Marketing yourself as a guitar player goes deeper than just developing good chops.
While it’s obviously important to be able to impress with your playing ability, there are a number of other factors that an established band will look for when deciding to employ somebody from the outside.
In a sense, you’re interviewing for a job, and in any good job interview you’ll be examined on a lot of things aside from your raw skills. It’s no different when going into a situation where you’ll be paid for you musical ability.
I’ll lay out some of the musical character qualities you’ll want to cultivate in preparation for an opportunity to make money playing guitar.
1. A genuine interest in music as opposed to an obsession with your own guitar playing.
As a hired musician your ultimate interest should be in the music as a whole and the experience it provides the listener.
2. An ability to use your guitar to compliment a piece of music and not overpower it.
Your guitar should be used to enhance the musical experience and properly decorate the songs you’re playing without imposing too much volume or drowning out the other instruments.
3. The ability to sound big without using distortion.
Distortion has its place, and no guitar player needs to disregard it entirely, but the really good players know how to sound big without it. Take your cues here from the Edge of U2.
4. A willingness to underplay.
The biggest problem I’ve run into playing in bands, groups and in live settings, is having people who constantly tend to (and want to) overplay. While you don’t always have to fade into the background, it’s usually the safer option.
Underplay and let somebody else tell you to turn it up.
5. An understanding of how to properly utilize volume.
This builds off of number four, and is pretty self explanatory. Though it could be thought of this way: A song can only handle so much noise and volume, so fight the urge to use too much of it too quick.
6. An understanding of the dynamics of a song.
Musical dynamics are lost on a lot of players (I talk about it in greater detail in this post on playing live), though it’s really important that a guitar player understands them. Essentially, you need to know when to sound big, and when not too.
Traditionally verses are settled down and choruses are amped up. It’ll vary from song to song but this comes down to knowing the songs your playing and then applying number four and five above.
7. Familiarity with your own rig.
A lot of guitar players are “gear junkies,” basically owning and going through a lot of different guitars, amps and effects.
It may be just me, but this makes you less appealing than if you were settled into a setup that you’ve tweaked and gotten used to over the years. It’ll make you appear more reliable from the first few conversations.
8. A genuine interest in other people.
It has nothing to do with your guitar playing, but the ultimate goal of a band or entertainer is to provide an experience for a group of people. If you’re not interested in those people, you’re not going to be able to achieve that goal. Big smiles and lots of non-guitar conversations with non-guitar people can be a big help here.
9. An ability to read an audience.
You need to know what your audience is looking for.
For example, in a gig where everybody is going to be sitting down, searing guitar solos might not be necessary. Also, what are the demographics of your audience? Younger, older? It’s pretty normal practice to change your set list and volume levels based on these factors.
10. Restraint when it comes to “idle” jamming.
When you’re trying to get a song together as a group, there is nothing more frustrating and ultimately counterproductive than when one or two people are continuously producing idle noise with their instruments.
Avoid this tendency as much as you can.
I’ll admit, it’s tough, but make every effort to keep quiet until it’s time to play. Warm up alone if you can or with headphones and then get your patience on.
11. Willingness to receive instruction.
Sometimes the guitarist and “front man” can be one and the same, but if you’re not the guy leading the group, be willing to take instructions and constructive criticism. If it irritates you, that’ll show and make you seem like a less reliable player, even if you’re a great guitarist.
While they can be overused (especially distortion) effects are extremely helpful, especially in a live setting. Knowing how to properly utilize them can make the difference between a good and bad song. This all has to happen ahead of time, but it’s a good idea to optimize every song on the set list individually with the effects you’re going to use.
13. An adaptive playing style.
You need to have some dynamic abilities when it comes to playing style, and be able to adapt to a prospective band’s gameplan and genre. If you can’t move between playing styles, you’re going to have a hard time fitting in.
14. Be able to make them sound better.
A band who hires you or a group that gives you a share of their gig money is looking for one thing out of a guitarist; to have their sound improved. You’re not there to simply showcase your great playing, you’re there to make that group sound better.
Make it evident that your mind is focused on that goal.
15. A habit of knowing your music ahead of time.
This might sound pretty basic, but in my experience, almost no one makes it a point to do this. If you can listen to the songs you’ll be playing and get a game plan in place even before practice, it’ll serve to boost your work ethic and credibility, and improve your band’s overall productivity.
16. A working knowledge of all parts of the music you’ll be playing.
A familiarity with bass, drums, piano and vocals is really important when working in a group where all those things are going on.
That’s not to say that you need to be able to play all those instruments, but at least learn the structure they’re leaning on. Know what the count of the song is, the bass line, the melody and just keep it in mind.
The more you know, the better.
17. A personal connection.
I still maintain that some of the most important parts of being successful as a guitarist, have little or nothing to do with your guitar at all, because a lot of people can play guitar.
Just about every guy on earth gives it a shot at one time or another, but what makes a guitarist successful is their ability to develop a personal connection with people. This means getting to know your band, your audience and developing relationships. If you do that well, you won’t have to look far for opportunities to play.
18. A focus on your musical niche.
While a wide cultural music experience is fine, you ultimately want to be good at what you do and not “just ok” at a bunch of different things.
If the rhythm guitar side of alternative rock is really your thing, listen to music that showcases that and focus on that part of your playing. If there’s an alternative group that needs a rhythm guitarist, you’ll be a step ahead of the competition.
Again, this might sound basic, but you really need to get the difference and the dynamics between these two categories as they are the two most basic categories of today’s modern guitarist.
20. Knowing when to solo and when not to solo.
Guitar solos can either make you look really great or really stupid.
First of all you need to be aware that guitar soloing today isn’t what it was back in the ‘80s. Post Kurt Cobain guitar solos are very different, and whether or not you like what he did to the guitar solo, it’s something you need to be aware of.
Single, well placed notes and effects are the trend of our day; so basically, less is more. The lightning fast shredding of past decades aren’t going to get you very far today, unless your name is Steve Vai or Joe Satriani.
As always, thanks for reading.
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