What is your definition of a successful guitarist? I would answer, one who plays for life. If you love music, and love playing the guitar, wouldn’t it be great to play your whole life? I’m still relatively young by most standards but I’ve done okay so far. Even though the average guy on the street doesn’t know my name, I’ve done okay as a guitarist and I’m going to tell you how I’ve done it up to this point. How I satisfy both my financial and artistic needs and how you can too.
What’s the difference between an artist and a musician?
I’ll start with the artist. The artist plays for himself for the most part. His objective as a guitarist is to please his own artistic hunger. He strives for artistic elegance. Don’t get me wrong, this is not necessarily a bad thing for me and you. It’s great. Artists make life for the rest of us better. Artists create art. I have Picasso hanging on my wall, not something a graphic designer drew that I found in a magazine. The problem with being an artist is…it’s rough to make ends meet. Artists are generally only brilliant at their own music or working with artists that fall into the same category as themselves. Artists constantly study art. That’s the reason it’s hard to make a living. The artist is always striving to create better art. He creates art with such high standards, the average Joe has a hard time understanding it. The artist is so involved in creating art that he often creates a gap between himself and the masses. I’m not saying all artists are broke but it’s a gamble.
The musician is a different animal all together. The musician is a hired gun. Although he may have musical preferences, he isn’t picky about what he plays to pay the rent. While the artist may be particular about what he has to play to get paid, the musician will play anything. He is well versed in all styles and can mimic various players. These types of players make good studio musicians, session players and teachers. They usually do all these things. Like the artist, the musician is always working on learning new skills. The only problem with the musician is that he tends to find himself artistically frustrated. Let’s face it, deep down inside, we all really want to be the artist. We want our music to live on after we’re gone. We want someone, after we die, to send one of our CDs off into deep space so some alien can find it in a million years and say “them earthlings wrote the most glorious music in the galaxy.”
Which would you rather be; the artist or the musician? Remember the phrases; “the starving artist” and “the struggling musician.” I personally would rather struggle as a musician while I commit myself to creating art. I think the best way to live a satisfying life as a guitarist is do dedicate your life to both of these ambitions. Most guitarists get themselves in trouble by focusing on only one of the two. Most of the money I have made in the business as a player came from playing other peoples tunes, not from my own CD sales. But to be honest, releasing my own CDs is way more rewarding (mentally, not financially). Doing both makes my career well balanced. One feeds the other.
The rules of making a living as a guitarist
Bite of 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, 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 the keyboardist 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 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.
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.
Get an education – Just like any other kind of job, education is important. Lessons are great but if you have the time and money, enroll yourself in a good music school. I spent a year at Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles where I ended up also being a teacher for six years. The great thing about studying at a big music school is all the students that you also get a chance to learn from. The thing that is great about MI or LAMA in LA or The Collective in NY or the schools that I run in Japan is that they are not art schools as much as they are trade schools. They strive to teach you how to make a living at being a guitarist while also giving you plenty of creative support. They don’t cater to any one particular style of music as an “art” school does. The trade school teaches you a trade rather than an art.
Get in education – A well rounded musical education will also prepare you for education. One of the most rewarding things I have ever done is to get into music education. After I left MI in 1992, I found myself in Japan as the Director of Education at Tokyo School of Music. Teaching will teach you more about music than studying will. When I was teaching at MI, I found myself teaching in the classroom next to Scott Henderson on one side and Paul Gilbert on the other. I would eat lunch with jazz legend Joe Diorio. Just being in the same building as players like these and absorbing what was going on around me was an invaluable experience. Teaching also forced me to organize musical concepts which in turn helped me become a better player. If you are fortunate to get work at a school that also has courses in recording, you may be able to sneak in there and learn a little about the newest technology. One of the biggest advantages of working at a music school is the fact that you can network. I’m always surprised to see how much the teachers at my school end up working together. They refer each other to gigs as subs and even get them on their own gigs. The great thing about teaching is that it is usually a day gig which doesn’t interfere with your night gig; playing. Its extra cash and it’s steady.
