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16 Tips for Working Musicians on How to Be a Successful Club or Bar Cover Band

Steve Witschel has been an online music writer for seven years and has played over a thousand songs in his career.


In just about every city and town in the United States, as well as many around the world, you'll find a public venue that hosts live music. Whether you're a full band, a duo, or a solo artist, there are plenty of opportunities to have fun and make some money.

The most successful bands and artists practice certain fundamentals that have been proven effective time and time again. In order to get better-paying gigs and more of them, you'll want to follow in the footsteps of those before you that have made a good living playing live music.

Below are some essential guidelines to make a priority whenever you're playing a show. These are all things that you should focus on collectively as a band to ensure the greatest possible success at your gigs.

There is nothing difficult, physically demanding, or even very time-consuming about the steps you can take to work like a professional in a live performance situation. Follow these tips for each and every gig that you're band plays. By doing so, you will elevate your success beyond what you may have thought you could achieve.

1. Make Set Lists

To some, this is a regular, fundamental practice. To others, there isn't much thought put into it, or they don't make one at all.

There are several advantages to taking the time to write out a set list:

  • When each band member knows what song is next, the show will run much smoother.
  • You can properly time your set.
  • You'll learn how to make the show flow and reduce or eliminate "dead-air."
  • You'll be able to go back over it and review what worked and what didn't work.

There is a definite art to constructing a good set list—especially one that works well over and over again. When it's done correctly, you'll consider keys, tempos, genres, and especially—your audience, and put it in an order that makes sense.

The primary objective is to take people on a ride by dictating the mood in the room with the way you put your sets together. Creating and utilizing great segues and medleys is also a must to keep things moving and to keep the crowd engaged. With practice and tweaking, you can come up with brilliant set lists that make your band look like pros.

2. Know How to Sound Check

This is an important part of the live music experience and one that you must be cooperative and patient. If you're fortunate enough to have a professional sound man working your gig, he will generally follow a particular order of operations for sound check. It will usually go like this:

  • Drums
  • Bass
  • Keyboards
  • Guitar
  • Any other instruments
  • Backround vocals
  • Lead vocals
  • Full band

This sequence is not set in stone, but it is how many engineers like to work. Every sound man is different, and the order can and will be different, but your job as a musician is to simply follow directions. Some other important things to note:

  • When asked to play each individual drum, the drummer should play even, moderate tempo quarter notes and nothing more, unless asked to.
  • When another person's instrument is being checked, you should not be making any noise whatsoever on your instrument, unless asked to. (a.k.a. STFU)
  • A good sound man will ask you how you want your own monitor to be mixed (if you have one).

It's a good rule of thumb to act as though the sound man knows more than you do because that is usually the case. The guys that work for or own their own sound companies have worked with hundreds of bands, and aren't impressed by your musical talents, unless, they are first impressed by your professionalism and respect.

If you're playing a club or bar that has a house sound guy, he usually knows the room well, so you should also play by his rules. If you need something to be tweaked for yourself, be polite when you ask, and be patient. You won't always get things to be perfect (in fact, perfect is rare), but you will have a sound man that is at least on your side.

3. Set Your Stage Volume Properly

This is an area that a lot of musicians don't always think about but is one that should be taken seriously. How you set your own stage volume will contribute to the overall sound in the venue and the clarity of your band. Keep in mind that how you choose your levels should be determined by the room, the quality of the P.A., and the balance you're trying to achieve on stage—with all of those factors collectively being taken into account.

If you're too loud, you'll blow away your bandmates and make it harder to get a proper mix out front. Too low, and folks on stage won't be able to hear you (unless they have you in their monitor) and the engineer will need to boost you in the house.

You always want to work with the rest of the band and the sound man when it comes to your stage volume. As a musician, pretty much everyone's top priority is that they're able to hear themselves. But always remember to consider the big picture with your overall volume.

4. Stick to Set Times

In many cases, at live shows, you have to follow a set schedule. Since you're working for someone else at your gig, you'll want to follow it. There are specific reasons that you are supposed to play at certain times that are dictated by the operators of the venue, and as a professional working musician, you want to respect that.

This means that you have to discipline yourself to accomplish whatever you need to during your break (bathroom, get a drink, safety meeting) and be back to the stage ready to play before you're supposed to start. This will show your employer that you take your job seriously, and will also make it easier for the crowd to know when you'll be back up.

