Many people believe that possessing talent alone is enough to guarantee an artist success in the music business. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a perfect world, the best musicians—the best guitarists—would be amply rewarded for their abilities. The music business, however, is far from perfect.
And unless you’re one of the blessed few (such as Eddie Van Halen) who can single-handedly change the course of guitar history, the harsh reality is that killer chops and perfect time impress only other guitarists, not the people who hire you or buy the records.
Talent, of course, is any artist’s basic bread and butter, but whether you’re a fingerpicker or a two-handed tapper, in order to survive the music business and distinguish yourself from the thousands of other guitarists who are after your gig, you must boast some other essential qualities.
These range from good people skills to practical, common-sense approaches to your business (Fact it, that’s what it is), both of which will help you stand out from the pack—and believe me, there’s nothing more frightening that a pack of hungry, feral guitarists.
For your edification, I have crunched these qualities—the many do’s and don’ts of guitar existence—into 25 hardheaded, clearly wrought maxims. Learn them, memorize them, master them and imbibe. You’ll be a better person for it, a better guitarist, and you just may make your way from the garage to the arena stage.
01. Nobody likes an asshole
Reality check: Most musicians don’t give a damn whether you’re the second coming of Jimi, Eddie or Buck Dharma. They just want someone with a good attitude who will play the parts correctly. And since most of your time is spent offstage, relating with the other musicians on a personal level becomes as important as relating to them musically. Remember-no one is indispensable. Just ask David Lee Roth.
02. Having a great feel is your most important musical asset
No one will want to play with you if you have bad time. You must have a great feel-it’s that simple. By “great feel” I mean the ability to lock in with the rhythm section and produce a track that grooves. If there’s one thing I would recommend you to constantly work on, it’s developing your groove. Listen to the greats to learn how grooves should be played: from rock (Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” to 16th-note funk (James Brown’s “Sex Machine”) to blues shuffle (“Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan). Tape yourself (with a metronome) playing them-you’ll be able to isolate and work on your problem areas. Or pick up the excellent JamTrax series (Music Sales), a series of play-along tapes covering everything from blues to alternative to metal, to stay in shape. This is the one area where you should be most brutal in your self-assessment. You’ll be a much better player for it.
03. Develop your own sound
There’s no better way to learn how to play than to cop licks from your favorite guitarists. The problem to watch out for is when you start sounding too much like your favorite player. Remember, rules, especially musical rules, are made to be broken.
04. Be on time
You wouldn’t believe how many musicians don’t believe that punctuality is important. It is crucial.
05. Listen, listen, listen!
When you’re on stage or in the studio, don’t be in your own world-listen and interact with the other musicians you’re working with. React to what they’re playing. Don’t play too loud or get in the way when someone else is soloing. Put their egos ahead of yours-your number will always be called if the other musicians feel that you made them sound better.
06. Know what you want to be
The most successful people in the music business are totally focused-they have specific goals in mind and do whatever is necessary to achieve them. The simple realization that you don’t have to be a musician to be a rock star and don’t have to be a rock star to be a musician can spare you years of cynicism and bitterness.
07. Play for the song, not for yourself
It’s imperative to play what’s idiomatically correct. For example, don’t play Yngwie licks on Bush’s “Glycerine” or a noodly jazz solo on Soundgarden’s “Outshined,” no matter how much it impresses you. I learned this the hard way while auditioning for a punk singer. I thought I’d show her what a good, well-rounded musician I was and ended a thrash song in A with an Am(add9) chord, instead of a more appropriate A5. I was promptly shown the door.
08. Play with musicians who are better (and better known) than you
There’s no faster way to improve and jump up to the next level than to play with great musicians. You’ll learn the tricks of the trade, and pick up on their years of experience in the trenches, as well. But if you want to be a star, there’s no better way to kick-start your career than by ingratiating yourself with someone famous and be seen sycophantically swilling drinks with him or her at the coolest bar in town.
09. Less is more
Most players you hear or read about pay lip service to what has become the guitardom’s ultimate cliché. The fact is, though, what’s glibly easy to say is not necessarily easy to do. I learned this on a gig backing up a singer on a cruise ship (It was the actual “Love Boat!”). Back then, I couldn’t read music or play over changes very well, so during the first show, in abject fear, I played very sparsely-only what I was sure would work. After the show, the singer told me she had never worked with so sensitive an accompanist.
10. Image does matter
This is one of the sad truths about the music business. The good news, however, is that not every musical situation calls for the same image. So use some common sense-if you’re going to be auditioning for a wimpy jangle band, don’t come dressed like a Marilyn Manson cast-off.
11. It’s essential to have a great touch, or vibrato
There are players who say it took them 10-15 years to develop a great vibrato. They’re the lucky ones-most never find it. Your touch is like your fingerprints-it’s what distinguishes your blues playing, for instance, from that of countless other guitarists. Think of B.B. King or Jimi Hendrix-they are instantly recognizable. There are two main types of vibrato: one generated by the wrist (a la Hendrix and B.B. King) and the other from the fingers (favored more by classical guitarists). To determine which type works for you, check out your favorite guitarists’ vibratos and try to imitate them. You can also pick up B.B. King’s video Bluesmaster (Volume 1) to see his unique “bee-sting” vibrato demonstrated in-depth.
