Fire Your Slacker Band! Part II: Get Your Act Together

YYo Rockers! Last week I yelled and ranted in a typical Josh style about some of the lousy times I’ve spent in bands – and why I decided to embark on the path of a solo musician and one-man band. The first installment of this series was the introduction, and the road map. Now we’ll start getting into details. Here’s a few things to keep in mind: 1. The solo act can replace, or supplement an existing band. Even if you’ve got a great gig, you can always add another! 2. These articles are certainly not intended to be gospel – simply a sharing of how I did it, and what I’ve learned along the way. If you invent a better way, do it, and let me know. I’d love to learn about it!

Ahh, the scary reasons we don’t fly alone.

Speaking from personal experience, and from talking to other guitarists, there are a few “phantoms of the opera” that keep us from getting on stage with a one-person show.

  1. “I can’t sing!” (I was in this boat, and let me tell you, it’s a crowded one!)
  2. “What would I play?”
  3. “I need drums!”
  4. “Who’s gonna play the rhythm guitar part while I shred?”
  5. “I can’t sing!” (Seems like it always comes back to this)

Don’t let the ghosties scare you, foo’. Tell ’em to step aside so you can plan your act, ’cause we’re gonna tackle the technical and artistic challenges with valor, brilliance, and a loud guitar. Well, at least you are – I’m feeling a little short of these qualities this Monday morning. Ha ha! Anyways, here’s a cool to look at performance styles of solo artists – see which one fits your style:

Three Levels Of Instrumentation

  1. The Real Deal

This style uses one guitar to get all of the sound, and it’s strictly instrumental. It can be jazzy, with walking bass lines and chord melody solos, fingerstyle wizardry, tapping and thumping, or anything else you can imagine. Think Joe Pass, Andy McKee, etc. Often stunning in it’s virtuosity, it plays well in musician-friendly venues, talent shows, on the street, and, of course, youtube.


  1. The Super Duper Looper

This style uses technology to it’s advantage. Loop stations can be a soloist’s best friend, and guitar synthesizers add instrumentation previously only available to keyboard players. For those of you unfamiliar with these way cool gizmos, a loop station usually comes in a stomp box format. With the press of a button, it allows the guitarist to play a musical phrase, chord progression, etc, and then have that phrase played back while he or she then layers another phrase on top of that one. One of the simplest and best uses for it is to record a 12-bar blues progression, and then solo over the loop just recorded. Songs with two guitar parts can be played in this manner, and it allows for further creative options. There are some incredible uses for these units.

The guitar synthesizer consists of a specialized MIDI pickup installed on the guitar, and a unit that converts the MIDI information into any sound you want, much as a keyboard player changes sounds. I’ve used a loop station and a guitar synth together for great effect. I can put down bass and keyboard parts, loop them, and then play lead guitar over the song. Drums are even possible, but with the setup I was using (A Roland GR3), they proved difficult. Actually, I think it was my lack of beat, so I can’t blame it on the equipment.

This style plays well in the same venues as the previous style.

  1. The Dave Matthews/Zack Wiesinger camp

This style is what most people think of when visualizing a solo guitar act. The image of a musician with an acoustic guitar and a story to tell through thoughtful lyrics is an icon in music – but only the tip of the iceberg for our purposes. If you’re into playing folk or pop music, this is a fantastic choice. All you need is an acoustic guitar and your voice. It’s portable, accepted, and a proven winner. Just ask Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, and the list goes on.

“But Josh!” you say. “Those guys have backing bands!” Yes, but their music stands on it’s own without them, too. They could play a set just fine all by themselves. To be fair, there’s better examples of pure one-person acts, but I choose these names as most people know them.

What if you’re like me, though? You want to play loud electric music, but you’re not sure how in a solo format? Imagine how my mind was blown when I saw a fellow named Zack Wiesinger open for Steve Vai a few years ago.

Let me pause to ask you a question: How would you open a show for Mr. Vai, the wizard of band playing and mega-shred everywhere? I would have never have even guessed at how effective Zack’s style was in presenting something refreshingly contrasting to Steve’s style. He came out with a wild haircut and a Fender Strat plugged straight in to a tube amp. No fancy effects rack for him! I don’t think he even used a pick. He played, he sang, and he had the whole crowd clapping along to keep the beat. He won us over with just a guitar, mic, and some great music.

The advantage of this format is: People really like to hear words to songs. Regardless of if you’re using an acoustic or electric, this style plays well in places the other two styles do, as well as opening up important new niches: Bars, clubs, and places where the focus might not be on how fancy a chord a fellow can invent appreciate this format.

A few special considerations here:

  1. The two previous styles can certainly be blended in!
  2. Since there’s no bass or drums, a big sound is desirable. I’ve had great success with using two guitar amps run in stereo from a rackmount effects processor. A ping-pong delay makes the rig sound much bigger, and fills up the stage nicely.
  3. A large sound can often come from the chord voicings used. Dust off some of those 9ths and 11ths! Big chords fill up the stage. If you’re using power chords, try the three-fingered variation, where the root note is doubled. Fill up that sonic space – there’s no bass to step on with a mega-chord.
  1. The Band in a Box

This is where I’ve ultimately settled – the band in the box! I record backing tracks in my home studio, put them on my iPhone, and get ready to rock. When I show up to the gig, I plug my phone into the PA system, and bingo, I’ve got my band all set to go. I first saw guys doing this on clinic tours at music stores. Gary Hoey and Michael Angelo Batio are two musicians I’ve seen using this format. They can shred, the song has distinct parts, and it sounds just like a band. One of the disadvantages of this style is that tracks can quickly sound cold and lifeless. I’m always aware of this when I’m dealing with the songs, and I find that the addition of vocals warms things up nicely. I also love introducing “the band” in my cheesy manner, and yell at “the band” if the tracks don’t cue up right away, etc.

Many musicians consider this style beneath them, and I did for the longest time. I finally got over my snobbery when I realized that a) all of the new creative options it opened up for me, b) most non-musicians don’t care, and c) I can finally sound loud and rock the house! This format is sure to ruffle the feathers of out of work drummers and bass players, but hopefully there’s always more screaming girls in the crowd than critical percussionists. It’s still a new format for me, but I’m excited with the possibilities, especially with the venues it opens up.

While all four styles can be instrumental, I can’t stress enough the fun that vocals add to a show. Not only do people connect with words and voices, but for me, the entertainment value of the show appreciates greatly with vocals added. More venues will be available to the singing guitarist, and bringing a flighty lead singer in to the picture isn’t needed. Woohooo! Next we’ll see how we can add this most valuable element to our act. Of course, it’s not necessary, but again, it’s fun, and that’s why we’re musicians, right?

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Josh Urban is a solo guitarist and vocalist living near Washington, DC, USA. When he’s not attempting to blow up stages with his iPhone backing tracks and brightly colored guitars, he’s busy teaching guitar to over thirty students per week, adding zany videos to his youtube channel, or blogging about music. He just released his first “real” EP, Signalman, and is responsible for every single sound on it. Check out his website at, and say hello!