought a second one to have as a backup. That was around 2002, and so far the only thing that has ever gone wrong was when I played on a military base running on a questionable power source and the amp kept blowing fuses. (If you elect to take the acoustic amp route, remember to pack spare fuses in your emergency kit.)
As a side note: I typically use my Compact 60 on every gig because I want to know that I’ll always have a good monitor. Occasionally a venue will have stage monitors that are just bad—no life in them, too thin sounding. In those instances, I ask the soundman to turn off the stage monitors entirely and I just use my AER.
The Essential DI Box
A DI (“direct input”) box lets you connect your guitar to the front-of-house mixing console. The DI’s job is to take a guitar signal from your endpin jack and convert it to a balanced, low-impedance signal like that of a professional mic. The DI is usually located onstage and placed directly in front of you, your chair, or your mic stand.
Here’s the configuration: Plug a standard 1/4" cable between your guitar and the DI input, and use a XLR mic cable (or house snake) to connect the DI to the house mixer. As with amps, there are lots of makes and models of DI boxes. Many are battery operated, but some can run on phantom power from the console. DI boxes provide impedance matching or buffering, and may offer such extra goodies as a ground lift, a signal pad, a phase switch, a second “thru” output to feed a stage amp, and even onboard EQ. Most players don’t carry an amp, but these days many of us carry a DI because every venue is different and we want some consistent control over our sound.
A Countryman DI is great. The company has been around forever because their DI boxes are durable and give a consistent, clean representation of what’s being fed into them, i.e. your guitar. So is the Para DI Acoustic Preamp from L.R. Baggs. It has 5-band EQ and that can be a big plus for shaping your tone and also notching out feedback.
For the past several years, I’ve been using the Fishman Aura Spectrum DI. It has an onboard 3-band EQ, a simple one-knob compressor, a chromatic tuner, and a footswitchable anti-feedback circuit. (You need to be careful with the latter, as it can rob tone—but in a pinch, it’s great.)
What I love about this particular DI is Fishman’s “acoustic imaging” technology. Fishman engineers have recorded many types of guitars using a variety of different microphones, and then stored digital models (or “images” in Fishman parlance) of these sounds in the Aura Spectrum. You simply select the type of guitar you’re playing—dreadnought, concert, or jumbo, for example—and then dial in one of 16 variations of this body type stored in the onboard image bank. Using a blend knob, you mix in the replicated sound of a miked guitar with your live signal to create an amalgam of the two. I’ve found this works well to tame the quacky sound of an under-saddle piezo pickup.
Before you purchase a DI box, try out as many as you can. Remember to balance features with simplicity—you want a device that you’re comfortable operating onstage and isn’t so complicated that you get distracted from delivering a great performance.
Photo by Andy Ellis
Know Your Signal Chain
When you place a device in your signal path and it’s in the wrong spot, it can wreak havoc on your amplified acoustic sound. Here, as with all of my gear, I like to keep it simple. I go out of my guitar into my DI first. The DI feeds the house mixer, but I also take a second line out from the DI and go into my acoustic amp.
This is different from most guitarists, who will typically go into their amp first, then from their amp into the DI, and then to the mixing console after that. I choose my approach because I want the DI to color the sound before it hits my amp. I want to hear what the soundman—and ultimately, the audience—is hearing.
Working with the Soundman
Okay, let’s first discuss the best strategy for handling a bad soundman. Last week I did a gig in Nashville, where I live. It was at the convention center and it was for 1,000 people who were all seated at dinner tables. I was to give a talk and then play one tune. Just one tune.
But the soundman, who was from out of town, got things off to a bad start the minute I walked in. He said, “I just found out you’re playing.” That’s never what the artist wants to hear—I’d been booked on the date for over a month. “You’re not going to be very loud,” he continued. I looked at him and said, “I’m playing an acoustic guitar. I want everyone to be able to hear me.” “They’ll hear you,” he said forcefully, “you just won’t be doing an acoustic rock show here tonight.”
From there, things went downhill fast. He obviously didn’t know me or anything about my playing. I plugged in and started to go through a piece. My manager began walking around the room to hear what my guitar sounded like. The soundman yelled at her, “You don’t need to walk around here. I already walked the room.” My manager replied, “But you haven’t even heard him play yet. Don’t you walk the room while he’s doing the soundcheck?” “No,” he declared, “there’s no need for that. I’ve already done it.”
