Performing solo -- tips?

August 12, 2011 7:59 PM

I've recently been working on a solo set -- a mix of covers and originals. But I've never played solo before -- looking for any tips/observations.

Still not quite sure what my physical set-up is -- it's the 335 and/or the acoustic, probably thru the little 40w Fender Acoustasonic jr which I bought for my birthday, plus my SM58 on vocals. Maybe a little condenser acoustic mic on the guitar too.

The songs are a mix of my favorite 'perfect songs' and some originals. I've played hundreds of times in bands but I've never played solo before and I'm really looking for anything you can tell me about what matters, what to worry about and what not to worry about.

Even though it's very rural, there are a ton of places round here which have open mics and that kind of thing, mostly very low key, but for my own sanity I really want to be as good as I can be.
posted by unSane (21 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Don't talk fuckin' forever between songs.

Fuckin' forever is defined in this case as more than maybe 15 seconds, unless you are having a tuning emergency or have a really great story. And then only just. Don't tune and talk if it's any slower than tuning and not talking.

Nobody cares what the song is called unless it's a really great title. Nobody cares why you wrote the song unless you wrote it for a dead friend and then only if they died in an interesting way, and even then it better not take fuckin' forever to explain.

No mumbling. No apologizing unless you physically catch someone on fire. If a little something or other gets fucked up, move along briskly so that the next not-fucked up thing is what people are experiencing rather than some awkward Ha Ha Whoops dwelling-upon of the fucked up thing. If you forget a verse, sing the wrong verse instead. Anyone who catches you on it is a superfan, and that can only be a good thing.

Tune ahead of time, tune right before you go on, bring extra picks and then some extra picks as well, bring strings, bring an extra patch cable, bring 9-volts for any pedals you might use, bring extra batteries for you tuner. Make sure you've got all that random little shit you might need in your guitar case even if you probably won't need it, just so you have it because you will, or someone else will and you'll be their personal superhero and keep shit moving along instead of getting bogged down.

Play the songs as well as you can. Play a bunch of songs. Play songs that sound really great being performed live solo even to people who don't know how great the recorded version with the extra bits are. Cut out filler. Everybody's heard a guitarist strum chords wordlessly, nobody wants to hear much more of that than is strictly necessary to give a song basic structure between the words. Give 'em words, give 'em melody, give 'em a vocal performance to pay attention to and a reason to look you in the eyes. Look 'em in the eyes.

Play a couple open mics before you play solo sets, so you can fuck up and/or get the jitters out even if you're not worried about fucking up or getting jitters out. A couple of totally flawless, aces open mic performances are a best-case scenario in any case, but fuck ups and jitters are a lot more tolerable when you're only playing a song or three and there's a good chance you'll be following or followed by someone whose genuinely crap.
posted by cortex at 5:57 PM on August 13, 2011 [11 favorites]

Look 'em in the eyes.

This! I know I should practice what I preach, as I have a really bad tendency of looking right over everyone's head when I'm singing, but eye contact really goes a long way.

Also, another vote for -- just play the songs. Keep the space between songs to a minimum.

Finally, singing solo versus singing in a band puts the focus almost entirely on your vocal performance. A decent vocal performance in a rock quartet often won't cut it in a solo show with an acoustic guitar. A couple sharp or flat notes or a bad trailing off of a word might just pass in a loud club, but on an intimate stage, it'll hurt how you're perceived much more.
posted by chimaera at 10:30 PM on August 13, 2011

Ha! cortex FTW! That should be in a text book or in an "official rules of engagement" for buskers, open mic'ers etc.

I can only add obvious stuff like having a dry run at home with all your gear set up like it will be at the show. I don't know what electrical outlets look like up there, but I keep a couple of adapters in my bag just in case I'm playing in an old rat hole with 1920s wiring.

One thing I've always kicked myself about is that I've never recorded a show. If you have a decent hand held digi audio recorder you should record your gig. Not only is that good for self evaluation, you'll also have evidence of your "happy accidents".

Hydration: Beer is good, water is better, icy cold water with a slice of lime or lemon is awesome.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by snsranch at 6:19 PM on August 14, 2011

Hi there unSane. I've got some tips for ya! Once I'm back in Tokyo with regular daily internet access I'll get 'em posted here! My brief window of net opportunity is almost up right now, and I'm going back to listening to the birds. They're fuckin gorgeous.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:29 PM on August 14, 2011

Thanks all. Good stuff. Flapjax, I look forward to you unlocking your word-horde!

