Hilary at Barley & Hops

Hilary at Barley & Hops

I have been asked to comment on performing without a band. Alice Groves asked, “I would be interested in hearing more about your quest to perform without a band. The only alternative is recorded music.” Richard McLaghlin responded to her by stating, “Actually, you could just pick up a guitar and engage the audience. Of course the pop musicosphere is so addicted to production values, songs layered like some bizarre, sonic gateau, and the auto-tuned chorus of backup singers and doubled voices that they just would not know what to make of it all.”

I do not believe that recorded music is the only alternative.  There are many alternatives.  I have been performing, at some capacity or another since 1970.  I have played solo and with bands and with a combination that includes recorded sounds, and live instruments, as well other singers.  I like bands and combos for the complexity they add to the music, but I do enjoy the solo performance.

I think it takes a lot more expertise and confidence when one plays as a solo act, there is only myself to blame my mistakes on.  Rhythm and tempo are harder to lock in, and it takes a whole bunch more raw energy to engage the audience.  It can not only be achieved, but done really well.  Convincing club owners that your solo act is as viable as a band performance is the trickiest.

Also, please understand the context in which I am working.  I am spending much of my time producing for my upcoming CD, “Living the Green Life,” and do not have the time to spend on working with a band.  Yet I need to keep sharp for the times I gig on large stages or play with other musicians.  I am performing regularly and weekly as a solo act so I don’t lose my skill level while stuck in the studio.

It becomes harder to book gigs as a single act.  Clubs and bars seem to want a wall of noise against which to balance alcohol sales and an experience of excitement from and for their customers.  I look for venues that are interested in a different type of action.  I am interested in building a rapport with the crowd–talking, joking between songs and answering questions in the middle of a song.  I like to make them laugh, and to feel as if their experience of my act were somehow part of the performance.  So, I need the intimacy of a small venue. At this time in my career I am not looking for stardom or fame, but I am looking for ways to give myself and an audience maximum enjoyment from a performance.

More Pedals and Swirly Fuzzy Stuff

More Pedals and Swirly Fuzzy Stuff

My performance is itself both simple and complex.  It is me and one of my Martins.  I like the Martin guitar tonal signature better than any other acoustic guitar.  I have an 2000 HD-28-V, and a 1959 00-18.  They each have distinct sounds, but both have a playability that works for me.  I also like my G5120 Gretsch a whole bunch.  It has a scale similar to the Martins so there is no muscle memory confusion when I switch back and forth.  To all this I add a pedal board that gives me options galore.

My music is a combination of Country, Folk Rock, Rockabilly, Honky-Tonk, Country Jazz, and Country Pop-esque.  It ranges from edgy to not-so-edgy to sort-of-soft.  They are my own songs because I like my writing best.  I work with just one of the Martins for the most part, but also I use a Boss Looper for songs that are more complex and need other instrumentation behind some of the simple lead guitar work I do with the Gretsch.

I use the Boss Looper as a devise to hold material I have loaded off my Tascam 24-Track recording device.  I work out my arrangements on the Tascam before I load them into the looper.  I play keyboard (an older Korg Triton), lap steel, mandolin, banjo, auto harp besides guitar, so I can fill up some of the songs with complex layers of sounds that add to my vocals and lead work.  I only do this on a few songs.  My main form of presentation is acoustic guitar and harmonica.

What continually blows me away, is the diverse age groups that seem to like what I do.  I have people from their 20s into their 80s respond to what I do.  I think that Rock ‘N’ Roll has been around long enough and is well enough established to have become the new standards for enough generations to be accepted by most individuals.  Yes, there are the musically ignorant and stilted who only recognize what they listen to as the REAL music and refer to all the other genres as crap.  And they do leave the second they hear a little twang,  but the majority show nothing but respect for my performance.

Thanks, readers, for reading, and please feel free to comment and ask questions in the “Comments” section of this post.  Hilary



  1. I really enjoyed reading this blog. And the reason is because I have been playing without a band, since 2003. I have to admit that it takes a little something special to play a solo gig. Not that I’m anything special, but as Hilary mentioned, any mistake that is made is you. You can’t blame it on the bass player. It’s all on you. I have always had a problem with tempo. I tend to get a little faster, as I go through a song. Therefore I really have to concentrate of the tempo and rhythm I begin with.
    All I use are a Breedlove Atlas. AD25/SM and an inexpensive Martin DCX1KE. I also use a Digitech VocalistLive 2, footpedal for harmony vocals. It gives me two voices which harmonize with my voice, and it works out great, for me. The audience seems to get into what I do, whether I’m playing country, rockabilly rock”n”roll, or country gospel.
    The main thing I miss about a band is the comradeship, but also like HIlary, I like to talk and joke with the audience as much as I can, between songs, and when I get paid, it all (mostly) goes in my own pocket.

  2. Very interesting Hilary. The other real benefit of performing solo is the freedom to improvise and actually write a song on the spot, or play different changes than one would normally play with a rehearsed group. In my earlier days, I would often segue from one known piece into something I made up on the spot. It’s very good for keeping the brain and fingers nimble. Keep on keepin on my friend !

  3. Hillary, Thank-you for the extensive response to my original query. You are a generous soul to share your quite wide range of experience. I admire your work ethic and creative approach to the challenges of solo stage performance. As a vocalist (and songwriter) who does not play any instrument proficiently enough to accompany myself, I need to rely upon musicians. But I would like to tour the Mediterranean and don’t se how to pay to bring the gang with me.

  4. My material has a lot of BeeBop jazz and I gave up trying to find musicians who could play it. I accompany myself on my CD, but out live I just play the bones of the music. I’ve got a looper pedal so I can play flute with my guitar but that’s it, no special effects at all.
    I can’t say that I’ve had any problems with my audiences but trying to overcome the venue owners notions of what a solo artist does has been a constant problem. If they let me play once I’m generally invited back. Besides, a solo artist is cheaper than a band.

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