5. Have a Show

If you're playing in a band in public in front of people for money, you are in the entertainment business. So even if you put no thought into what you're doing other than playing songs, you are still putting on a show. It's in your best interest (and it's a lot more fun) to have a show that is at least somewhat rehearsed and/or planned and to perform it with conviction and consistency.

When you have no clue how you're going to do things before you hit the stage, people will be less engaged in your performance. If you are all great players and are picking good songs, people will still dig you. But they won't be as excited about what you're doing, simply because you're not that excited about it either.

When you make your gig an actual show that has some obvious care put into it, people will have a better time. The more people have fun, the more they'll tell other people about how great you are, and the more they will also come back. You'll grow your fan base, and you'll have more people at your gigs, and it will do nothing but benefit everyone.

6. Pick the Right Songs

This is perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of your live show. There are many factors to consider including your genre, the ability of the musicians in the band, the venue, and the type of gigs you are playing.

The priority here, of course, is to make sure that the crowd is enjoying the show. If someone has walked into the room where you're performing, they'll be much more likely to stay if they like the songs you're playing. You'll never be able to please everyone, so you want to focus on what the majority of people want to hear. It's important to always remember that you are not playing for you, but rather, you're playing for the people that are listening to you.

7. Play Primarily for Women

This subtitle should speak for itself, but if it doesn't send a clear message, here are the bullet points for why this should be a priority:

  • Chicks like to dance
  • Where there are women, there will be men
  • Drunk males like to spend money on females
  • Girls just wanna have fun

If you're picking songs that are directed primarily at guys, you won't have as many girls around. And that won't do your band any good. Even if there are songs that you don't necessarily like to play in your band; if a lot of women will like them, then it's a probably a good idea to include those tunes in your show.

Your goal as a musician in a cover band is to make sure that people are spending money. The more ladies there are in the room, and the more they are having a good time, the more drinks the bar will sell. This will lead to your band getting booked more often, and subsequently more money to put in your own pocket.

8. Know Your Audience

As previously mentioned, your show and song list should be catered to the people in attendance. If you have a regular following, you should have a good idea of the kind of music that they expect to hear you play. Just like a company that has a physical product that they are looking to sell, your band has to have an intimate understanding of what the people want.

One of the best ways to determine the preferences of the crowd is to simply talk to them individually. Ask them what they like and don't like, why they like you, and how they think you could improve. Quite often, you won't even have to ask, and people will just voluntarily offer up information. Your job in this case is to simply pay attention and take it all in. Then you can process what you have to work with and base your presentation on what will yield the best results for everyone involved.

9. Interact With the Crowd

In addition to talking to people when you're off stage, you also want to involve them when you're on stage. Singling out people in the audience to talk to gets the crowd more involved, and also makes them feel more a part of the show. It could be something as simple as mentioning someone's birthday or special occasion, or even at times bringing a person or people up on stage. It all becomes part of the show, and makes the whole event more fun for everyone.

10. Keep Things Moving

If you've put together a decent set list, then you'll have an advantage with this simple yet extremely important guideline. As a band performing cover songs live, you are akin to a jukebox, or more accurately, a radio station.

The kiss of death for a program being broadcast over the airways is any prolonged amount of "dead air" - a term used in radio to indicate that there is no sound being sent to your speakers. It's a major no-no for any audio telecast which invites and even encourages a listener to change the station.

In terms of your band's live show, dead air occurs at a time when there is neither any music being played nor is there anyone talking on the mic. You can get away with a few seconds here and there, but for the most part while you're standing on stage, you want to look like you know what you're doing, and keep the show moving. The difference that it makes in the level of professionalism you present is quite significant, and is well worth being aware of any time you perform.

11. Encourage Drinking

Like it or not, your primary responsibility in most cases when your band is performing live is to ensure that the venue makes money on alcohol sales. As the main attraction, you are the host of the party, and you want to make sure everyone is having a fun, in addition to assuring that the bar gets some business.

Often times there will be band members on stage that are drinking as well. Since this is one of the few jobs where you're actually allowed to drink, there's no sense in hiding it. Lift up your beverages for a toast or a social and encourage the crowd to do the same. Tell the folks frequently throughout the night to get to the bar and get some tasty adult beverages. This will make for a better time had by the patrons in the venue and will also make your employer very happy.

12. Acknowledge Bartenders

Bartenders generally work for relatively little pay (often less than you're making in the band) and rely quite a bit on tips. They're also people, too, that have bills to pay and concerns of their own. It's a good habit to not only learn all of the bartenders' names, but to make sure that you give them their props over the mic several times during the course of the night and remind the patrons to tip.

