The Five Golden Rules of Onstage Behavior

How you act onstage is as important as the music you play.

Ultimate Guitar

For most unsigned bands, gig time is crunch time. The half-and-hour to 45 minutes that you're onstage is your sales pitch. Get it right, and you'll win over new fans. Get it wrong and you've turned people off your band, possibly forever.

In large part, winning a crowd over is down to how good you are at writing and playing music. But, there are a number of non-musical factors also thrown into the mix, and it's in those areas that some bands tend to slip up.

In my experience, there are five golden rules for how to behave onstage. They're not rocket science. In fact, they're mostly common sense. But, the amount of bands that don't abide by them is greater than you'd think.

1. Say Your Band's Name

Jesus Christ. This seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but the amount of bands that don't do this still amazes me.

If you're out on tour supporting someone and trying to get yourselves more exposure, people need to know what the fuck you are called. There have been a number of occasions now where I have seen a band I enjoyed, wanted to check out more of their music, and then realized I don't know their name.

Now, of course, the more curious and dedicated music follower will do a bit of research to find that out. But that isn't everyone. In the day-to-day grind of life, the average Joe is unlikely to devote half an hour to finding out the name of that rad band he saw the other night. They'll forget about it, and you'll have lost yourself a potential fan in the process.

Say your name often and make it easy for people to find out about you. If you can afford one, buy a banner with your band's name on it to really hammer the point home.

2. Interact and Don't Stand Still

Please, for the love of god, talk to your audience.

To me, there is nothing worse than watching a band that doesn't acknowledge the presence of the crowd. People have paid good money to come and see you play live - you at least owe them the courtesy of a "hey, how you guys doing this evening?"

Rock star mystique is all well and good when you're a rock star, but when you're a young and hungry musician, you need to connect with your audience on a more grounded level. Make people feel welcome at your show, both on and off the stage and you'll grow your fan base much quicker than if you're cold and distant.

On a related note, don't just stand there when you're up on stage. Move around; interact with your band mates. It's a performance, so make sure you perform.

I get that the prospect of "putting on a show" versus "just playing" can be daunting to musicians - there's always the fear of looking like a complete tit. But the truth is that everyone looks like a complete tit when performing live. It's just that rock stars have the confidence to get away with it.

3. Avoid In-Jokes

As I've already established, one of the key elements to a successful gig is making a connection with your audience. A sure fire way not to do that is by telling in-jokes that only your close circle of friends will understand.

An example; several years ago, I saw a band who opened their set by holding up a cell phone to the singer's mic and playing a recording of what, I assume, was one of their friends doing an impression of someone from "South Park" (given the terrible quality of the recording, it was really hard to tell).

The band, and their ten or so mates in the front row of the audience were in stitches at this. But the rest of the crowd was silent, and very confused.

Humor can be a great way to bring people together, but there's nothing worse than being the person that doesn't get the joke. When you're on stage, make sure you cater your banter to the whole audience, rather than just the friends that have come to check out your band.

4. Don't Be Offensive

Along with in-jokey humor, being offensive is a sure fire way to alienate a large section of your audience.

When you're playing a gig, chances are you're playing to people that you mostly don't know. That means you don't know what their beliefs, triggers and hates are. They also don't have a handle on what kind of person you are, and what comes off as humor to you might seem deeply hurtful to them.

I know it's been the topic of a lot of discussion lately, but the recent Philip Anselmo debacle is a perfect example of how in-joke humor and offensive behavior can seriously affect the reception of your performance. Whether or not Anselmo meant it, he did it, and has lost a lot of respect from parts of his audience in the process.

You don't want to be in that position, so check yourself before saying or doing something that might piss people off.

5. If Things Go Wrong, Keep on Playing

If you've broken a string, your amp isn't working or your drummer has broken a stick, it's tempting to halt the song you're playing, fix the problem, and start again.

But, this is a cardinal sin, and one that your audience is unlikely to understand.

The majority of people that go to shows aren't musicians. They don't know the specifics of instruments, amplifiers, or their propensity to break down exactly when you don't want them to. If you stop a song midway through, a lot of people are going to assume it's because you've fucked up, and that makes you look unprofessional.

It might seem like torture to you, but when adversity comes a calling, you need to keep playing.

