Gigging Solo: A Guide

Tom Robinson at Abbey Road

STAND AND DELIVER WORKSHOP
Abbey Road Studio 2, Thursday 19 January 2012

* The advice below is only one man’s opinions, and not universal truths
* Although we focus on solo performance the same points also apply with a band
* Most of us have to work hard in order to become confident performers
* And the first key to confidence is preparation

Whether you use keyboard, guitar, laptop or loopstation you will need your instrument plus some sort of stand and a cable to plug it into the PA. If you’re a guitarist you may also want to make sure you have plectrums, a strap, a capo, a tuner. Invest in a cable tester and battery tester: test the instrument cable and the batteries in your guitar and tuner before leaving home. Maybe take a spare cable and 9 volt battery anyway, along with a spare strap and spare capo in case of loss or mishap on the night.

Take plenty of spare strings, and change them for every gig. Do it a few hours before showtime so that they have time to stretch and settle. Don’t do it just before you go on stage as they will tend to detune mid-number. New strings are more responsive, crisper sounding, and less likely to break. If you buy online in packs of ten, you can get Martin M175 acoustic guitar strings for £3.25 per set including postage – for instance from thomann.de

Workshop at Abbey Road

Also consider taking: a string winder to speed up changing strings and a pair of pliers to clip off the spiky ends. An A4 Pad for writing setlists, stage plans, song ideas, lyric sheets, other musicians’ contact details etc. A Sharpie pen or other indelible marker for writing setlists and autographing stuff after the gig. Black gaffa tape for repairs, marking out bits of the stage, mic positions if the stage has to be reset.

Take your own vocal mic – guitarists cheerfully spend £1-2K getting an instrument and amp they feel comfortable with. You’re a singer, why not sing into a mic you feel comfortable ? My preference is for the Shure Beta 58 which is virtually indestructible, rejects feedback, and colours the sound of my voice in a way I personally like.

Figure out your strategy for dealing with a broken string mid-gig. Possibilities:
(1) take a second guitar
(2) arrange with another musician at the gig to fix strings for each other in an emergency or
(3) Have a story, poem, long joke or anecdote you can tell the audience while fixing it yourself.

Using technology to augment your sound has upsides and downsides.
(1) The Loopstation. UPSIDE: can create a sensational sound. DOWNSIDE: it can make songs longer, and may start to bore the audience if you do it on every single one.
(2) Backing Track/Laptop, UPSIDE: can drastically enhance the sound and give people an idea of what your recordings sound like. DOWNSIDE: people go to gigs to witness a performance, not to hear a particular noise. It can go wrong and have a deadening effect by stopping you trying out different tempos and arrangements. It prevents you from performing “in the moment”.

If you do use a backing track, always have a strong performance element on top of it – and I’d urge you to always do at least one song in your set without it – just to show that you can.

Shades On Stage

The perils of wearing sunglasses on stage: by hiding your eyes, shades get in the way of your connection with the audience. Fine if you’re a bassplayer who doesn’t much like the band you’re playing in, but it hampers a singer’s ability to connect. ideally your aim should not be to LOOK “cool” but to BE authentic.

Authentic is not the same thing as natural. “Natural” is slobbing round the house in a t-shirt eating from the fridge with your hair in a mess. What feels “natural” in real life looks small+feeble onstage. To come across as a natural performer onstage your behaviour, movement, language and clothing all need to be bigger and more extravagant than in real life. But at the same time authentically “you”.

So this doesn’t mean “putting on” an act or pretending to be something you aren’t. It means choosing just one aspect of who you genuinely are, and then exaggerating it into a cartoon sized persona that you can inhabit. Think Tim Minchin – taking off his glasses, putting on his eyeliner and frilly shirt and carefully rumpling his hair before going on stage as the Wild Man Of The Piano. Dizzee Rascal, taking off his casual suit and changing into his oh-so-carefully-chosen trainers, T-shirt and baseball cap before taking to the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. Even apparently “natural” performers like Thom Yorke and Billy Bragg are giving a larger than life performance of their own genuinely down-to-earth personalities. I saw Billy Bragg showing off in a smart suit onstage once and it looked all wrong.