One thing I've been doing is rehearsing and recording everything, then listening back. Better than I had feared, but I have learned quite a lot about singing in the process.
posted by unSane at 5:40 AM on August 15, 2011

I have learned quite a lot about singing in the process.

I know what you mean... I remember being horrified on listening back to recorded shows and discovering how often I'd pull away from the mike while still singing a line, leaving it to trail offfffff.....
posted by COBRA! at 7:46 AM on August 15, 2011

"Play to the room" is my advice.

I personally find it annoying when the musician tries to be the centre of attention, when people aren't necessarily there to hear music. If people will be eating, play tunes that you like to imagine hearing glasses and cutlery clinking over top of. Play down a bit, focus on space and melody and tone. So that people that like music will stop and listen and appreciate, and those that don't can ignore you.

If people are there to drink and socialize, then play some favorites, some hits that everybody likes, some clever obscure ones to reward the hipsters, and probably, songs about drinking. The drunker the room, the louder you can play.

If people are there specifically to hear music, then I would disagree with Cortex and talk a little bit to let your personality show a bit more, but not be a dork about it. Play the songs you love to play, that you play the best and people will respond.

Open mics are kind of a mixed bag in my experience. I stay away from them myself because I find them to be fairly unrewarding and basically for amateurs only. But I'm kind of a snob. Sometimes they can be inclusive and communal, where everybody introduces their tunes and shares a bit of the creative or developmental process, which is fine I guess. Some are wank fests where everybody is trying to be the "best" and nobody is really listening to anybody else. In both of these cases, you can do whatever you want and it won't really make any difference.
posted by dobie at 11:58 AM on August 17, 2011

If people are there specifically to hear music, then I would disagree with Cortex and talk a little bit to let your personality show a bit more, but not be a dork about it.

Oh, sure, I don't really disagree with that. If you've got a good sense of the room and know you're not just droning on about dull stuff out of nerves, being a little bit alive between songs is fine.

My take is more that as a rule of thumb, you want to err on the side of talking too little, not too much, until you're really feeling like you've got your dosage of patter down. Much better to have folks think "the music's great but he's such a cypher!" than "the music's great but I wish he'd shut the fuck up already and play".
posted by cortex at 12:40 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

From an audience perspective, I don't mind talking *with* the audience but I'm not a big fan of talking *at* the audience.

Funnily enough I ended up having to play one song solo last night at a local bar -- my friend's a singer and I was just backing him on a few random songs on guitar, but then we got to one of the songs we'd chosen (not having rehearsed at all) and he decided he didn't know how to sing it, so I had to do it instead. Was absolutely fine, if unspectacular. At least no-one threw anything.
posted by unSane at 12:50 PM on August 17, 2011

Try to avoid being the guy who suddenly speaks with a foreign accent because he's nervous.

The more I've played with a band, the more I'm realizing how different solo or even stripped down performances are. Did a show where it was just me on guitar and my brother accompanying on piano and drums and whatever else. In rehearsal, it felt weird finding how much harder I had to work simply because there was no bassist.

So there's a bit of that--playing solo, everything is riding on your guitar and your voice and your stage presence. You may want to devote some time to the arrangements and fingerings to make sure you're absolutely comfortable with how you're playing.

I like the idea of going solo with a 335 and an acoustic and maybe switching back and forth. When I saw Elvis Costello solo, he seemed to play electric just as often as he played acoustic. Some songs just work better that way.

All that having been said, solo also gives you an opportunity to relax. You don't have an entire band playing along, so if you want to try something different, play something slower, be spontaneous, you don't have a bassist staring at your fretting hand trying to figure out what the hell you're doing.

Finally, on talking to the audience, remember that if you are not a clever, quick-witted, hilarious guy, you're not suddenly going to become one once you have a microphone placed in front of you. Remember: self-deprecation is charming, working the crowd is very much like flirting, but shutting up and playing the song is a decent go-to policy.

Have fun!
posted by Maaik at 6:12 AM on August 23, 2011

Nobody cares what the song is called unless it's a really great title.

For my money, I like having a little interaction between songs, unless you're just going to kind of link all the songs together in one medley of performance. I DO like knowing the name of the song, that way when I go to look up the artists' page later I can say, oh yeah, i liked that one, let's see how the recorded version matches up.

self-deprecation is charming

Sure, a little self-deprecation is better than seeing ROCK GOD STRUTTING as if they're mick jagger of the open mic, but I have seen way more than enough songwriters knock their own material during the show. uh, if you don't think these songs are great or at least worth performing for me, why not write some better ones? Otherwise it just comes off as fishing for compliments, like you're desperate for us to convince you that no, that was really great actually, yes, we really really do think so, honestly.

