Open Mic Nights: Everything You Need to Know

You’ve practiced and perfected a few songs and now you want to share them with others. To do so, you have two choices: social media or open mics. Although posting your bedroom performance to social media can be rewarding and fun, nothing beats the thrill of playing live in front of a crowd of people. In this article, we’ll learn everything you should know about open mic nights.

What exactly is an open mic night?

An open mic night is an event that is hosted by a professional musician or band at a bar, cafe or restaurant. The host usually plays an opening set (a set is short list of songs) to get things started while the guest musicians (that’s you) arrive and sign up to perform. After the opening set, the host will look at the sign up sheet and call the first name up to the stage to perform. This continues until everyone has performed. If there is time left over, the host may ask a guest to perform more songs.

16143765_1323276264382339_1406937756842350795_oDifferent formats

Open mic nights come in a variety of formats. First, you need to know if it is a music open mic, or just spoken word. Some open mic nights focus on spoken word performances, like poetry reading. You don’t want to show up to those expecting to perform music. Be sure that the open mic supports music performances.

Second, be sure you know which instruments are allowed. Some open mic nights cater only to acoustic instruments, others support electric instruments too. Some allow drum kits, others don’t. Be sure that you know your instruments are supported beforehand.

Third, open mics tend to reflect their hosts. So if you want to play some punk music, for example, it may not be a good idea to go to an open mic night hosted by a folk musician, who has attracted the participation of other folk musicians. Although you’d be welcome, you may feel a bit out of place.

Lastly, know how many songs you’ll be expected to play. Some hosts will allow you to play five or six songs, or as little as one or two.

Recon mission

The best way to figure all of this stuff out is to go to the open mic that you’re interested in and watch. Get there early, introduce yourself to the host and explain that you’re planning on attending a future open mic. Ask about the format and learn all you can from the person that has all of the answers. Then, grab a drink and some food and enjoy the music. Remember, open mics are supported by patrons who attend, eat, drink and tip. So be sure to do those things while you’re there. As you watch, keep an eye out for all of the format questions we talked about.

A nice side benefit of your recon is a psychological one. Playing an open mic can be a nerve-wracking experience. Your recon mission will help you figure out a lot of the logistics beforehand, like where to park, where to store your instrument, where the sign up sheet is, et cetera. As a result, when you do attend the open mic with the intention of playing, you’ll feel more comfortable.

What to bring

  • Guitar.
  • Picks.
  • Tuner.
  • Extra strings, string winder, string cutter.
  • Two Guitar cables (one as a backup).
  • Guitar strap.
  • Stomp Box Effects However, try to minimize how many stomp boxes you bring. You want to be able to set up and tear down quickly.
  • Amplifier, if the format allows it.
  • Lyrics or sheet music, if necessary.

The list

When you arrive at the open mic night, put your name on the list. Most hosts will make it clear on their website when the signups begin. Usually, the list goes out an hour before the host’s opening set. If you want to perform sooner rather than later, be sure to arrive early, perhaps even an hour before the list goes out, so that you can be one of the first people on the list.

Write your name, which instruments you’ll be playing and how many songs you plan on performing on the list.


Open mics are friendly, casual experiences, but there are a few things you should know.

  • Be courteous to the other performers. Apply the golden rule liberally. Remember, you’ll be performing soon, too.
  • Know where you are on the list so that you can be prepared to jump on stage as soon as the last performer clears his or her gear.
  • Do not tune your instrument or do any other prep work anywhere near the stage. You could be a distraction.
  • Do not ask the host to move up the list. Wait your turn. Relax and enjoy the performances.
  • If you happen to be one of the early performers, stay a while after your set to support the other musicians. It’s not cool to play and run.

Your performance

Do your thing. You’ve rehearsed a ton ( you did rehearse, right?) and now it is time to trust your preparation and go for it. Be sure to greet the crowd, introduce yourself, and tell them that this is your first time performing. The audiences at open mics are generally going to be filled with friends and families of other performers, so they’ll be supportive by default, but telling them that this is your first time will make them especially attentive and applaud generously. It will give you a huge boost knowing that you have the audience on your side.

