Playing the guitar in a band is a joyous experience, but it comes with difficulties no solo performer ever encounters. Not only can you struggle to be heard by the audience, sometimes you can’t even hear yourself.
This guide will help you understand where the struggle lies, as well as showing ways to improve guitar clarity in a live arena.
When the Sound Goes
In my early gigging days, I remember playing through a supplied backline of two Marshall half-stacks, and the speakers moved enough air to ruffle my trousers.
I was standing in front of the amps, I was stunningly loud, and yet I could barely hear myself over the band.
I hadn't, then, worked out what I was doing wrong.
The Answer Is Not Necessarily Volume
In the panic of live performance, going "one louder" seems like the obvious solution. If you can’t hear yourself, just crank it up.
Seriously, though, don't be tempted to do this.
Nothing upsets the rest of the band, and the audience, more quickly than an obnoxiously loud guitarist.
Going one louder will make you be unpopular and you may be asked to leave,
"Going To 11" makes your problem everyone else’s. In response, other band members increase their volume just so that they hear themselves over your guitar, and you’re all back to where you started.
In a volume war, nobody wins.
The Problem Explained
You're probably familiar with the sound you enjoy during home practice becoming a roaring, indistinct mush when playing with the band.
Unlike playing on your own, being in a band means you’re hemmed in physically and sonically by other instruments.
Suddenly you’re competing for frequencies, some of a number of musicians are trying to occupy. The guitar overlaps other instruments to the detriment of both the band’s sound and the ability to hear yourself.
The Big Picture
It’s all a question of finding your niche.
Try thinking of the entire band’s sound as a complete jigsaw puzzle. You just need to work out how to make yourself the right shape to fit in.
The bigger the band, the more important this concept becomes, as you’ll end up with even less space with which to work.
Whilst human hearing works broadly in the range of 20-20,000Hz, the guitar’s is quite tight; typically, 80-4500Hz. This takes into account both fundamentals—a note’s core frequency. And overtones—frequencies greater than the fundamental.
Taking that as the available range, consider what you're competing with in a common band scenario.
Typical fundamental range is 40-400Hz, so that’s the low end of a guitar gone.
Mid and treble frequencies remain, but overtones can be as high as 6-7000Hz, so the bass can occupy either end of the guitar’s range.
- Kick drum only really competes with bass guitar, so that's fine
- Toms can be problematic, ranging from 150-2500Hz, but they’re more occasional than constant—unless you play in a surf rock band, in which case, good luck
- Snare and cymbals operate around 1000-5000Hz, so whilst there’s room in the low midrange, you could be fighting for brightness, often referred to as presence.
Whilst affected by a number of factors, typical usable vocal range is 300-3400Hz, thus coinciding with most guitar frequencies.
As the guitar sits comfortably in the area of human hearing’s greatest sensitivity—typically 2-5000Hz, keyboard players also favour these frequencies, leading to competition.
How to Solve the Problem
Listen to the sound of the band and consider if it's overly bright. Or overly dark.
Look at the component pieces of the band, and consider each of their core frequencies and exploit any obvious gaps.
Once you identify your niche, there are some broad choices you can make.
We’ve all a favourite or favourites when it comes to our guitars, particularly for gigging purposes. Choosing a sonically-appropriate guitar’s another piece of the puzzle.
For example, having joined an acoustic band, I arrived at the first rehearsal with my dreadnaught cutaway. I’d gigged this guitar before, so it was a safe choice.
The band leader, however, also played a dreadnaught. And the bassist used an upright double bass.
I realised within a couple of songs there was simply too much bass between the three of us. My solution was to use a folk guitar, as it’s smaller size meant a reduced bass response. I could now better hear myself, and the band’s sound was greatly more defined.
Being in a twin-guitar band can cause real problems, as you’re sharing near-equal frequency responses.
One solution is to do the opposite of the other guitarist. For example:
- They play Gibson, you play Fender
- They use humbuckers, you choose single coils
- If they play low on the guitar, go higher up the neck
- Avoid the same amps
Line of Sound
Some guitar speakers can be very directional. This means that standing to one side, or even too closely can impair your ability to hear them.
Space permitting, therefore, ensure you’re in-line with them, and either tilt them back or raise them up. Your ears aren’t attached to your feet, so imagine the sound as a beam coming out of the speaker and aim it at your head accordingly.
Assuming you’ve the space to do so, try not to end up next to the drums or the keyboard.
You’re really competing with these instruments as, frequencies aside, they can be just as loud as you are.
Establishing some distance between you can genuinely help; you’ll hear yourself more clearly at lower volumes, and a quieter guitarist means a happy band.
Hearing your guitar and getting it heard is an ever-present issue, but there are solutions, such as:
- Don’t increase the volume
- View the band as a jigsaw puzzle
- Work on making your sound fit in
- Learn about frequency responses
- Tailor your gear to the band
- Position yourself and your amp carefully
In the next tutorial, I’ll identify the common guitar effects that can further enhance the clarity of the live sound.