Ask A Working Guitarist, Part 2: Staying Creative and Juggling Gigs
How to keep things fresh while touring and what to do when you find yourself faced with a variety of gigs.
Last month, I solicited questions from readers on the online forum thegearpage.net regarding being a working guitarist. This month, I’ll provide longer answers to two great questions I received from readers about staying creative on tour and how to manage a number of different gigs.
How do you keep from getting stale as a player when you're on tour playing the same tunes night after night? Do you maintain a practice schedule or at least block out time to push yourself musically/creatively? – Andre Timothy
Great question! It really depends on your band and situation. If it’s up to you and your band, you can consciously choose to not be stale. My buddy Jorgen Carlsson is the bassist in Gov’t Mule, and those guys are constantly pushing themselves musically. They have a massive repertoire, with something like 14 albums out, and in addition to their own material they are always doing covers and having people sit in, which always creates challenges. Every Halloween they do a theme set, like when they performed the entire Who album Who’s Next at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California in 2010. They asked me to perform an entire 12-song set of Seattle grunge classics with them on New Year’s Eve in 2008, and it was an honor for me. We had one rehearsal—hardly enough time to hit each song once. But they are such good musicians, so tuned in to listening and playing with one another, that you realize when jamming with them that mistakes don’t really exist in their world. They see mistakes as musical opportunities! The gig was a total blast. My point is, no two Mule gigs are ever the same, and that is a conscious choice on their part. I find their approach inspiring.
Now if you aren’t in a situation like that, maybe you can at least vary your set a little from night to night, and/or create moments in the set where spontaneity is the goal—moments to just jam and stretch. We have lots of these moments in a Melissa Etheridge set. She really likes spontaneity and creativity on the gig. You could also suggest to your bandmates to try setting aside 20 minutes to jam or work on new material at the end of each soundcheck.
As far as a personal practice schedule, I really don’t have one. I try and always have a small amp backstage (I use a Roland Micro Cube) and I’ll warm up for an hour or so before each gig. Now that there are great amp modelers for laptops and the iPhone and iPad, all you really need is an interface and some headphones and you have the makings of a great little mobile practice/recording rig. Sometimes it can be hard to discipline myself to sit down and practice while on the road, but with all these tools and resources we have available, once I bear down and get into it, I find it hard to stop playing.
Could you talk a bit about how you handle all of your working guitarist jobs, and managing your time? I mean, you do gear demo videos (good ones by the way), you are touring, you record your tones, your look for audiences, you write guitar articles, and of course you have a life with your family. What are some tips on how to manage time and not lose opportunities, and more importantly, how to find opportunities to be a working guitarist? Cheers and congrats about your job and character. – Fabio Ometto
Well, basically I’ve found that I have to be as disciplined as possible in managing my time, because I’m essentially self-employed and no one else will do it for me. If I have a tour coming up, and I have material to learn, I budget my time far in advance so I will be prepared when I walk into rehearsals. If I have to complete a gear demo video for a pedal company, I do my best to prioritize, working on the video before tackling any other projects I have going. When it came to completing my album, I just had to work on it whenever I could, between tours and sessions.
When I find out about an audition for a gig I really want, I tend to drop everything and prioritize learning and practicing the material until it’s really second nature. When I was asked to audition for Chris Cornell it was 12:30 a.m., and I had to be at the rehearsal studio at noon the next day for the audition! I had to learn five songs and grab some sleep—that was a real cram-fest, and I put learning the music above sleeping—but it worked out. You do what you have to do.
As for finding opportunities, I tend to try and create my own these days. The gear demo thing is a good example. I noticed a lot of people were uploading homemade videos to YouTube, and I realized that it’d be a great medium for demonstrating equipment. I reasoned that if I were to record the video and audio professionally and really play things that showed off the specific piece of gear I was demoing, I’d be performing a service both for the maker of the product and for the potential customer, helping them know what to expect out of a product. The videos I made became popular, and making them has become a part of being a “working guitarist” for me. So I essentially created the opportunity for myself, using some of the modern tech that is now available to us all. Try and think “outside of the box,” and create your own niche.
Pete Thorn is a Los Angeles-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album Guitar Nerd will be out in early 2011.You can read more about his career and music at peterthorn.com.