Keep your song introductions short and sweet. This isn’t Storytellers. Tell the audience the name of the song and who wrote it. That’s all you need.

If you want to say anything promotional, like “Find me on Facebook at” do so before your last song. Oh, and uh, save your best song for last.

When your last song is over, thank the audience and the host and clear the stage quickly.

Meet and greet

Open mic nights are great places to meet other musicians who are in similar situations as you. If you are looking to jam with other people, or start a project, open mic nights are filled with people with similar interests. If you hear a performance that you like, be sure to introduce yourself to the performer. Who knows, that simple gesture could be the start of your next band. Or at least a fun musical friendship.

How to find open mic nights near you

Google baby!

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit

EW Explains: Muting

Learn how to sound like a pro with this latest video about muting:

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit

Expanded practice tip #4: Have a goal

In an earlier post, I outlined five tips for practicing. For this article, I’m going to elaborate on the fifth tip: have a goal.

Part of the fun of learning to play the guitar as a hobby is that it is relaxing and open-ended: a reprieve from the fast-paced structure in our day-to-day lives. It may be tempting to remove all structure from your time with the guitar to give yourself some down time. I’ve been there, too. I’ve picked up the guitar and noodled aimlessly on it for an hour and put it down. Occasionally, that’s great and I recommend that each of your play sessions should involve some noodling.

But to get the most out of your time with the guitar, each session should be a continuation of the last session in some way. In other words, there should be a goal in mind for at least a portion of your play sessions.  The goal can be anything. For example, you could try to perfect a new song, memorize a new scale, make a tricky barre chord sound better, or learn some arpeggios. The list is endless. Pick one goal and incorporate exercises into your play time to help you meet that goal. Do that, and you’ll get better. Do it not, and you could be noodling forever.


For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit

Expanded practice tip #4: Use a metronome

In an earlier post, I outlined five tips for practicing. For this article, I’m going to elaborate on the fourth tip: use a metronome.

In order to convince you of the importance of using a metronome, let’s do an experiment. Listen to each of these three music clips a few times each and choose the one that sounds the best to you:

Clip #1


Clip #2


Clip #3


I’m willing to bet that you picked Clip #3 as sounding the best. Perhaps you picked Clip #1. I’m confident, however, that you did not pick Clip #2 as sounding the best. How do I know this? Because of your basic human nature.

MetronomeYou see, we humans are very good at detecting patterns. In fact, our incredibly well-tuned ability to detect patterns is one of the main reasons we are at the top of the food chain. Music, at its most fundamental, is organizing sounds into patterns that we enjoy hearing. Patterns of pitches and patterns of rhythms. It is precisely rhythms that I’m talking about now.

We are so good at detecting patterns that we can even detect when that pattern is broken or compromised. Let’s return to the audio clips. Clip #3 is a perfect electronic version of the opening riff to “I Don’t Need No Doctor” by John Mayer. Each note is precisely where it should be in perfectly mechanical way. Clip #1 is identical to Clip #3 except that it has been altered so that each note occurs out of time by a random amount, as much as 15%. Clip #2 has been altered so that its notes are as much as 30% out of time.

Here’s the thing: even within Clip #3, with its deviation from perfect time of up to 30% percent, notes are only moving out of time by mere milliseconds from perfect. That’s it, milliseconds. Yet, you were able to detect that the pattern, the timing, was broken. And I hate to say it, you’re not special. Any average person, including non-musicians, can hear it too.

So, if you want to be a better musician. If you want to sound as good as you possibly can, your sense of time needs to be undetectable by the human brain.

You can’t get that good without using a metronome.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit

Expanded practice tip #3: Play slowly

In an earlier post, I outlined five tips for practicing. For this article, I’m going to elaborate on the third tip: play new material slowly and deliberately.

As a teacher, part of my job is to learn new material in the shortest period of time possible, so I’ve picked up a few tricks over the years. The most important of which is to play slowly and deliberately when learning something new. Its tempting to play that new scale or lick at full speed, but you’ll only end playing sloppily and working against your goal, which is to play it well. Here’s why.

