Why Do Musicians Make Faces? (+ Funny Examples!)

guitarist making a face whilst playing

As a non-musician, you might be wondering why musicians make faces when they play. Similarly, you might be unsure if the faces they make are voluntary or involuntary

 

So, why do musicians make faces? The faces musicians make whilst performing are colloquially referred to as ‘guitar faces’. They’re a mostly-involuntary reaction to concentration, emotion, nerves, physical discomfort, mistakes, technical issues or the stage production. However, some musicians exaggerate their facial expressions in order to enhance their stage presence. 

 

Keep reading for an in-depth account of the main causes of ‘guitar face’, as well as some funny examples! 

 

Concentration

A live show is an unpredictable and high pressure environment, requiring high levels of concentration at all times. Musicians must perform technically-demanding material in front of hundreds or even thousands of people, many of which will be recording the show on their cell phones. They’ll also have to react to sudden changes brought on by the band or the crowd (such as off-the-cuff moments of audience participation or a bad mistake by another band member). When a musician is allocating their full attention to the performance, they may exhibit the following facial expressions: 

  • Furrowed eyebrows
  • Extended tongue
  • Pursed lips

 

According to Science Direct, the above facial expressions involuntarily communicate that a person is concentrating and does not want to be disturbed. As you might’ve guessed, a musician is more likely to exhibit these facial expressions whilst performing technically-complex material (such as a solo). 

 

Similarly, singers will make a wide range of interesting faces due to concentration. When attempting to place a note correctly or tap into the head voice, it’s almost-impossible not to make a face of some sort (try it in front of a mirror at home!)

 

Emotion

Musicians have a strong emotional connection with their instrument, often using it as a vehicle for self-expression. Similarly, they’ll have an even stronger emotional connection with the music they perform, especially if they’ve written it themselves. This emotional connection is amplified tenfold with a room full of people singing it back to them. 

 

A live performance is a rollercoaster of emotions for the musicians (much like it probably is for you as an audience member). There are lyrics that conjure up painful memories, solos that fill them with confidence and singalongs that leave them speechless.

 

When overcome with emotion from the music itself or the reaction of the crowd, musicians will usually exhibit the following facial expressions:

  • Dropped jaw
  • Smiling/grinning
  • Crying
  • Bared teeth

 

When using their instrument as a vehicle for self-expression, musicians will usually exhibit the following facial expressions:

  • Mouthing each note
  • Closed eyes
  • Pursed lips

 

Nerves

Performing live music is a nerve-racking experience, regardless of how experienced a musician is. Whilst some musicians are able to successfully hide their nerves, others will visually express them via the following facial expressions: 

  • Clenched teeth 
  • Biting the bottom lip
  • Furrowed eyebrows

 

Luckily, nerves will often subside soon after a musician starts performing, meaning that they likely won’t be the main culprit for ‘guitar face’ throughout a performance. 

 

Physical Discomfort

There are two primary causes for physical discomfort on-stage:

  • Physical activity: Performing a show requires a huge amount of physical activity. Musicians may have to perform energetic choreography  (most-likely with a heavy instrument strapped to them) under a set of scorching hot stage lights. Similarly, physical activity causes musicians to sweat, which may get in their eyes or cause their clothing to stick to them. 
  • Wardrobe: Many musicians opt to wear a set of tight-fitting or extravagant clothes on-stage to enhance their physical experience. However, these can be very uncomfortable, especially when executing the physical demands of live performance. 

 

Musicians experiencing physical discomfort may display the following facial expressions: 

  • Furrowed eyebrows
  • Clenched teeth
  • Pursed lips

 

Mistakes/Technical Issues

As previously mentioned, musicians are under intense pressure when performing in front of a crowd. Similarly, they most-likely would’ve put substantial effort into preparing for the performance, pouring over every tiny detail of the show in order to give the best representation of themselves possible. Therefore, it’s near-impossible for the musicians to keep a straight face if they make a bad mistake. 

 

Similarly, musicians may be facing technical issues that aren’t explicitly clear to the audience. Most of the time, this will be a poor monitor mix, which makes it difficult for a musician to hear the rest of the band and stay in time. When attempting to push through technical issues, musicians may display an uncomfortable facial expression. 

Most musicians will display the following facial expressions as a reaction to mistakes or technical issues: 

  • Clenched teeth 
  • Wincing

 

Stage Production

When stood on stage, musicians will have very bright stage lights facing them directly. The production may also include fog, lasers and pyrotechnics, all of which can affect a musicians sight. Therefore, musicians will often squint to avoid being blinded by the stage lights or to try and see the crowd through the stage production. 

 

Stage Presence

Musicians are well-aware that audience members are paying to see a show, not to watch a group of bored-looking musicians aimlessly playing through their parts. Therefore, musicians will often over-exaggerate their facial expressions in order to enhance their stage presence. This may include: 

  • Visually expressing the mood of the song (i.e. looking angry when playing a fast or heavy song)
  • Non-singers miming the lyrics
  • Changing their facial expression when moving to a different section of a song

 

Musicians With Notable ‘Guitar Faces’

John Mayer

Mayer’s ‘guitar faces’ have become an online phenomenon, serving as the basis for thousands of internet memes. 

john mayer guitar face

 

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix famously imitated the sound of his guitar playing with his lips and tongue. 

Jimi Hendrix making a 'guitar face'

 

B.B. King

B.B. King was well-known for visibly expressing his emotions whilst playing.

B.B. King making a 'guitar face'

 

Prince

Prince was renowned for his flamboyant performances, which notably featured a range of different facial expressions.

prince making a 'guitar face'

 

Angus Young

Young is well-known for his energetic and emotive stage presence, which features a phenomenal arsenal of ‘guitar faces’.

Angus Young making a 'guitar face'

 

Additional Posts

 

I founded Indie Panda in mid-2018 to help independent musicians organically grow and develop their projects. I specialize in branding, identity, audience/industry engagement and project logistics.

I have a wealth of experience in both classical and popular music. After taking piano and violin lessons as a child, I went on to play first violin in philharmonic, symphonic and chamber orchestras throughout my adolescence. I began playing guitar and writing songs at the age of 13 and have played in a wide range of bands ever since. At the age of 18, my music received airplay for 30 consecutive days on BBC Radio, which led to an 'in-session' event where I performed live on the radio. I went on to earn a Music/Popular Music BA from the University of Liverpool, where I specialized in popular music performance.

I'm passionate about helping other artists realize the full potential of their talents and abilities through a strong work ethic, coherent project identity and a strong logistical foundation.

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