Physical Preparation: drink water – 2.5 litres of the stuff per day. If your urine is any colour other than clear, you are dehydrated.When you’re dehydrated the small moist vocal chords are the first part of the body to dry out, with air constantly passing over them as you breathe in and out. Remember caffeine is a diuretic – it puts a squeeze on your kidneys and dries you out.

Practising for the gig: do it at volume, not quiet and timid in your bedroom hoping nobody will hear you. Go down to a rehearsal room, set up a mic, plug in your instrument, and practise playing loud – the same way you’ll be doing it on stage in venue.

Tom Robinson on pub stage

Learning lyrics: recording the words into your phone and then play them back to yourself contantly while doing other things: travelling to work, doing the washing up, or even going to sleep. It gets you used to what lines follow each other without even thinking about it.

Being a singer is much more bruising and risky than just being a musician. If someone says your guitar playing is crap, they’re criticising what you do. If they slag you off as a singer, they’re criticising who you are. So it’s tempting – but fatal – for singers to try and play it safe: a “safe” performance is a dull, forgettable performance. The kind of artists who grab our attention on stage are the few who dare to be vulnerable – who take emotional risks and lay themselves on the line with every note they sing. Nobody cares whether you’re technically perfect, but to be memorable on stage whatever you do does need to be real.

It’s helpful to be centred and “in the zone” when walking out on stage to perform – not panicked or in a rush. If backstage is a bit rowdy, take yourself off on your own – perhaps behind a speaker stack by the stage. Briefly close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Empty your mind for a moment and notice the air coming in and out of your lungs. Feel your feet planted on the floor, and try to feel of every part of your body as you focus on your breathing. Count the breaths down from ten to one. And then, when you’re fully there in the moment, open your eyes and walk onstage.

Your goals when playing live are to be SEEN, be HEARD and be REMEMBERED. As a support act your options may be limited – so some of these suggestions only apply under ideal conditions where you are allowed some say.

Stage Lights

* BEING SEEN
When soundchecking aim to find the best working position from which to command the stage. Check the sight lines: try to find a position where you can see – and be seen by – the maximum number of people in the room. This isn’t always necessarily the centre of the stage or even the front of the stage – there may for instance be pillars in the room that block off a whole section of the audience. If they can’t see you, they will ignore you and talk among themselves.

It’s also vital to be well lit: no point putting on a performance if nobody can see it. Too often, performers go to the very front of the stage mid-song trying to vibe up the audience and completely disappear from view because they’ve walked out of the lights. If you have any say, then get the lamps pointed at your working position. Otherwise figure out where the lights are actually pointing and work from whichever one has reasonable command of the room. How to tell when a lamp is pointing at you? When it blinds you: it’s more important for the audience to see you than for you to see them. The ideal compromise is to be lit from either side rather than directly in front.

Cluttered stage of typical pub venue

In most small venues the stage is just one end or corner of the room, with all kinds of visual distractions: scuzzy wallpaper, old posters, wall lights, beer crates, flight cases, spare mic stands (above)… It’s usually possible to clear away a lot of this clutter behind the speaker stacks. A clean clear performing space looks better and feels better. I recommend taking your own cheap thin black material to cover the back wall and any other visual distractions on the stage: it absorbs stray light and covering up the clutter helps keep the focus purely on your performance. Cloths are sold from 1.5 metre wide rolls. The day before this workshop I bought 25 metres of black material (cut up into three metres lengths) from a fabric store in Tooting. It cost just over £34 and made a big difference to how the stage looked  (below).

Stage cleared of clutter, with black drapes

The other consideration for your ideal working position is hearing yourself. Monitor wedges are usually placed in front of the mic stand facing the performer because that’s what’s needed on festival stages where you can’t hear the front PA at all. But playing solo in a small pub or club you don’t need much monitoring, and wedgesform a big barrier between you and the audience. My own preference is to clear them off to either side whenever possible and use them as sidefills instead, leaving the working position as uncluttered as possible. If the room is so small it holds 100 people or less, you honestly don’t need monitors at all – just turn the PA slightly inwards so you can hear it and suddenly you’re in the same acoustic space as your audience.