Scale.Muscle memory is the name of the game. We’re trying to teach our hands to make a particular series of movements, so we force them to repeat those movements over and over again. Eventually, our hands memorize the movements and we’ve learned the lick, riff, scale, etc.. But here’s the thing: our hands are dumb. It doesn’t recognize the difference between repetitions full of mistakes and repetitions played properly. To our hands, they are no different. So every time we make a mistake, we confuse our hands, keeping us a step farther from reaching our goal. In order to make significant progress, most of our repetitions need to be good ones without mistakes. And to do that, we need to play slowly and deliberately. Keep your mind ahead of your hands and be sure you know exactly what the next note is and how to play it before you play it.

Imagine a scale, with a tray on either side of a balance point, like the scale of justice. Every time we play the riff properly, we put a marble on the “good” tray. Every time we make a mistake, we put a marble on the “bad” side. We want the scale to tip in our favor as quickly as possible by minimizing the mistakes and keeping most of the marbles on the “good” tray. Do that and you’ll learn new material faster than ever.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit

Expanded practice tip #2: Play everyday

In an earlier post, I outlined five tips for practicing. For this article, I’m going to elaborate on the second tip: play everyday.

Our eyes and ears take in tons of information every second that we are awake. So much information, in fact, that it would be impossible for our brain to retain all of it. There’s simply not enough room in our head to remember everything we see and hear moment to moment, all day long. In fact, our brains typically can only hold seven pieces of new information in it’s short-term memory at any given time. That’s right, just seven! Consequently, our brain has to be selective about what it remembers long term and what it flushes out of memory after a short time.  It is continually analyzing the the things we observe and parsing it out to determine if it should be converted to long-term memory or kept only for a short period. This process is involuntary, so we can’t control it directly, but we can influence it indirectly. How? Repetition.

Important information is gradually transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, or to be “retained.” (That’s why studying helps people to perform better on tests.) Unlike sensory and short-term memory, which are limited and decay rapidly, long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. –

As you can see, learning a new scale, chords or song is simply a result of repetition. Daily repetition. The more repetitions on consecutive days, the faster you will learn. Period. It’s science.


For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit

Expanded practice tip #1: Call it by another name

In an earlier post, I outlined five tips for practicing. For this article, I’m going to elaborate on the first tip: don’t think of your sessions with guitar as “practice” but think of it as “playing.”

Most of our time is spent doing things we need to do: school, work, grocery shopping, cooking cleaning, laundry, yard work and so on, leaving us precious little time to do the things that we want to do. For me, those things are hanging out with my wife, playing videos games, going to Orioles games, reading, and, of course playing the guitar. Sometimes, even for me, playing the guitar can feel more like a chore than a leisure activity. When that happens, I try to think back to when I first decided to pick up my guitar. What was my motivation? Why did reach out and grab a guitar for the first time, put it in my lap and pluck the strings? Because I wanted to play. I wanted to mess around and see what fun I could have. I didn’t gravitate to the guitar because I was looking forward to practicing. I didn’t wrap my hands around the neck and place my fingers on the strings because I eager to practice some scales. No, I was looking forward to playing, to making some music.

After playing the guitar enough, you’ll inevitably get better. When you get better, you’ll want more from the instrument, to learn more songs and techniques. To do those things, you’ll feel motivated to continue playing, now with a more focused approach, driven by your desire to improve. You’ll want to explore concepts and skills beyond your current aptitude. Your desire to improve will push you to try new things and spend more time with the guitar, which in turn leads to your development as player. And it all starts with simply playing.

So when you’re not feeling motivated to practice, remember that it’s not really practice at all. It is playing. If you start your sessions with the guitar with the mindset that you are going to play and have fun, you’ll find that guitar will remain one of your favorite and most rewarding leisure activities and never feel like a chore. When I get in those moods when guitar starts to feel like work, I remember how I felt about the guitar when I first started. I didn’t need to practice. No. Rather, I wanted to play.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit