The Murphy’s Law of Gigging

A drummer watching a guitarist play during a jazz gig.Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. This statement is otherwise known as Murphy’s Law. Any experienced musician with more than a few gigs under his or her belt would probably agree that Murphy’s Law applies to the world of playing gigs. For some reason, things have a greater tendency to go wrong when you’re on the gig.

Gigging musicians plan for things to go wrong. They keep an eye out for weaknesses in the music they will be playing or the gear they’ll be using. They know that if something seems a little off during the lead up to a gig, it very well might result in a bigger problem during the gig itself.

It’s important to anticipate the problems that might arise during a gig and plan accordingly. This means knowing the music that you’ll be playing really well, making sure your gear is in working order, and having backups ready for certain gear related failures.

Being Musically Prepared

Even if you are able to adequately play the music you will be doing at the gig during practice or rehearsal, it could still easily end up falling apart.

My way of knowing if a song is ready to be performed is whether or not it feels easy, from beginning to end, while I’m practicing it. Or, if it’s music I’m playing in a band, whether or not that feeling of ease seems present in everyone involved. If not, it’s best to rehearse/practice it more or take it off the set list for the upcoming gig all together.

The likelihood of mistakes or even train wrecks is amplified while on a gig. A section of a song that seems strained but still passable during rehearsal will quite possibly not hold up while being performed. Occasional mistakes on a part of a song during rehearsal means almost certain mistakes on that part during a gig.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t challenge or push yourself as a performer. There is a time and a place for pushing the boundaries of what you’re able to play on a gig, both as an individual musician and as a band. It’s best to do it gradually. It’s fine to go a little out on a limb on one or two songs for a gig if all the other songs have already been tried and tested and the band has gigged together a number of times. On the other hand, if it’s the band’s first gig, or you’re playing in a new format or setting that you’re not used to, its best to keep the material easy and well within your range of skill.

Keeping Your Gear Ready

I find that technical problems with gear are more likely to arise on the gig as well. There have been a few times where something seemingly minor was going on with a piece of my gear shortly before a gig, just to have it manifest itself as a major problem during the gig.

Therefore, you want to make sure all your gear is in good working order. If a piece of gear is showing symptoms of something being wrong, at least have a backup plan in case it fails during the gig. You’ll want to make sure everything is functional on your guitar: that the input for the guitar cable is not crackling or cutting out at all, no other wiring related issues are apparent, and that the strings are reasonably fresh. Make sure the cables you are using are not crackling or losing connection either. Make sure there are no strange noises or other unusual things going on with your amp.

Bringing an extra amp is difficult because of the extra weight and bulk. Right now, I never bring an extra amp with me to a gig. But, I always keep an eye out for signs that something might be malfunctioning before any gigs. If needed, I’ll take it to someone to be looked at or fixed. If I were touring or playing a more high profile gig, I would seriously consider bringing a second amp as a backup.

The bottom line is that gear related issues that seem like minor annoyances during practice and rehearsals could end up sinking you during a gig. If you have any reason to believe that your guitar or amp might lose functionality during the gig, bring an extra.

A personal example of this is a gig I played with Hot Politics a few years ago. A couple weeks before the gig, I was having trouble with the input jack on my guitar. I knew that it had developed a loose connection, so I removed the jack, re-soldered some of the wires, and put it back in. After testing it out, it seemed to be working fine. Over the next week, I played on it a lot, even rehearsed with the band for the gig, and everything still seemed to be working fine. On the day of the gig, I luckily decided to bring an extra guitar as a backup, which I don’t normally do. Even though everything seemed to be working well with my guitar, I still had a slight reason to believe that something might go wrong because of the recent input problems.

My decision to bring the extra guitar ended up saving me. Mid way through the first set, right in the middle of a song, my sound completely cut out. I quickly unplugged and grabbed the other guitar, and was back to playing in less than 30 seconds. If I hadn’t brought that other guitar, it would have been the end of that gig for me.

Packing Your Gig Bag

I have two personality traits that conflict with each other when deciding what to bring to a gig. On the one hand, I’m a minimalist and I don’t want to be bogged down with lugging a lot of equipment that I won’t need. Over the years, I’ve pared down my rig to the point that I can carry it all in one trip from the car when loading in for a gig. On the other hand, the last thing I want is to end the gig early or cancel it all together because of an equipment failure.

For a typical local gig at a restaurant, bar or private event, I’ll bring one guitar (these days, my Godin Montreal), my amp (a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe), my pedal board, and a bag with various items in it. In that bag, I’ll have things like my guitar cables, charts I might be reading from, a small fold out music stand, and some backup items. The items for backup are:

  • An extra guitar cable
  • An extra mic cable
  • A couple extra patch cables for the pedal board
  • A pack of strings
  • A few single high E strings, since these break so easily
  • The foot switch for my amp. This way, if I have problems with my pedal board that I can’t diagnose quickly, I can just plug straight in to the amp and use its distortion when needed.
  • Items to help with changing strings: a pair of needle nose pliers, wire clippers, and a string winder

A couple other items I usually make sure I have on hand are:

  • An extension chord
  • A power strip

Most of us musicians are reliant on electricity for our gear to function. Therefore, it makes no sense not to bring items that ensure access to electricity. There have been many times where I was the only person in the band, or even the other bands sharing the bill for an evening, who brought an extension chord. Had I not brought it, someone would have been making a trip to the hardware store to buy one.

There’s no telling where your power source might be, even when playing indoors. If you’re playing out doors, there really is no telling, so you might want to bring an extra long extension chord or multiple chords that you can link together.

None of these items are very bulky or expensive, and they can make a world of a difference if something goes wrong in a gig.

A little thought and preparation can go a long way to avoiding a disaster on the gig. Don’t think that just because things seem fine when you’re playing at home or at a rehearsal then things will be the same once you’re in front of people. Always assume that more mistakes and gear related problems are likely to happen once you’re on the job and in the hot seat. Based off years of experience with playing gigs, I can say first hand that for some reason this seems to be the case.

Photo credit: pennstatenews / / CC BY-NC

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