At that point I unplugged my guitar and said, “We’re done.” Because I couldn’t do anything about my sound and was extremely frustrated, I was tempted to do the old trick where you turn down at soundcheck and then put the pedal to the metal in the middle of your first tune. But that’s never a good idea. I’m well aware the soundman has the power to ruin the show if I pull a stunt like that. So instead, I took one for the team.
The gig went fine. I assume the audience heard me because I received a standing ovation. After that delightful soundcheck, I never spoke to the soundman again. The guy was obviously not used to working with professional musicians, and with any luck, he never will again.
But that’s an unusual situation. Let’s talk about the good soundman—which is more the norm. Usually when you do a soundcheck, the soundman has your interests in mind. It’s not his job to shape your sound, but to help you achieve the sound that works for you. With that in mind, a good soundman will give suggestions about your stage volume (typically only if you’re too loud) and will work with you on the monitors to get them sounding just the way you want. It’s in the soundman’s best interest because if your sound is good, then his job is easier.
Unless there’s an issue, a good soundman shouldn’t have to mess with your sound during your performance. Often a little feedback in the first tune requires a few quick knob turns and that should be it. He should respect your wishes with the sound and you should respect his desires for the room.
Remember that a house soundman may work in a given venue five nights a week or more, so he knows the room better than you do. He knows what the room is going to be like when it’s full of people compared to when it’s empty at soundcheck. If you seem a little loud at soundcheck, that’s okay. Once the audience arrives, they will absorb the sound. Tell him if the sound is a little bright during soundcheck. If he says that’s normal for the empty room, trust him. But if you start your gig and it’s still too bright, dark, or whatever, don’t hesitate to let the soundman know. Don’t make a big deal out of it, just communicate this to him. Remember the audience probably can’t tell the difference, so don’t let it disrupt the evening.
Working with Monitors
It’s okay to ask the soundman to turn off the house speakers while you’re listening to the stage monitors during soundcheck. Many people try to do both at the same time, but it’s best for you to hear the monitors by themselves. Once you’re happy with the stage sound, the soundman will adjust the house speakers to make sure you sound good through them too. While that happens you’ll have another chance to hear the monitors again, but this time in conjunction with the house system.
Occasionally the mixing board doesn’t offer a way to EQ or sonically tweak your monitors independently of the house sound. I hate it when this happens, but it does. In such cases, your only option is to find a happy medium where both you and the soundman are satisfied.
As I mentioned earlier, this is why I always carry my AER amp. At a recent gig in Georgia, the monitors not only sounded terrible but they were tied directly to the house sound. I had the soundman kill the monitors and I simply used my AER as my onstage monitor. Not ideal, but problem solved.
As a performer, you have to accept the fact that not every room on every gig will be optimum. But if you plan ahead, arrive prepared with all of your gear in gig-worthy condition, work professionally with the soundman—and above all, keep the audience in mind—enough of the gigs will be very good to make it all worthwhile. And once in awhile, you may get one of those magic nights ... and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Kick off the holiday season by shopping for the guitar player in your life at Guitar Center! Now through December 24th 2022, save on exclusive instruments, accessories, apparel, and more with hundreds of items at their lowest prices of the year.
We’ve compiled this year’s best deals in the 2022 Holiday Gift Guide presented by Guitar Center.
Designed for utmost comfort and performance, the Vertigo Ultra Bass is Mono’s answer to those who seek the ultimate gigging experience.
Complete with a range of game-changing design features, such as the patent-pending attachable FREERIDE Wheel System, premium water-resistant and reflective materials, shockproof shell structure and improved ergonomic features, the Vertigo Ultra Bass takes gear protection to the next level.
The Vertigo Ultra Bass features:
- Patent-pending FREERIDE Wheel System that allows for wheels to be attached on the case in no time, giving you the option to travel with it seamlessly
- Upgraded materials, including a water-resistant 1680D Ballistic Nylon outer shell, plush inner lining and new reflective trim for maximum backstage and night visibility
- Enhanced protection with a shockproof shell structure and heavy-duty water-resistant YKK zippers for protection from the elements
- Improved ergonomics and functionality including added back support and load-lifting detachable shoulder straps with side release buckles
- Flexible storage options with added space for touring essentials
The Generation Collection of acoustic guitars features the exclusive Gibson Player Port designed to offer a unique and immersive sonic experience.
