Dave Sherman, keyboardist with Nick Cave, Grand Mal, and Elle King, shared his experiences.
The Worst Audition
Dave: It was the mid ’90s in Nashville, and my buddy went out of his way to get me an audition with a pretty successful cover band that was working four to five nights a week. I heard the music and thought, this is just three-chord rock. I can coast in and just do it intuitively. We started playing and the horrified looks on their faces is something I still think of as a reminder to learn the exact parts and sounds required.
Dave: One thing I’ve discovered over time is that for touring or cover gigs, the band wants to hear the part. Learning every detail and getting the exact feel are crucial to playing with confidence, dynamics, and focus.
Memorize the song titles so you can adjust quickly when they’re called out. It’s also good to know the lyrics, as they help cue the section changes. You don’t need to memorize everything, but you always need to know what comes next. Learn all the important parts and hooks of the songs—not just the ones you are playing. You may be called upon to play the other parts or double them.
Do’s and Don’ts of Auditioning
Dave: Don’t overplay. Don’t overtalk. Be confident, but be nice and offer to help if needed. Being in a group is like being a roommate. If your audition is a meal hang, then don’t eat or drink too much.
Dave: Know the songs well enough so that you can transpose them. This requires knowing the melodies and voice-leading of your parts by heart.
I can concur with this! Many times, I’ve shown up and the song key has been changed, sometimes to a key that isn’t flattering to the guitar. You have to internalize what’s going on. It’s often more than just a position on the neck.
Dave: It’s all word of mouth for me, but that’s because I’ve been doing it for a long time. Most of my auditions at this point are sharing a meal or a coffee or even a phone call to make sure I’m on the same page with the bandleaders conceptually and that I’m an okay person to hang with for an extended amount of time.
Party Band Central
I also talked to Mel Flannery, who once led a party band called Mixtape specializing in private events (www.melflannery.com).
What are the most important skills for this kind of work?
Mel: Having big ears to catch the little things in the original recording that made it cool to begin with. Being easy to get along with. That is huge. Enjoying playing in general and always striving to make music and not just get through the gig. Having the kind of tune memory so that you can jump from one song to the next and instantly recall what that riff sounds like.
What are the deal-breakers?
Mel: Being unprepared, being rude, or having too much ego. Not just to me but to the other musicians, as well. These gigs are long days and if you're not a good hang, you’re out.
Although Mel mainly hired people through her network, she would open cold call emails.
Mel: A lot of musician cold-call emails are really sloppy, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and clearly just going down a list of bands. Ninety percent of them feel spammy.
If anyone reading this sends cold call emails, I really encourage you to personalize each one. Make it clear you've actually looked at the band's website. Personalize yourself. Don't just say your name, your instrument, and drop a bunch of YouTube links. And don't send identical emails every few months. Yuck.
How much material do you expect guitarists to prepare?
Mel: I've done auditions a few different ways, but I think the most I've ever asked for was 15 songs, with charts provided before and during.
Do you expect guitarists to dress for stage or can they go casual when they audition?
Mel: They don’t necessarily have to show up dressed for the stage, but I really appreciate when they ask about the dress code. That shows they’re pros, and that they’re in the right mindset to work and will be good team members.
You may be asked to play many kinds of music in a party band. Different genres may use different chord voicings. If you’re learning songs for a cover or party band, make sure you’re playing the right voicings. It can really change the character of the music.
Some people spend a lifetime learning the intricacies of one musical genre. When a party band wants “authentically replicated” parts, they usually mean the right voicings and similar sounds. You won’t have to give a presentation on the history of soul. But you’ll need it to sound and feel right. You have to show you know a variety of musical genres.
When an original band uses the word “authentic,” you better be able to give a dissertation on the many subtleties that make up the genre. These situations can get really deep and it can quickly become obvious you’re a visitor in a foreign land.
This brings me to another point: Don’t advertise skills or styles of music you don’t do well. I’ve seen people exaggerate their skill set, only to show up and get schooled. It’s better to do fewer things well than many things half-heartedly.
Another important tip: Learn to sing harmonies. I can’t tell you how much this comes up. I’ve lost a lot of opportunities over the years because I’m not a solid harmony singer. Many gigs, including top-tier gigs, require this nowadays.
This doesn’t mean you have to be a great lead singer. You need to blend in and have good pitch. A less skilled guitarist may get the gig over you, simply because they can sing backups.
Everyone I spoke with recommended either casual nice-and-neat or stage-ready. The way you dress creates an impression. If it’s a party band, dress casual and clean. This will give them confidence you’ll show up to a wedding dressed for the part. If it’s an audition with an artist or a band, dress the part. I tend not to always go full stage wear, but dressed like I’m going to a cool event.
This can mean many things depending on the genre of music you’re into. Regardless of style, look cool. I would avoid shorts. You’re not going to the gym or a BBQ.
Broadway auditions are a real pressure cooker. Your first show—and even first couple of shows—is your audition. You’re expected to come in and nail the parts, just as the first chair guitarist does. You should play the parts perfectly.
If you do well for a few shows, you’ll get “designated,” which means you’ve got the okay to be a regular sub. My friend and fellow touring musician Tony Mason has been subbing on the musical Hadestown. I’ve seen Tony prepare for that show. He doesn’t just partially know the music. He breathes it. This is a must. A sub on a recent Broadway show sight-read on his first performance. He was fired. Even if you’re a great sight-reader, there are nuances you won’t get unless you really do your homework. I’d say that no matter what gig you’re doing, don’t assume you can get away with sight-reading. That’s never a path to success.
Make sure your gear is in working order before you walk into an audition. Entering a room full of people you don’t know is already awkward. Patch cables that don’t work or realizing you forgot a power cable will make you look bad.
Always test your rig and guitar before you leave the house. Make sure the outputs on your pedals are balanced. You don’t want to kick on an overdrive pedal and blow people’s heads off. Mark down the settings and test your tones through an amp at moderate volume.
On arrival, I plug in, turn everything on once to make sure it’s working, and start. Also, no noodling while setting up. Play as little as possible before you’re asked to play. Let the music tell the story. Don’t go through your greatest hits of riffs.
Sound Like the Record
Just how close to the record you need to sound will vary from project to project. For cover or wedding bands, being in the ballpark is fine. Nobody is going to question whether you’re using a Phase 45 or Phase 90. But, on gigs with artists, things can be much more specific. The difference between a germanium and a silicon fuzz pedal can make a difference. The variation between a chorus or a flanger could become important.
Ideally, you should learn the music. There are times when cheat sheets or charts are okay, like when it’s a super short-notice audition, gig, or rehearsal. But in general, the consensus of my survey is: Memorize the music. There are always exceptions where charts won’t necessarily be a deal-breaker. But it looks better if you have the music down.
I’ll sometimes do a cold call here in NYC—a one-off with an artist. I often use charts for these not-quite auditions. There’s no expectation that I’m going to memorize a set for a one-off gig. But if I’m stepping into a situation that I know may be an audition, either onstage or rehearsal, I spend a lot of time with the music.
Personality matters. You’re not just being judged on your playing. This is especially true if you’re auditioning for a touring band. Musicians want to travel with people they can hang with. There is a lot of down time on the road. You’re essentially living together. You don’t want an annoying roommate. If you have an aggressive, confrontational personality, you’ll limit your opportunities. Everyone is there because they love music. Be fun.