Jazz Guitar Lesson with Steve Carter: Approaching Solo Gigs

Many guitarists are just now getting into doing solo gigs, partly for economic reasons: there aren’t many gigs these days for jazz groups, but a lot of bars and restaurants are willing to spring for a solo guitarist. I’ve been specializing in solo gigs for about ten years now, so in this article I want to discuss some tips on approaching solo gigs.

First, be prepared. That means having enough of a repertoire to get through the gigs. A lot of players have a few “chord-melody” arrangements down, but if you’re going to accept a 3-hour solo gig, make sure you are ready to play – and play well – for three hours. You’ll want a variety of tunes: swing, bossa, jazz waltz, ballads. And you’ll want a variety of tempos and styles, some mellow, some funky. Pick some recognizable tunes. But most importantly, pick tunes you like. I happen to like “Girl From Ipanema” and “Satin Doll”, and I don’t tire of playing them. But if you don’t like certain tunes, don’t play them; you’re attitude will come across in your playing. It’s great to have some full-sounding arrangements, with lush chords, walking bass lines, and counterpoint. By sparse arrangements are good, too, and will provide good contrast. Remember that most of your audience know the melody of the tune. Don’t get so enraptured with your own voicings that you sacrifice the melody.If you’re playing standards, there will almost certainly be people in the audience who know the lyrics. Make sure you play the tune in such a way that it suits the lyrics.

Know what’s expected on the gig. Are you background music? Many players don’t like playing background music. My advice: if you don’t like it, don’t take the gig! If you take the gig, put your heart into it, even if it seems no one is listening. You never know who is listening. Some gigs, like fund-raisers, are really just background music. What’s most important is that the guests feel comfortable and can get about schmoozing. Keep the volume appropriate and do the best you can. You might be surprised at the end of the night when someone comes up and says, “I really enjoyed…,” and then names some tune that you were sure no one was listening to. If it’s a club or restaurant solo gig, you have a little more freedom. Often in these situations, the audience is used to background music, but you can emerge from the background and draw them into the music by announcing tunes. It’s surprising how few musicians do this. I make it point to have some anecdotes ready. For example, when I’m going to play an Ellington tune, I might say, “Duke Ellington was very superstitious. No one in the band was supposed to wear yellow. No one was supposed to button his shirt all the way up the front. No one was supposed to whistle in the dressing room. Well, since I’m not wearing yellow, my shirt isn’t buttoned all the way up the front, and I didn’t whistle in the dressing room, I guess Duke would approve of my playing ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’”.

Treat the audience with respect. Start on time, take short breaks, end on time. If the gig includes a free meal, try to order it so that it will be ready at the beginning of one of your scheduled breaks. Your job is to fill the room with music. If you can get to the venue before the gig starts and check out the layout and acoustics, do so. If not, pay attention as you come in and set up. It can be tricky when there are tables close to you, and tables far away. You need to deliver the sound to the back of the room without blowing out the people at the table near you. Sometimes a small change in the location of your amp can improve the dispersion of the sound. Sometimes, especially in clubs and restaurants, the noise of the talking can get pretty distracting, making it very hard to focus on my playing. I use a trick I once read, a method used in the early days of “method acting.” I imagine the lights at the back of the room going dim, and as they do, the talking of the people in that part of the room going silent. I imagine the darkness an silence moving toward the stage, darker and darker, quieter and quieter, until the only light is the glow of the tubes in my amp. Then I start into a tune. “Quiet Nights”, maybe.

Solo guitar gigs can be both challenging and musically satisfying. Look at them as an inexhaustible resource for learning about music, and about yourself.

For more great info check out Steve’s site at www.frogstoryrecords.com/

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