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Yet another rant: Making It...


Introduction
Wow, how odd... I wrote two "rants" so far. I called them rants cuz I couldn't think of a better description, because I always doubted that they would be of interest to you guys. After all, the stuff I talked about in them was not rock-solid information and advice (like collections of licks), but rather general stuff. When talking about topics like that, it's tough to narrow it down to strict rules or advice.

Anyway, I was usually thinking "Man, should I really send this one to Guni for him to publish it, after all it's so much general stuff..." But you guys actually seemed to like them a lot. And wrote quite a few emails to me regarding those two articles. Also, some of you asked for even more stuff like that, and so here is my third rant, kinda building on the other two.

The question from some of you was "Can you elaborate a bit on the "making it" part, on becoming a professional".
Ok, let's get to it then...

First of all, "making it" can be defined in many different ways. If you define it as "selling a billion records, making a gazillion bucks, owning 375 vintage guitars and a few Porsches", you can stop reading now. Cuz there is no recipe for that, and not many people really "make it" in the music biz then.

But I have a different definition for making it. I consider "making it" being a professional, making a living playing music. Whether that is with a band, as a solo-artist, or as an instrumentalist / hired gun, well, it applies to all those possibilities.

Let's settle for this definition for now, ok?
Ok! Well, even if we define "making it" as described above, there is no recipe that'll work for sure. But I might be able to give you some advice to help you to get there. This involves not only a lot of work, it also needs a bit of luck. So again: this is no "No Failure", bullet-proof method.


Making It With A Band

Making it with a band

This one is already tough because it's actually pretty hard to make it with a band, to be successful and live on that. Simply because there are a lot of bands out there, and the music scene has changed a bit too. (the latter thing is debatable, I know!)

Anyway, first you have to decide what kind of music you wanna play. I don't mean what style. I mean whether you wanna play your own music, or cover stuff.

If you decide to play your own music, you have chosen the tougher route in my opinion. Because, depending on what style of music you make, it might be a bit tougher to get gigs as an original band, while a coverband might have it a bit easier (depending on WHAT that band covers, and how many other coverbands are in the area that are focussing on the same music).

Now, first of all, you have to pay attention to that BAND-CHEMISTRY. I mentioned this in my last rant. It is not only important that the people in the band get along, all of the people involved should have similar goals.

See, I have seen bands where all members really were not big friends or anything. They had no social contacts other than the band, but they had similar goals and that kinda worked... until they went on tour for three weeks and had to spend those weeks together in a nightliner and the same hotel.

Those opportunities, small tours together, or a huge number of gigs in a short period of time can be tough for a band, and is one ultimate test.

I have seen that go wrong with a band I was in. We got along great right from the start, had a lot of fun at rehearsals and during the first few shows. But once we went on a mini-tour (6 dates in 1 1/2 weeks), we were really stressed out. Because we weren't used to spending that much time together, and we learned a lot of new things about each other.

What I mean when I say "Everyone should have similar goals"... well, I explained that last time. A quick reminder: it won't work if two of the bandmembers wanna "make it", play out a lot, record stuff, while other members of the band are just happy to get together once a week and play an occasional concert.

I know it's tough, but you should try to clear that point up as soon as possible

Also, there MIGHT be a point where it's "friendship vs. the next step".

An example? A former student of mine was in a band with 4 really good friends. They had known each other for years, and they were determined to become successful with their band. Now, their drummer finished high-school and decided to go to a college which was pretty far away (he considered it important to go to that college). And so he was available on the weekends or throughout school-breaks only.

That sure slowed the band down a bit, limited it. Of course, the other guys could have done some different stuff for the band (like i.e. meet up to write some songs, which could have been rehearsed on the weekends, WITH their drummer). But the other guys felt that that was too much of a limitation for the band. And now they were at a point where they had to decide... kick their friend (those guys have been friends for years!) out of the band, or live with the limitation, maybe missing a few good chances with the band (missing time to work together, or play shows that were booked on week-days).

Or what about the security-thing?
I mean, some people in your band might have a good secure job, where they earn the money they need (i.e. to support a family), while some of you might be a bit more "free" (i.e. working at a 7/11 to make some money to pay the bills, and have enough time for the band, plus no one to support).

Another example:
There's a band with 5 members. One of them has just gotten married, and is expecting his first child. He has got a pretty good job, and is earning money to support his wife and child, while saving up some money for a house.
Guys, that is completely understandable!

