Getting the Gig… And Keeping it!
Like many guitar teachers, my income is largely supplemented by performance. While 2020 was very much a write-off in that area, and 2021 isn’t looking especially promising at the moment, I’m confident that live music will eventually return and that myself and many others can go back to doing something I love alongside the teaching. I have to be confident about that or else I’ll go insane, but also because if there are no gigs then what exactly am I teaching people for? There are obviously the hobbyists and the ‘pleasure players’ whose musical journeys are by no means any less valid, but the aspiring professionals must surely be in need of reassurance that the industry is not dead (‘it just smells funny,’ to paraphrase Frank Zappa). If you’re one such learner who hopes to one day make a living from playing your guitar in front of other people, then I hope you find the following article helpful as I share with you some insights I’ve learned from life on the road.
The vast majority of my work has been in musical theatre, having played on some very well-known West End shows and tours including Matilda, 9 To 5, Cats, The Bodyguard, Rock of Ages, and Wicked, which I was lucky enough to tour with throughout the UK, Europe, and East Asia. But there have also been countless functions, weddings, corporate events, and ‘one-nighters’ along the way which make up the bulk of the work for most working professionals. Regardless of the kind of work I’m doing on any given night, there are some fundamental skills I have come to rely on which I use on almost every gig. These are the areas which deserve serious attention from anybody who is serious about making money as a performing musician.
Without a doubt, the single most important skill for any musician on any instrument is the ability to listen well, to hear accurately, and to understand what they are hearing. Music is almost entirely about sound, so it makes sense that we prioritise the development of our musical ear above all else. There have been times when I’ve had to learn and memorise a one hour set in just a few days, often while juggling teaching and other commitments – not to mention parenthood! – I can recall one particular instance where a last minute booking meant I had just over twenty four hours to learn ninety minutes of music. Obviously some gigs will allow you to use note sheets but this is not always the case, so it’s well worth taking the time to familiarise yourself with the sound of common harmonic changes and progressions, melodic intervals, chord voicings, and time signatures.
In addition to learning things accurately and quickly, your ears could save you on the actual gig. Even the most basic things like being able to tell whether or not your guitar has slipped out of tune could mean the difference between being hired again or not. Perhaps you’ve all had the same set to learn but there’s some disagreement about one of the chords in the chorus of the fourth song, so with minimal rehearsal time you may need to recognise the difference and adapt next time it comes along. It doesn’t always matter who’s right, as long as you’re all playing the same thing!
In every sense of the word, our timing is important. If you cannot play in time then all the best Ynwgie Malmsteen licks you’ve been shedding for hours won’t matter, because nobody will ever want you to be in their band. Practise everything with a metronome, spend time getting comfortable with a range of rhythmic and stylistic feels, and really work on your understanding of rhythm.
If theatre work sounds like something which might appeal to you then it’s also essential that you learn how to follow a conductor. This is a very detailed and nuanced area which is impossible to cover sufficiently in one short article, but unfortunately it’s not something which guitarists are used too as it’s not considered as an orchestral instrument in the same way that a violin or trumpet is.
From a non-musical perspective, your punctuality is also very important. The tired stereotype of the ‘artistic temperament’ who always shows up late might just work if you’re playing to fifteen people in the local pub, but it doesn’t cut it when there are finely tuned schedules and deadlines in place, where the sound-check needs to be finished by 6pm so they can open the doors and let the paying audience in, ready for the curtain to go up at 7:30pm.
If you have a gig coming up, learn your parts. This should, of course, go without saying, but unfortunately there have been times when either someone else hasn’t put the time and effort in or, embarrassingly enough, I haven’t quite learned things as well as I should have. There may well be occasions when you genuinely haven’t had enough time to thoroughly learn everything – we’re all human after all – at which point it’s your attitude that could make the difference. Don’t be like the keyboardist I once played with who hadn’t learned the first dance for a wedding gig, instead saying ‘I’m sure I’ll pick it up,’ when it was supposed to be just piano and vocals for the entire first verse.
The majority of repertoire you will probably have to learn is likely to be pop/rock tunes and disco classics, all of which have specific guitar parts. It’s important to learn these parts accurately and specifically, rather than just busking through the chords, as this can often be the most recognisable piece of the song. An example is ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk, featuring the legendary Nile Rodgers. The chord progression is simple, but if you don’t play the correct two-note voicings in the correct rhythm then it just doesn’t sound right. These details will be noticeable to your band mates and the audience alike, so the extra time you spend working on them is definitely worth it.
