Ben’s the space-faring guitarist from Hybrid Nightmares, the masters of progressive extreme metal renown for their stage shows. He’s also the founder of Ben Plant Guitar, where he and his team of teachers transform players into bona-fide guitar masters.
I’ve just finished an 8 show tour of Japan and the east coast of Australia with Hybrid Nightmares, supporting Anaal Nathrakh and Watain – the longest consecutive tour I’ve ever played!
One of the biggest concerns for regular performers is maintaining your gear, your body and your mind to put on a great show every night, which is very different to the preparation you would put in for one big show in isolation.
I’ll share some of my tips of what worked (and what didn’t work) to not only help you prepare for playing a bunch of shows, but also how to apply these tips to your general practice so make sure you build your endurance and resilience as a guitarist too.
Practice Less – After All, Your Performances are Practice too!
If you’re going to be playing a show, you’re going to effectively practice your repertoire anyway – so you may want to hold off on practicing a few sets on the same day so you don’t burn yourself out.
Instead, focus on the sections that cause you the most problems, like the intricate left hand parts, the confusing chord changes or the fast legato runs. After all, most of the set should be easy to play by now anyway! Focus your efforts on the parts that aren’t, in small, concentrated bursts that won’t wreck your endurance.
The inverse is also true – if you want the best possible practice to prepare you for a show, but you don’t have any shows scheduled, set yourself up as if you were performing for real at home or at a rehearsal studio and fake it.
Use all the correct amp settings, pretend you’re playing to a crowd and put full energy into the show, and you’ll quickly uncover the hard parts of the songs, the parts that tire out your hands and the sections that are tricky to remember!
Warmup, Stretch and Get Your Hands and Body Ready
Ideally, a few hours before we’d soundcheck or perform, I would go through a few of the tricky sections, play through a few sections of some songs and use some simple warmup exercises to get my hands into playing mode.
In colder climates, you literally need to warm your hands up, so one easy trick is to keep a pair of gloves handy to put on between sessions of playing, but even warmer climates require some sort of warmup routine to get your fingers to move at full capacity.
When you’re playing multiple shows in a row, it becomes important to look after the rest of your body that’s involved in performing, which includes (in my order of priority):
- Wrists and forearms
- Neck (particularly in metal!)
- Shoulders and back
- Legs (particularly, calves and quads for me)
Stretches are good, both dynamic (involving movement, like spinning your arms) and static (traditional standing or sitting stretches, which many sports scientists will nowadays dispute as being ineffective as a warmup).
The actual routine you do depends on your own preferences and needs. Experiment and find something that works for you.
If you’re waking up the next day in pain, chances are your warmup routine needs work! (Or you need to stop partying or sleeping on the floor, which brings me to my next point…)
What’s your Priority – Playing or Partying?
I hate to be that guy. No one likes that guy.
But the reality of the music industry today is simple and unavoidable, and the sooner your hear it the better. The wild stories of the 70s and 80s don’t reflect the current situation for touring musicians today. Nowadays, performers have to be virtuosic, professional and reliable on stage, not drunk, sloppy, or dangerous.
The myth of the non-stop party lifestyle of a musician is just that – a myth (or at the very least, the exception rather than the rule).
That doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate your successes, go to after parties or enjoy your rider, it just means you have to make sure that these things do not negatively impact your performance.
So, if you know you need to get in 7 hours of sleep to be effective on stage, load out and get to bed on time. If you know you’re going to be sleeping in a cramped tour bus overnight trying to sleep sitting up, don’t be afraid to take a nap when the opportunity presents the next day – all touring professionals will understand.
Similarly, when you’re at home, treat your rehearsals and practice sessions as sacred – don’t do Sunday 9am rehearsal sessions if you’re going to be hung-over and tired! If you prioritise your playing in your lifestyle choices, funnily enough, playing gets easier!
The one caveat I’ll give you introverted musicians is to try not to ignore all opportunities to socialise with fans, industry people and other musicians, as you’ll make many important connections in these ‘between-show’ meet-ups.
If you’re like me and hate networking and socialising, set little goals with yourself and your band mates to make sure someone is representing you at the meet-and-greet, someone is going to the bar afterwards with the headliner and so on so you can connect with fans and other musicians without burning yourself out.
Master Your Mind as Much as Your Instrument
Performing is a draining experience. Most musicians love it, of course, but make sure you recharge and look after yourself after the show!
For many people, that involves finding a quiet space every now and again to be alone doing introverted things like reading, watching movies etc, for others it’s more about relaxing with friends, but it’s important you work out what you need to keep your sanity between shows and schedule that into your downtime.
From the outside, it can seem silly to have to schedule time to sit and watch a movie, but at the end of the day, touring is working 15 hour days. Anyone would tell you that working in an office or construction site for 15 hours a days is crazy, but most people have the perspective that playing shows is not ‘real’ work.
If your day consists of a 7am lobby call, 3 hours of travel for soundcheck and load in, warmup, performing, load out and a meet and greet, you’ll definitely start to feel it if you haven’t been taking little breaks throughout the day!
And, unlike a normal work environment, there’s no boss looking after you. It’s all on you to make sure you’re scheduling your time effectively and coping with it all!
Guitar Maintenance and Care
Some guitarists like to change strings before every show. To me, that’s excessive, as I prefer strings that are already stretched out as they stay in tune more often.
However, you will have to change strings more often than normal, as you’re going to be playing a lot and need to sound at your best!
Pack yourself a little restringing and maintenance kit with everything you’ll need to make adjustments.
On our tour, I had to:
- Adjust the action of the neck for Japan (it was much colder and drier than Melbourne!)
- Restring the guitar twice (over 8 shows, which is fairly modest)
- Troubleshoot a faulty pickup
All up, I was able to do the first two no problem – I had packed all the required allen keys and tools, but without a soldering iron I wasn’t able to find the cause of the pickup issue.
For most styles, I’d also recommend wiping down the strings after you play, though
I’m pretty terrible at doing this myself.
Finally, make sure you have spare batteries, spare leads, power adapters and everything you could possible need for your equipment. If a lead works 80% of the time, it may as well not work at all in my book – pack a spare!
If you want to prepare yourself for this lifestyle, why not try spending a weekend in tour mode? Set your alarm early (and actually get up!), load up your gear, travel somewhere (or pretend to travel somewhere if you prefer), set up your gear, warmup, setup your equipment, maybe perform a setup and restring on your guitar and play a mock show.
It’s a great way to uncover technical issues, like “oh, I need spare batteries for my pickups” or “why can’t I get the right sound out of my amp” when there’s less pressure, but it’ll help you become far more professional and self-sufficient as a guitarist as you’ll understand the full performance process from beginning to end.
Seem like a lot of effort? Touring is effectively 23 hours of waiting for 1 hour of performing. But, as you’d expect, that 1 hour of performing is usually worth it.