Guitar Lesson

How to Play Guitar Onstage

By June 18, 2018 No Comments

By T. Perry Bowers

I’m not a professional musician. I’m not a great guitar player either. In fact I’ve only been seriously playing guitars in bands for about six years. But I have been involved in bands for over thirty years and I’ve been around guitar players all my life. I also run a rehearsal facility so I’ve seen some of the most incredible guitar bands come through (Coheed and Cambria, Brian Setzer, Soul Aslyum, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Behemoth, The Bodeans, the Revolution, to name just a few).

I’ve seen their rigs. I’ve watched their techniques. Maybe my observations and practices can help you.

Let’s start with the basics and move to the more technical:

  1. Have a guitar stand for each guitar

You need to put your guitars down at some point. Don’t put them down on the floor. Definitely don’t lean them up against your amp. Buy small, decent stands. Bring them to every gig and use them!

  1. Get really good at tuning your guitar

It might seem easy, but there is real skill to it. Having an in-tune guitar means having strings that are already slightly broken in. You can break your strings in by stretching them after you put them on (a lot)! Or, you can play your guitar for a day or so before your gig.

Old strings are no good – they make your guitar sound sour and go out of tune quickly. Change your strings as soon as you start to notice tone problems or tuning issues.

Have your guitar set up properly and keep it in great condition. If you’re not willing to take the time to learn the intricacies of guitar repair, you need to find a great guitar-repair-person. No amount of shredding will compensate for a crappy sounding guitar.

  1. Watch your volume

I’m still working on this one. If you’re playing in a small club it’s especially important. I’ve seen so many bands blow away their audiences with a too-loud amp. I’ve done it myself.

If the venue has a decent PA system you can turn your amp way down on stage. If you’re used to practicing with a lot of volume in your rehearsal space this is going to feel uncomfortable. You may feel naked without your loud amp.

Let the sound guy mix your guitar into the house mix. If you give him less volume it’ll be easier for him to mix you in with the drums, bass and vocals.

If the system has a decent monitor system you can put some of your guitar back into the monitors. The monitors are pointing toward the band, not to the audience.


I recommend the sideswipe method. Point your amps towards the center of the stage rather than towards the audience. That way you can hear your amp, the sound person can mix your amp’s sound and the audience doesn’t get blasted. However this only works if the room has a PA system and the amps have microphones on them.

If you’re in a coffee shop and the PA is only set up to handle vocals, turn your amp way down. Remember the sound develops in front of your amp. You may not even be able to hear it, but the middle-aged woman in the front row is being blasted!

Sometimes tilting your amp back towards your ears can help, but the bottom line is you need to learn to work with a crap stage mix. Trust the sound people in the room. Turn it down until they say it’s a good volume.

  1. Wash your hands before you play

This is good practice whether you’re playing on stage or at home. I just had my Les Paul set up and the tech told me he could have cloned me with all the DNA he found on my neck. It’s bad for your guitar to play it with dirty hands. Grime gets in the frets and pickups. Yuck!

But that’s not the main reason to wash before you play. Washing your hands actually makes it easier to play. If you suffer from sweaty hands it helps immensely. When you wash with soap and warm water your hands will stay dry afterwards for quite some time.

  1. Always have a second guitar – ALWAYS!

If you break a string and you have to stop playing to re-string it, you’re an amateur.  Play through the song and switch guitars after the song is done if you can. Let the rest of the band cover for you. Don’t ever stop your whole show because you broke a string. Don’t let the audience know anything happened. Just pop on your fresh guitar and get on with the show.  And don’t talk about how the last song sucked because you broke a string. That’s boring.

If you don’t have a backup guitar, get one. It doesn’t have to be great; it just has to pass as long as it takes for your buddy to re-string your guitar. Oh yeah, have a friend in the audience that knows how to re-string a guitar!

  1. Make the clean sound and the distorted sound equal in volume

When you click on your distortion, your amp may sound louder, but it may not actually be louder. You might have to take a meter to test it. You can use a sound app on your phone. Put the app on record and switch your guitar back and forth between clean and dirty. The meter should be even.

Fiddle with your gain structure until the clean and dirty are equal. Leave your mid range in your sound. DON’T SCOOP YOUR MIDS. You want some beef in your tone.

  1. Use dynamics

Your volume knob is your best friend. I actually use a volume pedal because it interacts better with my pedal board, but it’s basically the same.

Listen to your band. If you’re louder than the vocal or the drums, turn down. You should be able to hear the drums and the vocals over your guitar, but there is a sweet spot. It’s that place where everything works. Find the spot and stay there. Staying there means constantly adjusting your volume.

Being really good with dynamics is an active process. With time, it will become second nature, but until that happens, keep bringing your attention to it. It’s not easy, but it is the difference between an amateur guitar player and an experienced one.

Hopefully, these tips will help you get the best from your guitars on stage. I’m still working on all of them. As I become better, I’m having a lot more fun and more importantly, our fans are telling us how good we sound.