Open mikes: they’re more than lousy guitar players

open mikeA wanna-be rock star mashes through chords he can barely play while singing notes unknown to humankind as you sit, patiently waiting your turn to perform. Many of us have been there.

There’s an open mike in my town that I’ve been to a few times. It’s on a night when I teach so I only attend a couple of times a year when I get some cancellations, and I go to promote my music lessons. I first went a few years ago. The evening was packed with beginners staring at their music while lurching through cover tunes. There were a few gems, of course, like the awesome guitarist who always chooses fun songs or the singalongs presented by one of the hosts. Even without my pesky work hours it wouldn’t be enough to keep me coming back. 

Recently I had some time off and made my way to that open mike. Something happened. The performers got better. No longer were they strangers waiting for their turn to play. They became a supportive community. There was still the guy who croaked his way through songs, starting in one key and ending in another, however, everyone knows him and happily sings along. There’s the professional musician who comes because it’s fun to play songs he can’t do in his usual show. A young woman with a high pretty voice is always great to hear. One of the musicians is a multi-instrumentalist who’s almost the house band because he sits in with so many people. I asked him to play drums on my song “Drive All Night” even though he’d never heard it before. He rocked it. He wasn’t even thrown off by that one measure of 2/4 in the middle of 4/4.

That got me thinking about open mikes. Maybe you’ll find a great community like I did. Here are a few guidelines:

  1. Google “open mike” and your town.
  2. Notice the rules. Some require you to sign up before arriving, some have a first-come-first-play policy, some have a lottery.
  3. Note the time restrictions. If the limit is 10 minutes, don’t do “American Pie” with an extended spoken intro. Long stories about your ex, your dog, or your new guitar only eat through your time and might bore the mike 2
  4. Tune your instrument before getting up to play. If you’ve only got 10 minutes you don’t want to spend 5 wrestling with that stubborn D string.
  5. Memorize your music. If your head isn’t stuck in a piece of music, you’ll be able to see your audience and better connect with them.
  6. Be clear about your sound needs. The sound technician has a hard job. Besides, you never want to piss them off because they always know where the “suck” knob is.
  7. Don’t leave right after you play. The other musicians need an audience, too.
  8. Pay attention to the other performers. Offer respect and you’ll get it when it’s your turn.
  9. Invite singers. Is there a part of your song with a repeating line in a key that most people can sing? Or is it a well-known cover song? Invite the audience to sing with you.
  10. Invite a side player. Take a chance and ask a regular if he or she would like to join you. I’ve had a really fun time on stage with musicians I’ve never met before. open mike 3
  11. Practice. This is a great place to practice an intro, that new guitar solo or to try out a new original song.
  12. Make note of the other performers. What are they doing right? Maybe you can incorporate that into your performance.
  13. Don’t offer feedback unless you’re asked for it. Clapping is all that’s required.
  14. If one open mike isn’t flipping your switch, try another one. They cater to different crowds and performers.
  15. Go more than once. You might find a great community too.



Here I am singing “Drive All Night.” It’s on my album of the same name. Buy it here


Want guitar, ukulele or mandolin lessons? I teach via Skype and in my studio in Ottawa, Canada. Contact me here.

Lots of free lesson videos here.


About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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