Gigging Solo: A Guide

Tom Robinson at Abbey Road

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

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 with? 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

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 wedges form 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.

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

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 carefully 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?

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.


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.

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 this archived page from the old BBC website.

Video of gig workshop with Tom Robinson & Frank Turner


  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

  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.

  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.


  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?

  10. Veteran

    I’ve been performing for over thirty years now – somewhere around 3000 gigs. Most of them are in bars and pubs, some in small concert halls, a few in large venues and one for over 20,000 people. I agree with most of this though it seems to be focused on a particular kind of gig, namely the nice, civil kind where people actually come out to hear music who are actually interested in listening. Most gigs are not that way unfortunately. They are the kind where people want to drink, yell, fall over your gear and try to either take your mic or bash your teeth out with it. Security is usually too busy chatting up the ladies and the bar owner is usually at least as drunk as the drunks.
    – No matter what: be nice. Never heckle back or tell someone too f*** of no matter how much you want to.
    – Be prepared to come home every now and then with a bloody lip or a few scrapes.
    – Keep spare speaker stands, they are like tank traps for drunks and the legs bend easily when people fall on them
    – Wash your hands often. Sounds weird bars are full of dirty, nasty humans and a cold can ruin your gig schedule. I also makes you seem unreliable to owners when you have to cancel. Wrapping cords at the end of the night will get that scunge all over your hands too.
    -NEVER let anyone sing into your mic. If you are prone to letting people get up and “do a few” with you, set up a cheap, spare mic on another channel.
    – Blockade youself on one side – preferably the strumming hand side – which leaves you free to use your headstock and those nasty clipped string ends to defend yourself from people pressing in too close.

    Play your heart out, get paid, and get home safe. Mission accomplished.

  11. The Relick

    Interesting, a little more depth would be appreciated, most of us are well aware of what’s been written. I’m more interested in setting up ‘the sound’ at a gig. I’m a solo, I have backing tracks and my own PA gear, I am in continual turmoil and stress as to how to get over the most crucial consideration of all, the best sound. I certainly do not have a sound engineer on board. I have my speakers with their gain and volume controls, I have my mixer with its sliders/ gains and master volume where each each gig is more or less a guess, and that will have to do. I would really like to hear some excellent tips on a procedure on how to go about setting up properly and balance my voice over the guitar and backing tracks.

    I had to laugh at ‘Veteran’, you are so right mate, it’s a war at some venues. Some of my sets I dance and sing over my backing tracks and work my way into the crowd, I’ve had my pants whipped down to my ankles, my shirt whipped over my head, security do nothing but laugh.

  12. Joe Bloggs (Dave)

    Joe Bloggs (stage name)writes:-
    Very refreshing reading, thanks for the tips. I have read a few articles written by solo artists and most were all about themselves. I also like the photo at the bottom of the page showing the carful layout of leads which is really a true representation of how most venues are on the night. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that less can definitely be better.
    Bearing in mind that my show is in dynamic stereo using backing tracks, so I need two speakers although I can do perfect mono with one which is the way most solo artists perform I suppose, but this layout adds much more to the performance and it gives me a spare system just in case.
    I have two Bose S1 systems each with a 6 speaker tower and bass bin, capable of handling an audience of 500 – I wish. I bought one Bose T1 digital mixer that also provides the FX. Crafty Bose made it so you could only get summed mono and not stereo from the T1 no matter how you tried. I fixed that by using the T1 to process the guitar and vocal FX only. This, together with the stereo backing tracks were then fed to a tiny Samson S-Mix and out to the main speakers, fantastic. I use a Samsung 500T TAB that can be used without the keyboard. It runs on Windows and operates my stage programme that has taken 5 years to perfect. I have a backup PC in case.
    The TAB,T1 and S-Mix are all interconnected on my single mike stand and attach by velcro to matt black ply boards attached to drum fittings. There are no balance problems. I use a Shure beta 58 mike just like you, can’t beat it.
    I don’t need foldback at any venue because the speakers radiate 180 degrees and although they say you can put them behind you without feedback I still spread them slightly in front and I really feel part of the whole scene when on stage, who needs a sound man; brilliant and well worth the money. No more boomy bass, just crystal clear music. I get some very pleasing comments. Setup now takes about 20 minutes compared to 1 1/2 hours for my old boom boxes, foldback and miles of cable etc.
    Keep up the good work – Joe down under.

