So you’ve got a couple of great songs in your pocket, you’ve cased the local open mics, and you’re thinking you might be ready to get up onstage. Congratulations! Imagining yourself there is half the battle.
To help you go the rest of the way, we’ve compiled this nuts-and-bolts guide to preparing for a first gig. From writing a set list—the songs you plan to play—to packing a gig bag, surviving sound check, and calming your nerves, this guide will not only help you take the plunge but keep you coming back for more.
Pre-Gig Prep (Up to one week before the gig)
Strangely enough, it takes heaps of preparation and practice to achieve a performer’s highest goal: relaxing and being 100 percent yourself onstage. We’ll assume you’ve already got your repertoire as spit-and-polished as it’s gonna be; here are a few other ways to prepare for gig day.
Craft a set. Good sets have a certain alchemy, and it’s worth some mental song-shuffling to get it right. Here’s a time-tested recipe: start with an upbeat, easy song to grab the audience’s attention and help you warm up. After that, mix up tempos, keys, styles, and lyrical content; and finish with your most arresting tune to leave the crowd wanting more. Time your set—including stage patter—so it falls within your limits (usually three songs or 15 minutes). Run-on musicians are the scourge of open mics!
Practice like it’s the real thing. Practicing performing at home is like learning to roll a kayak in the swimming pool—it may not be incredibly realistic, but it’s crucial. Try your best to simulate whitewater stage conditions: stand up to play (if you’re going to perform that way) and run through your set without stopping for mistakes, dropped picks, or forgotten lyrics. If you don’t have your own, rent or borrow an amp and microphone to get used to performing with a PA. Best of all, gather an audience of family and friends for a trial run.
Know the venue format. Contact the venue or open-mic emcee in advance so you know when to arrive, when the show starts, how long your set is, and whether you’ll have a sound check.
Pack your gig bag. Beat stress by packing your bag long before you’re due to leave. Don’t forget picks, capo, strap, strings, string winder, tuner, guitar, and directions and contact information for the venue, if you need them.
The Day of the Gig (Up to one hour before the gig)
Ah, just when you’ve got everything shipshape, in come the uncontrollable forces of Gig Day. Between stage fright, challenging sound checks, and loud cappuccino makers, those unknowns have incredible powers to knock you off your feet. These tips can help you stay afloat.
Arrive early. Sign up for the open mic and/or introduce yourself to the person in charge. Hang out and get used to the space, but don’t impose or get in the way if others are performing or if the sound tech is still setting up. Ask if there’s a designated place to warm up and tune, as well as somewhere to stash your gear when you’re not playing.
Try to get a sound check. If you’re playing through a sound system, you’ll do a sound check, either before the show or right before you play (that’s called a line check). If your guitar has a pickup, plug into the DI (direct input) box onstage; if it doesn’t, step up to the guitar mic and position it slightly below the soundhole, pointing up at about a 45-degree angle.
Next, play your guitar and talk or sing into the vocal mic—just some strums and a vocal line or two. As you play, the sound tech will adjust the relative guitar/vocal volume for the audience. If the stage is equipped with monitors (speakers that project your sound back to you), the tech can adjust their volume, too. Listen to the balance and ask, respectfully, for what you need (more vocal, more guitar, less of both, etc.). Even if you’ve checked levels before the show, always double-check them before your set. Sound checking is an art form—you will get better at it!
Tune up. Tune after you get to the venue but before you’re onstage. To check your tuning onstage, plug into an electronic tuner (if your guitar has a pickup) or use a contact tuner that attaches to your guitar. Remember to step away from the mic when you tune.
Calm the butterflies. Stage fright is a shining example of the mind-body connection. Nervousness manifests in all sorts of physical ways—sweating, wobbly legs, memory loss, shaky hands, slippery fingers, you name it. The good news is that it’s just adrenaline, baby, and that means that paying attention to your body before (and during) your show can help calm you down.
Be sure to eat something small an hour or two before you play—and stay sober. Warm up your voice and fingers and take time to breathe and stretch. If necessary, duck outside for a breath of air or run around the block. And don’t forget your head, either. Remind yourself that it’s your first show, that nobody’s perfect, and that the point is to be yourself and enjoy it. Go, go, go!