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Ask Damian Erskine: Gigging with No Preparation Time?

Q: How do you prepare for a gig when you have a short amount of time to learn tunes?

A: For me, it is more important that I have the tune internalized and have the vibe inside. The second thing is any hits that I’ll need to be aware of. If I can feel the tune, I can use my ears to guide me for most things and I’ll often just make a cheat sheet with specific passages or lines written in and a super rough form (I’ll often write down a sample bass line for each section of the tune and scribble in ‘A B A B C Ax2-hits”, for example.

Basically, I’d suggest this:

  1. LISTEN to the tune(s) over and over again so you can get them in your head. Ideally, you want to hear what’s about to happen BEFORE it happens! ;)
  2. Write down as much of the tune as possible in any way that will work for you. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t written “correctly”, it just needs to get you through the song with as few mistakes as possible.

Often, I’ll fit as many tunes as possible onto a page to keep me from having to flip through my cheats on stage. Ask for a set list and put your cheats in order.

This assumes that the bandleader will allow charts or sheets on stage. If this is not an option (it should be if you don’t have only have a short amount of time, though!). If you are forced to memorize more music than you really can in the time given:

  1. Get the set list and make an iTunes playlist.
  2. Play through each song a few times in a row and take a break
  3. Now try and play through entire set. Stop when your stuck, figure it out and start from the beginning of that tune
  4. Make a one-page cheat sheet of the parts that give you trouble and place it on stage where it isn’t visible to the crowd (if that’s an issue)
  5. KEEP running the set
  6. When you’re not shedding the tunes, listen to the tunes. Do everything possible to get them in your head!

Pretty simple. If you know the tune well enough to hum it, it’ll be much easier to play and use your ears to guide you. The only thing that many people don’t do is listen to the music even when they’re not shedding it. I believe this to be as important as playing through it at home. Get it in you! The groove and vibe is as important as the actual root notes, so listen to it over and over!
(for example: as I write this, I have a Jeff Lorber set list (for a gig with him this week) on random in iTunes. Even listening half-consciously helps!)

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Share your thoughts

Alley Keosheyan

Alley Keosheyan

Hi Damian, great column as usual! Having been in this position myself (playing 3 seasons with a singer/songwriter/guitarist who never rehearsed, never had a set list and just played whatever his little heart desired every night…) I've found that the best thing I could have done for myself as a bass player was to learn to play guitar also. By visually knowing my chords on the guitar, I am usually able to follow the band by keeping an eye on the guitarist, even when I am unfamiliar with the songs.

Ed

Great comments Damian, nothing beats “feeling” the tune internally and knowing how to set the groove.

Alley Keosheyan

Alley Keosheyan

Hi Damian, great column as usual! Having been in this position myself (playing 3 seasons with a singer/songwriter/guitarist who never rehearsed, never had a set list and just played whatever his little heart desired every night…) I've found that the best thing I could have done for myself as a bass player was to learn to play guitar also. By visually knowing my chords on the guitar, I am usually able to follow the band by keeping an eye on the guitarist, even when I am unfamiliar with the songs.

Ed

Great comments Damian, nothing beats “feeling” the tune internally and knowing how to set the groove.

Rob Morrison

Rob Morrison

I do all of the above. I do find it helpful to think of the tunes in sections too. Most pop / rock is pretty formula in arrangement , so learning and internalizing the individual parts , for me , helps a lot. Great column dude.