  13. Prettymusic

    I enjoyed reading this article… I laugh at the veteran …. You are right…from my experience some places can be a nightmare……
    I am just starting out as a solo artist…I have always worked with a band previously.. and I was worried with how this would work without the band … will be using P.A and backing tracks and I have read so many thing on the internet which is rubbish really… I just want sing
    But your advice as reassured me… that this can be done…
    I am committed to making music and singing …A big thank you

  14. Very informative article. I’ve come across so many people who make some of the mistakes listed here (and made almost all of them myself over the years!) and it’s refreshing to see advice other than the usual “just be yourself” or “let the music do the talking”. Things like choosing the right microphone or taking time to plan an effective set list rarely seem to get mentioned in a lot of articles I’ve read; however, it really is the seemingly-insignificant things that trip people up.

  15. Tom, a great round up of essential tips. In these times of changing from mass production to mass customisation, authenticity is paramount. I would add that many artists still mess about and fiddle unnecessarily between songs and need to consider how craft links between songs. Also, learning how to adjust normal speech to project correctly when talking into a mic and learning how to ‘work a room’ is important (meeting, greeting people and remembering their names) as is the importance of curtailing bad language and inappropriate behaviour. Audiences like artists who display integrity, deference and professionalism.

  16. Incredibly well thought-through. Beyond useful information. Thanks for your good advices Tom!

  17. Hi Tom,

    Really useful blog.

    We are an unsigned acoustic act we are often booked to play Sunday afternoon slots in cafes and bars as it suits our vibe. In most cases a small percentage of the audience are there to watch music but the vast majority are eating, drinking and chatting.

    I have got better at working with this but do still find it fairly disorienting.

    Do you have any experience of playing these types of gigs? Any tips on how to get the best out of these type of gigs would be great? For example is it still worth doing chat in between songs or is it best just to crack on and play music?

  18. Tom

    @Diyar It’s a hard kind of gig to play, and requires a special approach. One’s job is to create a vibe in the room, to be heard – at first at least – rather than listened to. I’ve seen it done really expertly by a lounge pianist/vocalist in a cocktail bar.

    He used to start really quiet and unobtrusive, just with instrumentals, deliberately keeping himself down in the background while the place was half empty. He would never let the music stop altogether between songs at that stage, a silence without applause would have sounded awkward. So he’d leave a low note hanging at the end of songs, with the sustain pedal down, just so he could take a quick sip and rearrange his music before starting the next number, or fill with a few little noodles to keep the atmosphere. Then off into the next tune.

    Bit by bit he would hum and sing a few words to the tunes, but slightly off mic as if he was just absent mindedly singing along for his own enoyment. And as the background level of chatter started to rise, he would gradually increase his volume, and start actually singing the songs a bit more clearly into the mic. And of course he played mostly covers, and sooner or later someone would come over and make a request, and he could then make an announcement saying “for Jim and Dora over there in the corner celebrating their anniversary, this is the Frank Sinatra classicFly Me To The Moon” or whatever.

    And very slowly, very subtly over the course of a four hour set he would start to build engagement with the room. Once a few people had applauded after he’s played a request for them, then that kind of gave him permission to take his foot off the pedal and thank them, and then explain what he was going to play next. And when he was taking a break to go to the loo or get something to eat he would put on a few records on tape, but seamlessly matching the sound and volume, so that the atmosphere in the room didn’t suddenly change when he wasn’t playing. And so that he could then slip behind the piano and take over seamlessly when the next record ended.

    He’d never demand people’s attention, just win it gradually and subtly. And it was only when people demonstrated (by clapping) that they were listening that he would then really start giving a heartfelt performance rather than just supplying background atmosphere in the room.

    He was actually a great player and when the audience was up for a great night of music he’d be belting the tunes out and getting wild applause and big generous tips as the clientele got drunker and happier. But other nights the vibe wasn’t there, or the clientele just wanted to talk quietly in the lounge all night, and he never ever forced it. He just read the vibe in the room and responded to it brilliantly, matching and leading the mood according to the moment.