Now, others in the band are single, and they have those kinda "just to pay the bills"-jobs, and they wanna take the next step... invest some money to get into the studio to record a really good demo, prepare some expensive promo-material, play out more to promote the band.

The married dude says something like "Dudes, I am happy to play out with you guys, but I can't play those weekday-shows, I need to go to work and I'd like to spend some time with my wife. Can't we just stick with shows on the weekend. And... once we "take the next step", I dunno whether I can invest more time into the band, which will be necessary".
Again, here we've got a tough situation.


How to...

Now, how to "make it"? As I said, I can't give you a recipe that will sure make you successful, but I can give you some advice.

Here is the single most important rule:
DON'T WAIT FOR ANYONE TO COME ALONG AND HELP YOU TAKE THE NEXT STEP. YOU GOTTA TAKE THINGS INTO YOUR OWN HANDS AND THE BEST MOMENT TO START IS NOW !!!

What I mean by that is... it's cool to rehearse a lot and write a bunch of songs. Great. But... you need to get out, onto the stage and let people hear them. And you can't just rely on other people to knock on your door and say "Guys, I never heard your music but here is a contract for 40 live-shows"

Nope. You have to promote your band, you gotta establish your name, you gotta get out and let people know that you're there!

That means:
- Get some shows together. You might have to organize some for yourself. That is not as tough as it sounds. Find a venue. If you ain't got a live music-venue in your town, try to improvise... try to find a local room which you could use for a show, try to find a company to rent some PA-stuff from. (You can even play in a barn). To cover the financial risk, ask some other bands from your town to be part of it. They'll most likely get their friends and family to come to the show. If you're lucky, there'll be enough people in the audience to pay your expenses and maybe leave you with some extra-money which you can re-invest.

Keep a documentation of your income and expenses. Maybe make up a bank-account for your band. Use the money you get to buy better gear, or use it to buy recording gear or prepare promo-material (a folder with photos, an interesting biography, contact info), rent some webspace to make a website for your band.

All this (and I haven't even covered all the important stuff) requires work from all of you. Try to split up the tasks. Maybe one of you can get himself a book about HTML or check out some online-tutorials and learn how to make a cool website.

Maybe someone else can learn a bit about sound-engineering. (A good opportunity would be to work as a stage-hand or roadie for a band... I did so myself for a while, and I learned a lot of really important stuff there!) He / she could then take responsibility for the sound-engineering.

Booking or buying exactly the stuff you need, advising you on how to set it up before a show.

One of you could be the PR-person... if he / she has the ability to sound confident on the phone, he / she could make all the calls to bookers, owners of venues or other bands to get gigs for the band.

One of you could be responsible for the money etc.

If you all pay some money to buy stuff for the band ( i.e. studio time or gear ), document it. If you need to, make a contract.

I'm not done yet.

When you prepare for your shows, prepare well. That does not only involve playing your songs over and over. It also includes: work out what happens between the songs. Decide who announces the next song, maybe even make up some keywords for his / her little speech in between songs.

If you can, videotape a show of yours, or a soundcheck. Watch that video and analyze your performance, the way you act on stage, the stage-presence. You can learn a lot of new things about yourself. Think about stage-clothes. Record your shows (even if you just plug a MD-recorder straight into the desk ) to check out how you sound and play live.

If you wanna be a support act for other bands (i.e. "bigger", more successful bands ), make sure you are cooperative. A band I know used to REHEARSE SETTING UP THEIR GEAR. One of them had a clock, he gave a sign, and they set up the amps, drums, keyboard. Then they'd try to do it faster next time. All that was part of their preparations for some shows as the supportband for an established band that gave them a chance.

Does this sound odd? Are you cracking up?
I wouldn't be. I was highly impressed when I heard about that. You know why? Because those guys really invested some thought, and they might have improved their chances to "make it" by doing silly stuff such as setting up the gear. Because sometimes, a band that lets you open up for them doesn't care about how fast you play. They might find it more important how cooperative you are. They might watch you set up and might be impressed if you do it quick and professional. And that might be a reason for them to hire you again or recommend your band to some colleagues.

