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Practical Handbook for the Working Musician, Part 4: Techniques to Get Through a Gig
May 13, 2022

by Mike Mindel. This article was originally published on HVmusic around the year 2000.

Did you ever sit in with a band and play a song you thought you knew only to find out they not only do it in a different key, but with a different order and amount of verses and choruses, and a different ending. Well the purpose of this month's article is to give you some insight and techniques to get through the gig.

The first place to start is: what key are we in?

Obviously, the best way to find this out is for someone to tell you before the song starts. This seems easy enough, but sometimes the other musicians are busy turning knobs or duct taping their cheat sheets to the mike stand so they can be ready for the next song. This is not to mention the person we've all played with who has a firm grasp on the concept that the worse you sound, the better they sound so good luck finding the key pal!

If you have a basic knowledge of the neck of a guitar you can just look to see what they're playing. Is the bass playing and open string (no fingers on the fret board) to start the song? Then it's probably an 'E' or 'A' string, so that's the key.

Another way the key is passed on to the band, especially in larger bands, is through hand signals. I've seen two different methods used. The first is to make the letter of the key of the song with your hand. For example, 'A' would look like the peace sign pointing down. 'E' is your middle three fingers extended horizontally out. 'C' is made with your thumb and index finger. 'F' is your index and middle finger extended horizontally. 'B' is made by pressing your transpose button down a half-step (-1) an d playing in 'C'. Just kidding. The second hand signal method is to hold fingers out for the amount of sharps or flats in the key. The trick with this is, contrary to logic, sharp keys are shown with fingers pointing down, and flats keys are fingers pointing up. For example, 2 fingers pointing up means the key of Bb, which as Bb and Eb in the key signature. One finger pointing down is the key of 'G', which has one sharp, F#.

One of the bands I played in is an oldies rock and roll band in which the rest of the back up band and I are the human equivalent of a Karoke machine for the front man. He just yells out, "gimme a 'C' (if we're lucky), and just starts to sing. More times than not, we have no idea what the song is until after it's begun. It's great for the audience but without some good B.S.'ing techniques, it can be a little nerve wracking on the players. You have to play something to make it appear you have a clue, even if you don't. The advantage a rhythm instrument has (a guitar or keyboard) is we don't have to come in on the one. So one thing I do is come in on the two or four, as though I meant it, to give me a moment to see what the song is about. Pick up on the rhythm of the snare drum or bass guitar. Continue this consistently for the first verse or phrase and it will sound like you meant it. If you deviate from it after an odd amount of time, say three measures; it will be obvious that you didn't have a clue. The last trick I'll leave you with this month is this. Playing open fourths and fifths on parts you are unsure of will lessen the chance of playing a bad note. The open quality doesn't imply as strongly any particular chord. If you play an open fourth and the chord sounds like a suspended chord, just move the top note up or down to resolve it. Again, do it in time and consistently and it won't sound like a mistake.

The best B.S.'ers know that whatever they played, they meant it. (wink wink)

And most important; when in doubt, lay out. One of the qualities that separates experienced musicians, especially professional B.S.'ers from amateurs is the ability to appreciate and utilize the silence between the notes. Don't feel a compulsion to play in every open space. Confidence and the belief that you can and will get through the song goes far in this art.


Musician Joke:

How do you make a trombone player's car more aerodynamic?
Remove the Domino's Pizza sign from the roof.


Mike Mindel has been a professional musician for over 40 years and is currently a member of The Bills Toupee Band.

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