It was a quiet Saturday afternoon when the phone rang. It was a friend of mine asking if I could stand in for their guitarist. I didn’t really know their set, but with enough time I knew I could learn almost anything, so I agreed. “When do I get to rehearse with you guys?” I asked. “Er … you don’t, the gig is next Saturday. I’ll send over the set list. Thanks, bye” he responded.
When I saw the set list, my jaw hit the floor – 42 songs! About 35 of which I had never played before, and 10 of those I had never even heard before.
I had to learn these songs fast! Super fast!
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation here are some steps to follow.
Understand the expectations
Before even starting to practice the songs, understand the expectations of the band. Each situation will be different, so make sure you ask.
With one week’s notice and no rehearsal most bands are generally relieved if you turn up and can fake your way through the setlist. It’s not about finesse, it’s about survival. With that in mind it now makes 42 songs do-able.
Listen to the songs
Don’t pick up your guitar, leave it alone for the first few hours. The first real task is to listen to each song deeply. Pay close attention to the guitar parts, how does it sound? What’s the feel? Is there a sound or riff which holds the song together. Make lots of notes as you listen, this step will help in all the following steps.
Decide what you can get away with
Having listened to the songs, decide how important it is to play riffs and solos note-for-note? On some songs, the riff is the most important thing, fluff that and the whole song falls apart. Whilst other songs, strumming the chords in roughly the right pattern will be enough. Take each song on a case by case basis and decide what you can get away with. Try to get away with and simplify as much as possible.
Chart every song
Much of the initial preparation time should be spent on charting, the act of writing out the song in the simplest method possible. The Nashville number system is the perfect tool for this, however it is not widely known amongst many musicians. If you don’t know it any method of writing down song structures quickly will work. The key is to summarise the song’s chords, key passages and structure.
One of the biggest mistakes is to print the words and chords from the internet and use those. Don’t do that. Using internet resources is fine, but I think it is important to write out your own charts. Your brain is more likely to retain the information if you physically write it out. Don’t go down a computer route either, that will take too much time. Go old school – pen and paper! Each song on a separate piece of paper.
Make sure your chart fits exactly with the song, know exactly how many bars there are in each section. Do not rush this stage, these charts are the backup for when your mind goes blank. A good chart ensures you can get through any song, even if you can’t remember much about it.
If you’re not so good at transcribing or don’t trust the ‘tabs’ on the internet then Music Room is a place to purchase accurate sheet music.
Know the keys of every song
Ask about the key of each song, as they may have been changed to fit with the singer’s vocal range.
Even if the band tells you it is the recorded key, confirm what that means. Some songs are recorded with guitars tuned down 1/2 step. It’s unlikely you’ll have the luxury of de-tuning in the middle of the set. If the song is performed in the recorded key, you may have to play it differently to the guitar on the recording. Or maybe the song will be played with the same chord voicing, but 1/2 step higher than recorded. It’s a small difference, but one which could wreck the entire performance. (I found this out the hard way)
Write down the pedal settings for each song
Write down the pedal settings you need for each song. Then stop messing around with your pedals until the gig. Playing with your pedals to get the perfect sound will not get you through the gig. You’re the only person who cares about your pedal sounds, the audience just want to enjoy the song.
Deciding what you can get away with, also applies to pedals. Chances are you can get away with one or two pedals. Subtle effects, such as reverb or chorus, can be left out, nobody is going to miss it.
If you’ve not seen the venue before there may be less space on the stage than you might expect. It’s much better to have few pedals with plenty of space than constantly tripping over the massive pedal board.
Know the intros for every song you’re starting
If you are starting or coming in on the first beat, you’ll need to know exactly how it should sound and have right tempo. Practice these parts the most – make notes, tab it out if necessary. These are the parts you can’t cover up by just strumming along. Know these parts inside out.
Create simple sound-a-like solos
Now is not the time to learn the big solo, work out a sound-a-like solo where required. Note down on the chart the scales to use and which notes to start and finish on.
Golden rule – keep the solos simple, your brain will be mush, so give yourself the best chance of succeeding.
Practice like crazy
Now you want to practice the songs as much a possible. Play the whole set from start to finish, note down each section you messed up. Revisit those sections, then start the whole set over again. Repeat at every opportunity you get.
It’s generally OK to say ‘no’ to a couple of songs
Have you ever played a 7-minute version of Mustang Sally? I have. Actually, most bands know how to spin out a few songs to fill a bit of extra time. So, if you do need to say ‘no’ to some songs make suggestions of songs which could be used to fill the time.
If it’s a wedding, make sure the song you say ‘no’ to isn’t the first dance song! That would be bad!
It is easy to spend the whole gig staring at your charts. But don’t do that, relax and look around. Keep regular eye contact with the band, that will help keep you on track. If you ever get lost in the song, hopefully somebody will mouth the words ‘chorus’, or ‘bridge’ to remind you where to go.
You love guitar playing, right? That’s why you said ‘yes’ in the first place. So decide to enjoy it, no matter what.
Is it possible to learn 42 songs in a week – ‘Yes’ definitely, it just depends on your definition of the world learn.
I turned up, we played, we got through it, I got paid, the band got a repeat booking. That’s my definition of the word success.
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