Acoustic sets aren’t just for folk bands and songwriters. They’re opportunities for artists working in every genre to show audiences a completely different side of their music listeners couldn’t have heard otherwise. For many musicians, this isn’t easy, and that’s exactly what makes it special. There’s a creative resourcefulness required for bands and solo artists who choose to fit their music into the mold of acoustic shows for special occasions. And, believe it or not, many listeners will resonate with these performances as much or even more than conventional shows and recorded and produced songs with full instrumentation in some cases. For musicians interested in paring down their music for acoustic sets, we’ve got a few tips to help.
Choose an acoustic-friendly set
This first step is crucial. You should know exactly what you’re in for during the process of converting regular songs into pared-down acoustic versions, and some songs work better than others. At the very least, the songs you choose need to have interesting chord progressions and melodies. Without those, your audience will get bored. It’s important to understand that songs that are packed with instrumentation and production features need to be stripped away down to their core musicality, and this requires making some tough choices. Stick with the songs you think your listeners would most want to hear, even if they seem hard to translate acoustically. If your melodies and chord progressions are strong, they’ll shine through in an acoustic performance.
Isolate chord progressions and melodies
Depending on the type of music you make, this could be easy or tricky. First, start with your songs’ chord progressions. Instruments like guitars and keyboards are typically responsible for setting the tonal structure of a song, and isolating the bass guitar can help you get acquainted with the sonic blueprint of your music. If you’re a musician that uses samples in your work and you’re not sure what chord structure your songs feature, try playing along to your recorded songs with an acoustic guitar and see if you can match the chords. Once you’ve nailed down your chord progressions, move on to mastering melodies. Great acoustic sets will highlight your song’s vocals as well as any instrumental hooks that are in your music. Without mastering a skill like fingerpicking or playing in an open tuning, performing chord progressions and instrumental melodies at the same time alone can sound clunky, so consider bringing in multiple players to your set if you’re a solo artist. And rather than enlisting another musician to play acoustic guitar, it’s a good idea to team up with a string, horn, or keyboard player. Acoustic sets don’t need to be 100% acoustic.
Bring energy and uniqueness to your songs
If you want your acoustic sets to sound special and intimate, you need to shape them energetically and uniquely. Whether it’s an unexpected collaboration, covering a song you’ve never recorded or performed before, or changing material in ways that transcend paring down songs acoustically, musicians have the chance to do something special when they perform acoustic sets. Experiment, take risks, and look for ways to deliver an experience that highlights the strengths of your songs and the intimacy you and your project can deliver. If you get the feeling your songs are falling flat by simply playing chord progressions and singing, exploring different keys, song structures, and rhythms can help.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Acoustic sets aren’t easy versions of your usual ones, and if you don’t put enough rehearsal time in, you could be headed for a rough performance. You may have played the normal versions of your songs hundreds of times, but it’s important not to mistake that familiarity with an ability to play them acoustically. This especially applies to full bands where musicians are expected to take on drastically different roles than they’re used to. The stripped-down nature of acoustic sets means mistakes and tentative playing will be much harder to detect by the audience, but don’t let this discourage you.
The benefits of creating an incredible acoustic set transcend a one-off performance. They help musicians embrace creative innovation and confidence, and artists of every stripe get a newfound familiarity with their own songs.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.