Dave Hendley, our Senior Contemporary Guitar Instructor recently shared his experience and knowledge as a gigging musician at a guitar masterclass at Ben Plant Guitar to help you jump from a bedroom player to an actual performing musician.
You can watch the full workshop here, but I’ve distilled these insights down into 6 key tips to help you take the leap, no matter your current skill level or musical goals.
#1 Work out what type of gigs you want to be playing
Chances are you have already got a good idea of what this is, but if not, it’s definitely worth thinking about what sort of performances you want to be involved in.
For example, do you want to be playing intimate cafes as an acoustic player, full band rock shows or busking?
It’s ok to do more than one style of music or type of performance in your career, but initially it will definitely help to pick one thing to be your first as that’ll help focus your efforts more effectively.
From here, you’ll be able to answer:
- What other musicians you need to connect up with (if any)
- Whether you need to work on any additional skills (for example, vocals if you want to be a solo acoustic player)
- What sort of band you want to start
- Which venues (or promoters) to get in touch with to find your first gigs.
#2 Decide what to play
In many ways, this is all about marketing and demographics, but will have a lot to do with your personal preferences too.
For example, if you’re performing covers, you’ll want to choose appropriate songs for the types of gigs you want to play. Cannibal Corpse‘s “Hammer Smashed Face” is unlikely to go down well at a cafe, even if you play a lovely acoustic version, just as playing Rick Springfield‘s “Jessie’s Girl” is unlikely to go down well at a pub gig for under 25s.
In general, try to find a full set of songs that would sound good for your chosen type of performance and are an appropriate length (for covers, 30min to an hour is a great starting point).
#3 Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Once you’ve your group of musicians (or maybe just yourself) and your initial setlist selected, you’ll need to find yourself a good rehearsal space. If you have 3 or more members, or will be playing at a decent volume, it’s often easier (if more expensive) to go to a dedicated rehearsal space in your area.
Sometimes they’ll even have gear to hire which can make life easier.
So how many rehearsals will you need before you can play a gig? If you’re first starting out, it’s probably going to take a while, as you’re inexperienced at learning and playing songs – these things take time!
Assume you can basically learn 1-2 songs per week (with plenty of at home practice from each member), then double the time to fine tune it and iron out any tricky song structures or difficult parts.
Once you have some experience performing (or if you are working with other experienced musicians), this time can be drastically reduced. For example, Hybrid Nightmares were recently called up to play a big show with Cradle of Filth with one week’s notice – and we had just had two band members finish up.
The new session guys in total had 3 rehearsals with us and memorised a 30 minute set of originals, because they are professionals, experienced at playing metal and worked their arses off at home both listening to the music and rehearsing.
As such, our rehearsals were more just run throughs with a few tricky sections already selected by the new players based on what they found difficult at home.
If this is your first time rehearsing or gigging, you will probably have a rockier time than we did, but that’s ok – it’s a process, and you WILL get onto the stage eventually if you are disciplined and persevere.
#4 Get the right gear for the job
If you’re performing at cafes or busking, chances are you’ll have yo BYO everything, including microphones, mic stands, a mixer, and PA speakers, but if you’re performing at a dedicated music venue you’ll likely only need your guitar and amp.
All music venues will have a ‘backline’ which can include drum kits, amp cabinets, PA speakers and more, so it’s worth checking with a few venues what they usually provide.
Remember that many larger gigs will include a sound engineer, either provided by yourself, the venue or the promoter, which can make life much easier. Just be sure to communicate your knowledge with them honestly. If you don’t know what’s provided or what you need, they can help you get a better understanding ahead of time.
#5 Decide on the money you want to make from your shows
Market rates vary tremendously based on the type of gig, the level of the performers and the venue itself.
Either way, if you are getting paid for a gig, it will either be done by the venue/manager/promoter on the day or transferred once you provide an invoice (in Australia, you don’t actually need an ABN as you can use what’s called a “Hobby Form” so long as your income is below a certain threshold).
These payments should be all finalised within a week, and if they’re not, chase the necessary agent daily (trust me, no one will help you chase down money, so the best option is usually to politely follow up until it becomes easier to pay you than to not pay you – just remember that you may want gigs from this client again in the future, so don’t go overboard!)