I guess this thread probably proves that no matter what you do it won't please everyone, so just figure out what kind of artist you like to see, and emulate that?
posted by dubold at 8:32 AM on August 23, 2011

Oh yeah, self-deprecation is a high-wire act. There's a thin line between charming and annoying. Don't knock your own songs, and as cortex said "No apologizing unless you physically catch someone on fire." Seriously. That cannot be overstated. If you fucked up a chord change or forgot some lyrics, chances are good that absolutely no one noticed. Move on.

Last time I played an open mic, I announced that I was playing songs "in descending order of my confidence in my ability to remember all the words." That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. Maybe not the funniest joke in the world, but way better than mumbling thank you between songs and staring at the floor as you tune.

Also, if you break a string, you MUST raise your guitar above your head and howl as if it were a beast you just murdered.
posted by Maaik at 3:40 PM on August 25, 2011

Some fine advice here from all the commenters, and before I jump in with any original thoughts/ideas, I'd like to take a few of the comments that have already been made and offer my take on them. (By the time I'm done with that, there may in fact be little else for me to say, but, well, we'll cross that bridge (if not verse or chorus) when we come to it...

Let me note that there are many points here that I agree with wholeheartedly, and do not, I feel, need any more said on them from my end. So I'll address only those portions of comments with which I only half-agree, or perhaps totally disagree with.

First off, some thoughts on a couple of cortex's points:

Nobody cares what the song is called unless it's a really great title.

Sometimes announcing a title can be a very good idea even if the title in and of itself is not especially brilliant or interesting. The reason can often be that you want to plant some seed in the audience's head, to sort of prime them for what's to come. Often this kind of "priming" can be essential in helping a song to really get over. Cause, let's face it, audience members are often engaged in conversations, or (increasingly) checking their mobile phones and whatnot during any given live performance, but they often are actually listening to what a performer says between tunes. That title that you announced might just help them to make whatever connection in the lyrics that you were aiming for when you wrote the song. By the same token, if you are able to say something (but here I'd agree with cortex, something not too long) about the song that will help in getting the idea across, hey, go ahead and say it.

In general, talking between songs is something that you'll probably get better at the more you do, just like performing the songs themselves. If you're like me, you'll find that some nights you're really pretty good at talking between tunes, you get a rhythm going, a vibe, and things work well. Other nights you find you'd do better to just shut up 'n play yer guitar, as Zappa said.

Look 'em in the eyes.

I'd say... this depends. As a veteran of years of solo performing (I've been doing it pretty consistently since around 1978 or so), I'd say that there are certain rooms and certain kinds of audiences that are comfortable with a performer looking them right in the eyes, and there are others that are decidedly not comfortable with it. It actually comes down to individuals within the audience, of course, and there's no way to know until you try. But actually, you can kind if know. It's not something I can explain scientifically, but sometimes I just know that most of the folks I'm playing to don't especially want to be looked in the eye. It's too immediate, it's too personal, and is embarrassing for many people. Of course, sometimes it does work, and it's powerful, and can be great for all concerned. But as a hard and fast rule, "look 'em in the eyes" definitely wouldn't work for me. Of course, YMMV.

One extra note here: I don't always feel like looking audience members directly in the eye, myself. It can, in fact, be distracting, and, yeah, too personal. Sometimes one needs a wee bit more... um, I don't want to say anonymity, cause it's certainly not that, but... I dunno, more psychic autonomy, perhaps, in order to get the job (performing your song) done, and done right.

snsranch writes: Hydration: Beer is good, water is better, icy cold water with a slice of lime or lemon is awesome.

When it comes to singing, for me, a couple of beers early in the evening can be good, but personally, icy cold water is a big no-no. That's bad news for my singing voice. Generally speaking, warm or hot beverages like herb tea or whatever are much better than cold liquid. Now, as it happens, scotch or bourbon agree with me very well when it comes to singing, so that's what I usually drink on gigs. Warms and loosens the ol' throat very nicely. Again, of course, YMMV.

And actually, upon re-reading everyone's comments, well, that's pretty much my two-cent's worth on what's been said here so far. So lemme close this comment and if I can think of anything pertinent to say I'll do so a bit later...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:46 AM on August 26, 2011

Well, lessee... equipment? Now, as for me, I've always used pretty idiosyncratic stuff: from elaborate tuned drum kits to electronic gizmos all wired together to toys and junk to (more recently) neo-primitive string instruments like the diddley bow and the strumstick and mouth bows and jaw harps. Instrumentally, I've long been something of a jack of all trades (with emphasis on the "master of none") and a lot of what I've done over the years has had a lot to do with, well, the relatively novel quality of the instruments themselves.

