Guitarists – stop hurting the audience at small gigs


An amp stand that angles the cabinet towards your ears. The audience doesn’t know how much one of these can improve their lives.

I walked out of a gig last week. The bands were well-rehearsed and the front of house engineers were doing a good job. The venue was great and I was amongst friends, colleagues and students. But I walked out because I couldn’t stand the physical pain of being an audience member in that room any longer.

The gig in question was a showcase of songwriting talent (of which, say it ourselves, there is quite a lot at the University). For most of the performers, it was the first time these particular songs had been played in public. New lyrics, new melodies, new arrangements and new ideas for an audience to experience – and for the performers to reflect on and refine. Creativity in action. Exciting stuff.

Except that it wasn’t. There was no opportunity to experience the lovingly crafted lyric metaphors, exquisite keyboard melodies, subtle drum grooves and carefully programmed laptop soundscapes that the bands had worked so hard on in their writing and rehearsal sessions. Because a Fender guitar amp was one metre out of place.

Riffs in songwriting – Total Guitar magazine

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 217, August 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image on the right to download a pdf of the article.

Guitar solos. We love them, of course, but don’t you always have a sneaking suspicion that the audience is just waiting for the singer to get on with the rest of the song? Our secret weapon in this attention war is the riff. These ‘mini-solos’ are easy to play, sound great, and perhaps most importantly, remind everyone that you’re the Most Important Person In The Band.

Riffs are almost always one, two or four bars in length and repeat at various points throughout the song. There are three broad types, defined by their function: solo riffs, call-and-response riffs and underscore riffs.

Solo riffs often form the intro of the song and typically reappear between vocal sections. Notable examples include Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water, Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back In Town and Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight. When you’re writing a solo riff, you can be as busy or melodic as you like, because anything you play won’t get in the way of the voice. Take Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years: its four-bar riff is filled with fast triplets. It would be near impossible to hear the vocal over such a detailed guitar part, so the band sensibly provides 16 bars of space to let the riff shine through.

Call-and-response riffs are used to fill the gaps between vocal phrases within a section.  Examples include John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom and The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time, which start exactly one beat after the voice. Again, these riffs give you a lot of freedom to do whatever you want musically, as long as it’s the same each time, but you have to get in quick before the next vocal phrase. AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie uses call-and-response for the verses, then adapts the riff so that it becomes the accompaniment in the chorus.

Snap the Power

Dimmer switch socket and fan speed control for the aircon

The electrics are going in. The control room will have a fan speed control so we can adjust the flow of cooled air into the room. The lights will have a dimmer – for those ‘Barry White’ sessions, I imagine. The control room lighting will consist of eight directional spots, flush-mounted into the ceiling. We don’t quite have enough ceiling height in the live room to do the same so we’re going for three flush circular dome lights in a line along the centre of the room – you can see the location of the furthest one in the picture below.

Back wall of the live room, with light location in the ceiling.
Back wall of the live room, with light location in the ceiling.
Not too Aston Villa, I'm hoping?

We ran out of green hessian to do all the walls in the live room – we could easily order more, but the batches might not have matched perfectly, and it would have held up the project. So we’ve decided to go with all-green walls (including the bass traps, but maintaining the claret ‘V wall’) in the control room, and choose a different colour scheme in the live room. The live room walls will be blue-grey, and the ceiling will be the same light blue as in the control room.

Jeff’s away setting up their next job, and Artis is finishing more of the frames of the interior walls. Here’s one under construction – this is the grey-blue colour we’re using for the live room walls.

Once the frame is made, Artis stretches the hessian over it and staples it in place.
Once the frame is made, Artis stretches the hessian over it and staples it in place.

The frames are made in situ, up against the wall, then once they’re the perfect shape & size they’re removed and the hessian is stapled to them. I was on my way to the shops today and asked Artis if he needed anything picking up. He requested sticking plasters, as the friction from hessian-stretching had scraped several layers of skin off his knuckles. He had been using gaffer tape as hand protection. Very ‘rock’, but I imagine quite painful. We got him the most cushioned plasters we could find.

And here's the same frame resting up against the wall, ready to be nailed to the MDF/rockwool stud wall. In this pic you can see the different blues - greyish-blue for the walls, lighter blue for the ceiling.
And here's the same frame ready to be nailed to the MDF/rockwool stud wall.

The cool thing about this kind of commitment is that the guys don’t have to do it – they could stretch the hessian much less, and it would still look OK. But they know that over time the fabric will settle, and eventually the walls will start to look wobbly. I’ve seen this look in a few studios so it’s great to know they’re future-proofing the interior so well, albeit at the expense of their knuckles. Ouch.