Can creating a stage persona make you a better musician?
My wacky top hat even works its magic when I wield a 6-string onstage. Photo courtesy of PRS Guitars (prsguitars.com)
In 9th grade, I took Speech and Drama as an elective at Lincoln Junior High in Billings, Montana. My gym instructor warned me the class was “queer bullshit,” but I opted for it because it promised little homework and a high ratio of cute, popular, narcissistic girls—the likes of which would not be found in my other dork-filled classes like Orchestra and English.
Speech and Drama also appealed to the musician in me because it kept me out of woodshop, where fingers were regularly sacrificed to the hungry band saw. Surprisingly, this blow-off elective taught me the one lesson I’ve used throughout my career.
Here’s the gist: One day a local thespian came to class. I don’t remember his name or what he looked like, but I do remember what this person taught me that day. He stood at the makeshift stage at the front of the class, pointed to four of us and said, “You four come up here and stand.”
We did, and then we waited. And waited. And waited as he leaned smugly against the desk. Eventually, all my idiot friends began to giggle, and though I was laughing as well, I felt as wildly uncomfortable as you would when a roomful of your peers openly mocks you. I began to wonder if my fly was down or if something was dangling out of my nose. Then panic truly gripped me when I thought my hormonally toxic body might once again torture me with an ill-timed, spontaneous erection. (This condition plagued much of my junior-high experience, forcing me to always walk with a notebook in front of my genitals. Adolescence is a cruel bitch.) I wanted to disappear under my desk.
The actor kept us standing there for roughly 90 anxiety-filled seconds until he said, “Now pretend you’re rowing a canoe.” Immediately we began hamming it up, rowing manically, striking Lewis and Clark explorer poses, which made the class laugh harder and all anxiety disappear.
The actor told us to sit down, and then asked, “You were really uncomfortable just standing there, right?”
“Yes,” we all agreed.
“But when you were pretending to row the boat, you weren’t uncomfortable, right?”
We all acknowledged that we were, in fact, having fun and not at all uncomfortable during the boat bit.
He explained that when we stand in front of an audience as ourselves, we feel like we are being judged. We begin to worry about how we look, what we should do with our hands, how to stand. This makes trying to appear natural very unnatural. However, when we pretend to do something or be something other than ourselves, we’re comfortable because we know we’re not being judged for who we are. Instead, the audience judges the character we’re playing. This gives us license to do anything while remaining free from judgment.
A year later when I first walked onto a stage with a guitar in my hand, I was terrified until applied knowledge saved me. I told myself, “Just pretend to be a cool guitarist.”
“But who is a cool guitarist?” I asked myself.
The first image that came to mind was Keith Richards. (Let’s have a contest! Nominate your “cool guitarist” in the comments section. I bet Keef wins.) On that day, he became the template for how I carry myself onstage. For years after that when I found myself in a panic-inducing gig, I’d just think, “What would Keith do?”
By now I’ve done it for so long I don’t know where Keith begins and I end. It’s the performance equivalent of a child imitating his father, then developing his own slightly derivative style. Whatever it takes to get in character.
Speaking of characters, how about that Gene Simmons? As a former member of The Kiss Army, I’m duty-bound to read all the Gene Simmons biographies. In one of them, Simmons recalls how the first time he put on the makeup, he felt completely uninhibited. The makeup turned a nice Jewish 6th-grade teacher into The Demon—a far more engaging entity to watch in an arena. In turn, The Demon turned a poor Israeli immigrant into a very wealthy man with his own reality show and enough merch to choke a Walmart.
Currently I’m touring as the pedal-steel player for Lee Brice, an amazingly talented country artist whose current album debuts at No. 1 as I type this. Although I’ve played steel for roughly 15 years, this is the first gig where I’m not the lead guitarist who plays steel on a few songs. This paradigm shift meant that my Keith thing does not really translate to this weird instrument generally played by old guys in cowboy hats. The primary problem is that you never look like you’re rocking when you’re sitting down.
The conundrum bounced about my brain after a show in Memphis while I was stumbling around Beale Street out of my mind on a delicate blend of absinthe and, ah, local medicinal green tea. I lighted upon a bodega/shrine to Elvis where, next to the King, commemorative T-shirts, Jesus candles, post cards, novelty sunglasses, and Haitian voodoo dolls, I found a lone, semi-creepy black top hat—the kind you might see on ’70s-era Tom Petty or an old-timey mortician. I put it on, checked my blurry reflection in the mirror, paid way too much, and disappeared into the night, eventually crawling my way back to our tour bus.
When I awoke, hung over in my clothes and wearing the top hat, Lee looked at me and said, “Boh, you should gig in that.”
I’ve worn it on almost every gig since that fuzzy Memphis night—that hat has become my talisman. Pedal-steel players are, for the most part, total nut-jobs. You almost have to be one to deal with a constantly drifting E9 tuning, no frets, five knee levers, and three pedals. This ridiculous lid helps me get in character. I look like a total weirdo steel player, which makes me a total weirdo steel player. Now I can just sit at this incredibly complex, beautiful instrument and simply focus on playing in tune and in time. People aren’t judging me—they’re watching that weird dude in the top hat sitting at the slide thingy.