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Playing The Perfect Gig

Start here to avoid disaster and achieve applause. We bring you clues from experienced hands.

Not an easy exercise. Fair minded audiences applaud as you walk on stage because getting there may be the best part of your performance. To ease the strain, follow the MAKING MUSIC guide to a better live.

(Click image for higher resolution version)

So, it finally happened. After months of pestering and a whole crate full of demo tapes thrown to the mercy of a myriad booking agents, you finally got a gig. Who cares if it's not for another six months? Go down the pub and have a celebratory drink.

Better? Now you're back, Making Music can offer you the benefit of its exclusive guide to The Immaculate Gig. Not that we can make you perform any better (not with this article, anyway), but we can help alleviate some of the stressful symptoms that lead to ulcer-inducing tense, nervous gigging. Sit back and relax.

About a month before you're due to play, ring the person who booked you to check details and finally confirm your appearance. Do they have a contract you're required to sign, covering appearance and payment? Have you agreed on terms of payment? If not do so, and you'll avoid hassles and embarrassment later on.

Ask the booker what time you should arrive for soundcheck. If you can't make it by 4.30, or whatever other ridiculous time they suggest, tell them, and try to agree on a more reasonable schedule. Don't just turn up late, or you may find your journey was a wasted one.

Is there a support band. Are you it? If so, you're unlikely to be payed much, if at all. But you shouldn't have to provide the PA.


Also check (this is going to be a long 'phone call) about PA and lights. If they are installed and operated in house, how much will you be charged for using them? Is there an engineer provided for mixing the sound? If there is no house PA, how large a rig should you hire? If no immediate answer (for instance, "just a vocal PA") is forthcoming, ask how many the venue holds. Up to 200 or so, you can usually get away with an 150w or over vocal set-up, for between £15 and £30 (plus deposit cheque). Larger venues than that, and you'll probably need professional advice: call a hire company (telephone numbers available from your dealer, or Making Music's classified pages). The extra money is often worth the expense in terms of hassle saved.

Where is the venue? You need to know the address and specific location, and even parking details. Talking of which, do you know exactly how you are going to get yourself, your equipment, and the other members of your group to the place of performance.


If you can muster enough cars, fine. But you may well find yourselves having to hire a van or large estate car. Small vans are (obviously) cheaper than big vans, but they can easily leave you with the problem of moving the other musicians. Transit-sized trucks will normally take the gear, as well as the players. To hire, you will need a full driving licence, at least 21 years behind you, and a cheque for around £50 to leave as deposit. Expect the hire of the large van to cost you between £40 and £60 (including petrol) for a 100 mile round trip. Check when your insurance cover runs out - are you insured for 24 hours from the time of collection, or merely to midnight on that day? This could jeopardise late night journeys back from faraway gigs. A further safeguard to bear in mind is coverage by AA Relay, or equivalent.

While all this is being worked out, you will of course have remembered to notify the weekly music papers of your impending appearance, at least two weeks in advance of their publication date.

A major cause of stress among musicians (a Doctor writeth) is equipment failure. Beyond good preparation, and libations to the gods, there is little you can do about this other than being prepared. Enter the tool kit: see Figure 1.

Eventually the day of the gig looms up. Itineraries will have been issued, so everyone knows where to be and when. Who's collecting the PA? Do they know what you've hired? It can be most aggravating to set up the PA only to find you've forgotten the mike leads. This is where a PA checklist (below) can be helpful .

Got it all? You'll find out for sure when you arrive at the venue and unpack the gear. Before you set up, find the plug sockets you'll be using (nearly always two feet away from the end of your longest plug extension), and make sure you can organise sufficient sockets to provide power.

If you need to borrow furniture or beer crates for raising amps off the ground, don't forget to ask the landlord/promoter - they might otherwise take exception to your 4 x 12 gouging lumps out of his prized formica tops. The same goes for purloining said person's valuable floor space for PA/multicore/mixer/pile of guitar cases and lead bags. The more space you use, the fewer punters to drink the landlord's beer. Which means less money all round.

Soundchecking (the process of destroying what confidence you had left in your live sound) is mainly a matter of discipline, and of following a simple list of Dos and Dont's (see the jolly useful panel below).

By the time you play, you can expect your insides to have turned to liquid. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as your physical discomfort can lead to a more inspired (anguished?) leaping about on stage. Other than that, it's not good to let your nerves show too much. Play with confidence in yourself and your songs. Don't overstretch your abilities, and you will sound convincing. If things go wrong, stay calm. Broken strings will be the least of your worries (my band's last gig was interrupted by a dog leaping on stage and stopping our backing tape!). Tell the audience why you've stopped (they laughed at us, understandably), and attend to the damage as quickly and calmly as possible. Make sure your backline is liberally strewn with spare strings and leads (dog leads, too), and even batteries for the more active guitars and pedals.