I probably don’t need to say too much here since we guitarists love obsessing over gear, and in fact one of the things I love about the RGT@LCM syllabus is the inclusion of a section dedicated to pedals and instrument knowledge. This is severely lacking in most other exam boards, which is bizarre considering how important it is to make sure all your equipment is in good working order and how to troubleshoot any problems. I’ve experienced technical issues more times than I can count, and although nine times out of ten it’s caused by something incredibly simple like a flat battery or a dodgy cable, on the rare occasion when there’s something more sinister going on it can be important to have at least a rudimentary understanding of how things work so that you can be back up and running in as little time as possible.
It can also be a good idea to carry spares. When I was in China with Wicked there was no chance of finding anything in a hurry, what with my relative lack of geographical knowledge and a somewhat intimidating language barrier to contend with, not to mention the issue of product availability. I have a box I bring to every gig, no matter what or where it is, which contains all the cables I will need, along with at least one spare for everything that I can replace by myself if necessary – strings, batteries, fuses, picks, valves, and power supplies – so that I’m never caught out. Keeping everything clean and tidy, changing your strings as often as possible, and giving your guitars a regular setup will also make sure your entire rig is match fit and reliable.
This is a topic which often polarises opinion among guitarists and can cause some fairly heated debate, so let me just say that there is plenty of work available for guitarists who cannot read music. However, there is even more work available for those who can, so why would you not learn how to do it? And if theatre work is something you’re interested in then you absolutely must be able to read music. I’m sure we’ve all heard it said that reading music can ruin a player’s ‘feel’ but that is like saying people who can read books have difficulty speaking fluently – it is, of course, only true if you aren’t actually very good at it.
It’s also important to draw a distinction between the ability to read music and actual sight reading. Being able to work your way through a piece of notation and figure out how to play it is one thing, but being able to comfortably play a piece almost immediately after you’re presented with it is quite another. It is a much rarer skill, and the requirement is equally rare except in some specific circumstances, but it is also extremely cool! Personally, I just can’t understand anyone who doesn’t wish they could do it. Thankfully, I seem to have developed a reputation as a strong sight reader, and indeed there have been several occasions where it has proved essential. Many of my gigs have involved turning up to a particular venue at a certain time, with charts provided by the singer or another band member. We’d play through a few of the tricky bars as a soundcheck, but then the first time you get to see the rest of it is when you’re playing it all together in front of a paying audience. It’s exhilarating, exhausting, and sometimes excruciating when it goes wrong, but it’s one of my very favourite things to do. Another thing worth bearing in mind when it comes to reading skills is that it can dramatically reduce your preparation time, which is a godsend if you’re busy. Although it’s still true that training, developing, and using our ears should be of utmost importance, sometimes you don’t have a spare day to thoroughly learn and memorise a one hour set. In those instances, being able to simply turn up and read it all becomes invaluable.
With all the above in mind, I feel it’s important to add that unpredictable, sometimes unprecedented things do happen at gigs – things which nobody could have expected, much less planned for. I’ve experienced all sorts of things ranging from bad power at venues wreaking havoc on my gear, to drunken wedding guests falling over onto my pedal board! Some things simply can’t be avoided, but for everything else these five areas could be the difference between a successful gig and a total disaster, which in turn can be the difference between getting booked again or not. Thankfully, the RGT@LCM syllabus contains fairly comprehensive aural elements, and the Rhythm Playing and Accompaniment components of the electric and acoustic guitar handbooks respectively present a good opportunity to teach and learn about stylistic interpretation. These are fantastic real-world musical skills that every working musician relies upon heavily, and so shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought when preparing for examinations. After all, you are quite unlikely to need your performance pieces for a full-time career in music but, as we’ve seen here, you will definitely need these other skills.
As I write this, there seems to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I have some tentative things pencilled in the diary (some of which are reschedules of reschedules) and my face to face teaching in schools is about to resume. The past year has felt incredibly long and I’m truly thankful for the amount of teaching I’ve been able to do as it has allowed me to earn money and spend the days with a guitar in my hands, which has always been the most important thing to me as far as work is concerned. My hope is that the lack of any live entertainment in recent months has led to a renewed desire for it, and that the audiences will be more engaged and passionate than ever; we performers just need to make sure we’re all still up to it.
Neil is a Professional Guitarist, Tutor & RGT@LCM Examiner based in York: Neilmorganguitar.com
This article has been independently supplied by the author and expresses the author’s own views and opinions; the article does not purport to represent RGT@LCM’s views or policies.