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Competition Advice: All You Need to Know

The world of guitar competitions, explained by competition vets

There are a lot of ways to jumpstart your career as a guitarist. You can spend hours noodling away in front of a video camera balanced on a stack of books on your bedside table, then check YouTube every hour to see if you''re famous yet. You can wade through call after call from 15-year-old drummers responding to your Craigslist ad for bandmates. If you''re really brave you can go head to head with other players in a guitar competition.

 Competitions are inherently scary. It isn''t a stretch to say some people enter them only to find themselves standing in front of stone-faced judges who aren''t impressed with that face-melting solo. It gets worse, too -- there''s always the chance that the next guy (or gal!) will take the stage and execute the same lick, only cleaner and faster. But if your playing, performing and songwriting chops are up to snuff, a competition win can put you in the national spotlight – not to mention stroke your ego and land you some cash or cool gear.

Where to Start

There are guitar competitions of all sizes and genres with a variety of prizes. They range from small gatherings of local pickers at the County Fair to a National stage judged by guys like Joe Satriani. These aren''t just shredfests, either.

Classical guitarists have a number of prestigious competitions to choose from, including the Guitar Foundation of America’s International Solo Competition, which awards a tour, CD recording session and photo shoot among the prizes. There''s also the Parkening International Guitar Competition, which awards $25 grand and a professionally managed performance tour of recitals and concerts with orchestras.

The National Fingerstyle Championship in Winfield, Kansas is a highly-respected feather for any picker''s hat. The big winner also gets $3000 cash and a custom guitar. For the blues-minded there''s Guitar Center’s King of the Blues (formerly Guitarmageddon), which awards the winner a new Ford Mustang and a Gibson sponsorship, among other swag.

Of course, if you’re a shredder, there''s no shortage of competitions. Probably the best-known is Guitar Player’s Guitar Hero competition. It isn''t just for shredders, though -- this year''s winner is Ladd Smith, a fast-pickin'' country guy. Rockers can also put their skills to the test at the North American Rock Guitar Competition.

How to Win

There is no simple formula for winning a guitar competition, however there are certainly things you can do or keep in mind to increase your chances. We picked the brains of six competition veterans to learn what we could.

The first big question... what the heck do you play? While some competitions tell you what to play, most leave it up to you. Whether coming from blues, classical, or a rock background, each of the players we talked to told us the same thing: stay true to yourself.
“Don’t worry about trying to compete with the other guys. Do what you do best,” said Jamie Robinson, winner of the 2007 North American Rock Guitar Competition.
Amy K, a finalist in multiple competitions, echoed the sentiment, warning against emulating anybody. “It''s great to learn from the best," Amy told us, "...but make sure you find your own voice and style on the instrument, and on stage.”

Don’t change yourself for the judges. That''s the word from Rodney VerBrugge. He warns not to “...get bogged down by trying to decide what song(s) will please the judges.” At the same time, be mindful of the fact that the judges are listening to a lot of guitar playing.
“Give the judges something different to chew on,” said Jon Kabbash, who has won two competitions and placed highly in others.

For most of the competitors, “something different” is as simple as great songwriting. Ladd Smith, 2007 Guitar Hero winner, says it really is that simple: “Focus on writing, in the end, it''s all about the song.” VerBrugge agrees. “If you don''t have the songs then you are really limited,” he explained.

Making a good impression goes beyond playing, however. Your actions offstage can make or break the experience. One of the biggest offstage issues our competitors mentioned was keeping the ego in check.
 “It''s okay to be confident in what you do," explained Smith, "...but don''t compare yourself to others, only worry about doing your best and to know in your heart that you gave it your best shot." Robinson agreed. “All the competitors are there at the same level and doing the same thing," he warned.

Another oft-repeated tip is to enjoy the experience and not stress out. Trey Alexander, 2006 Guitar Hero winner, describes his experience with joy. “Enjoy every minute that you are involved in something so special,” he told us.

Robinson extends this mentality to interacting with the competition. “The nicer you are to the other competitors and the more you get to know them, the better experience you will have,” he said.

Finally, be prepared mentally. Alexander stressed getting some sleep and curbing the partying to be at your best onstage. Putting it bluntly, Alexander said, “There is no way you can perform at your peak level if your brain is running a couple of cylinders short.”

For more advice, check out our complete interviews with Trey Alexander, Ladd Smith, Rodney VerBrugge, Amy K, Jon Kabbash, and Jamie Robinson.