I'll give you a personal example. My band was playing at a local music festival last summer. We were all sound checked, ready to go, and our gear was in good working order. But, as soon as we hit the first chord to the first song, one of the guitarist's amps cut out. Completely. For the intro, two verses and two choruses of our first number, we were without a guitar (thankfully, the soundperson managed to get the amp working again just in time for the solo).

Our guitarist was embarrassed, sure. But, guitarists from the other bands that were watching our set were entirely empathetic, and he got a lot more kudos for soldiering on than he would have done if he'd stopped. What's more, speaking to non-musical people that had watched our set, most of them didn't realize there had been a problem in the first place.

Whatever happens, make sure you get to the end of the song (although saying that, if there's a fire on stage or something, then GTFO - even non-musicians would understand that). It's what the pros do, and the more professional you look, the better.

By Alec Plowman

40 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Signed or unsigned, don't get wasted. Especially if people have paid to see you /be at the event you're playing. See so many bands professional and amateur performing wasted. So unprofessional.
    Depends if you can get away with it or use it to your advantage. I've known a fair few extremely talented musicians (emphasis on extremely) who can drink people under the table and still rock out on stage with as much precision and velocity (in regards to their performance) as they would sober. Judge yourself and your own limits (as you would anyway).
    I think this is a very rare ability. Alcohol inhibits motor functions and it acts as a sedative, slowing you down. My friends band had a guitarist that would get wasted and play the wrong songs, and wrong chords etc. Became embarrassing. Plus, there's plenty of time to party AFTER your gig. People have come to see you perform as a musician, not watch someone get drunk on stage.
    I wouldn't call it an ability since it goes along the lines of calling it something to be proud of (drinking should be for enjoyment, not showing prowess). If anything, I'd say sleep deprivation has a bigger chance at making you fuck up than alcohol. I remember doing a gig with Guns 2 Roses where I was called in last minute after having done a weekend of Molly with no sleep or food. I was sober for the performances, just extremely dead inside haha. That was bad..
    Disagree on the 'don't be offensive' part when it comes to certain genres of music, or even certain bands and the persona they are delivering. Sure if you're a more commercial band/genre, being offensive will alienate your audience completely. There are certain genres of metal and punk (and some hard rock) that is intentionally offensive and works with the audience.
    I agree. Devin Townsend giving shit to audiences was a big part of the SYL era.
    Left out the most important rule. Have fun. If your not having fun, what is the point of doing it. (Even if your onstage personalty is a bad guy and you do not smile or very nice you can still have fun)
    Ill add one in that is kind of specific, and ive only seen it once luckily but anyway: If you're playing a gig with other bands not in your genre, its fine to say you're going to sound different, however dont stand up and say "Yeah listen, we dont do [insert whatever], so dont expect that from us, we dont do that shit" or play down that your music is "boring" even if it is a joke. Went to a deathcore / hardcore gig with some friends (YOu hear one song, you heard them all) and the 3rd band was experimentive-sludge-doom-progressive... etc etc and the frontman started off by saying "Yeah we're so and so and uh.. we dont do breakdowns, if you want them you dont get them from us, and were kinda boring, i mean look im even going to sit down while i play it" AND HE DID. 2 songs in and the room went from 80+ to about 5 because no one was enjoying it. Also if you're being turned down by the man running the soundboard, that doesnt mean slam your friggin volume up with a pedal.. that pissed me off
    What about Rammstein? They don't talk to the audience.
    They don't need to talk to the audience when the lead singer has steel wings that spit fire, I'm pretty sure everyone's already paying attention.
    I can imagine Till saying "How are we doing tonight, everyone?!" And the crowd is just like "Shut up, and shoot rockets out of your mouth or something already!"
    Good example. When I saw Mastodon, they didn't say a word. The bass player pretended to talk into the mic a couple times while weird sound clips played. I thought it was pretty badass.
    I was going to say Mastodon as well. They played a whole set, track after track BAM BAM BAM... then, "goodnight, we're Mastodon" But they can do that.
    While I generally get the concept that for some bands not talking to the audience may be part of their "thing", I think it's really rare when it's a good idea and it usually feels to me that something is missing if a band says very little or nothing at all. I've seen instrumental post-rock bands that can rock out on stage and keep good communication, I just have trouble imagining a band that can't come up with something to say that would fit their image.
