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A Guitarist's Guide To Playing Festival Gigs: Part 3

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In the previous tutorial I l showed you the gear best suited to playing a festival. In this tutorial, it's all about the big day itself.

Recap

If you’ve not read the previous tutorials, here’s a quick recap of things to sort out before heading off to the gig:

  • Know when you should arrive, where to go on arrival and to whom to report
  • Know where you’re going, the route you’re taking and the likely journey length. Factor in a little extra time for things like heavy/slow traffic
  • Check your vehicle is going to make it, can accommodate passengers plus gear and that the insurance covers the journey accordingly
  • Check you’re taking the right gear and the right amount of gear. Balance sonic requirements against portability

PAT

PAT stands for Portable Appliance Testing and refers to the examination of electrical equipment to check it’s safe to use. Some events require this, so if an amp isn’t PAT tested, you can’t use it. Check before the event if it’s a requirement.

Timing

Festivals are living things and schedules can change. Your stage time might move to later in the day, be brought forwards, or even curtailed. For example, I once had a 45 minute opening slot slashed to 18 minutes because the organisers couldn’t get power to the stage.

Therefore, arrive at least an hour before you’re due onstage. Again, check with the organisers; you may need to be there even earlier, especially if there’s a soundcheck before the festival.

Setlist

Knowing how long your onstage time is likely to be, you’ve constructed your setlist accordingly. However, because timings may alter, be prepared for your set length changing.

Play your best songs, but build in some flexibility. Consider the following:

  • Consider songs that you could drop if the set’s shorter
  • Consider songs that you could extend using breakdowns, crowd participation, extended solos
  • Consider songs that you could add. If you need an encore, for example

The Big Day

After all that preparation, it’s on to play the gig. You’ve arrived, unloaded the gear and are now backstage waiting to go on. What follows will be over in a flash, so you need to be prepared to get the best out of it.

Sound Engineers

They’ll be your best friend or worst nightmare, depending on how good they are, how stressed they are and how much grief you give them. Your concern’s getting the best sound for you, whereas theirs is getting the best overall sound for the whole band.

If you get the opportunity, introduce yourself to the sound engineer and give them an idea of your requirements. Tell them what the band’s made up of, how many vocal mics you’ll need and if you’ve any monitoring requirements (particularly if you’re using in-ear monitors). 

Be friendly and helpful, as opposed to demanding—remember, how you sound to the audience is in this person’s hands.

Changeover

Organisers want to keep the audience from drifting away, so changeovers between bands can be as little as ten minutes. You therefore need to be ready to go. If possible, save time by setting up equipment backstage.

Don't, however, rush the stage as the last notes are dying away. Give the previous band a few minutes to start packing up and clearing away. Furthermore, if there’s only one route on and off stage, you’ll hold them up on the steps with all your gear.

Onstage

Once you’ve made it onstage, you haven’t got a lot of time to lavish on setting up so be efficient.

Try to get away from the drums; unless you’re really loud, they’ll drown you out. If the onstage monitoring’s good you won’t need to hear your amp’s speaker, so don’t worry if it’s not close by.

In fact, if you’ve got the room don't put the amp behind you. If you have it firing across the stage the band’ll hear it more clearly, plus those closest in the audience won’t be getting it full in their faces.

If it’s a tiny stage try to get the amp off the floor as you’ll hear it more clearly.

Sound

I’ve had great festival gigs and I’ve had lousy ones. The difference between the two usually comes down to the onstage sound. Here are some points to bear in mind:

Outdoors Versus Indoors

If your gigs to date have been indoors then playing outdoors comes as a shock. You’ll have tailored your sound to cope with reflective surfaces and bodies (the audience) in close proximity. 

Outside, however, those bodies are much further away and there aren’t any reflective surfaces nearby.

Your sound’ll therefore seem thinner than usual, but don’t crank up your amp’s bass to compensate. This’ll muddy the sound, as you compete with the bass guitar and the kick drum. 

Concentrate on the midrange instead; this is sonically where the guitar lives. You want enough to punch through but not so much as to sound nasal. Similarly with the treble; bright enough to be heard but not so much as to be piercing.

Time Effects

Delay and reverb can work wonders for your live sound, but use with care. Don’t forget the sound you’re making is acting as reverb to the sound coming out of the PA that the audience’s hearing. 

Use a little to help ‘bed’ the sound into the mix of the band, but not so much that you vanish in a sea of echoing noise.

Conclusion

Festival gigs are fraught with challenges, but you can make the best of it if you remember the following:

  • Check the event’s details ahead before the day itself
  • Ensure you know where you’re going and can get there
  • Allow time for your journey and arrive early
  • Take what you need to get the job done
  • Make sure your equipment meets the event’s requirements
  • Design a flexible setlist
  • Befriend the sound engineer
  • Set up quickly once onstage
  • Tailor your sound to being outdoors

Good luck!

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