by Scott Zimmerman

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Playing music in front of a live audience is an exhilarating experience. However, to make the most of this experience it is important to know how to prepare for it. Of course, there are two ways we learn things: from our own experience and from others.

Here are some lessons from my own experience that I have learned the “hard” way, i.e. from being unaware of certain pitfalls and making adjustments after the fact. Hopefully, these five things you need to know before playing live will help you to get through these obstacles sooner, or bypass them altogether. Let’s take a look!

What do you need to know before playing live? There are five important things to know before playing live: 1) Know the songs, 2) Pre-select guitar tones, 3) Use an equipment check-list, 4) Have a “gig day” plan, 5) Bring the necessary personal supplies 

“Own” The Songs Before The Gig

Before playing live you want to “own” the songs. This means knowing them backwards and forwards. All parts of the song should be memorized, if possible. This will allow you to play the music with expression and more fully enjoy your performance. After learning all your parts of the song, play with a recording to check and see if you are ready to perform it. If you get lost in the form, have trouble with chords or timing, or can’t manage the solo; you want to know this before the performance.

Practice all “signature” solos, i.e. solos that must be played a certain way, with a backing track that does not include the solo. A big mistake is to practice a solo with a recording of the solo, but not to practice it with a chord-only backing track. (You can make these yourself by recording the rhythm guitar part of the solo section on your phone).

Unfortunately, if you don’t do this ahead of time. you may realize that you don’t know the solo as well as you think until it is too late. Finally, create a playlist of each set and play through without stopping. This will give you the most accurate simulation of the performance before it occurs and will allow you to make any pre-performance adjustments.

“Dial” In Your Guitar Tones

Make sure to select all of your tones well before gig day and plan not to change them during the performance. This will allow you to focus on playing the music well. Your basic tones should include: clean, overdrive, and lead. Most likely, you will need to adjust volume and E.Q. at the gig to accommodate the performance space; but, this is not the time for looking for a new tone for a song. You should know ahead of time which of the three basic tones you will use for each part of every song.

This work is accomplished in the “own” the songs before the gig, i.e. practice time. Lastly, if you are using a multi-effects processor that requires some programming, be sure to set the unity gain for each tone before the gig; or, make sure you can do it easily so that during the sound check, you can set your output levels properly. (Unity gain means that the volume for each tone is the same or where you want it to be.) If you are using effects pedals that don’t require programming, the output levels can be set during sound check.

Create A Gig Equipment Checklist

The last thing you will do before you leave your house to the gig is go over your gig checklist. Create a checklist of all the things you will need that day and be sure to “check” them off the list before you leave. If you begin to play frequently, create a separate “gig” bag that has most of your equipment, this will save time and energy. (Remember, if you take anything out of your gig bag while you are at home, be sure to return it, or you may be unpleasantly surprised at the gig.) 

Here is a basic list of what you will need and should have. First, your guitar supplies, which will include: extra strings, string winder, wire snips, picks, back up batteries for all battery powered equipment, and small tools for accessing battery compartments for active pickups, if necessary. (If possible, a backup guitar is a good idea, but it may not be practical for different reasons.) Second, power supplies, which include: at least two power strips, two extension cords, and gaffers tape. Lastly, you will need a guitar stand and backup instrument cables. (If you are using sheet music, a music stand and music stand light will also be necessary.)

Gig Day Plan

The goal of gig day is to do as little music as possible, save for a little warm up and sound check. You want to save that energy for the performance. If you over practice before the gig, you will not be as musical sharp for when it really matters. Again, this is where preparation is the key. Secondly, the goal of gig day is to try and minimize as much activity as possible. This is tricky because there are many logistical things to take care of; so, a good plan is your best protection against wearing yourself out before the gig.

Here are some tips: Plan for as much time as possible to load-in your equipment and set up. Setting up the band in a new place takes time and some decision making; you don’t want to rush through this or feel rushed. Check with the venue to see what the earliest load-in time can be. Loading in and sound checking, and then taking a nice break before the gig is ideal. Plan to do something not band related and chill between sound check and the performance.

Everyone relaxes in a different way, think ahead to what you will do during the break to relax and mentally prepare for the gig, e.g. go eat with the band, read a book, take a nap in the car, etc. After the gig is over, pack up and load out before relaxing. This is very difficult because you will want to socialize with your friends or bandmates after the gig. However, you will enjoy yourself more if all the work is done before you kick back and socialize. Also, there will be less of a chance for your equipment to get lost or damaged if you stow it away properly right after the gig. 

Personal Supplies And Care

A little personal comfort goes a long way when you are “on the road”, so to speak. Here are some things that will make the day more comfortable: a separate set of load-in/ load-out clothes, plenty of water, snacks and a sandwich (I recommend PB&J because it travels well!), tylenol, and perhaps the most important thing- ear protection. Some venues are just too loud no matter what you do. By the third set, without ear protection, you won’t be hearing anything even when you turn the volume up! (As a last resort, a small piece of toilet paper in each ear will help. No joke- I have had to do this!)


Being prepared will make your playing and experience better. One of the things you will experience is how fast a three-hour gig goes by; it feels like fifteen minutes! By preparing ahead of time, and not being consumed by things that could have been dealt with prior to the gig, you will have an opportunity to be “in the moment” and really enjoy the experience of making music live in front of an audience.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.