Now, I realize that guitar players, strumming on the most commonly seen and heard instrument of the 20th/21st Centuries don't have that kind of novelty interest to fall back on, but the upside is that people won't think you're a total weirdo outlier, either. Cause I've definitely had plenty of folks over the years who've scratched their heads and wondered what the hell is that guy doing with that contraption up there? So using strange instruments has been sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse.

So, where am I going with all this? Well, I guess I want to say that, no matter what you're doing, do it with utter conviction, and even if you know there are folks you're playing to who just don't understand what you're up to, or, hey, don't seem to like it, you go ahead and PLAY YOUR ASS OFF LIKE YOU WERE GODDAM ELVIS PRESLEY OR CHARLIE PARKER OR ROBERT JOHNSON OR WHOEVER. And I'm not talking about technique. I'm talking about the musicianship of being yourself.

So, yeah, conviction. Be grounded, and you can't go wrong. When you get on that stage you need to know that you fuckin own it, and that there's no one else in the world who can do exactly what you're doing in the way that you can. Cause, hey, why the hell else should anyone pay any attention?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:21 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Something else I've thought about a good bit in recent years is... simplicity. Now, with technology at a point where a solo performer can get onstage and, in one way or another, sound kinda like a whole band, we all have to ask ourselves: how far in that direction do we want to go? Of course the temptation is great to use looping and maybe a laptop and this and that for some "backing tracks" and such. And some folks are doing good stuff like that. BUT... a little voice in my head has kept telling me over and over: strip it down. Bring it right down to the barest essentials. And if what you've got, material-wise, is strong, the simplicity of it will work in your favor.

See, I do think that people, having been so inundated for so long with really thick, loud and busy music, are often hungering for something more spare. Even skeletal. They may not even know it, but something inside them is telling them, too: simplify. In recent years so many compliments I've received from listeners have included mentions of how stripped down my sound is, and how refreshing the listener has found that to be.

So, advice-wise: don't be afraid to be a solo musician, with only something very simple to offer. Work the details, work the nuances, work the stark essence of sound. Make it powerful. Trust your audience to not need to be bludgeoned. Even if they don't know yet that they don't really need to be bludgeoned.

And sometimes this will mean that you play to crowds that wind up being louder than you are. Sometimes audiences just ain't gonna quiet down enough to listen to what you have to say. But don't let those times dampen your spirit. The next gig may be ten times, a hundred times better.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:15 AM on August 26, 2011

At the risk of being repetitious:

When a song is finished, hold your position and don't move for a moment. Perhaps even remember to take a breath and let it out before moving. The moment after a song is a part of the song, and you need to be conscious of it and perhaps even practice it.

(I mention that because I had to tell it to someone recently, who played beautiful songs beautifully, but killed them all by dropping them immediately he'd played the last note.)

Further to that, don't say "Thank you" before anyone claps.

You can play a lot less than you think you need to - as long as the pulse is there, quite often there don't need to be actual notes at all. People fill stuff in wonderfully, and the less instrumentation there is, the more they're prepared to fill in.

Even if all you can hear is talking, and you can't see anything at all, there's always someone listening. Remember you're playing to them, even if you don't know where they are.
posted by Grangousier at 4:59 AM on August 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, and the less gear, the less to go wrong, and the less set-up time. One thing I've noticed at open-mics is that they tend to announce you, then the audience clap (or not), then you come up and plug in and start to play. The announcement is when the audience give their attention, and the time between then and beginnning to play is where their attention wanders. The more time it takes, therefore, the more likely you'll lose them completely. The worst offenders for this are effects pedals. I've never heard an effect cool enough to make up for the faffing around.

(No, tell a lie: Mrs Pilgrimm and her looper. But then I'd not seen a looper in an acoustic music club before - it was well over ten years ago - and I've never seen another cello player use a looper and sing anyway. And Mrs Pilgrimm is a really compelling performer. But apart from that...)

I have seen people use faffing around to build interest and expectation, but in those cases the faffing around is a part of the performance (conjurors and stand-ups do it all the time). And it's a lot harder than it looks.
posted by Grangousier at 5:07 AM on August 27, 2011

Oh, and another one, though perhaps a bit strange: When you're on stage and people are looking at you, whatever you're doing is part of the performance. Even if you just stand there.
posted by Grangousier at 5:19 AM on August 27, 2011

The worst offenders for this are effects pedals. I've never heard an effect cool enough to make up for the faffing around.