12. Get your sound/tone together
I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Know your gear well enough so that it works for you, not against you. For example, if you’re looking for a Stevie Ray tone, you won’t get it with a Les Paul going through a Marshall. You’ll need a Strat running through a Fender Bassman (with an Ibanez Tube Screamer for extra punch). Unless you’re a studio tech-head, a great guitar and amp (with an overdrive or chorus pedal) will probably sound 10 times better than a refrigerator full of rack-mounted shit (believe me, I’ve been there).
13. Practice what you don’t know, not what you do know
In order to improve, you must practice. That sounds frightening, but let me reassure you that good practicing doesn’t necessarily entail sitting grimly in a basement (while the other kids are outside playing), mindlessly running scales and arpeggios-you can get all the technique you need by learning licks from your favorite guitarists. For example, Eric Johnson’s intro to “Cliffs of Dover” is a veritable lexicon of minor-pentatonic ideas. Here are the three axioms of good practicing:
A. Master small bits of music first (no more than four to eight notes at a time), then connect them to form longer passages.
B. Start out playing new ideas at a slow tempo (this builds muscle memory), then gradually work up to speed. It’s much better to play slow and clean than fast and sloppy.
C. Always practice with a metronome
14. Get your business chops together
Business chops are just as important as musical ones, if not more so. If you want to make money as a musician, you have to start seeing yourself as a business and your music as a product. Acting against the stereotype of a musician (you know—stupid, drunk and gullible), as hard as that may be, will show club owners and record execs that you’re not a pushover.
15. Be fluent with both major and minor pentatonic scales
In rock, pop, blues or country situations, knowing these scales will enable you to get by 80 percent of the time. I heartily recommend my book Practical Pentatonics (Music Sales)-a nifty little volume that covers just about all you need to know to be comfortable using the pentatonic scale in real-life gigging situations.
16. As soon as you learn something cool, apply it immediately to a real-life musical situation
Many guitarists learn tons of licks that sound great when played in the practice room. But the minute they get on stage, they have a hard time integrating this new material into their playing. Before you learn something new, you should have an idea where you could fit it in.
17. Learn as many melodies as you can
Not only does learning melodies to tunes (any tunes) increase your repertoire, it also (subconsciously) gives you an incredibly distinct edge in developing your phrasing. Ideally, you should be able to duplicate any melody you hear.
A. Listen to how singers interpret melodies and try to mimic their phrasing on the guitar.
B. Try to play back any, and I mean any, melody you hear-be it a TV commercial, nursery rhyme or the Mister Softee ice cream truck theme.
C. Always learn a melody on more than one place on the guitar neck. You want to play the melody, not have the melody play you.
18. Know your place
When a bandleader asks you to play something a certain way, smile and do it! Don’t argue. Don’t pout. Don’t think you know better. Don’t be an asshole. You’ll have plenty of time to be in charge when your three-disk epic rock opera adaptation of The Jeffersons gets picked up.
19. Contrary to popular belief, taking lessons and listening to other styles of music doesn’t hurt
It never hurts to broaden your scope, no matter how great a player you already are or how much you think you’ve already learned all there is to know. Opening your mind to other styles and techniques makes you a better, more well-rounded musician. Period. A great teacher can inspire and enable you to develop as a creative, exciting player.
20. Learn as many tunes as possible, from start to finish
It doesn’t matter what style you like to play in, the more tunes you know, the easier it is to get a gig or kick ass on a jam session. And there’s no excuse for not doing it-even if you’re not at the point where you can learn tunes off the recording, you can avail yourself of the hundreds of transcription books out there. Heck, you can learn five new tunes a month just by reading Guitar World!
21. Develop authority as a player
You have to get to the point where you feel as creatively comfortable in front of hundreds of people as you do in front of your sister and the dog. And the only way you can attain that authority is by putting in the time. Playing at home only gets you so far-it’s imperative that you play out as soon as you can. Attend jam sessions. Take less-than-ideal gigs, just for the experience. Take any gigs, for that matter-it’s the experience that counts!
22. Hang out with other musicians
The best way to get contacts and gigs is to be seen and heard. How can anyone recommend you if they don’t know who you are? As unpleasant and greasy as this may sound, do your best to befriend other guitarists. Though there’s intense competition amongst players, most of your work will come as a result of recommendations made by other guitarists.
23. Know the fundamentals
Being able to hear common chord changes will help you learn tunes off the radio faster. Knowing a little basic theory will help you with your songwriting and your ability to intuitively come up with rhythm parts. For example, knowing that the harmonic structure of most blues tunes is I-IV-V (C-F-G) and that early rock ballads were usually built on I-vi-IV-V progressions (C-Am-F-G) will help you to play just about any tune in those genres or compose one of your own. One more plug: you also might want to check out my book The Advanced Guitar Case Chord Book (Music Sales) to get an idea of how to apply cool chord voicings to common progressions in all types of music.
24. Be careful out there
As soon as you or your band become somewhat popular, all sorts of characters are going to start crawling out of the gutter with designs on you. Have fun, but don’t go overboard. And always keep an eye on your equipment-it’s your life’s blood. And try to save some cash.
25. Don’t shit where you eat
Don’t fuck the singer. Don’t fuck the drummer’s girlfriend. Don’t fuck the drummer’s dog. Don’t fuck the drummer. Don’t backstab your bandmates. Don’t pocket tips. Don’t be an asshole!