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more... ArtistsGigging AdviceGuitaristsMay 2014

The Codependent Guitarist: The Art of Being a Sideman


Will Kimbrough relaxing with one of his favorite acoustic guitars. Photo by Brydget Carrillo.

Knowing the music is a given, but it’s only the beginning. “The song is the sacred thing here,” says Kimbrough. “It’s not about your incredible chops and speed. The artist wants you to play the song.” Play the tune, but don’t forget to pay attention to what’s going on around you, too. “Listen carefully to what’s being played in the room, and react to that,” Salzman says. “Music is a communal sport.” Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile either, and be vocal about other musical talents you can offer. “On almost any singer/songwriter gig, harmony singing is a plus,” says Ambel. “If you can sing harmony, let them know.”

Having your gear together is another must. Make sure all your guitars, pedals, and cables are working and organized. If you can bring your own amp, do it. You want to represent your sound as accurately as possible. And use the gear that fits the gig—no Marshall stacks at a singer/songwriter audition, or Fender Princetons at a heavy metal one.

My Two Cents

In my years as sideman to folk legend Eric Andersen, blues artist James Armstrong, and countless others, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about getting, holding, and losing gigs. Here are my additions to the conversation.

1. The right music store is your friend. If you can play no one minds you taking an instrument down and making music at low volume. (Please note italics.) When I first moved to San Francisco I loitered at Real Guitars, a small vintage shop with a separate shop in the back run by repair legend Gary Brawer. A number of gigs ensued from networking with customers and recommendations by the owners.

2. Don’t take rejection to heart. In the early ’80s, singer/songwriters on New York’s Bleecker Street occasionally fired their current guitarists to hire me—and vice-versa. Often the thinking was, “I don’t have a record deal yet—it must be time to change my guitarist.”

The joke is, “How do you get musicians to complain?” “Give them a gig.” It’s easy to grumble about the pay, the food, the miles, the venue, or the sound—not to mention the quirks of the artist paying you. Resist the urge.

3. Don’t refuse to play for cheap or free. Some players say, “I won’t leave the house for less than $100.” If you don’t love to play just for the sake of it, you’re in the wrong business. I often sit in as an unpaid sideman at singer/songwriter rounds. Fun is guaranteed, and it’s a great way to improve your ears. Gigs and sessions may be a result.

4. Always offer the full extent of your talent and creativity. I’ve seen sidepersons read chord charts and just play chords, marking time until their solos. Unless the artist specifies just chords, most appreciate any tasteful riffs, licks, countermelodies, sounds, and/or hooks you add to their music. If they appreciate it enough, you become indispensible, and the gig is yours as long as you want it. And should they get signed, it increases your chance of being the guitarist on the record.

5. Don’t step on the vocals or soloist. I once had a famous guitar hero lean over and whisper, “Wow, check out how that guy is playing in between-the vocals.” (As opposed to what? I thought.) And don’t just play any old thing—create something that adds to the mood of the tune.

6. Don’t be a whiner. The joke is, “How do you get musicians to complain?” “Give them a gig.” It’s easy to grumble about the pay, the food, the miles, the venue, or the sound—not to mention the quirks of the artist paying you. Resist the urge. The easiest way to get over this is book a gig as a leader once or twice. You’ll quickly learn how difficult it is to deal with expenses, venue owners, sound people, and, er, sidepersons. If you don’t like the pay, the music, or the conditions, do everyone (including yourself) a favor, and don’t take the gig. —Michael Ross

Of course, some aspects of auditioning are non-musical. If you get the gig, these people will be living with you in close quarters for weeks or months at a time, so take a shower before the audition. (As obvious as that sounds, it must be said, because more than one interviewee mentioned it.) Have a positive attitude, but don’t suck up or talk too much. Be confident—not cocky. One way to calm nerves is to remember you are auditioning them as well. Are these people you want to play and travel with?

Though we might wish it weren’t so, age and appearance matter in a professional music career. While alternative bands have proven it’s okay to be heavy or bald, your appearance must fit the band, so dress appropriately. Don’t show up in a suit if you’re auditioning for a hippie jam band. Consider the odds well against you if you’re 50 and auditioning for a band of twentysomethings. It can work the other way around as well: Legacy bands (read: old) tend to hire more experienced (read: old) musicians.

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