Off stage, you want to be friendly with the staff that is keeping people liquified and show gratitude towards them. They work there all of the time. You don't. You are a guest in their house. They will like the band much more and appreciate your professionalism if you recognize this fact and act accordingly.

Most of the time, this will create a solid relationship between the staff and your band, and if you want to work in a venue again, and want to develop and maintain a business partnership, it's in your best interest to give credit to the folks serving the drinks.

13. Make It an Event/Party

There's always a reason to celebrate.

Make each show unique - and a vehicle for everyone to enjoy life.

14. Play to the People in the Room

There will be times during your musical career when you're playing a gig and not a whole lot of people show up. It can be disheartening and discouraging, especially if you've put a lot of work into your band. But it's all part of the job, and it's in your best interest to never let things like that get you down, and to focus on putting forth your best efforts for the people that actually are there...even if it's only the staff. It will do your band a world of good to act as if the room is packed, so that when you're playing a gig where that is the case, you'll be ready for it.

15. Record Yourself

There are several advantages to having a permanent record of your gigs:

  • You can listen back and critique your own performances
  • You can upload the good stuff to social media sites
  • You can monetize videos on Youtube for some extra revenue
  • It's a great tool to market your project
  • You'll have something to play for your Grand-kids

Nowadays it's easy to capture audio and video of just about anything. There are free apps that you can download to your phone or tablet that will get the job done. If you really want to go for it, good quality video cameras are very affordable.

If you're not recording your performances, I guarantee that there will be fantastic moments that you experience that you'll wish weren't only just a memory.

16. Have Fun

Think about it. The whole reason most people started playing music in the first place was because it seemed like something fun to do. Guess what? It is. When you're able to work in harmony with a group of people who are all playing different things, but for one common purpose, you start to create magic - and that's a lot of fun. Let that show.

Any enjoyment that you truly feel has no choice but to shine through in your playing or singing. Make sure to allow it, and have it be glaringly obvious to anyone that sees your band play. That kind of passion is unmistakable, and permeates any and all of your surroundings.


Neesha Nj on January 02, 2018:

That was the best

Robert T Stewart from Vancouver, BC (Canada) on October 05, 2017:

Great article. I would add "Show up on time, never be late" Nothing worse than a band showing up late for a gig and then still setting up when they are supposed to be performing. Doing this also means less chance for a proper sound check, also a no-no. Show up on time (or earlier), get everything set up properly, relax before the show starts. Your band mates will appreciate it and the venue managers will appreciate it.

Tacia Domrose on September 09, 2017:

Thank You for the good advice and positive encouragement :) Being in a band is a lot of work and a lot of fun :)

Rory on August 01, 2017:

Bring some of your own lighting effects including DJ lasers. It depends on how much you want to spend but a decent laser projector can run $100 or more. At least one in this price range is worth it. Some of these lights you can get a large hardware store as they are basically Christmas type lights. Not a string but projectors. Sometimes they call them fire and ice. If you wait until after Christmas (or in some cases Halloween stores also sell them) you can get them for less. Wire up simple push button on/off switch in small electric outlet boxes and mount on a board so you can activate them like a foot switch. I just cut a two prong extension cord in half and wire that to the switch. That way you can plug and unplug the lights from the switch.Mount the lights on a board or boards for ease of set up and tear down. Also, a good projector for running a set long video is cool. Get a powerful one however or you won't be able to see it. Depending on the color of wall behind you, you may need a screen as well. Check for the portable type. You can usually find them second hand. There, now you know the secrets of Minnesota's own, The Ers.

Zuzu Petals on April 05, 2017:

Don't forget the importance of PR. Mohr Publicity is a good one. Also, yes, play to the women.

Bahiabeth on July 16, 2016:

Play for the women? We ARE the women! (Not all musicuans are guys).

K-Bot on June 24, 2016:

Good tips, if I could add another one: treat your band like a business. In addition to being a musician, you have to be a bit of a salesperson. Be a staunch advocate for your band, because unless you've already hit the big time and can afford a publicist, manager, etc., no one else will do it for you.

Even in this age of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, et al, you'll be surprised that you book a lot of gigs the old-fashioned way: cold calling multiple times, leaving cards and CD's, and talking to the right person at the right time in the right mood. If we'd given up on a prospect after the first couple of attempts, we wouldn't get nearly the gigs we do. One of our best clients (who we just played for) was one that we spent three years "courting."