    Well, 5 can also make professionals more "human": I remember last year at a Steven Wilson show, when Adam Holzmann messed up the first part of Routine and Wilson interrupted the song. They needed 3 attempts to succeed, because Wilson couldn't stop laughing and declared, now he is in the wrong mood for that song. After Wilson joking and a little jazz impro by the group they finally managed that part, rewarded with cheers. Nice and funny moment, for the band and for the audience, seeing these amazing musicians in a kind of "rehearsal room" moment
    Number 5 -
    SRV breaks a string, continues playing and changes his guitar mid-song in under 10 seconds without missing a note. It doesn't even bother him.
    That video was overdubbed. That's not to take away from the smoothness of it because it was smooth as hell, but even Stevie couldn't play the low E when his hand wasn't anywhere near it. So for the sake of accurately representing what a nice move that was, here's the same video with the original audio (in somewhat poor quality, admittedly):
    Leather Sleeves
    Sound advice, but I'd say that there are a few exceptions. If you're trying to create a certain presence you may not be able to interact with the crowd with the "How you guys doing tonight" routine, but if you succeed in creating the right atmosphere you've already engaged the audience anyway. And there's a difference between having a "rock-star attitude" and having a stage-persona. If your stage-persona is a dick you just have to... *ahem*... pull it off right.
    1. Don't be Wes Scantlin 2. Don't be Wes Scantlin 3. Don't be We- Yeah you get it by now.
    The 'keep playing' thing doesn't work if strings break. Let me give you an example: I was at a gig once, and during a song, on my C# guitar, my F# string broke. I was playing Sabbath, more importantly, I think I might of been playing Snowblind. If you know how to play the song, you know how important to the rhythm of the song that string is. Moving to another position isn't exactly something you do, plus there are parts in the song that just require it(the chords during intro, some parts in the middle, all of the rhythm really). Shifting your position changes the tone of the guitar slightly - as its probably being played on lighter strings. "Keep on playing" doesn't work for all situations. Sometimes, its smarter to just suck it up and stop. It sucks, but I wouldn't want the song sounding like shit, especially if the string that broke is one that is very important to the song.
    The audience most likely isn't made of musicians who are paying attention to your playing. If you have to change positions, only a couple guitarists in the audience would notice, and they would understand that your string broke. The vast majority of the audience would care if you stopped playing though.
    That's exactly the kind of example that's only important to you, and the audience wouldn't notice.
    Half the time at small gigs people are probably there to hang out and the music is background noise
    Always take spare strings/guitar with you. Allot of guitar parts can be transposed. Which will last you a few minutes until the next song when you can swap a string or guitar. . Of course it won't be as good but better than playing nothing at all.
    I have been playing professionally for about 8 years, and I have yet to find a guitar part that was impossible to transpose. Do you really think that completely ruining the song is worse than playing it on a different string? If I saw a guy do this at a gig I would boo him off the stage and all the way home.
    Don`t say your band name ? That`s just too keen and not cool. Any band worth it`s salt should have a back drop with a cool logo for your band name. Standing still ? Depends on what music you`re playing. Not all music styles lend themselves to the musicians putting on a show with their moves. If you have a lead singer let him do all the work, if not, get a light show going and get a dancer on the stage. If things go wrong ? Keep on playing yeah.. but if you can come up with something funny before hand that the rest of the band can play, like a tv theme or a film tune. Something funny, and now you can interact with the audience.
    #2 Is the worst. I went to an Uncle Kracker concert (not my choice, went with my ex) and I enjoyed the openers, a duo and a rap-rock dude named JellyRoll. These two acts talked with the audience by telling stories, cracking jokes, and asking about the weather. Uncle Kracker came out and didn't say anything. No hello, no comment about the shitty ass snowy weather we had to drive through to get there, not even a good bye or good night. Just sang with his eyes closed an walked back and forth across the stage. And this was in Royal Oak, MI and he's from Mount Clemens so he's a local name who's made it big playing a sold out show to local fans. Not one word of thanks or comments or stories. Real kill joy for the show.
    "On a related note, don't just stand there when you're up on stage." sorry, Tony, but you didn't pass that one
    LOL. If you're talking about Mr. Iommi, and I think you are, that man has earned the right to just stand there lol. Once you invent heavy metal, you pretty much just have to be there to prove that you did, nothing more.
    It would be so wrong for Tony Iommi to overdo pratting around on stage. Totally against his personality. And besides, he's got Ozzy to do that.