    So for your own case, if you’re playing completely acoustic in those bars I’d recommend bringing in a TINY busking amp and couple of mics. Singing very quietly on a mic it’s much easier to blend your vibe in with the atmosphere of the cafe than if you’re having to sing loudly to get heard over the talking. Use a mic, regulate your volume constantly to match the mood, don’t talk between the songs until a reasonable number of people have indicated they’re listening to you by applauding. Before that, try to keep a continous sound going so that you establish yourselves as part of the atmosphere in the room. One of you can cover by noodling instrumentally while the other one takes a drink or goes to the toilet for instance. Once you’ve got the attention of one or two tables, just make low key announcements/introductions directly to those people and try to build a vibe with them, taking their requests etc while letting everyone else get on with talking and drinking and eating. If you pitch it right, they will still be subconsciously enjoying the atmsphere your playing and singing is creating in the background…

    Hope that’s some help – good luck with it all – we’ve all been there !

    Tom x

  19. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for offering such thoughtful and detailed advice. I will definitely try this you say it’s about reading the vibe of the room. Funnily enough in practice the other day we were kind of moving towards this idea as we were practicing using drum fills, guitar licks to link between songs. Also exploring the idea of running longer instrumental sections.



  20. Ian

    Thanks for a very interesting article. Here is my story. I was in a band that played social functions in the early 70’s, dinner dances, Christmas parties in hotels, that sort of thing. Then I got married and more or less put away my guitar for 30 years. So a few years ago I started playing again and bought a new guitar and amp just for home for my own pleasure. I moved to Italy and played a few songs in a couple of bars as a floor singer. A year ago I was asked to play at a wedding reception, which was just a week ago.

    I had a decent guitar, a Parker Fly and a Fender amp which I bought with some redundancy money. My WEM pa amp had long since bitten the dust so I bought a small and inexpensive pa system ( Pulse ) stands and cables. I had an SM 57 but I don’t like it for vocals so bought a couple of inexpensive Behringer mikes, one as a spare. They sound pretty good. I have a Boss effects pedal ( GT5 ) though I never did get the sound out of it that I liked.

    Practice was going well in the run up to the wedding until the Fender blew up, not literally. When I opened it up there were bare wires, the insulation had vaporised.

    I had a zoom 606 pedal and frigged around with it for a few days and got a passable tone throught the PA. So this is what I gigged with at the wedding.

    This is a popular place for weddings, people come from all over the world to get married here. It is usually great weather and the weddings are held in a lovely garden facing south mid afternoon when it is not quite so hot. To get there you have to go down a long series of flights of steps. It is a long way to take your gear but not so bad going down.

    Set up was ok and I was v early so had the chance to practice a few songs in the open with noone there. Eventually the guests arrived, the couple got married and I played for a little over an hour while people milled around, sang along and a few danced. Then within minutes the place was deserted again except for me and the bar staff. So the gear was all to carry back up the stairs. It took 8 trips. Thankfully I did not have to lug the Fender amp up and down. It might have given me a heart attack. But I was knackered.

    Still not happy with the sound, so this week I have bought another guitar amp a Vypyr 30. It will take a bit of fiddling but it sounds good ( enough ) out of the box.

    On the subject of songs, It took me ages to finalise my set, part of the reason being that I am now 67 and had to transpose songs to a baritone range and some song didn’t really work, despite many tries. In the end I had 16 songs, plus 3 in reserve. I paced myself through the hour, drank water, rested and and had a couple of songs spare at the end.

    I sang twice a day at least up the the day of the wedding and then two days before the wedding I did a full run through twice a day.

    It all seemed to pay off. The hour went slowly but well, I was thanked, people said nice things and asked to have their photo taken with me and I got paid and was invited to the eveing meal.

    After the meal I headed into the village where some fellow guitarists were playing in a bar. I sat with some other friends outside and was invited to play at a party in a couple of weeks time. Unfortunatley I am singing in a choir that evening. Then I was invited to sing at a party in early July which I have accepted. Blimey!

    Ok so what have I learned?

    I practiced very hard and long and it paid off.

    I worked hard on choosing the songs and it paid off. I now need to be a little more adventurous.