But if you've got a pedal board set up and put together right, you can tote that baby onstage, plug in power, plug in your axe and be pretty much good to go. There doesn't have to be faffing around. But that takes preparation, both in the sense of getting a rig together so that you really can just plug'n'play, and also in the sense of getting intimately familiar with your effects and what they do, how they can change the gain structure, etc. Thinking of them as something you just "add on" is wrong: they should be thought of as an integral part of your instrument, if you're gonna use 'em at all.

But one good reason to use some effects may often be not for anything especially flashy, but simply for getting a good sound, the importance of which should also not be overlooked when you're taking your music to the stage.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:21 AM on August 27, 2011

Ah, sorry, I suspect we may be talking at cross-purposes: I was thinking about open-mics with that comment - for a start that tends to be a place where you are wholly at the mercy (or lack of it) of the sound person.

For full disclosure: my thing is the Roland VG88 (it would be a VG99, but I'm too skint to spring another grand for another effects box), which meant (when I was playing gigs as a part of a band) that I could roll up to a gig by public transport and have everything set up with all the funny noises I wanted at my fingertips in five minutes.

For an open mic, five minutes is longer than some people's sets. So the open mic scenario I was thinking of is something like this:

Chap turns up with guitar, extra cable and effects box. He explains to the sound person that he has an effects box and an extra cable. There is some panicked plugging in. There is no sound. Chap checks the battery in his guitar, then the battery in the effects box, then the lead. There is increasingly desperate plugging and unplugging. Eventually there is sound, but by that time, the audience have lost interest. Now, on the one hand this is a problem of batteries and cables, but on the other it's a problem of setting up a system too complicated for the context. And more than that, it's a problem of the performer's expectations in rehearsal ("Woo! This sound is really cool! I'll blow them away with my mad echoey skills!") taking precedence over the annoying realities and complexities of the situation, which seems to increase exponentially with each thing that needs to be plugged in.

Using effects doesn't necessarily have to involve faff, but it often does involve faff simply because many people don't take into account all of the things that are involved in using the effects that make the situation more complicated and prone to failure. And I can say this because I've been one of those people and I've seen other people crash and burn for the same reasons I did.

The other thing I noticed when I did play using effects, is that effects songs were out of proportion to the songs where I didn't use them. For example, there's a song I play, where one day I was doing a short solo set using the guitar plugged in to the VG88 (open mic before band I was playing in anyway, so it was all set up), and I added a drone to a song (using a long delay, like cheap Frippertronics). It was cool and wholly appropriate to the song, so I started doing it on other occasions when I was playing a longer set. It was still cool, but all of the other songs didn't have the drone, so it kind of messed up the set as a whole. Now I do that part of that song a cappella when I perform it live, and it's a lot more effective, because it's in proportion to the rest of the performance.

In my experience (which almost certainly differs from yours), if there's something wrong with the sound, it can't be countered by adding more stuff, and can only be responded to by adjusting the stuff that one already has. And I, who am not that bright, find it easier to adjust stuff if there's a lot less of it.

Oh, something else: tuning onstage - I've found those clip-on tuners invaluable. They're probably not as accurate as really good ears or an expensive Boss TU-12 or one of those fancy oscilloscope things, but if there's one thing that can go terribly, terribly wrong it's trying to tune a guitar by ear in front of loads of people, and they're pretty much good enough for that.

(Sorry to ramble on.)
posted by Grangousier at 8:29 AM on August 27, 2011

Even if all you can hear is talking, and you can't see anything at all, there's always someone listening. Remember you're playing to them, even if you don't know where they are.

I'll give you an example of how true this is. This summer we played an outdoor gig and I was sitting around beforehand waiting for the rest of the band to show up. The guy who was on before us was a pianist singer/songwriter who was not bad at all, but when the poor bastard took the stage there was no-one in the audience. No-one. Zero. Just some empty bleachers out in the (blazing) sun and the guy on sound. But he took it like a pro and played the first song like it was a real gig and there were a thousand people there.

And the weird thing was, when he finished, there was applause. Quite a lot of it, too. It was the damnedest thing. I was sitting under a tree a hundred yards away noodling on my acoustic guitar as he played, and I looked around and realized that there were LOTS OF PEOPLE, also sitting under trees, out of the sun, listening. I'm absolutely certain he had no idea they were there, but they were, and they were listening. As he played a few of then ventured out of the stage and by the end he had a decent audience. I definitely took something away from that.
posted by unSane at 10:34 PM on September 6, 2011

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