Like a Virgin: First Gig Survival Guide
You’ve got your chops down. You’ve got your gear together. You’ve managed to assemble a band, get some songs under your fingers, and talked your way onto a bill with a few other bands. It’s your first gig and you have no idea what’s going to happen. All you know is you’ve been dreaming about this moment for weeks. Months. Years.
Your first gig can be a very stressful experience – I’m not going to sugarcoat it and pretend that it’s not – but you can certainly do a lot to minimize the uncertainty and maximize the number of things you can control. So in this article we’re going to look at the first gig from a few different vantage points. I’ll start with my own “real” first gig, then we’ll look at what I learned from it, and what you can take away from it for your own situation.
I’d performed in front of my whole grade school a few times when I was around 10 and 11 years old. This pic is me singing “Cry in Shame” by Aussie pub rock band Johnny Diesel & The Injectors when I was 11. Note the teacher acting as an impromptu mic stand, putting Jonathan Davis’s HR Giger-designed stand to shame.
But I don’t consider those my first gig. My first real gig was a Battle of the Bands event when I was in the 8th grade. We played two Metallica covers (“Enter Sandman” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”) and I got to take an unaccompanied guitar solo (Van Halen’s “Eruption,” probably a bit ambitious for a kid who had not yet turned 14 and had busted off his whammy bar during an overly enthusiastic solo a few weeks prior). The audience mostly consisted of bikers and their girlfriends. We didn’t have a singer, so at the very last minute – the very last minute – the adult singer of one of the other bands got up with us 8th-graders and sang the tunes. Sure, he “guessed” that I couldn’t play Kirk Hammett’s repetitive melody figure before the first verse of “Bell” and just started singing the verse early. And sure, the organizers provided the amps, so we were playing through unfamiliar gear. And sure, we kinda forgot during all those weeks of rehearsing in the garage that we wouldn’t be able to face each other on stage, but we got through it and we had fun.
I was a hero to the bikers for the evening because they liked my attempt at “Eruption,” even though I flubbed a few bits and had to fake the whammy bar dives by pre-bending from two frets below. It didn’t even matter that we didn’t even come close to winning. We’d got our first gig out of the way, and could then go on to the rest of our musical lives.
There were four particular things about my first gig that were very much representative of what most players experience for their first time on stage. These are:
On many gigs, even at a national touring level, you may find yourself sharing rented backline with other bands. This is extremely common. It saves time setting up between bands, and it gives the front of house engineer something consistent to work with. So it’s a good idea to not become too reliant on exact, specific pieces of gear for your set. A few pedals are fine, but chances are good that if you show up with a $10,000 effects rack and preamp-power amp combo with complicated MIDI switching, you won’t get to even plug it in. It’s standard for promoters to provide an amplifier with a clean channel and a distorted channel, along with a channel switch pedal on your side of the stage. You’re usually welcome to patch in any front end pedals you need, and depending on how charitable the crew is feeling, you might get to plug in a delay pedal too. On very rare occasions a mic’d up speaker cabinet may be provided, and you can use your own amplifier head. It depends on the individual situation, and that’s why it’s a good idea to prepare for every eventuality by being comfortable playing with a minimum of effects.
Some people get crippling stage fright. Others don’t. Personally, I used to get really nervous before gigs, but not any more. A combination of experience and preparation pretty much took care of that. So how do you handle those nerves when you haven’t done it before? That’s a tricky one. Some level of nerves will actually help your performance by keeping you alert. The most important thing is to keep it together and not let the nerves get the better of you. Remember that this is meant to be fun, and try to relax. If the audience is freaking you out, try to interact with your bandmates more. Throw some rockstar shapes. Jump around a bit. Try to enjoy your time up there on stage, because that can be very infectious for the audience. Remember, you’re allowed to act a little crazy on stage.
Having said that, mistakes do happen, and you need to know how to deal with them. If you hit a clanger or miss a note, don’t try to pack all the notes of the riff in before the next bar. The best thing to do is to ride out that bar – bend a note, hit a pinch harmonic or perform a whammy bar dive if that helps – and wait for the next bar to come around. That sounds much less jarring than trying to play through a riff out-of-time to catch up. And in the case of my first gig, where the singer started singing one section early, we just had to roll with it and go into the next section. If we’d stopped to pick up the lost section we would have totally lost the momentum of the set, and that would have probably made us beat each other up backstage.
One of the leading causes of mistakes is poor musical communication between bandmates, and part of the reason this happens is because when you’re rehearsing, you tend to all set up in a circle and play to each other. This means you have the luxury of watching the other players for cues, but you can’t do this when you’re performing to a crowd instead of to each other. The only way around this is to rehearse in full gig configuration, with everyone facing an imaginary audience, and the amplifiers arranged beside the drums. This will force you to really, really learn the material. And when you do get up on that stage for real, be aware that you might not be able to clearly hear the sound coming off your amplifier. That’s what the stage monitor speakers are for, and please don’t be shy about asking the monitor engineer to turn up whatever you need to hear in your monitor. Personally I like to hear lots of the bass player in the monitors, and no vocals. But that’s just me. Each player might require something different from their monitor mix to comfortably do their job, and as you become more experienced you will start to narrow down exactly what you need. But the best place to start is to simply make sure you have plenty of guitar in your monitor mix, so you can clearly hear what you’re doing. At first it feels a little unusual to hear your guitar coming up at you from the floor, but you’ll soon get used to it.
I hope these tips help out first-time giggers of all ages. And if you have any more tips to offer, please feel free to leave a comment. And for more on how to cope with the unique demands of the concert stage, check out this article on gig bag essentials.