The G-Bird, the newest addition to the Generation Collection--represents the glorious legacy of the Gibson Hummingbird colliding with modern sonic enhancement through the Gibson Player Port to add a new dimension to the G-Bird sound. The Gibson Player Port allows players to hear more of themselves as the audience hears it. With a tone that is crisp and resonant, all of the Gibson Generation Collection acoustics are designed to be comfortable to hold and play for long periods of time. All Generation Collection guitars feature the Gibson Player Port, slim, lightweight bodies, a flatter fingerboard radius, Walnut back and sides, Sitka spruce tops, and a stunning Natural finish. Additionally, the new G-Bird, and the G-200 and G-Writer are equipped with LR Baggs™ Element Bronze pickup systems which amplify deep bass and crystal-clear highs.
The G-Bird represents the glorious legacy of the Gibson Hummingbird with modern sonic enhancement through the Gibson Player Port adding a new dimension to the G-Bird’s sound. The G-Bird features a stunning solid Sitka spruce top and solid walnut back and sides for the ultimate in crisp, resonant tone. This square-shoulder dreadnought delivers all the rich low end and well-balanced mids and highs the original Hummingbird is famous for. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with chrome Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners, deliver solid tuning stability so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning. The utile neck, with its easy-playing Advanced Response neck profile, is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-Bird also comes equipped with an LR Baggs Element Bronze pickup system, so it will always sound as good to your audience as it does to you. The G-Bird also comes equipped with an LR Baggs™ Element Bronze pickup system, so it will always sound as good to your audience as it does to you. The G-Bird is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is included.
Modeled after Gibson’s pioneering small-body parlor acoustic guitars from the 1930’s, the G-00 is a top choice for blues and fingerstyle guitar performances. Despite its more compact size, the G-00 achieves a full, balanced sound. The G-00 fills any room with rich tones-which players can hear like never before, with the exclusive Gibson Player Port. Like all models in the Gibson Generation Collection, the G-00 is handcrafted in Bozeman, Montana, by the same highly--skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustic guitars. The G-00 features a beautiful solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The slightly thinner G-00 parlor-sized body is exceptionally comfortable to hold and play. The TUSQ nut and saddle along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners, deliver solid tuning stability so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-00 is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is included.
The G-45, a round-shouldered jumbo, adds the Gibson Player Port to its famous “Workhorse” J-45 style body, which is Gibson’s best-selling acoustic guitar of all time. On the G-45, players can now hear more clearly than ever how this beloved guitar responds to every style and technique of playing. Powerful one moment and soft the next, the G-45 delivers all sounds with incredible dynamic range in an elegant, medium body size. The G-45 is part of the Gibson Generation Collection and like all models in this collection, it is handcrafted in Bozeman, MT, by the same highly skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustics. It features a solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The G-45 features a slightly thinner round shoulder body is exceptionally comfortable to hold and play. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners deliver solid tuning stability, so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-45 is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is included.
Gibson’s impressive range of square-shouldered guitars have become an expressive standard for rock, pop, folk, and country artists. The G-Writer is known for its wide range of sounds, from gutsy and loud, to soft and sweet; they are superb for all styles and shine, whether strumming chords or fingering intricate solos. The G-Writer comes ready for the stage or studio with an LR Baggs Element Bronze pickup system and the ear-opening Gibson Player Port. The G-Writer is part of the Gibson Generation Collection and like all models in this collection, it is handcrafted in Bozeman, MT, by the same highly skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustics. It features a solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The G-Writer features a slightly thinner cutaway body, is more comfortable to play and provides effortless access to the upper frets. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners deliver solid tuning stability, so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-Writer is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is also included.
Gibson built its first “Super Jumbo” SJ-200 as a custom order for country and western singer and film star Ray Whitley, who desired a big, loud, and deep flat-top over which to croon. The SJ-200 quickly became a staple of cowboy singers and horseback troubadours, and then country music, 60’s folk stars, and onto every acoustic guitar genre that has followed. Ray would be proud to hear the booming sound from the Gibson Player Port on the new G-200, which comes ready for the stage or studio with a LR Baggs Element Bronze pickup system. Like all models in the Gibson Generation Collection, the G-200 is handcrafted in Bozeman, MT, by the same highly--skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustics. The G-200 features a beautiful solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The slightly thinner G-200 cutaway jumbo body is exceptionally comfortable to hold and provides excellent access to the upper frets. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners, deliver solid tuning stability so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-200 is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is also included.
G-Bird | Generation Collection
For more information, please visit gibson.com.
Looking for a compact, “noiseless” way to plug in and play guitar? Check out the brand-new Gibson Digital Amp, available only in the Gibson App.
