By David Stewart Jr.
Rock music has always pushed the limits of pop culture. Be it through the rebellious lyrics and aggressive vibes, or through scandalous images and (literal) pyrotechnics on stage, rock ‘n’ roll is the go-to form of expression for some of the world’s greatest and loudest artists. I have studied the greats from books and film, and have even shared a stage with a few of these artists (Warren Haynes, Josh Groban, Gary Cherone, Cherie Currie, etc). Rock music has always pushed the limits of pop culture. Here are my tips and tricks on how to captivate an audience and leave them drooling for more.
NOTE: This is NOT a tutorial on how to sing well and on pitch! There are plenty of articles out there on diaphragm use, pallet positioning, and annunciation. This is not one of them. I’m here to help you figure out how to nail the performance part of your live show. Let’s dive in.
Let’s start with the smallest, but most important surface area. As the singer, the spotlight is on your face for, let’s say, 85% of the song. DO SOMETHING WITH IT!
Dave Grohl’s facial expressions, in my opinion, are some of the most captivating in the global rock scene. Check out the snapshots below of the Foo Fighter’s “Best of You” at Wembley Stadium in 2007.
The Many Faces of the Grohl
I would bet that if he wanted to, Dave Grohl could sing this entire tune with zero expression, stoic as a brick. In fact, I’d imagine that would be much easier. However, this man knows how to put on a show. He milks it, even though it’s probably the 4,000th time he’s sung the song. He sings each verse as if he is singing it directly to Kurt, with emotion inscribed in his voice and pain on his face.
When the lyrics get more intense, so do his facial expressions. When he’s intimate, he allows us to see that, too. Since most rock tunes have a huge dynamic range, this is a feature that can elevate your showmanship almost instantly. In short,
- Dissect the tune you are working on,
- Understand the lyrics and emote that expression on your face,
- Take into consideration the general slope and dynamics of the song, and match it!
Arms are perhaps one of the most unbearably awkward parts of our bodies, and they can make or break a performance.
First of all, let’s categorize. We have generally two options her: the Singer/Guitarist and the Solo Singer. For all of you solo vocalists, keep scrolling.
First of all, kudos to you for doing two things at the same time. You’re a rare breed and you’re awesome. You may be thinking, “what more can I do with my arms while playing guitar?”
Here are a couple of neat little tricks I’ve learned along the way as a singing bass player:
Play with Expression
Get your shoulders involved. Slide your hands up and down the neck in an aggressive fashion.
Look at The Who’s Pete Townshend (pictured): Literally nothing in that photo is actually needed to play that chord. Unnecessary double neck guitar? Check. ’70s hippie disco meets puffy English judge wardrobe? Check. Swinging an arm wildly to strum an A Major chord? Double check. Be as charismatic with your secondary instrument as you are with your first.
Free Up Your Hands
Find the chords, notes, and moments when it’s possible to free your hands. Some of you may be thinking, “My guitar parts are super intricate! My wrists will always be glued to the guitar.” Rewrite your parts to give yourself some freedom. The audience will have more fun with a lively performance than with a live run-through of the recording.
It is crucial to free up your hands as much as possible because that gives you much more expression. Say you have a chord that sustains for a whole bar (if that NEVER happens in your set, write it in). Take that time to grab the microphone, point to the audience, or brush that sexy hair off of your face.
The mastermind bassist/singer Glenn Hughes does this in his live shows, not to mention he has all around phenomenal stage presence and showmanship. For all rock bassist/vocalists out there, he should be your Messiah. Check his performance next to Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian in his band Black Country Communion below. Bassist/singers, this is for you.
Give the People What They Want!
One more thing: We musicians often forget how to think like the non-musicians who make up our fanbases. Remember, these are the folks going to your concerts, buying your merch, and sustaining your lifestyle of songwriting and Netflix. So give the people what they want! And that is almost never a carefully plucked G double flat sharp 9 flat 13 chord. Play an F major like you mean it, and moonwalk across stage with flaming pants while doing it!
The Solo Singer
What a classy, independent dude or dudette you are. You have the potential to do SO many things with your arms. First of all, let’s look at you playing around a mic stand. Here are some basic tips on how to play with the mic and mic stand, along with some super-stylish, next-level ideas.
Mic Stand Techniques: Honors Class
Mic Stand Techniques: AP Class
So you are standing center stage, spotlights blaring, with only a skinny mic stand to hide behind. Your body positioning gives volumes of information to an audience, so you have to be aware of what vibes you’re giving off. That being said, the only incorrect position you can have is the one you are unaware of.
Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was made famous by his suggestive and wild stage antics. Perhaps one of his most famous poses is when he would straddle and hump the mic stand on stage, particularly when singing higher notes that gave a “mid-orgasm” tone to his lead line. What many people don’t know is that he would push his pelvis against the mic stand to engage and squeeze all the air out of his diaphragm, giving him extreme breath control in his higher range.
In his prime, Robert Plant knocked the socks off of most performers around. Joan Jett, however, was too cool to show much emotion with her body. Most of her stances are slightly shrugged with a curved back, giving a sense of low enthusiasm and disinterest. Many artists like Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, and HAIM often applied this technique to their live aesthetic.
Even though it is a completely different image and energy, they are both body positions that were carefully chosen and designed to sell the music and put on a show.
The point is this: YOU are the artist, YOU choose how your “on-stage persona” would stand. Just make sure to make it an active decision. Here are some famous poses to get you thinking.
Pop a squat! Extreme’s Gary Cherone shows off this pose from time to time. This is a unique crowd pleaser given most singers are standing up straight most of the time. It also adds a great deal of diaphragm control, so it might be ideal to drop down on some of the higher notes.
The late, great David Bowie was one of rock’s greatest performers. Here he is showing one of the more basic, yet effective, live stances. Open your legs and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Here, and in many videos, he’s seen clicking his heels against the ground on groove, effectively using his stance to help the audience better connect with the music. For extra points, use the mic stand as a prop. Bounce it around, dance with it — make it part of the show.
Believe it or not, Axl Rose was once attractive. The curvature of his body in this photo maximizes the showmanship of the moment. Any heavy arch in the back, either leaning forward towards the audience or away to face the sky, is a great pose to try when the vocal line isn’t particularly challenging. Also, I hope your thighs look like his when you rock this pose.
The Stage Blocking
No matter how spontaneous and random a show may seem, I can almost guarantee you that every movement an artist makes is carefully planned and rehearsed. Stage blocking and proper distribution are some of the most important things that keep the energy high and the audience captivated.
If you’re taking a solo, find the spotlight, (usually center front) and wail. If the guitarist is taking a solo, go up to him and show some love, or maybe back up and let him have some solo time and hang with the drummer. Do not be afraid to put a foot up on a monitor, drum kit, or reach down into the crowd.
The most I’ve ever learned about stage blocking happened while watching Gary Cherone tear up the Berklee Performance Center. He distributed his time to every segment of the audience: some to the left, some to the right, some down the middle. He never hung out in one area for too long, either. He’d run to another corner, have an engaging interaction with a bandmate, and then jump off a couple things and land on the next spot to sing, right before you’d get bored of seeing him stand in place. To see him really strut his stuff, check out the video below of when he was playing with Van Halen.
While we’re at it, try out some hardcore moves! I’m talking about stage diving, crowd surfing, joining a mosh, maybe even climbing some scaffolding. As “crazy and raw” as Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam seems, all of his notorious stunts were rehearsed, practiced, and plotted out far before he did them.
Check out the video below from 1992 where he climbs up on the roof of the stage, dangles down, hoists himself lower through a tug system he rigs with his mic’s XLR cable, and drops himself into a mob of people to crowd surf. Like I said, this is some hardcore stuff right here, folks.
Now, Practice It!
While it might feel a bit silly to practice some of this stuff in your dad’s garage, it’s worth it! I’ve spent countless hours tracing out blocking in my room with a broom and a comb for a mic stand and mic. By plotting everything out in rehearsal, my band knows what to expect, and we’re able to be so much more comfortable on stage making it happen in front of a crowd.
If you are feeling too shy to practice the full show in front of your bandmates, you definitely won’t do it in front of strangers. Trust me on this one. Get the awkward tension out of the way. Own that rehearsal space as if it were the stage at Madison Square Garden. Just wait and see how good it feels to do it on a real stage!
More than anything, this is a list of observations I’ve made studying my rock ‘n’ roll heroes. To create a really unique and captivating show, you need to go and learn these things from the greats — the greats that you consider great. There is a reason why you love them! So find every video of those performers, buy a notebook, and start studying what they do and how they do it. Copy some of it, see what works for you, and change it up to make it your own! It is an endless world of creativity that we are in, and it is up to us to leave our fans in musical wanderlust.
Get out there and rock that stage!
David Stewart Jr. is a vocalist, bassist, songwriter and performer currently based out of Boston, MA. After winning the first ever Lollapolooza scholarship, David attended Berklee College of Music and built his original rock trio, Migrant Motel. He has played with Josh Groban, Warren Haynes, Dave Ellefson, Gary Cherone, Cherie Currie, and many more. David has already toured the US, released 3 EPs and 7 singles with Migrant Motel, and continues to further his craft as a performer, writer, and mentor.