* BEING HEARD
To get the very best sound there’s no substitute for taking your own front of house engineer. In this workshop, our engineer Jon demonstrated how a PA can be “tuned” to the room to dramatically improve the sound. Every room has unique resonant frequencies of its own, which is why – when a PA is turned up too loud and on the verge of feedback – you often hear a “boom” around certain notes, which will feed back first. It’s usual to place a 31 band graphic equaliser across the whole of the sound just before it gets to the PA amplifiers. An experienced engineer will tune the PA by making noises of different pitches into a mic to find the “boom” frequencies, then locating each of these on the graphic equaliser itself. They then move the fader for that frequency down a little to “equalise” the sound.

NB on the video soundtrack, the difference isn’t as dramatic as it was in the room on the day, because a big percentage of the video sound was taken direct from the mic rather than from the PA speakers in the room.

Tom Robinson at Abbey Road

But no question, taking your own engineer will make sure you get heard to best advantage. For most of us this is too expensive and complicated; in which case it will help if you yourself can keep an ear on the sound that’s coming out of the PA and get things changed if it’s wrong.

1) One way to do this is to ask for the Front Of House mix in your foldback instead of a separate “monitor” mix. This is a bit of a fiddle for the average house engineer and you may not get it.

2) Another way is to take your own mixer, plug your mic and instrument directly into that and do your own sound right there on stage. That way you can’t help but get the same balance in your monitor as the audience are hearing out front – and if anything’s wrong you can fix it at once.

3) Or, as mentioned above in a pub or club venue, simply turn off the monitors

* Before we get onto BEING REMEMBERED, you also need to make sure about BEING PAID. If you’re getting a fee, find out on arrival at the venue who will pay you, and also where and when. This kind of thing is much harder to negotiate mid-gig with a venue full of customers. Usually your gig fee will be pitifully small, so the more important issue to sort out is whether you are allowed to sell merchandise, and whether the venue will demand a percentage. For a working musician, sales at gigs are your single most important source of income. If you’re confident of playing a blindingly great set, then it’s better to agree a low fee (or no fee at all) in exchange for the right to sell merchandise and keep 100% of the proceeds.

Whether you are or aren’t allowed to sell stuff, I’d still advise you to find a spot in the venue where you can meet audience members after your set. Ideally this should be 1) Well-lit 2) away from busy thoroughfares – eg bar, exit, or toilets 3) if possible with a small table. We’ll get into the whys and wherefores a little later, but basically even if meeting people after the show doesn’t help you get paid, it will still help you get remembered.

Audience at Abbey Road

* BEING REMEMBERED
Remember, none of the advice in this workshop is gospel truth – it’s only the personal opinions of one man – based on his own experience – mostly from the last century. So take what I say with a pinch of salt and only use the bits that make sense to you. If you think you know better – well, as a creative artist yourself, the chances are that you probably do. The judgement call is entirely yours.

It’s helpful to plan your set in advance. Be ready to change or adapt it in the heat of the moment according to what happens on the night, but at least have a plan. The commonest mistake of all inexperienced artists is that their sets are too long and they outstay their welcome. My ideal support slot length is five songs – 20 minutes maximum. Get on, do the business, get off again and leave them wanting more. Rather than droning on so long that everybody is relieved when you finally make way for the main act they’ve paid to hear.

And if you are the main act, well a good headline set length is 50 minutes, with a few spare tracks as encores. Yes, it depends on the kind of artist you are, and the kind of gig it is. But a headline festival set is seldom longer than an hour including encores. And what’s good enough for Glastonbury, I’d argue, is good enough for the likes of you and me.

There are many ways to build a set, but my own approach to a five-song support slot would be to create a curve of moods:
SONG 1: A song with power & impact but don’t waste your best shot
SONG 2: Put your strongest most attention-grabbing song here
SONG 3: Do something different & daring: change of tempo/texture.
SONG 4:  A carfully chosen cover song: common ground with audience
SONG 5: Your most accessible/memorable song, with an earworm chorus

NB on (3) or (4): it’s worth rehearsing some kind of party trick. “I’ve never actually played the Mongolian nose flute in public before, but let’s give it a go”. Or a melodica. Or a loopstation. Or a vocal harmoniser. Or singing acapella. Or singing completely acoustic without using a mic, sitting on top of one of the PA speakers. Or playing two instruments at once. Or playing a glockenspiel blindfolded. I don’t know – YOU think of something astonishing you can do that they’ll never have seen/heard before.

Who's in charge of the stage lights?

