Last night I went to one of the local dives to check out a band I hadn’t seen before. They did a lot of things right and several things wrong, so here ya go. (And, no, I’m not going to mention the band or the bar.)
Here’s what they did right. Most of these things are key to getting re-booked.
- They started on time. They were all set up and had done their sound check 15 minutes before they were set to go on. In other words, everybody showed up on time and held up their end of things. (I once played in a band where the bass player couldn’t stand the drummer, and would typically show up at gigs five to ten minutes before we were set to go on, just to avoid him. It was maddening, and made doing the sound check hectic — when we had time to do a sound check.)
- Their first set lasted over an hour, and they only took a 15-minute break between sets. Longer breaks are rude both to customers and bar owners/managers, and will contribute to your not being re-booked.
- They didn’t play too loud. (Playing too loud is the most common bar band mistake.) I was able to carry on a conversation with a guy two bar stools away only 30 feet from the stage. The guitar players’ tone was fine despite the low volume.
- They used monitors and miked everything. This usually results in a better mix (though not in this case — the sound was muddy) than you get if you lazily mike only the vocals for the monitors.
- They tried to engage the audience with patter between songs. It was almost painful, but it’s a good idea if properly done.
- They kept the tunes up-tempo and danceable.
- They played a lot of recognizable tunes. Unfortunately, audiences love this. (Ages ago, I went with my pal Lefty Larry to check out a band we hadn’t seen. They played originals and unrecognizable covers, and got a tepid response, until they played “Hold Your Head Up,” by Argent — a tune that’s almost a dictionary definition of musical mediocrity; of course, the audience loved it.)
- They dressed slightly better than the audience. Unless you’re playing in a punk band, you’ll want to dress better than your audience. This is more important in some genres than others, but it’s generally a good idea.
- Their two guitarists had somewhat different tones. (They were both using Fender tube amps, but one was using a Les Paul and the other an ES-335. Neither, to their credit, was using effects.)
Most of the above are major virtues, and will get you asked back. Despite doing all of this right, they did a few things, including two important things (the first two listed), wrong.
- All of the tunes were at close to the same tempo. This gets monotonous after a few songs. It’s better to vary tempos somewhat and keep it mostly uptempo to very uptempo, but throw in one or two medium-tempo or slow tunes per set.
- Their volume level was pretty much the same on every song. They made no use whatsoever of dynamics. (This is a very, very common mistake.)
- They had two pretty decent vocalists (one male, one female), but despite being obviously well rehearsed, they did no backup vocals whatsoever: the vocalists just switched off on the songs. Unless you’re playing punk or metal, backup vocals help.
- They had two guitar players, but didn’t take advantage of it. They avoided the most common mistake bands with two guitarists make — playing the same chords in the same positions with the same rhythmic patterns while comping — but they did no parallel runs, no oblique runs (with one playing a more or less static pattern), no contrary motion runs. They didn’t even do any comping with interlocking patterns. They’d have been better off with only one guitar player: their mix would have been less muddy.
- The one original they did was lame, because the chord pattern was deliberately odd — not good, just odd. This is common with bad songwriting — using gimmicky, oddball changes just to sound different. The Doors were notorious for oddball changes (check out their wonderful “Love Her Madly”), but they mostly made musical sense. Here, the oddball changes didn’t make such sense.
The end result of all this? “Professional” but boring.
Anyway, there ya go. Follow all of the above advice and admonitions, spend several thousand hours practicing and rehearsing, and you too could be pulling in $50 or even $60 a night — per man! (sorry, per person)