Think about that. Being a professional means more than just playing well. There is so much other stuff you should try with your band, so many topics for you to consider (content of your promo-material, promoting yourself via the internet etc.), but I'll leave it at that for now, cuz I think I brought over what I was trying to say... take things into your own hands, and do it NOW... be professional, work hard, and even if you might never win a grammy, you might get just where you want to.

You might have to take some detours, simply don't lose the idea of what you wanna achieve. Don't take anything for granted.


Hired Guns

Hired Guns

Now let's talk about "making it" as an instrumentalist. Someone who is working as a "hired gun", working with different artists, either live or in the studio, not being a member of one certain band.

I chose that path without really realizing it. In my teenage years, before I went to the MI, I had a reputation as a player who knew a lot of different styles (Blues, rock, pop, metal, funk etc.), being able to play those. That was due to the fact that my guitar teacher taught me a lot of songs from different styles of music.

I never limited myself to only one style of music. I sat at home and transcribed and learned a Black Sabbath song, next I jammed on a song by Toto, then I learned some blues licks or worked on a guitar-instrumental. It was fun.

I also worked on my playing and theory-knowledge. I wanted to be able to improvise in different styles, in all possible keys, and be able to play lots of different things. Well, I got a reputation that way and I occasionally was asked to sit in with bands when their original guitarist was unavailable. Or I was invited to write songs or record with some bands from the local area.

When I was at the GIT, I tried to jam with as many people as possible. Fusion, funk, rock, blues. It took me a while to get into those other styles, and I sure don't play all of them perfectly, but it sure helped me to build a repertoire.

It also helped that I never was able to settle for one favorite style of music to listen to... I always listened to a lot of different stuff (I still drive people insane when I listen to CDs ranging from Dream Theater to Avril Lavigne from Greg Howe to Meshuggah, Faith Hill, Allan Holdsworth, Godsmack, Brad Paisley... all within the course of an hour !)

When I got back from the GIT, I made a lot of contacts, jammed with a lot of people etc. Slowly, I kinda got a reputation and some phone-calls.

I was invited to perform with some pop-singer who needed a backing band, played solo acoustic guitar at a wedding anniversary, recorded some solos for a local rock band, wrote songs with some local artists.

Now, of course all those kinda jobs helped me to gain lots of experience. I played for a lot of different audiences (Don't try to start a mosh-pit in a retirement home!), jammed with a lot of musicians, had to play lots of different styles of music, had to play with gear that wasn't my own, I also learned how to perform on stage in different musical settings (no headbanging and stage-diving when playing with a country-band), I learned that many people don't hire you because you can play fast, but because they know that you are gonna appear in the appropiate clothes (i.e. with pop-acts, it is important... the backing bands of acts like Jennifer Lopez or Christina Aguilera often wear a certain outfit that is supposed to work with the background design of the stage, or all of the band members wear the same stuff, i.e. all white etc. ) , with the appropiate gear etc.

This is important, really. And it took me a while to learn that.

OK... a lot of people want to become
STUDIO GUITARISTS

Now, that is a myth that really became popular in the late 70s and early to late 80's. Due to solo-releases by former session-players like Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton etc., and due to the success of Steely Dan (who had a lot of session players record their songs), the occupation "studio guitarist" soon became quite popular.

A lot of people dreamt of becoming a busy session-guitarist like Mike Landau, Steve Lukather, Tim Pierce or Tommy Tedesco. And all of a sudden, a lot of guitarists bios contained phrases like "x is a busy studio-guitarist" or "y has been asked to record some guitar parts for many successful recordings" etc.

Guys, basically the dream of becoming a studio-musician is a myth. Very very VERY few people actually achieve that goal. There are several reasons for that. Here are some of them...

1) Becoming a busy studio musician who gets booked a lot requires not only a lot of luck (to be in the right place at the right time etc.), but also you need to have a bunch of gear (because you have to provide lots of different sounds... good ones, especially). Also, you need to be able to sight-read and play by reading a lead-sheet. You will be asked to record difficult parts or creative leads... FAST! Time is money in the studio, and if people hire a session-player, they expect him to be done quickly. To be able to do that requires some experience. At the same time, it's tough to get experience if it's tough to actually get a job as a session-player... vicious circle, huh?

2) In many areas (LA, Nashville etc.), the studio scene consists of a small group of people who do a lot of jobs. Producers and artists are familiar with their names, and they're first choice when it comes to calling a session-player to come in. It's tough to get into that circle, really. There's a limited amount of jobs, and so the established players like to do them themselves... it's a competition, a biz, and it's tough to enter that competition.

