Karaoke Etiquette

My Guide to Karaoke Etiquette

I love karaoke. It’s my therapy, my yoga, my moment of zen all wrapped in one. I’m also very fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area where we have an amazing karaoke community that practically guarantees that no matter where I am or what I’m in the mood for, I’ll find good friends and equally amazing KJ’s. Being something of an addict for the fine art of embarrassing myself through song in front of total strangers, I’ve just about seen it all. It may not seem like it, but there’s a definite code of conduct when it comes to karaoke in the Bay Area. An etiquette, if you will.

Everyone has their own karaoke rules to live by, and today I’m going to share my personal list with you all. I’m guilty of breaking some of these rules from time to time (Do you know how long your average LCD Soundsystem song is?), but for the most part they’ve served me well! Go forth and be the karaoke master of your own domain.

1. 👏 Clap 👏 for 👏 everyone 👏

This is my golden rule. Karaoke works when everyone feels appreciated for their effort. The absolute worst feeling when singing karaoke in an open bar setting is finishing a song to relative silence. Whether someone slayed on the mic or barely made it through their song, clap for everyone. Are you about to take a sip from your drink? Set it down and clap. In the middle of a conversation? That’s cool, you don’t have to stop talking or even break eye contact, just clap. It goes a long way towards making everyone feel appreciated and when that person is done they’ll clap for you, too! The cosmic karaoke ballet goes on.

2. Do not crowd the singing area

In some venues this can not be helped, but even in the most cramped of spaces, try your best to not crowd the singing area. Some bars are equipped with stages which places a clear boundary on what can be considered the singing area, but if not it’s typically a 3-5ft radius around where the microphones are placed. Karaoke already tends to be a personal experience for the one singing, and giving them space to breathe can help it not feel so claustrophobic of a performance. Also, you never know when someone is going to bust out some sweet dance moves. Give em’ space!

Though sometime’s you can have too much room, too


3. Hold the microphone properly

Learning how to correctly hold a microphone will not only help you sound your very best, but will also prevent you from blasting any speakers with feedback. At the risk of sounding real lewd: grip the shaft, not the head. Avoid cupping the grill of the microphone with any part of your hand as this the most common cause of ear drum shredding feedback. Instead, grip the microphone by its body, hold it several inches away from your lips and point it straight at your mouth. As you sing, listen to how it sounds coming across on the speakers. If you can hear yourself well over the music, pull the microphone away. It’s better to hold the microphone further away from your mouth than to throw your voice to compensate. You want to be as comfortable as possible!

How to Hold a Microphone

4. Know what you’re singing

No one is perfect — I botch or misplace words all the time — but when you go up to sing your song you should have a fairly good idea of what the lyrics are, but especially the melody. The lyrics are displayed on the screen to help you through it, but you’re not going to be able to follow the bouncing ball without an idea of how the melody works. You shouldn’t ever worry about how you sound when you sing, because karaoke is about sharing music with one another, more so than it being your personal American Idol tryout. But you can’t share music by mumbling and struggling to find the pace.

5. No more than a duet

A duet is two singers, working in tandem to create beautiful music. This is also the limit as to who you should be dragging up on stage with you. Here’s the thing about groups trying to crowd around two microphones and sing together: It doesn’t contribute anything extra and it tends to alienate the rest of the room. Bringing your entire gang to huddle up on the mics and yell (because let’s be honest, that’s what groups do as they try to be heard on the mic) the lyrics to some Third Eye Blind song says to the room, “This is for us. Enjoy witnessing this.” Besides, you’re not really contributing anything that couldn’t be done from where y’all were bunched up to begin with. Instead, encourage your group to sing along from the crowd, and especially for your friends songs. Problem solved!

Karaoke Jedi

Unless you’re a bunch of karaoke Jedi. Then do whatever you want.

6. Keep it under 5 minutes

This is not a hard rule by any means, but nothing can disrupt the flow of an evening quite like someone dropping a 9 minute rock ballad epic when crowds are throwing out nothing but nonstop bangers. There are also times when a really long song can be a lot of fun and something folks can get really into, but there’s a time and a place! Hold the lengthy tunes for slower evenings, or even earlier in the night when folks have a lot more patience. Speaking of finding the right time for a song..

7. No “Purple Rain” before Midnight

There are some songs that, if dropped too early, can not only kill the mood, but may also cause an unfortunate sting of disappointment later in the evening. Imagine walking into a karaoke bar, inching towards midnight, only to find out someone sang “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” hours ago during first rotation. You’ve barely started your first drink and now someone’s trying their damnedest to get everyone to go nuts for “Kiss from a Rose.” There are party starters (“Ignition (Remix),” anyone?) and there are party closers, and someone singing “Closing Time” when you’ve still got 4 hours left until last call isn’t making things any easier. This is why I always say, “No ‘Purple Rain’ before midnight.”

There is a perfect moment for every song


8. Keep the gimmicks to a minimum

What constitutes as a gimmick song? First, is it a parody? Are the musicians featured on the track actually comedians? Is it a musical that features super-duper edgy crude language? Do the lyrics consist of the same lines repeated over and over and over? It’s a gimmick song. One Weird Al song here and there is fine (Unless it’s “Dare to be Stupid.” Always sing “Dare to be Stupid.”), and you know a Tenacious D song? That’s great! Pick one, and store the other for the next outing. Gimmick songs go from “That’s cute” to “Please stop” in, yeah, two songs! You don’t have to pick popular songs, and you don’t even have to pick good songs! Just.. the gimmicks, man! The gimmicks!

But seriously, there’s never a bad time for “Dare to be Stupid”


9. No “Don’t Stop Believing,” no “Bohemian Rhapsody”

This is actually is a hard rule. No one wants to hear the former, and while you may think everyone wants to hear the latter, they won’t once they’re two minutes deep and realize it’s not going well. “Don’t Stop Believing” is the most played out karaoke song in existence, full stop. Everyone’s experience with it is usually drunk folks screeching it until their lungs collapse, or if you live in San Francisco, intertwined with “LET’S GO GIAAAAAAAAANTS WOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” between every verse. Bohemian Rhapsody, on the other hand, not only requires a bombastic voice that can compete with Freddie Mercury, but also the highly coordinated and well produced vocal arrangements of multiple trained professionals. What I’m saying is, no matter how good of a singer you are, it ain’t going to work. Avoid at all costs. Literally every other Journey and Queen song is totally available and will make people happy.

10. Tip your KJ!

Karaoke DJ’s are lucky to bring in enough to cover the cost of their operations, so tipping your KJ goes a long way in helping them not only stay in business, but improve their offerings as well. For a lot of the KJ’s I talk to, tips go towards everything from purchasing new songs for their catalogues, to upgrading equipment and other fun extras. It also helps them feel appreciated, which is of course, super important. How much is an appropriate amount to tip? $1-2 per song is an acceptable ratio, so if you’re planning on sticking around for the evening, feel free to tip in advance with a larger bill. Weird tipping psychology is also in effect, so the earlier you can tip, the more you’ll guilt people to do the same when they go to sign up. Huzzah!


Especially if your KJ is a sexy beast like RogerNiner

Those are all my PROTIPS. Am I being too harsh on the Journey crowd? Is militant clapping truly the key to karaoke nirvana? Let me know.

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