The new Gibson App simplifies the learning process and brings guitar playing to life for the current and next generation of guitarists in a modern, comprehensive, and intuitive way. The Gibson App is the place to take your guitar playing to the next level. New to the Gibson App is the Gibson Digital Amp, the ultimate starting amplifier for beginners and a flexible amp on-the-go for intermediate players and pros to get their sound anywhere. The Gibson Digital Amp is an accessible amplifier for both acoustic and electric guitars, and is currently available for Apple/iOS users--an Android version will debut next year.
Use the Gibson Digital Amp’s jamming guide to get started and transform your sound with built-in effects and pedals, jam to backing tracks, or use it in lessons and songs. The Gibson Digital Amp only requires your phone, and wired headphones for the best playing experience, no cables are needed. The amp features 3 acoustic mic presets, 4 electric amp presets, and 6 effects pedals.
The Gibson Digital Amp is the ultimate starting amplifier for beginners and a flexible amp on-the-go for intermediates and pros.
The Gibson App uses a unique two-way, interactive platform to teach guitar students how to do everything from playing their first note to shredding loads of songs. The Gibson App features interactive lessons with thousands of lessons and songs. Learn the songs step-by-step with video tutorials from superstar artists and pro guitarists in the “Gibson App Guide.” The Gibson App also includes the new Digital Amp, a built-in tuner, a metronome, Gibson TV, and new songs are added every week. New Gibson App Guides are added regularly and include Tommy “Spaceman” Thayer’s favorite iconic KISS guitar solos, Richie Faulkner’s (Judas Priest) “Guide to Metal,” Jared James Nichols’ “Guide to Blues,” CELISSE’s “Guide to Songwriting,” and more.
The Gibson App uses “audio augmented reality” to provide dynamic feedback to students as they learn and play. As you pluck a note or strum a chord, the Gibson App listens to your guitar and gives you real-time feedback on your playing. It also gives students a more contextual learning experience: Instead of learning chords and scales in a vacuum, you’re able to practice on a scrolling tablature that lets you hear how you sound with the backing of a virtual band. That means you can load up “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “American Girl" by Tom Petty, “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica, “Where is My Mind" by Pixies, “Country Roads” by John Denver, “I Hate Myself For Loving You" by Joan Jett, “Heaven” by Kane Brown, “Shape Of You” by Ed Sheeran, “Killer Queen” by Queen,“ Sweet Child O’ Mine,” by Guns ‘N Roses, “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden, “Roxanne” by The Police, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “The Man Who Sold the World” by Nirvana, “Are You Gonna Go My Way” by Lenny Kravitz, and “Don't Look Back In Anger” by Oasis and hundreds more songs in a wide range of genres, to see how your play matches up with such seminal tracks.
As you’re playing, the Gibson App gives you feedback on timing and tone, ensuring that students are getting active input on how their play is developing. The Gibson App appeals to players of all levels, it’s not just for beginners looking to learn a few chords; the app can assist seasoned guitarists who are working their way through difficult riffs, want to learn their favorite songs, or polish their advanced techniques.
Players can also challenge themselves by speeding up or slowing the tabs. Like having a full-time guitar teacher, the Gibson App keeps track of all your progress and adjusts lesson plans accordingly. The Gibson App released a “backing track mode” which supports both lesson and song playback without headphones, so users can self-select what works best for their current environment. And that’s not all: the Gibson App also packs in a fully-featured digital tuner for guitar first-timers, there’s even a detailed lesson on how to tune your instrument, a multi-function metronome, players can connect to free one-on-one consultations with Gibson’s Virtual Guitar Tech team, and to direct links to the Gibson, Epiphone, and Kramer online stores for easy shopping for guitars, gear, apparel, and accessories.
Learn Guitar With The Gibson App
The Gibson App is more than a pocket-sized guitar teacher, it’s loaded with an archive of exclusive content and original programming from its premium and accessible award-winning online network, Gibson TV, featuring music icons telling their best guitar stories, with more episodes and installments added regularly. Users can watch Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi share insights and tales from his decades-long career on the series “Icons,” dive into Joe Bonamassa’s assortment of legendary Les Paul guitars on “The Collection,” or see how Gibson’s iconic instruments are made in their Nashville factory from body to binding on “The Process.” There’s even a series called “The Scene” that focuses on backstage stories from hallowed music venues from coast to coast like The Troubadour and Grand Ole Opry.
The Gibson App free version features a few lessons a day; the premium version of the Gibson App offers full access and a 14-day free trial, then costs $19.99/£16.49 monthly or $119.99/£98.99 yearly.
For more information, please visit gibson.com.