If you have to tune up, do it quietly; ancient Orientalist jokes about 'Tu Ning' are not acceptable. Should your sound not quite be the maelstrom of beauty that you expected, don't lose your temper with the soundman - if you think it's bad now, wait until he starts trying to mess it up.

Keep your between song links short, unless you have a particularly witty story or trenchant polemic lined up - and even if you have, don't use it too often.

Unless you're New Order, it's sensible to agree upon an encore before you go on - just in case. Most of all, remember to have a good time while you're playing. Nothing can convince an audience they're enjoying themselves like watching someone who is.

After the hour has passed, and your strutting and fretting on the stage is done, you have to overcome the euphoria and adrenalin and pack your equipment away. Making Music's photocopy-and-keep checklist (below) should ease the pain of post-gig organisation, and stop you leaving anything behind, from musicians upwards. Good luck.

There you have it. Following our advice won't stop things going wrong, but it will lessen your burden when they do, and it will enable you to say 'I told you so' afterwards. Small satisfaction in that, but you have to be able to say something when you turn up at your big gig to find you were due to play the previous night.

The Minimal Toolbox

  • Pliers - heavy ones are most useful.
  • Screwdrivers - both crosshead and ordinary, and a variety of sizes.
  • Wire cutters/strippers - lead mending and string clipping.
  • Mole wrench - for sick Transits and irate punters.
  • Allen keys - various sizes; guitarists, for the use of.
  • Soldering iron/solder - emergency repairs.
  • Fuses - not just 13 amp, but odd sizes to fit all your various electrical boxes.
  • Batteries - pedals and active guitars.
  • WD40 - aerosol for cleaning dirty contacts and starting damp vans.
  • Torch - for finding lost plectrums, vans, etc.
  • Leads - more than you need, by a ratio of 2:1. And of different types (cannon/jack adaptors, jack/jack extension, etc).
  • Marker pen - for labelling, customers, last minute posters, Groucho Marx moustache disguises after poor performances.
  • Note pad - for notes, set-lists, useful addresses.
  • Strings - at least one complete set each, plus extra thin ones.
  • Drumheads - unless you use a drum machine.
  • Plugboards - you'll always need more than you think. Include at least one with a long lead.



  • Clear the room when soundchecking.
  • Get each instrument to sound right, one at a time.
  • Play a song with as many instrument combinations as you use.
  • Work out a comfortable monitor mix.
  • Gaffa tape the leads to the stage.
  • Pack bags and cases away.
  • Leave enough petrol in the van, in case garages are closed when you leave.
  • Remember who's going on the guest-list.


  • Antagonise the landlord/promoter.
  • Play unnecessarily.
  • Rehearse. By all means play new songs, but not half the set.
  • Expect miracles from cheap PAs.
  • Panic over equipment breakdown.
  • Leave vulnerable equipment in accessible places.
  • Forget about the support group.
  • Forget about the set-list.


  • Enough mikes?
  • Enough mike leads! And are they sufficiently long?
  • Enough mike stands, boom or otherwise, equipped with mike-clips?
  • The mixer?
  • An EQ unit? These are only vital with Bose systems.
  • The power amp?
  • Enough leads to join them together, ail with the correct plugs/sockets (jack, phono, or cannon/XLR)!
  • All the speakers?
  • Stands for the speakers? These, like the EQ, are not obligatory.
  • A crossover? This is only used with separate bass/high range cabinets, as it splits the frequencies into high and low.
  • Enough leads for the crossover!
  • An echo or reverb unit? This is your choice, but your vocals will sound unpolished without one. Don't forget the extra leads. Instructions on setting up/turning on?
  • A plugboard for all the various PA units?
  • A multicore? This long snake-like thing is only really necessary in larger venues, where it requires a mildly competent person to operate the mixing desk on the end of it.
  • A monitor set-up! Not always important, but usually useful, particularly for those prima donna vocalists who complain they can't hear themselves. You need a power amp (to boost the monitor output of the mixer), leads, and speakers pointing at the band.
  • Someone who knows what they're doing? A soundman, or other with general technical knowledge.


  • Don't blame anyone yet - save internecine strife, scapegoats, sacrifice, and post mortems for the sobriety of the next day. Encourage everyone to help with packing up - it prevents ill-feeling.
  • Keep hired equipment separate.
  • Have you got the money yet?
  • Who's got the van keys?
  • When does the insurance run out?
  • Pack the gear you'll need soonest last.
  • Look efficient - it could help you get another gig.
  • Don't leave small items (ie guitars) unattended while loading.
  • Never leave thievables in the van/car overnight (unless you're sleeping in it too). Have you got everything? Check carefully, from plectrums through Peaveys to passengers.
  • Drive soberly.

Previous Article in this issue

Banshee Banter

Next article in this issue

Technically Speaking

Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - May 1986



Feature by Jon Lewin

Previous article in this issue:

> Banshee Banter

Next article in this issue:

> Technically Speaking

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