Some advice on getting a teaching job
Your Manner – A lot of guys ruin the whole thing here. Here is how it usually goes; I get a call from a guy looking for a teaching position. I ask him to come down and he does. I talk to him a while and decide he seems like a decent cat. His eyes aren’t red and he can carry a concise conversation. You may think I’m joking. You would actually be surprised how many guys come to an interview high on something. This is a sure way to not get the job. I don’t care what anybody does in their free time but, anyone who comes to an interview at a school for a teaching job stoned is probably going to come to teach his classes stoned too. Also, like I said before, never, ever show up late for your interview. One of the most important things for a teacher to be is on time.
Passion – I also want a guy who is passionate about teaching. Remember, a school is a business so I want a teacher who is going to teach all the students, not just the gifted ones. Most kids quit school because of discrimination. Not racial, religious or sexual, but talent discrimination. Anyone can teach someone with a ton of talent to be a great player. I’m looking for someone to teach the kids who struggle with the guitar. If you feel that filtering out the students that are not “musically gifted” is a teacher’s job, you won’t be working for me. I want every student who enrolls in my school to graduate. Remember that during your interview too.
Your Profile – Don’t disclose the unnecessary. You will need to give the school your profile. Leave out anything that you may be doing that doesn’t involve music. When I look over profiles for teaching position at my school, I’m looking for someone who is a working player. Anyone who is gigging plus, let’s say, works at the local Kmart is out. I’m looking for guys who are going to teach the students how to work full time as a guitarist so they better be doing so themselves. Don’t lie, but don’t disclose the unnecessary details.
Your Demo – Let’s say the interview and the profile go over. Here is the next thing that a lot of guys screw up. They don’t have anything recorded. I want to hear them play. You’d be surprised how many guys don’t have a decent demo. I generally don’t like cassette tapes. I’m looking for a decently recorded cd. It can be burned at home or at a studio but it needs to showcase what you are good at. This is also true for auditions. A lot of times, before you even get to audition, you first have to send your bio and demo. Be careful not to send a demo of you playing Bebop to a producer looking for a rock guitarist.
Don’t wait for a break – This is my advice for those of you who want to satisfy your artistic needs. No matter how much money you make teaching or doing gigs as a hired gun, the truth is, your dream since you started playing probably has been to be rewarded for your playing and your own music. In the past, most artists would make a demo, and shop it around hoping that a record label would pick them up. Those where sad times. Artists had absolutely no power whatsoever. Even today, there are still plenty of artists doing the same thing; they have yet to see what great times we live in. Because of technology today, releasing a CD is a simple thing to do. If you are well rehearsed, you can be in and out of the studio in three days. That includes the mix down. I recorded, mastered and pressed my own CD, “Prospects” for about three-thousand five hundred dollars. That includes the money I paid for the studio musicians to do the session. If you have a band with permanent members you probably don’t have to pay them, so you can do it for less.
Recording tips – Be totally prepared. The trick to getting the session done inexpensively is speed. The misconception that you need a month in the studio to do a good recording is completely false. If you are well rehearsed, you can knock each song out in two takes. After that, you decide which take you like, punch in any parts you don’t like and move on to the next tune. The difference with my newest CD is that we never rehearsed. I hired studio cats who just read the charts. We ran through the tune once, recorded two takes for each song and never did any punch-ins. The musicians where top notch players. If you get in the studio and start rehearsing, you are never going to get done in time.