3) In the days of harddisc-recording and Pro-Tools, requirements for a musician to record some good sounding stuff are lower than they were a while ago. What I mean is... it is really easy to slice together (looping, Cut / Paste, quantizing etc.) a solo that sounds really good. No kidding. I saw a dude record some short licks with a crappy sound, then he opened his audio-editor and sliced together something really good-sounding... he edited the licks, made some of them faster, improved the sound (EQing etc.), quantized to have every note in time, corrected unaccurate bends with some digital pitch-corrector etc.

It's very easy these days, cuz there are some amazing effect units and audio-editor-software on the market. Some people are extremely fast when it comes to editing tracks with programs like Cubase or LogicAudio. They only need one good take of a riff, and within seconds they can loop or cut/paste it so it's a 4 minute track with every note perfectly in time.

Sure, bigstar-artists like Elton John, Faith Hill, etc. still rely on studio musicians to record solos and backing-tracks. They do it like they did in the older days... the studio-guitarist comes in, plays a few solos and the best one is chosen. Not much editing required, usually.

But for smaller-scale productions, people rely on all the new software and gear. So the demand for players who can nail a full song within a few takes is lower than it used to be.

I recently was part of a production of a pop-song (supposed to be a chartbreaker), and when the guitarist was about to record the rhythm guitar part, the engineer was like "Don't worry... we only need one bar of it, we'll loop the rest"

Does all this sound dis-couraging. Well, it still is possible to "make it" as a studio musician, but it demands a lot of luck, a bunch of good contacts, a load of gear, experience, theory knowledge and playing abilities and professional behaviour.

The luck part also involves being in the right place at the right time. That's how I got my first studio session. And that one helped me to gather enough experience to make it through a couple more.


Requirements and Preparation

The gear part involves:
Your gear has to be set up properly. Humming singlecoils won't be accepted by most producers (there are some who don't mind, cuz they know and love the sound of vintage guitars and single coils, but in general, try to avoid that).

I use DiMarzio HS-3 pickups. They're stacked humbuckers, providing a single coil sound with hardly any hum. The guitars should stay in tune. It's a pain in the neck if you have to keep tuning up constantly.

Your amp should be set up, you should have some good presets programmed into your rack-based effects... and if you still need another sound in the studio, you should be able to program it quickly... which means, make yourself familiar with your effects, and bring the manuals too, for quick reference.

And that's only the tip of the iceberg When it comes to playing, you should be able to offer several different versions of a track. That means, if you i.e. are being asked to play a "funky" single note riff over a given chord progression, you should be able (it's not always demanded, but I've been there a few times) to play different variations... muffled, or with a shuffle-feel, or maybe with raked notes in between, different dynamics etc.

Make some suggestions if you feel like it's appropiate. Some artists and producers know exactly what they want you to play and what it has to sound like. Others are open to suggestions, even appreciate it. It's up to you to figure out what kind of person you're working with.

Be patient and polite, and don't lose your nerve just because the pressure is increasing or because the engineer is picky or can't yet decide what exactly he wants to hear.

Really, try to be prepared (it's essential that you're able to play along with a click / metronome... timing's way more important than the ability to sweep augmented arpeggios!), and try to learn and gather as much experience as possible.

Sitting In

I often got (still do) calls to fill in for another guitarist. i.e. If there's a band that has a show booked net week, and their guitarist isn't able to make it for whatever reason...

There are agencies who specialize in making up a database of "hired guns", so they can organize a replacement for a situation like that. I used to be in the database of a few of those.

What usually happens is that I get a call from a representive of the band. I take a piece of paper and a pen, and I write down a few things...

- Date / Place of the gig
- Are there rehearsals before that gig? If yes, when & where?
- How many songs, how long's the program of the band?
- What style of music? Lineup of the band?
- What kind of sounds? ( i.e. what kind of gear does the original guitarist use? Does he use alternate tunings? I sometimes used the gear of the bands guitarist, too!)
- Time of soundcheck? Showtime?


Then I usually ask the caller to provide audio-material. The best thing is a studio recording of the tracks on the setlist, plus some live-recordings. The latter are helpful to check out the arrangement of the songs for shows. Sometimes, there are bunches of guitar tracks on a studio-recording, and I need to know which track / parts the guitarist of the band usually plays.

