Lessons about performing, lesson 26: Be in tune!

By the time you read this, I’ll have ensured you had a new article to read, every day, for a month. That’s right, there’s been something new here – every single day. In Internet terms, that’s pretty much an eternity!

I’m pretty sure I deserve a medal! I’m a damned national treasure, is what I am!

Or not… Really, this list should have been compiled with foresight and written better than I do. It wasn’t and it isn’t. However, you get what you get and you’re welcome to help. Seriously, jump in and help! I’d love the aid of someone who could edit!

Some of these are lessons you should already know. Some of them might be new. Either way, these are the rules you should follow if you want to be a successful performing musician. If you’d like to read the complete list, then click this link.

This next one applies mostly to guitarists, but the reality is that other stringed instrument players should be aware of this as well. Without further ado, here you go!

Rule #26: Be in Tune!

There’s not a whole lot musically worse than listening to a band that’s out of tune. Yes, it’s that obvious. Yes, even the most inexperienced listener can tell that there’s something wrong.

Not only should you be in tune, you should be in tune with everyone else that’s playing. Y’all can tune to the same A and work your way out from there. Hell, you don’t even have to be exact – you just have to be in tune with each other.

Tune before you go on stage. Seriously… The audience doesn’t want to hear you tuning your instrument. Better, give everyone a line-tuner and ensure they’re all from the same vendor and have everyone be able to tune without the sound actually going through the amps.

No, nobody wants to hear it. No, talking through it isn’t really helpful. No, they should never hear you tune and they should never hear you out of tune. No, your wonderful song that you entitled “Dissonant Chords” isn’t actually appealing to anyone – don’t play it.

“Wait! I use a bunch of alternate tunings!” You might scream at me.

“You’re an idiot.” I’d smugly reply.

Seriously, get extra guitars, know where you put them on the stage, and tune them ahead of time. It takes 10 seconds to switch a guitar, it takes as long as a minute to properly tune one. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a guitar tech and they can help out with things like that. You’re not lucky and it takes time. The less dead time, the more appealing you are to your audience.

This applies to other musicians. Granted, your keyboard is probably already in tune and tuning a drum is a bit different a process (and absolutely isn’t something you do on stage), but you should all be in tune before you even go on stage.

If your favorite guitar goes out of tune regularly, replace it with a working model or resolve to fix the issues. These are the tools of your trade, get working tools that are able to perform well enough to meet the expectations of your clients. Your clients are the venue owners and your audience.

No exceptions and this is a pretty basic mistake that I see people make – with alarming frequency.

Currently, none of our set lists contain any material that requires an alternate tuning. However, I still go on stage with six guitars. I have six guitars on the stage and if one goes out of tune, I’ll switch it with another suitable guitar.

I know where each one is and what each one is tuned to. I know, because I put them in the same exact order – every single time I perform. I can remove one, slap another over my shoulders, plug it into the wireless, and be running again in just a few seconds. Yes, I hit mute before I do it – because nobody wants to hear the sounds associated with me racking a guitar.

If you absolutely must tune on the stage, do so without it being fed to an amp. You should set up so that you never need to, but shit happens. Hit the mute. I have a foot pedal that does volume and has a second pedal for mute. I want to say it was under $50. I also wouldn’t even consider doing a show without one.

I hit that button all the time. (I even have one for my mic, but that’s not important right now. There’s a reason I call mine a “pedal station” instead of a “pedal board.”) If I need to change pickup switches or adjust the pots between songs, I do that while muted. How do I know where to set them without hearing them? I practiced!

You can get really fancy and your mute button actually only mutes the stacks and amps that face the audience while your monitors remain active, but that’s a bit more complicated than you’re really going to need and, if you do that, you should probably have an engineer to  set it up and you should probably already know everything that’s on my list. Seriously, if you’re that advanced then you’re probably better suited to writing this list than you are for reading this list.

What it boils down to is giving your audience a very specific set of sounds. You’re playing your audience, in a good way, just like you’re playing your instrument. When you give them annoying or distracting sounds, you’re giving them something they don’t appreciate and it’s pretty trivial to avoid that. What they hear when you’re tuning on stage is, “Fuck you. You aren’t important enough for me to prepare for.”

You can even get acceptable guitar tuner apps for your phone. They’re free. Martin, the guitar company, makes a very good one – and it’s free. (There’s also free metronome applications for your tablet, phone, or personal computer. I highly recommend practicing with a metronome, though having one on stage is a bit more difficult.)

So, there you have it! While this might seem basic, it’s amazing how often I hear live entertainment that’s out of tune. I don’t think it’s just my ears, because I’ve heard (and asked) other people and they confirm it. They may not always know exactly why the music doesn’t sound good to them, but they know it’s not pleasing. You don’t even have to be very out of tune before it becomes unpalatable to the audience’s ears.

Like I said, the simplest way to ensure you’re always in tune is to actually take more tuned guitars on stage. It also helps to take care of them. Maintain your kit so that it retains its original quality. You need to be in tune with the rest of the band. Otherwise, you sound like crap and nobody wants to hear you play again.

There are professional musicians with some degree of fame and they’re not very good at doing live shows – and one of the reasons is they’re simply not in tune. They’re mucking about with tuning on stage, using alternative tuning, and generally doing things they don’t need to do outside of the studio. Don’t do that – ’cause it reduces your odds of success. If you must use an alternative tuning, bring a separate guitar. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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