Delivering Your Art

After all this work on technique and songwriting, what's next? Time to stand and deliver.

Ultimate Guitar
Welcome UG readers to this lesson on live performance.

I went through sitting in my room for hours just practicing my techniques. Getting the drills right, learning songs and riffs and getting a sound for my songwriting. Started a metal band, we spent a long time getting material and getting it right and then after a while we felt we wanted to start playing shows.

So first show comes and we killed it. Played our songs perfectly while mostly standing in the same place and looking at the fretboard. How boring. More experience down I feel like stage presence has come to a point that we are happy with. But I see friends and new bands taking the stage at local venues and doing the same thing we did. Call it nerves but I want to look at ways for you to prepare as best you can to deliver a good show as a guitarist while still looking cool.

The Difference Between Studio and Stage

So I'm going to do a shameless plug here to credit my studio experience. Here is the single my band recorded.

If you liked it, cool. If not? Also cool. Back to business. That was a studio recording of the song. Near flawless, and that is an unrealistic expectation for live performances. On stage out of a set of say 6 songs, something will go wrong. A missed note, a botched chord, losing track of time. We use the linked song usually to end our shows. It's a pretty simple song to play but even then, it doesn't go 100% right when we play it. That shouldn't deter anybody, but as a guitarist, the number one rule when somebody messes up or you mess up: finish the song no matter what.

I once saw a guitarist throw up his hands and stop playing halfway through a song when the drummer apparently played the wrong section. They restarted the song. The point is I never knew the part was wrong, or if I make a mistake and play something wrong or miss a part, nobody knows that it was wrong because they don't know the song or they do not care.

How Do I Practice for Performance Then?

Ah! Now we get to the point. I'm going to dip into some Paul Gilbert philosophy for ways to get started. Put your strap on, stand up, put your strap lower. No lower, lower, if you took your pants off now would everybody see your junk? No? Good, it's low enough to start. Legs shoulder width apart, and play your favorite song to play or something you wrote. Can't? Strap higher. Do this adjustment until you have a comfortable standing position and can play a song through. Now practice songs standing up.

Still learn them sitting down and do regular practice how you want, but work on playing songs you will play live while standing up. That is half the battle won. Now for more personal space, walk around while you play it. Get moving, make the song second nature. Try playing without looking at the fretboard, bobbing your head, or go full blown full body headbanging and jumping and perform for your pillows or your amp. Try and sell the song. Some advice that I remember reading: "Your guitar playing is like a penis, it may not be the biggest or the prettiest, but you better make everybody believe it is" (Sorry ladies for that one).

With your band, the same thing. When you practice, it's a practice space. So you guys can work on stage performance at the same time. Where you stand and even cues to do something like you are choreographing in a sense. I'm a lefty and the other guitarist in my band is a right handed guitarist. So in one song we have a drawn out harmonized verse so we walk to each other and stand next to each other so we have a "V" playing the two bits. That kind of stuff looks cool even if it's that simple. In another song it's a pedal note chug riff so I alternate my hand over and under the neck on each note. Practicing flashy stuff gets peoples attention when you nail it live too.

Final Words

I have made the transition from bedroom guitarist to performing guitarist and it's exciting. But live performance is a different beast to bedroom or studio. It feels awkward to not feel like you are having an impact. I noticed a dramatic change of energy when my performance included me jumping around or screaming the lyrics at the crowd with the vocalist. You set the bar for the show and the crowd sees and responds to it. Genres vary in what works for them and that's okay. You will have to feel out for yourself what feels right. I believe big time in people performing their songs with feeling, especially in metal and hard rock. It's going the extra mile and could be what sets you apart from the rest.

I hope this lesson was helpful to you in some way and as always stay well and rock on!

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    That's something I notice a lot--guys just standing there on-stage, playing their instrument; I've even seen a guy just standing still, frozen, singing. It's ok for one...maybe even two people to just stand there, but there needs to be movement up on stage to keep the audience's attention--music is great, but it's not enough to hold an audience. I'm in a three-piece right now (I’m on bass), working on 98% covers, and our guitarist, while freakin' awesome, tends to stand there a lot. That can fly for a guy on rhythm in a 5-piece, but not as well for the guitarist in a 3-piece. I know what I like, and I know what I expect from performers I watch on stage. I expect performers to look like they're having fun, are comfortable, and being genuine. I equate that with full-body movement (when able), facial expressions, the lead singer should keep his hands out of his pockets (a big pet peeve of mine), and even some “communication” between performers and the audience. Those are all basic things I see from major acts during their live shows. I look at how my favorite bands behave on stage, and I take those and try to incorporate them into how I behave as well. They’re not only influences on me as musicians, but as performers. It’s amazing to me that so many musicians forget that when they’re up on stage, they’re performers more so than they are musicians. I'm doing my best to be able to get some movement, facials, anything to project some kind of intensity or emotion with my playing—even during the couple of songs that I’m not a fan of, because it’s frustrating to watch people up on stage just stand around and looking bored out of their minds while playing through their set list. That’s not entertaining to me, and I don’t want people to feel like that when they’re watching my band perform. If you don’t look like you’re having fun performing, then I’m not going to have fun watching you perform.
    Exactly my thoughts. This kind of stuff also translates to like sitting at a campfire or when your friends throw a guitar at you during a party. It helps people own it and look even more awesome than the guy who hunches over the guitar mumbling the words to himself. That kind of confidence (even if faked, it becomes real confidence) goes far.
    It surprises me that some people people don't take a page from someone like Jimi Hendrix when it comes to live performing. Not musically, but more his stage are 100% right regardless.
    Someone over on the Duncan forums had advice for people who are auditioning for a band. My advice for auditioning and practicing is to always show your stage presence, no matter what. Playing the song is important and should be the first thing on your "To-do list" but having stage presence is key. You could be the greatest guitar player ever, but if you stand there, it's a boring show to the audience. If you're the worst player in the world, but you sell yourself on stage, at least people will say "Oh, but he's having fun." Play the right notes, but have the right attitude on stage too.
    Great tips. I've noticed and seen bands stop mid song just to say the band screwed it up and start again. Fair enough for being honest but the crowd isn't bothered like you said as they don't know the songs or if it's covers they probably don't know it that well. I play in a wedding band and I've seen people in the audience sing the wrong lyrics to nearly every song people should know the lyrics too by now (all the cheesy stuff obviously). Great advice on learning to play standing up as I teach my students to do the same as it is more difficult than you realise if you're not looking at the fretboard every second.
    A bit pretentious title for the lesson. More like tips for playing live.
    I was really undecided on a title to be honest and like you suggested, simple is better
    I think your demographic is also a huge factor. I'm a huge Umphrey's Mcgee fan, and have seen them play some of the most awesomely creative and unique technical compositions I've ever seen (check out White Man's Moccasins or Mulche's Odyssey), and they really don't move around much on stage, and I don't expect them to. I'm there for the music, to hear how they take the songs I know and throw in improv and sweet transitions into other pieces. THAT is the movement I'm looking for. I don't know, to me it seems so shallow to base a band on how much they are jumping around. If the content of your live set isn't enough to keep someone's attention maybe your songs aren't that great/unique/creative. Or maybe people's attention spans are so short these days that you have to literally go into the audience and slap someone across the face to get your point across, like I said I don't know. What I do know is that if I traveled back in time to see Mozart in concert I wouldn't give two sharts what he was doing on stage as long as he played some mind-blowing music. The next time you go to a show close your eyes. Create your own moment. If you can't get into the music with your eyes closed maybe you should find a band that does that for you. Just my opinions, and I understand both sides of the debate. Cheers.