Musical Gadgetry: How much is too much?

Far be it from me to critique or advise anyone on their art form or musical performance. I merely want to state the way I do things and why and I am interested in everyone’s opinion, musician, aficionado, or layperson. The Florida panhandle  is a Mecca for solo and duo musical acts, the vast majority of which are very very good. Most of these solo gigs I play are three to four hours in length. I use the term gigs instead of shows because I am old school and back in my prime, shows or show bands were scripted and generally included some combination of lighting, costumes, pyrotechnics, props, etc. but I digress.

The clientele come and go but many stay the whole night. Now watching the same band for four hours can be a bit weary but watching the same solo act for that length of time can become monotonous. It is customary in many cases to employ the use of electronic effects, accessories or dare I say gadgets to augment the performance and add variety. These can range from a simple effects pedal to prerecorded fully orchestrated backing tracks or a pedal board the size of a small landing craft. I make no judgements but I just wanted to ponder on what I do and do not use on stage and why.

I do use lighting. The reason is more out of necessity than vanity. At my age I cannot see my guitar neck without sufficient lighting. I carry four par56 LED lights on a stand. I use the stand to elevate the lights to a sufficient height to keep them out of my eyes and thereby see the audience. I have a dmx controller but it stays at home. I think the setup time combined with the time it would take from my playing would be a bad tradeoff. I use a harmonizer. It takes my voice and adds two parts, one over and one under my lead vocal based on an algorithm using my guitar. I have learned to use it sparingly as in only those places where you would put harmony lines on a record. I am considering but have not yet added a simple chorus and/or overdrive pedal to add another tone to my guitar. I carry a diaper that I use for wiping my strings. (admit it you thought I was going to go in a different direction there) I never ever touch my guitar strings without wiping them down before I set the guitar down. It is ingrained in my DNA. My strings keep their tone and I have never broken one in three years.

I do not use anything prerecorded and I do not use a looper. There are many reasons for this. First, prerecorded music especially, locks you into an ironclad arrangement. If I am playing a song that I feel is not going over as well as I would like I will eliminate a verse or chorus to shorten it. Similarly if a song is rocking the house I want the ability to stretch it out, maybe even run it into a medley. I want the option of adjusting the tempo, arrangement or maybe even the key on the fly. Secondly back when I was playing with a band I learned that sometime someone somewhere is going to hand you a guitar and ask you to play something on the spot. I do not wish to be reliant on devices. Third I do not like people wondering where the rest of the music is coming from and how much of it is really me. Fourth I do not like dead air. I do not want to be diverting my attention from the audience to scroll, adjust or read. I do not use an iPad or a book of lyrics and chords. I do not feel I can do my best on a song unless it is committed to memory. Obviously there are times I wish I did have the lyrics in front of me but I view it as a worthwhile tradeoff. I do have a setlist, several in fact. I try to stick close to it but it will vary with requests as well as mood, especially later in the gig. I like to know what song I am going to play next before I reach the halfway point of the current song. No dead air. (except for drinking, a subject for a future blog) 

To me keeping an audience engaged is nearly as important as the quality of the performance. In fact I view it as part of the quality of the performance. It ranges from the seemingly effortless to the nearly impossible. It is always the easiest or the hardest part of the gig. No in-between. Again, this is just what works for me and I am eager to hear other opinions and as usual I may be full of shit.