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More Instruments = More Gigs

Musical opportunities grow exponentially with every instrument one plays, so I’ve picked up a few over the years.

When it comes to a career

in music, I plan on being

the last guy at the party—the

old dude who hangs around way

too long … the guy who everybody

wishes would just go home

or die so the rest of the good

citizens could get some sleep.

I'm a lifer intent on playing as

long as I'm breathing, even if it

means having a bag on my hip

and a tank of oxygen at my side

while I'm doing a weekly tour of

Elks, Eagles, American Legion,

and VFW clubs.

Rock guitarists do not age

gracefully. At best, there's

something comical—or at

worst, a little sad—about an

old guy rocking an Explorer

under a big gut, one unsure

foot creaking on the monitor

while the stage fan blows

through thinning dyed hair.

There are exceptions: Keith

and Ronnie, of course, will

always be cool. Jimmy Page

has successfully traded his sexy

rock god stature for a regal

presence, though his grey hair

makes him look a bit like

the Quaker Oat man. Steve

Cropper, though technically a

senior, looks like he could kick

my ass, and therefore remains

indelibly cool. Old black guys

always look cool with a guitar

in their hands. (Nobody

is ever going to tell B.B. or

Buddy they should consider

retiring.) However, I'm not

sure how well I'm going to

fare when those bitches we call

time and high mileage begin

to steal away my boyish good

looks. After giving this some

thought, I came to a realization:

I needed a Plan B.

That's one reason I started

playing pedal steel: Take an

ancient, hunched-over fat guy,

give him the requisite outfit—a Texas Taco cowboy hat, a

garish Western shirt with piping,

some baggy Wranglers

pulled up to his armpits—and

sit him behind a pedal steel,

and he will fit in on any stage.

I'm actually disappointed when

I see a guy under 50 on steel.

Mandolin, Dobro, and banjo,

though not quite as uncool as

steel, can also legitimize the

old man out there onstage.

Musical opportunities

grow exponentially with every

instrument one plays, so I've

picked up a few over the years.

Though electric guitar remains

my main squeeze, I also get

gigs for acoustic, Dobro,

mandolin, pedal steel, banjo,

bass, and blues harp. Though

I'm hardly an expert on any of

these instruments, I can sound

like I know what I'm doing

for a few songs on each instrument.

The truth is, most people

can't stand banjo, mando,

reso, or pedal steel for more

than a few songs anyway.

The utility thing really pays

off in the studio, where different

sonic colors can send

a track into an unexpectedly

beautiful and/or funky direction.

It may take me a few

extra passes than it would on

guitar, but eventually we'll

get there. It's particularly

nice when you get to sign the

“double" space on the union

card during a master session.

Producers and artists are happy

because doubling gets them the

flavor without the full expense

of bringing in another player,

and it turns a vanilla track into

something more exotic.

What were once considered

hillbilly instruments are now

accepted as “world music"

instruments. Listen to rock or

pop radio long enough, and

you'll hear mandolins, accordions,

pedal steels, etc. My wife,

Megan Mullins, actually played

banjo with Shakira. It doesn't

get more “world" than Shakira.

The multi-instrumentalist/

utility calling card has paid

great dividends. Two weeks

ago, Nashville guitar ace

Kenny Greenberg called me

for an amazing utility gig.

Kenny was the bandleader

for the Bama Rising concert,

where they would accompany

multiple acts. Kenny was handling

the lead guitar duties

but needed somebody to cover

Dobro, steel, banjo, mandolin,

acoustic, and electric guitar.

It was an amazing lineup of

diverse acts, including Sheryl

Crow (I played pedal steel and

mandolin), the Commodores

(electric), Sara Evans (mandolin

and electric), Little Big

Town (Dobro), Bo Bice (electric),

Ashton Shepherd (mandolin,

electric), Rodney Atkins

(banjo), Luke Bryant (banjo,

electric), and the Blind Boys of

Alabama (acoustic). If I didn't

have those instruments in my

bag of tricks, I would have

been stuck at home.

To a certain extent, being

the bandleader for a mid-level,

major-label artist is a bit like

coaching a AAA baseball team:

Your pitcher has a couple of

hot weeks and he's called up

to the majors. Similarly, your

bass player can end up leaving

mid-tour to work with Faith

Hill. A quick fix is to move a

few things around. Your second

guitarist covers bass, your

keyboard player handles some

of the guitar, etc. When I'm

putting bands together for new

touring acts, I always take that

into consideration. The goal

is to be ready for anything,

should somebody leave suddenly

two hours before showtime

in Cedar Rapids.

But guitar remains my go-to

instrument. If I don't pick it

up once a day I feel wrong,

whereas I can go for months

without picking up some other

instruments. In fact, I almost

have to re-learn them in the

studio or at the gig. But these

instruments have definitely

enriched my life and gotten

me more work. These may not

all be lucrative gigs, but fun

has always been my preferred

form of currency.

John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best know for his work in television, having lead the band for all six season of NBC's hit program Nashville Star, the 2011, 2010 and 2009 CMT Music Awards, as well as many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA and HDTV.

John's music compositions and playing can be heard in several major label albums, motion pictures, over one hundred television spots and Muzak... (yes, Muzak does play some cool stuff.) Visit him at

or and check out his new band, The Tennessee Hot Damns.