The “rock band plays acoustic gig” format really came to popularity when MTV introduced the “Unplugged” concert series. The series began in the ’89/’90 season with a concert by Squeeze with Elliot Easton (of The Cars) and Syd Straw. From there the series took off, soon every live musician was working up an acoustic set of their music that they could play in smaller, more intimate concert settings.
So what defines and acoustic setup? It’s when you play your music on instruments that don’t require you to plug them into an amplifier, even though you probably will still plug things in. For example, all electric guitar parts will be played on an acoustic guitar. All keyboard and synthesizer parts will be played on a piano. Naturally, the old problem of “my acoustic guitar isn’t as loud as the drums!” will come back into play, requiring you to either mic your acoustic guitar through a P.A. or to get an acoustic guitar pickup and plug it into the P.A.. The bass guitar part will either be played on a stand-up acoustic bass or a standard acoustic bass guitar.
There are several positive things that will happen when you prepare and play an acoustic live show. You’ll have to take a good hard look at your songs again so you’ll probably discover some subtle things about them that you’ve been missing. If you play a song for a long time you tend to go through the motions to a certain degree when you play it. Pretty soon you give the same performance every time and it starts to become routine. When you convert a song to play in an acoustic set you tend to notice small things like how the verse transitions into the chorus, how the backing supports the solo and how much the singing really does carry a song. So all these things will help you to break out of the routine of doing the same song the same way every time you play it.
Another thing you’ll discover is which parts are truly essential to making the song happen. A lot of time it boils right down to playing simple chords and singing the words and melody. Sometimes you’ll find that there’s really only one essential riff that makes the song recognizable. As you prepare your acoustic show you’ll condense the songs down into their essential components. This will help you when you play with your full electric setup by giving you a clearer vision of which parts should be allowed to come through to make the song really work.
You’ll also appreciate not having to lug so much equipment around when you play an acoustic show. There are some other advantages as well, like a lower volume level which will give you more intimate interaction with your audience. It’s a nice break for your ears and playing acoustically can be a real treat if you can do it without using earplugs to protect your hearing. Getting ready to play an acoustic show can also be an opportunity to change rehearsal spaces for a while. If you usually have to practice where you have a full P.A. setup you can now practice for a while in somebodies living room or den.
As you can see, playing an acoustic gig can really be a nice change of pace for you as a live musician. It’s a great way do develop both your musicianship and your stagecraft.