    My fender amp blew up so I didn’t have to carry it up and down the stairs and it was a blessing. But I had to improvise with the kit. It worked

    My Cheepo pa kit worked fine, never more than volume on number 5, happy enough. Behringer mikes were fine, happy enough.

    When asked to play at the parties, I reailised I had to start learning new songs, more practice, more transposing, oh well! I reckon I need 60 songs to get a decent coverage and not be too repetative. So I made a list of the next 14 this morning.

    I need a plan B, what happens if……

    Sorry to take up so much space and time, hope there is something useful in there for you. I must make some notes from the article. Cheers, Keep Music Live.

  21. Max Witriol

    great article – thanks.

  22. Kenny Denistoun

    Great read! I’ve been singing to guitar for many years.all kinds of stuff! Mostly 60s, and Country, Don’t laugh!!!! But my ambition is to be the first up and coming artist to have a number one! Or at least in the top ten? yeh! I know everyone,, wants that!! BUT!! I’m, 71 Years Old, that’s The challenge!! Thank you!!! Kenny

  23. Brandon Elliott

    Fantastic stuff!

    Thank you for taking the time to write out your wisdom from personal experience. It’s always inspiring to see a seasoned musician encouraging a younger generation of aspiring musicians with helpful tips.

    I found the part about the dynamics of your set list the most helpful (although the bit about cutting off the applause was fantastic to me as well). I agree that 5 songs creates a perfect template for a solo performance. I haven’t been gigging as a solo act for very long yet, but plan to! I do have 5 songs ready, though I haven’t yet decided the order. For the cover song, I learned that most places I end up playing, somebody will appreciate Landslide by Fleetwood Mac played on an acoustic. I’m ashamed to say I stole the idea from having seen it done by a band I used to actively go see. So I plan to input that in my set list, but adding my own twist so it fits the atmosphere of my set. As for my original material, I may have to find out what works best by trial and error, but what you wrote about the 5 song approach gave me a little insight for sure!

    Thanks again.

  24. 35 years, 7000 gigs, 11 countries. 99.9% covers. Acoustic guitar and a mic.

    People say to me what do you do. I sell beer. The cynics musician I suppose. lol.

    So much wisdom and advise here from everyone, take it with you in your bag of tricks and apply where you need to.

    Every gig is different but the same. Experience is your friend and homework is your confidence.

    Every gig I’ve ever done when I think I’m in the ‘zone’ people say ‘yeah that was ok’

    The ones where I suck and everything has gone pear-shaped. ‘Oh man, you were great tonight!’ WTF???

    I just know that if my gig has gone sideways, they are loving it. So don’t lose your nerve.

    For the younger ones coming up, listen and learn from the gigging ones doing it, don’t shortchange yourself now, or you’ll pay for it later, so will everyone else.

    Be professional. Amateurs, stay in the garden party. If you’re getting paid, do it like you mean it.

    Don’t get drunk at a venue, you are working, not drinking, the bar staff don’t drink when they are at work, why should you?

    If the venue has an in-house system, learn it and please don’t go rewiring it. Its that way for a reason, be thankful you didn’t have to lug your system in.

    Learn, take a course, take 20 of them, give back to others and support what supports you. Be a contributor, do some free fundraising gigs, they’re fun!

    Be honest, don’t lie to venues or your fellow muso’s.

    Want to be respected? Then respect those around you.

    Want to be a better performer, work with someone better – A lot.

    Register with every agent, no one is barred. Also every muso’ is an agent, they pass on jobs they can’t do. You should do the same.

    Contact as many venues as possible, and then do it again,

    and then do it again,

    and then do it again,

    and then do it again,

    and then do it again.

    And lastly, for the love of God, get a business card with your name phone number and what you do on it and give it out everywhere!

    If no one knows your details, they probably won’t call and book you.

    Enjoy and keep it live!

  25. The nice issue about an e-book is anyone don’t spend report
    and also you don’t do any transport.

  26. LeAnn

    So thankful for all of the wisdom in the blog as well as comments…

  27. AlysAnn

    Thank you very much. You gave me great ideas and pointed me in the direction I need to go. Being new at singing especially solo can be scary. I have been lost and in need of direction. I am grateful you took the time to help people like me

Write a Comment

*By clicking Submit Comment you agree to allow Fresh On The Net to store your dataPrivacy Policy

site by