More than any other species of musician, guitarists are widely renowned for being difficult to play with. We solo too often and for too long, we overplay, we bring too much gear, we play everything in power chords… These are all common criticisms levelled at many guitarists in bands. Now obviously every musical situation you play in is going to require a different approach, but below are a few general rules that I try to apply that have helped me dodge being slapped with the ‘typical bloody guitarist’ label at (almost) every gig.
Have at least a general idea of how your bandmates’ parts go
Overplaying is one of the most common problems with guitarists. Especially when it’s their first time playing with a band. This is often down to the fact that you’ve gone from playing by yourself and needing to fill every moment of space in order to sound good, to playing with other musicians. Having never practiced playing more sparsely, you find yourself playing big barre chords with a busy strumming pattern that fills up all the musical space, much to the irritation of your bandmates.
By listening to, and learning their parts as well as your own you can get an idea for the places where you should be playing less. For instance if your bassist’s part in a particular song involves a big slide or a slap at the end of every fourth bar, you might want to consider playing with muted strums for that part of the bar. Thus allowing their part to stand out a little bit more at that moment. If you’re playing with another chord based instrument, such as another guitarist or a keyboardist, you may want to forgo strumming altogether and just pick out one or two notes from each chord. Not only will the other musicians appreciate your relaxed style of playing, but the band as a whole will sound better for it.
Adjust your EQ settings and playing style to suit the instruments you’re playing with.
This is one that’s often pretty hard to convince guitarists to do. After all, more than any other type of musician, we spend a lot of time and money on getting our tones just the way we like them, or on emulating the tones of our favourite guitarists. I’m not suggesting you throw all those pedals and months of tweaking away and start again, simply that you think of EQ settings in the way that a producer might do in the recording studio. For example, one of the bands I play with most frequently is a three piece function band. As the only melodic instruments in the band are bass and my guitar, we have to make sure that we get the biggest possible sound from what we have, sometimes in situations where the volume we can play at is limited. One of the ways we do this is through EQ manipulation. The most important frequency range of a bass guitar is around 40hz – 1khz, meaning it covers all the bass frequencies and some of the low mids. The electric guitar meanwhile goes from 80hz to about 6khz, covering low mids, high mids and some of the treble frequencies.
To get a good band sound what we try to do is EQ out some of the frequencies where our instruments crossover, taking some of the mids out of the bass and some of the bass out of the guitar, to allow our separate instruments to clearly cut through. This helps eliminate that muddy sound that you hear from so many bands where all the instruments are fighting for the same sonic space.
When playing with more instruments it gets a little trickier, keyboards in particular present a difficulty as their frequency range goes as low as a bass and as high as a guitar. In this situation I find it helps to look at how each particular keys player plays and adjust your playing accordingly. If the musician you are playing with mostly plays in the centre of the keyboard, shift your chords higher up the neck to stay out of the way. If they mostly play at the higher end of the keyboard stay in the lower octaves. A little flexibility in your playing will take you a long way and help you stand out without treading on the toes of others.
Plan the set with your guitar, tuning and tone changes in mind.
This is quite a simple and small one, but it’s vital to maintaining the flow of a set and so many bands overlook it. With all that gear you’ve got you probably have a whole bunch of different sounds that you want to use on each song. And that’s great in practice, but live it can really derail a performance. If you’re really lucky you’ll have a singer that’s great at working with a crowd in between songs, but even then it can start to wear thin if they’re talking for a couple of minutes between each song. Before long even the consummate pro will have to resort to announcing the dreaded “we’re just waiting for our guitarist to tune” or worse yet “we’re just having some technical difficulties.” Phrases like these make an audience feel uncomfortable, but keep leaving large gaps in between songs and sooner or later your singer will run out of other things to say and have no choice. Once that has happened you’ll have to work twice as hard to get back the momentum that you’ve been building up in your set.
Avoiding this is as simple as sitting down with your band and working out which changes and tweaks are really necessary to the sound of the song, such as retuning your guitar for a song that is written in an alternate tuning, and which changes can be dropped or combined with others so that they all happen at the same time. Any songs that require big changes like retuning should be placed at the very end or very beginning of the set, helping to avoid having a large pause either side of the song. When you’ve narrowed it down to two or three changes in the set you’ll find that the whole gig runs much better, and your singers’ inter-song banter will flow more naturally.
Do you have any other methods you use for keeping your practices and performances running smoothly? Contribute some additional advice in the comments below and help your fellow musicians!