Four Types of "Tricks" Rock Stars Use Live

Is that guitar plugged in?
Is that guitar plugged in?

There has been a lot of collective outrage in recent years over the ways that various pop and rock stars are "faking" live performances. I think that's valid to a certain degree, especially in regards to rock bands. Rock is a broad genre, but one where a certain rawness and authenticity has long been valued over glossy perfection, after all.

But some of this outrage toward performers of all types seems misplaced when you look at things a little closer. In today's market, musicians of all types are often making more money from their tours than they are from album sales, a reversal from the days when live shows were primarily a way for popular bands to promote album sales.

And since live concerts are so important these days, there is an added incentive to make them perfect, especially since ticket prices for some of them have risen to ridiculous levels. But pop and rock stars have used various technologies and other tools to make live shows look and sound better for decades; some of these techniques are new, and some have been around for years.

4. Musical Gear You See Onstage Isn't Always Real Recently there was a flap involving a hard-rock band called Black Veil Brides when someone took a photo of their onstage amplifiers from behind, revealing that the wall of speaker cabinets was shells, just hollow dummies placed onstage to look cool as a backdrop. This has been a common practice for years, especially among hard rock and heavy-metal bands who like the image of a huge wall of amplifiers onstage.

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Since there is no practical reason to actually be playing through more than one or two amps live, chances are anytime we've seen bands play in at least 30 years where a wall of amps and speakers was behind them, they've been either unplugged or just gutted shells. Someone going to see a huge band where a singer plays a guitar on a few songs might also be surprised to find that in a lot of cases, that guitar is making very little sound, if any, in the actual mix that the audience hears.

Unless the person is well-known for his or her playing ability, it is likely a mere prop, "played" by the singer because it looks good while the real guitar work is being done by, well, the band's guitarists. I have a friend who was the sound engineer for many famous country and rock acts over the years, and he confirms that a lot of time, that guitar is either not plugged in at all or is buried in the mix. It's a bit of showmanship is all; whether that's "cheating" or not, I'll leave up to your individual discretion.

Just out of frame are 60 additional members of The Rolling Stones.
Just out of frame are 60 additional members of The Rolling Stones.

3. Bands Pad Out Their Sound With Extra Members This is nothing new. A lot of the time when a person goes to see a famous band perform, he or she might understandably be surprised by the small army of additional musicians onstage with them. I remember seeing the Rolling Stones a couple of decades back, and it seemed like there were 30 more people onstage who weren't the core band members I would recognize.

Is that cheating? I don't know, but it definitely creates a much different experience than seeing a band with only four or five members playing. Turns out that playing material live and having it sound like the album is a lot easier if certain bands hire a bunch of extra players to fill out the sound. It probably also helps camouflage mistakes, in the case of Keith Richards hitting a bum note or two.

2. A Lot of Bands Use Backing Tracks Live One of the more frequent criticisms of live performances seems to be that some acts are basically faking their performance by lip-syncing to backing tracks, but lots of bands use backing tracks in one form or another. I can understand feeling cheated if a person sees a band and the singer isn't singing at all or the entire performance is just prerecorded, but a whole bunch of bands use sequenced tracks to perform their material.

How heavily they use a sequenced track might color our impression of their performance, but I've seen heavy metal bands where keyboard sounds were happening live, when no keyboardist was present, and I've seen rock bands play and suddenly realized that another "invisible guitarist" had suddenly joined in for part of the song.

And this isn't something used solely by new bands without talent. I've seen well-established classic rock groups who are obviously using some sequenced backing tracks live. It's just another tool in their arsenal to ensure a live show that sounds "right."

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