When you do land that gig, behave professionally. Thank the bartenders and the club owners - publicly - afterward.

That's my story and I'm stickin' to it - rock on!

Kellie on May 15, 2016:

Re: Drinking on stage - I make arrangements with the bar ahead of time for them to make me water martinis. :) I might indulge a little bit before or after the show, but I really do perform better when I'm sober.

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on February 12, 2016:

Excellent article, and I speak from the viewpoint of being a musician who has had a lot of experience of playing gigs!

Slow on February 06, 2016:

I always tell they guys (Especially a new band) We will sound like we practice. But it doesn't end there, we will play like we practice. If I'm looking glum, or just stay in one place, or stare at my Bass neck all night in practice, guess what I'm doing on stage? You play like you practice, so move around, tell a joke or two, even practice a little skit or two. Like right before we play Pink Floyd "Money" I'll walk up to the mic. and say See, if you can remember this one...See if I can remember this one, then Bam! start playing. I use to trade Bass, and Guitar with one of the guys, but he would say, you think this is easy, you try it. I'd say ok, who's gonna play the Bass? Oh yeah? Yeah! Then trade, and play. The crowd loved it, little did they know it was rehearsed. ♫

Pro keyboard player on December 15, 2015:

Drink on stage, mmm must be American as you will rarely is ever see a pro UK band drinking on stage if playing in a pub, club, or on the cabaret circuit.

Rob J on December 06, 2015:

Spot on advice...

Jonas Bartulis from Lithuania on November 30, 2015:

Truly interesting article! As a person who grew up around musicians, I definitely can relate to this article. I wrote my first hub on Guns N Roses reuniting, check it out if you are interested. Have a good one. John!

Big Cadillac on October 14, 2015:

17) Move efficiently from song to song. Interact with your audience but avoid corny stage patter, inside references, stupid jokes, etc. Know how to tune your instrument quickly. Don't kill whatever interest/excitement you have built through your dynamic performance with an amateur lull between songs.

Frank on September 04, 2015:

#6 + #8 are the most challenging and confusing to figure out.

What if you don't want to play the same 20 cover songs that every band plays ? Sure, you're playing for the audience, and not for You. But to me, it's more of a "show" if the band plays some deep cuts instead the popular tunes that people have heard a billion times. I'm not saying the songs should be really obscure material. No, the songs should have a good rhythm and beat and interesting lyrics that attract the audience. Also, if the audience only wants to hear songs that They Know, then they should stay in their car and just listen to the radio.

As for "knowing your audience" --- well, what's that mean? -- you can't play any King Crimson songs? ..... I've always said ---- "give the people what they want, but never what they expect to hear." If you constantly cater to the tastes and whims of the Audience, you'll never be an artist to be taken seriously.

James on September 01, 2015:

Thanks-- I have shared this also I can add: #17- Dress better than the audience #18- Use stage lighting

Tim on August 31, 2015:

What successful band doesn't know this already?...I guess if you don't know to do these 16 BASIC things by now, you're not in a successful band....period.

Ray on August 30, 2015:

gotta play covers people know and like...groups doing originals are great but usually won't get the good club gigs unless the band is very well known..I get criticized all the time for doing only covers but I play for people...and good packed crowds make playing those covers very fun..

Joe on April 16, 2015:

Nice. #7 is so true. Too bad women don't like better music. Hahahaha.

Besarien from South Florida on March 29, 2015:

Great hub! I did booking in the 90s. I'd add to your list that showing up is incredibly important. The unexpected happens but contact the venue to let them know as soon as you run into trouble. I was able to arrange a pick up once for a local act snowed in. Silent no-shows or a bands constantly late and unreliable, aren't going to keep getting work. Avoid drug and alcohol use before shows. If you get a rep for being professional and a joy to work with then people will go out the way to help, support, and promote you.

Lastly, I'd encourage a band to mark all equipment they bring right down to mic stands and extension cords. Make everything is easily recognizable as yours with colored duct tape or stickers but also labels with contact info so if equipment gets mixed up or left behind it has a good chance to make its way back.

manysounds on December 08, 2014:

"Most soundguys" will check guitars before keyboards, not the other way 'round. Then acoustic guitars after those, before vocals.

Steve Witschel (author) from New Orleans, LA on August 26, 2014:

Thanks Laver!

G Laver on August 26, 2014:

Enjoy your hubs! On point and well-written!