Also, sometimes the band can provide documentation... lead sheets. Those really are helpful. It takes some time to transcribe everything from those recordings by yourself, so leadsheets etc. are helpful.

Sometimes, you can even meet up with another member of the band, like the keyboarder or bassist, and work your way through the songs.

As soon as I got the audio-material I start to learn the parts. (BTW, I charge more if I have to transcribe a lot!). Based on whether I did get leadsheets or not, this is done quickly or takes a while. Also, it depends on the style of music... with a blues band, I can learn the repertoire quickly, with a fusion- or progressive rock-band, it certainly takes a bit longer.

What helps a lot is not only to play along to the CD / tape, but to listen to the stuff a lot. I once was asked to fill in for the guitarist of a prog-rock band. The songs of that band were usually more than 7 minutes in length! I needed to memorize the structure of those tunes, so I listened to the CD while doing other stuff... after a day or two, I knew the songs pretty well, and it was easier to play through them.

I also always try to memorize as much of the chord progressions and riffs as possible. I always do have a folder with lead sheets and cues on stage, so I can take a peek at it throughout the show. But I always try to memorize the stuff so I don't need that folder. It also depends on the stage presence of the band. If it's... say, a metal band where the band members are moving a lot on stage, headbanging, running around etc., it doesn't look really appropiate to be stuck in one place, looking at a piece of paper the whole time.

If its a band that sits down on stage, like i.e. a blues- or jazz combo, it might be fine to bring a music stand to put the folder on... most people don't mind it then.

I always try to adjust to the image of the band... i.e. stage-clothes. If I am asked to play with a metal act, I dress appropriately. If it's a jazz-band, I sure wear something else. Same goes for the gear... for a blues-band, I don't bring my black Flying V with its green pickups.

For a show with a country-band, I leave my red Vandenberg guitar at home, and will bring my Tele and Strat instead.

It's all part of the show. As I stated in my "Attitude"-rant, it's important to come over positively, to be friendly and confident. You wanna make your "customers" feel good and worry less about the situation.

One important hint: Professional behavior also includes the way you appear at the show and or rehearsal, i.e. how you transport your gear.

Some people actually do pay attention to that, and although that sucks, they might judge you by it. So don't show up bringing your cables tied in a huge knot, carrying it in a Piggly Wiggly-bag... usually people who hire you are a bit nervous about whether you'll be able to pull it off, and it might calm them if your stuff is organized.

Making a name

As I said before, a good way to get jobs like that is to have an agency. There are many agencies and companies who specialize in organizing players for live-shows, TV-appearances, fill-ins etc.

If you wanna be a complete freelancer, taking everything into your own hands, you have to establish yourself. That means, you will have to make some good contacts, and when you eventually get booked for a performance, try your best to be prepared and do a good job.

After a while, you will hopefully get some notoriety.

Some people feel that being a "hired gun", a professional sideman who plays both live and in the studio with many different acts (Michael Landau is one example... a really busy studio musician, and he also plays live, i.e. with Seal ), is not a pleasant job. Sure, it involves a lot of work, and sometimes you have to work with people that you just can't deal with ("big ego"-people).

Also, there is no feeling of stability which you might have if you're part of a band. If you are in one band, you kinda know what you've got. You always work with the same people. But some people prefer that "loner"-type thing, and they enjoy the fact that they're involved in many different musical projects, playing different stuff every time. Also, if you're lucky, if you live in the right area and if you're doing a good job, you might easily make a living that way.

So the sideman-thing might be an altenative for you to gather a lot of experience and play out a lot.

Conclusion

See? No "do it this way and you'll be a millionaire in no-time"-advice. But maybe there's some advice you can use. Whether you wanna work with your own band and try to get somewhere, or if you wanna be a professional sideman (a "Hired gun"), what counts is:

Be professional, be prepared, work hard.

If you want to be a "professional musician", you have to invest just as much work, most likely even more, than every other "professional" (i.e. engineers, technicians etc.)
This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/85
Eric started playing the guitar at age 10. He attended GIT and studied with Scott Henderson, Brett Garsed, Dan Gilbert amo. Eric is involved in several bands and recording projects and his instrumental debut - Hidden Creek - plus his instructional book Talking Hands - A Guide To Contemporary Lead Guitar Techniques is available HERE
Visit his website at www.ericvandenberg.net


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