What do you think of while playing the guitar onstage? Do you focus on getting the notes right? Do you think a few moves ahead to make sure you know where you are going? Are you focused on whether the drummer is pushing or lagging? Considering ways to get the crowd to react? Dreaming up a great chat-up line to give to the blonde in the front row after the gig?
As players, we think about many different things onstage, and often just how concentrated we are on certain things onstage depends on what we do to prepare before-hand while offstage in the practice room. Many inexperienced players seem introverted onstage, this is because they are thinking about getting things right. They don’t smile, they are so stiff and tight that they barely move, and they cannot interact with the audience. This is generally a bad image to project to an audience (that is, unless you are playing in a shoe-gaze group). Similar things can happen with more experienced players when they are put out of their comfort zones. Whether it is playing with musicians who are noticeably more skilled than they themselves are, playing a style of music that they are not too familiar with, or – the worst reason – not being prepared and practiced enough for a new tune in the repertoire.
Generally accepted ‘master’ guitar players – Satriani comes to mind for me personally – often say that they don’t think about the scale or run that they will play to get a good vibe with the audience, but rather rely on reading the crowd, asking themselves what kind of reaction they want to get, and automatically play what feels right in the moment. While this level of playing requires extraordinary amounts of natural ability, hours upon hours of practice and detailed knowledge of music theory, it is possible for the average player to learn something from this, and take steps to prepare themselves well for a show.
The key to relaxed playing, having fun onstage and projecting an infectiously fun image to the audience is preparation. And the results depend on the amount of preparation we do. Taking into account the fact that not everyone can devote countless hours to music theory and honing our skills on the axe, there are a number of things that we can do which can leave ourselves ultimately more free to perform onstage. A good guitar setup, with the best effects pedals and a high quality tube amp is number one in my opinion. Set up your distortion pedals, compressors and amp EQ well, and get to know your stomp boxes. That way you are free from having to worry about your tone while playing. Take the time to practice and become confident with new songs also, and practice as much as possible with other musicians. Push boundaries and play things that you are not comfortable with while practicing and jamming, then onstage you will not feel the need to constantly be aware of what you are playing. With a great tone and rehearsed fingers, you are a lot freer to be yourself during a performance, and enjoy it rather than stress about things. You will have much more fun, and you will find your audiences reacting in a much better way all around.