TAKING THE STAGE
If there’s an MC on the night who’s going to introduce you, ask if they can make a few house announcements first (upcoming shows, who else is on the bill, fire exits, last orders at the bar etc) while you come on and quietly plug in behind them. It’ll settle the audience – and you’ll be ready to hit your opening chord as soon as they announce you.

If you’re going on unannounced, then find out who’s in charge of 1) house lights 2) stage lights and 3) the background music that’s playing over the PA. Usually this will be one person, but sometimes it can be three separate people in three separate places. Arrange for them to switch the music/house lights off – and the stage lights on – at a given time or at a signal from the stage.

As soon as this happens, walk out on stage and go briskly up to the mic. Introduce yourself briefly while plugging in your instrument, and start playing as soon as you’re set to go.

Guitar

COMMITMENT, CONVICTION, CONNECTION, COMMUNICATION
The four C’s of every successful performance. Anything you do, do big. Don’t be feeble or apologetic – nobody wants to watch a tentative or half-hearted performance. The world isn’t waiting for yet another singer-songwriter to perch on a stool, pluck lifelessly at the strings of an acoustic guitar and warble about man’s inhumanity to man. You need to take possession of the stage and  feel you “own” the whole performing space.

Giving a big, bold performance doesn’t neccessarilty mean shouting or making a lot of noise. It’s more a question of intensity. The poise and focus of an acoustic master like Bon Iver can carry just as much impact as Pulled Apart By Horses at their most boisterous. Take risks, and be willing to fail. Your performance doesn’t need to be note perfect but it does need to be very, very real. Authenticity is key. If you try to pretend to be something you’re not, the audience will know at once.

When chatting between songs bear in mind that “true” is not the same thing as “interesting”. Aim for common ground with the audience – don’t make your announcements all about you. They don’t yet know who you are – why should they care? Say something about the local town you’re in, or ask where people are from. Mention stuff that’s just been on TV, or some celebrity outrage, or sport, or having just got stopped by the local police. Instead of “my partner dumped me for someone else and then invited me to the wedding” bring in the audience: “you know when your partner dumps you for someone else and then invites you to the wedding…?” Another useful ploy is to make an ironic – or sincere – dedication to some public figure. As in: “this is for Nick Clegg” or “this is for John Peel”…

Audience at Abbey Road

At the ends of songs: pause, make eye contact with the audience and accept the applause. Performance is a two way contract: first you have your say, then it’s their turn. If you bend down and start fiddling with your tuner as soon as you’ve finished the song, or cut off the clapping with your next announcement, you’re telling people you don’t notice or care whether they applaud or not. Dumb move. Almost as dumb as running the end of one song straight into the beginning of the next – which gives them no chance to applaud at all. Above all, say “thankyou!” at the end of the applause, not in the brief silence at the end of your song. That just sounds like you’re thanking them for tolerating your music.

Let people know when you’re about to play your final number: last songs always go down better and get warmer applause. Also say your name again clearly and point out the meeting area where you’ll be giving stuff away after your set. And at the end of that last song it’s fine to shout “Thanks!” or “Goodnight!” over the applause but don’t try to actually talk or it’ll kill the clapping stone dead. Instead, stand still and make eye contact – acknowledging the audience – then get offstage quickly while they’re still applauding.

Couple of points. Don’t overrun your allocated set time: you’ll make enemies of the other artists, the promoter and, worse, members of the audience waiting to hear the main act. And if you have to come back onstage to remove your gear afterwards, put on a jacket – or make some other change of clothing – to show you’re off-duty.

THE 10 MINUTE WINDOW
Your job at every show you play is to connect with the audience and win new fans. Regular gig goers see hundreds of new acts a year and forget 99% of them. So you need to not only give them an extraordinary performance but also some kind of physical keepsake. This can be a CD, mug, T-shirt or USB stick that you sell them – but it can also be a flyer with your photo, Facebook, upcoming shows and a download code that you give people for free. If you also exchange a few words and pose for a photo with them you may just have won another vital ally in your campaign for world domination.

After an outstanding performance the average audience stays hyped up and enthusastic for about ten minutes, so the sooner you can get outfront to your meeting area the better. You’ll need your Sharpie pen for signing stuff, and ideally one of those smartphone apps that let you accept credit card payments. But when selling at gigs, try to arrange for a friend to come and take the actual payments. It looks better if you’re not seen handling cash – and leaves you free for the important work of making new friends, fans and followers.

