When a band doesn’t rely on a set list, they often find other ways to communicate on stage during the music. Phish, a band utterly reliant on improvisation, has gotten particularly good at this. In fact, they have created a whole non-verbal language to let its members know what song to go into next.
We’ve put together a collection of hand signals that have been caught on tape and created a handy guide and naming system so you can figure out what they’re doing up there. Some of the signals make sense, others…are a bit of a stretch. So we’ve also graded each of them from one to 10 Mike Gordon fight bells. For the uninitiated: More fight bells are better. They’re like cowbell in that way.
Song it signals: “Bug”
When it was used: 7/3/12 at Jones Beach (:21 mark)
Name of hand signal: The Farmhouse Fly Swatter
How to do it: Put left arm out. Raise right arm. Bring right arm into downward thrust, aiming right palm directly at left forearm. Smack left forearm with right palm as if killing a bug on said arm.
How much sense it makes: Nine fight bells. It is the exact motion you would use to kill a bug if it was stinging your arm.
Song it signals: “Cross Eyed and Painless”
When it was used: 8/19/12 at Bill Graham (:02 mark)
Name of hand signal: The Jerry Lewis
How to do it: Raise hands to sides of face. Stick out both pointer fingers, with remaining fingers in a fist. Take fingers from both sides of face, point them towards each other in a horizontal direction. Bring fingertips closer until they touch in front of your nose.
How much sense it makes: 10 fight bells. The action of the fingers causes you to actually cross your eyes, thus perfectly pantomiming the first word of the song title.
Song it signals: “The Curtain With”
When it was used: 7/27/13 at The Gorge
Name of hand signal: It’s So Stuffy in Here
How to do it: Put hands down, palms facing up. Curl fingertips in, then raise hands up about five inches. Bring closed fists together in front of chest. Pull fists apart from each other.
How much sense it makes: 9 fight bells. It looks like you are opening a window, then opening a curtain. One point was taken off for the unnecessary window part, the curtain pantomime is understood on its own.
Song it signals: “Guyute”
When it was used: 8/1/09 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (:09 mark)
Name of hand signal: Pork Tornado
How to do it: Ball left hand into a fist. Raise slowly to your face until fist is in front of nose, like a snout. Take right hand and point the right hand pointer finger at the snout three consecutive times.
How much sense it makes: Six fight bells. While the song describes Guyute as an “ugly pig”, it could be mistaken for the short muzzle of other animals, like a dog or bear.
Song it signals: “Punch You In The Eye”
When it was used: 8/1/09 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (:01 mark)
Name of hand signal: Drunken Bar Swing
How to do it: Pull right arm way back. Clench right hand into fist. In slow motion, swing the arm in an arc away from the body and toward the front. If you are on the receiving end of this signal, put your head forward. When the fist gets to your skull, move your head in a backwards fashion, as if you have just been hit by a fist.
How much sense it makes: Ten fight bells. It is precisely what the song title is. Punching someone in the eye.
Song it signals: “Tube”
When it was used: 8/1/09 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (:23 mark)
Name of the hand signal: The Snake
How to do it: Bring both hands together in front of torso. Touching fingertips to fingertips and thumbs to thumbs, make an “O” with each hand being one half of the “O”. Push the two hand “O” away from the body, moving it to the left and right in an “S” formation like a snake.
How much it makes sense: Four fight bells. Not only does it look like it could be a snake or a tube, but they have two songs with the word “Tube” in the title, causing Trey to remark about drummer Fishman, “That can be one of two songs, let’s see if he starts the right one”. Quite confusing.
Song it signals: “Alaska”
When it was used: 8/1/09 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (:04 mark)
Name of the hand signal: The Mush Mush
How to do it: Put both arms in front of you. Curl fingers as if holding a lawnmower. Lift hands quickly and slam them back into position as if hitting a piano hard. Shuffle forward. Lean down. Pat imaginary dog. Repeat from beginning until drummer understands.
How much it makes sense: Five fight bells. While it is obviously something regarding the mushing of dogs, it could be confused with many of their “dog” songs. Even Fishman needed more clues, asking Trey the charades question “Sounds like?”
Song it signals: “Run Like an Antelope”
When it was used: 8/1/09 at Red Rocks Amphtheatre (:04 mark)
Name of the hand signal: The Sneaky Little Devil
How to do it: Crouch down a little. Lift knee up slightly with right leg, put it down while doing the same with the left leg. Alternate between left and right knee quickly, almost as if running in place.
How much it makes sense: Eight fight bells. While there is no sign here that it is an antelope running, you can definitely get the message that something is running, making it easy for band members to deduce with song title it is.
Song it signals: “Mound”
When it was used: 8/1/09 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (:24 mark)
Name of the hand signal: Golden Arches
How to do it: Bring arms to chest level. Put hands together at fingertips directly in front of you. Let fingertips drop down, creating an “M” formation like the McDonald’s sign.
How much it makes sense: Seven fight bells. While the signal does form two mounds, it’s pretty much just the letter “M” which could be misconstrued as several songs.
Song it signals: “Frankenstein”
When it was used: 9/14/99 at BSU Pavilion in Boise, ID (52:54 mark)
Name of the hand signal: The Stiff Joints Dance
How to do it: Lock your knees. Walk forward with locked knees. Lock elbows. Swing locked elbow arms while walking with locked knees.
How much it makes sense: Nine fight bells. While it could be mistaken for a signal for “Walk Away”, no one walks like that but Frankenstein’s monster.