What playing bar gigs is really like

Posted: December 2, 2014 in Livin' in the USA, Music
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An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rock, Jazz & Blues Musicans

Most people have no idea what’s actually involved in playing music in bars. Some even have the idea that it’s glamorous. It isn’t.

Here’s a timeline of what’s involved in playing an average 9:00 to 1:00 bar gig. (This assumes that the bar is within a few miles of your home; for gigs farther away, add more travel time.) What follows describes a gig that goes almost perfectly.

7:15 to 7:30 — Load gear into your van or pickup. There will typically be at least 20 pieces, including guitar(s), guitar amp(s), p.a. head, main speakers, monitor speakers, speaker stands, mike stands, and a large, heavy “tupperware” container for the mikes, mike cords, speaker cables, AC cords and strips, etc. This phase of the job will be just as odious for the drummer, who’ll typically have to pack up five drums (bass, snare, two mounted toms and a floor tom), hi-hat, ride, and crash cymbals, and the stands for the cymbals, plus other necessary hardware–and the drummer has to have the drums and cymbals in cases to avoid damage during transport. Those who aren’t hauling around drums or the p.a. system have comparatively cake jobs. Horn players in particular have a racket going–all they usually do is show up, flip open their cases, tune up, and they’re good to go–and they get paid as much as everyone else. (A handy hint for all you kids out there: there’s always a glut of guitar players, and to a lesser extent a glut of bassists and drummers, while horn players, keyboard players, and good vocalists–key word, “good”–are in short supply; this explains why guitarists and bassists are almost always the ones lugging around p.a. systems.)

7:45 — Arrive at the bar, unload your gear, carry it to the stage, and begin setup of the p.a., beginning with the main speakers. The drummer should arrive at about the same time, and will be setting up the trap set (from “contraption”–an apt term). Assuming that everyone else arrives shortly–not necessarily a good assumption–place all of the mike stands, amplifiers, and monitor speakers where they should go (you’ll have this worked out in advance), run mike cables to the mike stands, amps, and drum kit, and then attach the microphones.

8:30 to 8:45 — Assuming everyone has arrived, do a sound check — play a verse or three of some tune, while the person running the p.a. stands as far in front of the stage as far as he or she can get, and then adjusts levels accordingly. This can take two or three checks before you get everything right. If someone is late, this can become nerve wracking. (I played for a couple of years with a bass player and drummer who couldn’t stand each other, so the bass player would show up at gigs five to ten minutes before we were set to go on, simply to avoid being around the drummer. As a result, until the bassist showed up the rest of us would be sitting there drumming our fingers, and would then breath a sigh of relief when he finally walked in, and then do the world’s fastest sound check.) Then, maybe, have a beer before you go on. That’s not a good idea, but a lot of musicians do it anyway to deal with nerves.

9:00 to 9:45 — Play the first set. The general rule is “start strong, end strong,” with fast, recognizable cover songs to start and end the set. Audiences do not want to hear your original songs, no matter how good they are, so you’ll need to sneak them in in the middle of sets, unless you’re already well established and have a following who know your songs.

9:45 to 10:00 — Take a break. Keep it to 15 minutes or less. It’s unprofessional to take longer breaks, and if you take them people will leave. Maybe have a beer–again, not a good idea, but it’s a common practice. Talk to friends in the audience, and thank them for coming. Roust reluctant band mates to get them back on stage.

10:00 to 10:45 — Second set.

10:45 to 11:00 — Second break.

11:00 to 11:45 — Third set.

11:45 to 12:00 — Third break.

12:00 to 12:45 (or a bit longer if things are going well) — Fourth set.

1:00 to 1:30  — Tear everything down, pack it up into your vehicles, get paid by the bar manager, divide the take, and then stand around outside shooting the shit with other band members for 10 or 15 minutes after everything is loaded.

1:45 to 2:00 — Arrive home and unload everything.

2:00 to 2:15 — Finally have that beer you’ve been wanting all evening.

For all this, you’ll get paid $50, sometimes less. That works out to approximately minimum wage, and less than that if there’s significant travel time. And it doesn’t even count the hours upon hours you’ll spend practicing between gigs. (A couple of decades ago, before smoking in bars was outlawed, it was even worse–you’d unload all your gear, strip off your clothing, put it in a garbage bag, seal the bag, and then take a shower to rid yourself of the stench of tobacco smoke.)

Why would anyone do this? It’s simple: we love to play music, and it’s much more fun to play in front of an audience than it is to play at home.

Boondocks Lounge, TucsonBTW, if anyone reading this is in Tucson–center of the world for roadside giant sculptures–we (Pinche Blues Band) are playing on Friday, December 26, at our favorite bar, Boondocks Lounge (3306 North First Ave.) from 8:00 to 12:00. It’s a free show. If you feel like getting over your holiday blues by listening (or preferably dancing) to actual blues (plus latin rock, funk, jazz, and country), come on down.

 

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