Selling the thing once you get it done – In the old days, the only way to sell a record was to get a contract with a record company and a distribution deal to get the product in stores, advertise, tour and wait for you measly royalty check. Royalty rates vary slightly from company to company, but I’ll just tell you, you have to sell at least a million records to be able to pay your rent. That’s the sad truth about “a major deal”. But now we live in glorious times thanks to the internet. Once you get your CD done you can sell it from your web site (I’ll get to that after this). You can also send it to cdbaby.com and/or guitar9.com and/or a bunch of other sites that will sell it for you. In the mean time you can send it to some different sites that will review it for you. If you do a good job on your CD, you should be able to get some good reviews from sites that specialize in just that.. Other people looking for new music will go to these sites read your review, go to your site and buy your CD. I used godsofmusic.com, prognosis and some other sites. You just put the link for cdbaby.com or guitar9.com on your site and they will be directed directly to your page on those sites. Guitar9.com, cdbaby.com and most other similar sites such as Amazon.com will sell customers the cds you send them by credit card and they in turn will send you a check from time to time. They take four or five dollars from your sales and everyone walks away happy. You are basically doing your own distribution. With a “major deal” you would make about a dollar on a CD sale, this way you make about ten dollars, about fourteen on the ones you sell at gigs or from your site by personal check. You only have sell ten percent of what you would with a “major deal” to make the same money. But the most important thing as that you are empowered; it’s your own motivation, dedication, footwork that moves your CD. Do it yourself and learn a bunch in the process.
Your Site – If you think putting together a site is way more than you know how to deal with, your wrong. Buy yourself software like Dreamweaver for a few hundred bucks and you are on your way. You don’t have to know anything about code to do it. It’s as easy as “Word” or “Powerpoint”. It’ll take you about half an hour to install it and have your first few pages going. The other thing you need to do is get yourself a domain name and someone to host it. That’s easy too. Just type in “domain names” into your favorite search engine and you are on your way. I think mine costs me about seven or eight bucks a month for 50MB. I need at least 50MB because I have mp3s on my site available for people to download. You may or may not need that much. The only other problem is graphics. Your site will be dull without cool graphics. If you are into that kind of thing you may want to try to do it yourself using “Fireworks” which is included in the “Dreamweaver” package or some other software such as “Adobe Photoshop”. Or, (shameless plug) you can purchase your own custom graphics from a company like ominousgraphics.com for next to nothing. Yes, ominousgraphics.com is my own company that does web graphics for artists for cheap. Once you get your site going, have as many sites as you can add your link and you’ll start getting traffic. Include in your site; audio files, your bio, a cd page with links to cdbaby.com and guitar9.com, a links page, a news page, a schedule page so you can get people to come to your shows (and buy your CD) and photos, etc. It’s important to do it yourself. If you don’t, information will always be slow and your site will be a big bore. Like I said before, do it yourself and learn something in the process. Check out my site if you have a chance. You may get some ideas.
Managing your money – This will probably be the first time you are going to get financial advice from a guitarist. A lot of musicians give up playing as a professional for money reasons. One of the tricks in surviving in the business is to manage your money. No matter what happens, pay yourself first. Before you pay your rent, bills, buy your girl a watch, pay yourself first. Whatever you can swing is okay. Let’s say, two, three, five hundred dollars a month. No matter what happens, every month, you put it away first and you don’t touch it. What if you can’t make ends meet? You make ends meet! If you can’t come up with the car insurance at the end of the month, you’ll work that much harder to find a gig. If I had started doing this when I was eighteen, I would have about a million bucks today. I’m serious. I started doing this in my late twenties; I put the money into a mutual fund that earned me, on average, about twelve percent a year. Here is a rule that you probably never heard before. They never taught me this formula in school.
72 divided by yearly interest earned on any investment = the amount of years it takes the investment to double
Let’s say you are eighteen and invest six thousand dollars ($500 x 12 months) into a mutual fund that earns you ten percent a year. 72 divided by 10 equals 7.2 years for your six-thousand dollars to double. It will double again in another 7.2 years. Let’s just make it an even seven years for demonstrational purposes.
You would retire with three-hundred eighty-four thousand dollars from only one year of properly invested savings. Figure out what you would have if you had done this every year of your life starting form when you where eighteen. You would be a millionaire! You don’t have to believe me, do your own math. Go to yahoo finance and do some mutual fund historical research.
Becoming a guitarist has been one of the greatest joys in my life. I hope that sharing some of the things I learned along the way will help you to be successful in the music business. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to e-mail me anytime. Next time I’ll get into some more specifics about what it takes to be a studio musician. Until then…