When offering a CD for sale, do make it look like it’s worth something. Not just a scrotty CD-R from Rymans scrawled with green felt tip, but a plain white one with beautifully designed on-disk printing. Burn your demos in iTunes onto plain white printable CD-R’s then run them through an inkjet printer as required. Card wallets are lighter, less fragile and take up less space than plastic jewel cases. You can get a thousand full colour wallets made up pretty cheaply online and you can then use them for promo purposes as well as selling at gigs.

Grateful acknowlegement to the inspirational coaching of theatre director Tony Heywood – who taught me a lot of this stuff back in the 80s. Also to the inspirational example of  Show Of Hands: there’s a wealth of  stagecraft, songcraft and business wisdom in this 1997 interview with Steve Knightley.  Meanwhile you can watch the entire video of the above workshop – including Frank Turner’s brilliant contributions – on my post dated April 6th 2012: Stand And Deliver.

Video of gig workshop with Tom Robinson & Frank Turner

9 Comments

  1. Tom

    The rather wonderful Chris T-T has written a codicil to this blog post which I’d recommend reading. His point about not pissing off the house sound engineer rings true and valid to me. As he says, a mate at the soundcheck who knows roughly how you’re supposed to sound is probably all you need… Read his piece at christt.com

  2. wow, this looks great and very detailed, we’ve learnt a lot of this the hard way, but I am going to go through it line by line and make a check list !! thanks Tom, very authentic ! so obvious that you been there and done it ! The Folk x

  3. Great article
    Two cents:

    1) learn to shoot pool. I once played a gig in LA and no-one was watching the performers. They were all watching the pool game. So I timed it that I beat Wolf the Hell’s Angel in 8 ball just before going on. I then had soundguy intro me as “the guy who just beat Wolf in poll”.EVERYONE came in to watch my set and Wolf bought me a shot of whiskey!
    2) wait until the headliner has started their set before sneaking into their dressing room and scarfing a sandwich from their deli platter. Grab a few extra apples and bananas for late night snacking later. They’ll never miss it
    3) if you do get a rider include ‘pair of new cotton socks.
    4) never ask the crowd how the sound is or you’ll have lost your sound man for the rest of the night
    5) two sentences you can say that will get any bar crowd on your side immediately:
    “Did you see the game last night?”
    “I can’t believe he missed it!”
    ( you don’t have to have actually seen the game or know anything about sports)
    6) Come see me on tour in UK to learn how to attract a crowd.
    Cheers
    Lach

  4. A lot of very valuable info here, I follow a lot of these myself, things we’ve picked up over the years and they certainly work…

  5. Thank you for sharing this Tom. Brilliant practical tips.

    Steve

  6. Bit off point slightly but talking of sound engineers, I wonder how many female performers find some of them have the attitude of 1970′s garage mechanics? I’ve witnessed some very misguided and frankly unprofessional sound engineers berating female performers with “Eh love, leave it out with the “I need more reverb”, I used to do sound for Feeder and they never give it attitude. Stick to filing your nails and I’ll stick to doing what I do eh”

  7. FIN

    Great advice here for solo gigging, its stuff i learnt through experience but still need reminding of once in a while !

    Thanks Tom et al

  8. vincent burke

    I’ve made a lot of notes!
    -yep guilty on the set list – easy to lose impact by sticking another one in just because I love it.
    Regarding ‘In between song chat’ – When I hear a band I’m often more focussed on the talk beween the songs than the songs themselves; yet while I practise every note at home I’ll probably think of what I could say in between songs as I enter the pub. If I’m honest (and I sometimes am) playing songs that no one in the audience may have heard, I need to give a reason for them to listen to each one, and the amount of times I’ve forgotten to even say what the song’s called – well it’s shocking , it’s unproffessional! – How does someone like Roy Harper do it? – you feel you’re really meeting them and then they play a song as well!
    At the moment I usually hit ‘em with a song first and then say something about the weather – but yes! so easy to just talk about yourself – look I’m doing it now!…

  9. vincent burke

    …oh yes – no vocal warm up? My wife’s got an old 5 minute warm up cassette that I use every time, even for floor spots.
    I go pretty easy on my voice before I play, I like to run through the whole set to make sure I’m comfortable, but humming the vocal which warms up the voice but doesn’t wear it.
    Good hu?

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