It’s common to ask for a deposit for private functions in advance, especially if there’s a lot of effort involved in preparing for the gig.
So how much should you get paid?
Think about the budget of the event. A high end corporate event or wedding will likely be willing to spend a bit more for a good quality performance, which could range from $1,000 to $10,000 for a few sets, but that has to cover all rehearsal expenses, gear hire and the show itself.
For an original band, you could get anywhere from $0-$5,000 as a “guarantee” to play a show, with the promoter hoping to make back this money and more from door sales or sometimes bar sales. On top of this, you can make money selling merchandise and get some royalties from APRA for having your songs performed (though this amount is typically very low).
Alternatively, you might get offered a cut of ticket sales, or money based on how many tickets your band personally sells.
There are many different options, so remember to be reasonable and think logically about what your performance is worth. If tickets for the show you are playing are $10, and there are 20 people there, that’s only $200 plus drink/food sales made by those 20 people.
There’s no point asking for $300 for yourself, as the venue and promoter will not be making any money!
Similarly, if you are going to be playing a wedding with 200 guests, performing 3 x 1 hour sets with song requests made by the newlyweds, they’re probably budgeting for at least $1000 for live music to make their day special. The stakes are higher, and as such, you are providing the entertainment for a very important day, which makes you more valuable.
One golden rule for pricing which will help – think about how much it would cost to get equivalent performers for the job, with roughly the same skill level, professionalism and fit for the show. If there are heaps of cheaper, but arguably just as good performers available, you’re probably going to get skipped over, but if no one else does what you do, or you’re significantly better than the alternatives, you can probably price yourself higher (unless they just get a DJ, then you can join the club of real musicians who have been replaced by iPods :P).
When in doubt, I would say ask what the payment will be when first discussing it with the organiser. You’ll pretty quickly get a feel for what is normal, and really, for your first few gigs you probably don’t want to be playing higher end, higher paying gigs as it’ll add an extra layer of stress to the whole experience.
Work your way up a little!
#6 What to do on Gig Day
If you’ve got everything sorted, it’s all pretty easy – so long as you plan for the worst case scenario.
For example, I always pack:
- spare strings (including the tools to restring my guitar)
- spare picks
- spare leads
- spare batteries for wireless packs
- spare EVERYTHING
because stuff breaks. After 10+ years of gigging, I now have a super streamlined setup, with everything in its place, everything setup the same way every time to minimise unforeseen issues.
I even keep a spare lead on stage (for about the last 3 years), right next to my foot, ready to plug in the moment anything funny happens with my wireless pack or guitar. I have needed it 3 times out of the hundreds of shows it has sat there, but boy am I glad it was there those 3 times.
Get to the venue early, setup your gear early, and be sure to talk to the person in charge right away to give you some direction as to where to setup, where to leave gear, any changes to the schedule and so on. Most organisers appreciate you being direct and showing initiative as it helps keep things running smoothly.
If you do make a mistake while playing, don’t draw attention to it, just push through and hope no one noticed, as most of the time, they probably didn’t.
Finally, dress and act appropriately for the gig. You may not like a collared shirt or a cocktail dress day to day, but if that’s what suits the style of your gig, just do it. Similarly, if you’re expected to MC the event or participate with the crowd, match the tone of the event.
For example, at a corporate gig, you may politely introduce the band, mention the event and introduce songs whilst wearing formal attire, whilst at a rock pub show you may want to crack some jokes and even yell at the crowd to get them fired up.
At the end of the day, remember what you’re there to do. You’re an entertainer, you’re doing what others only dream of doing, and on stage you can be the person you want to be.
As you play more and more gigs, you’ll learn a bunch of tips and tricks for yourself as you develop many skills “the hard way”, but once you’ve done a few shows, it gets easier – trust me!
When things go wrong on stage, I doubt Dave or my heart-rate even increases at all – we’re conditioned to expect the unexpected and keep the show going no matter what, because we’ve had to deal with stage invasions, faulty leads, no foldback, busted strings, busted amps, heckling, and the pub fights before.
Loading my gear into the backstage area and finally walking out on stage feels far more natural to me than spending an evening talking to people at a bar or a party, and in time it can be a welcoming place for you too, but the key is to practice performing like any other skill – just get up there and keep doing it!