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Playing For Life

The rules of making a living as a guitarist

Bite off more than you can chew (almost) - Never turn down a gig. There are two ways to look at doing a gig; first, a way to pay the rent, second, a chance to learn something.

The worst mistake you can make as a guitarist is to turn down work because you think you not good enough yet or you don't have much experience playing that style. When I was in my twenties, I got a call to do a country gig for about twenty bucks. I had never played country before and I was tempted to tell the guy on the other end of the phone that I was busy on that night. In the end I couldn't break my own rule so I took the gig. I got the charts and the music, worked out all the tunes, borrowed my roommate's Telecaster and had one of the best learning experiences I have ever had. Was I scared? You bet I was. That's exactly what helped me work the tunes out in time, good old fashioned fear. I, of course have my own musical preferences, but I rather play guitar for an hour at a wedding, learn some new tunes in the process and get paid fifty or a hundred bucks than to work at Burger King for minimum wage. My students get to see me real angry when they tell me they turned down a gig for some trivial reason.

Don't bug anyone - Simplicity will keep you out of trouble. When you're at home practicing, reach for the unreachable. When you're on the gig, know your limits.

My experience as a studio player has taught me to focus on every single note I play. When you're recording for another artist, on somebody else's time, you have to play everything perfect. For every mistake you make, you have to punch-in the part again. The tape rolls and after you record your part; you go back into the room where the engineer and the producer are mixing the recording.

They turn down the other parts to check out what you played. Your guitar is really loud in the mix. There is no escape. It's like looking in the mirror. Every time you play something a little out of time or a little sharp or flat it makes you cringe. My first experience in the studio taught me to listen to every single note I play, all the time, even when I'm not recording. It taught me to know my limits whenever I play, and to stretch those limits by good practice. While in the studio, I try to get the track done on the first or second take with no punch-ins. Next time you are on a gig, or rehearsal pretend you're in the studio recording for Michael Jackson. See how long you can play without making even a tiny mistake. Let this become a habit.

Love your enemies - When I was learning guitar as a kid, I wanted to crush the neighborhood guitar kids like grapes with my technique!

Competitiveness is important; the need to be the best is what drives people to be just that. But don't let it blind you. Every time Mike Stern or Scott Henderson are in town, I dread going to hear them play. It always depresses me. It forces me to compare myself with them and to truly see what kind of player I am in a true light. I could easily avoid the whole miserable thing and stay home but I force myself to go.

After it's over, I go home, don't touch my guitar and go to sleep. The next day I force myself to get over it and practice like a maniac. I have had similar experiences all my life.

There is always someone who plays better than you. It is important to search them out, make friends with them, pick their brains and learn. It's okay to secretly hate their guts! Use envy and jealousy to your advantage.

The interesting thing is that the guys that I always want to beat in guitar wars, usually become great friends and refer me for gigs from time to time. Players who avoid better players are destined for mediocrity.

Listen to what your mother told you

This is really important. No matter how great a player you are, that is only half the battle in being a successful guitarist. Here are the other things:

Never be late - If you show up late for studio work, you'll never get called back. Time is money. Get there early, set your equipment up and be ready to go before the session is supposed to begin.

The same thing goes for auditions. Even if you are the greatest guitarist to ever walk the face of the earth, you'll make the producer nervous if you show up late for an audition. He's running a business so he is going to figure that you're late all the time and since he's got enough to worry about he'll pick someone for the job who is dependable. You won't get a call back.

The same thing is true for rehearsals. A good friend of mine has the touring gig with a super big artist (ain't gonna tell you who). He was telling me that one of the guys in the band came to rehearsal and didn't have all his stuff set up in time. He made the artist wait about a whole minute to get the rehearsal started. Instead of rehearsing he got fired on the spot. He lost a $2,000 dollar a week gig for being a minute late. Don't make the same mistake.

Appearances count - Before you play your first notes, the audience has already made a decision about you by your appearance. This goes for auditions too.

First, go to the magazine stand and get yourself a copy of the newest GQ. I'm not joking. Check the photos and see what guys are wearing these days. Music and fashion walk hand in hand. Dress for success! I know tons of great players who lose out because they wear the same stupid T-shirt everyday.

Think of Miles Davis, not only a musical genius but a true fashion plate. The first lesson I learned about this topic was from a band member when I was eighteen. He told me to get some new shoes because mine were dirty. I had figured that nobody looks at a guy's shoes but he was quick to point out that when you're standing on a four foot stage, that is the first thing the people in the first row look at. Take pride in your appearance and carry yourself with confidence. Charisma, charm and style carry a lot of weight in the music business.

Be Nice - While charisma, charm, style, and confidence are important, don't go overboard. If you are cocky you will turn people off. There is a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. Contrary to popular belief, most of the greatest, most gifted musicians (that I have met anyways) are generally pretty decent cats. You don't need to create a super nice alter ego but you should at least try to be polite. On auditions, try to mind your Ps and Qs. When it comes down to choosing between two guitarists of equal skill, the nice guy will always get the gig. Nice guys also tend to get referred for gigs more so than butt-holes.

Contact - You'd be surprised how many musicians loose out because they don't have an e-mail address, business card or a cell phone. If they can't find you to tell you that you got the gig, someone else will get the gig within the hour. Check your e-mail, hand out your business card and answer you phone.

Wear as many hats as you can - Play as many styles as you can, this will increase the amount or gigs you can do. Also, work on your singing chops. Sometimes this alone will get you the job. A lot of bands are looking for someone who can do both. It saves them the money to hire two guys. If you can sing harmony it's a plus. If you can sing lead, it's even better. This is also a good strategy for your band. You can make way more money as a trio than a quartet. Most gigs pay by the band regardless of how many band members in the band.

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