sideman survival

Those seemingly useless riffs might just come back to you when you need them the most.

Years ago when I was younger and more impressionable, I read an interview where Chet Atkins was asked if he had any valuable advice for young guitarists. Chet replied, "Hold onto all of your neckties, they come back in style quicker than you''d think." At the time, hungry to glean anything that might help my career, Chet''s musings on antiquated fashion left me disappointed. It seemed like Chet was either well on his way to dementia or selfishly withholding the keys to the kingdom like a miser who insists on being buried with his Picasso, Rolex, and ‘59 Les Paul. Today, however, I recognize the validity in the maestro''s advise. I might sound like a bad college Lit professor who reads way too much into everything, but Chet''s glib response does imply that aesthetic trends are circular, whether it''s what you wear or what you play. Hence, the aspiring guitarist should acquire everything that''s fashionable at the time and hold onto it.

JB (right) playing a post-show party with a very drunk Bret Michaels (left) and Eddie Montgomery of Montgomery Gentry
Here are examples of the circular nature of trends straight from the normal life of a Nashville sideman. I wasted hours of my youth in my parents'' basement with my regrettably long-gone, ''75 Les Paul Custom trying to learn eighties rock guitar. I sacrificed a good deal of my hearing by playing the dweedala dweedala dweedala solos night after beer-fueled night in sticky floored clubs. Then I tried my best to quit using all these licks in my playing when eighties cock-rock became uncool. I''ve been groan-fully changing the station on supa sounds of the eighties for over a decade.

Then two years ago, I unexpectedly did a few television spots with Bret Michaels of Poison. When I was relearning the solos to Poison''s hits, my prodigal youth paid off. When I really had to re-study the songs, I began to appreciate DeVille''s playing. Eighties rock and metal kind of dares you to make fun of it, but once you get past some aesthetic differences of someone groomed and coiffed in metal''s fashion you can appreciate the inventiveness and precision of it. Besides, it is so much fun to put down the Tele and Bludgeon an Explorer with your foot on the monitor. It truly is "nothing but a good time."

The Poison stuff opened my mind and ears. I also began noticing how often current Nashville recordings allude to big hair guitar. One of our top producers, Dan Huff was literally a giant of eighties guitar and his current work melds that style perfectly with that classic fast double stop Tele stuff. Turn on country radio any day and you will hear guitar work that steals from Jerry Reed, Lynrd Skynrd, Allman Brothers, Albert Lee, Alvin Lee, Mark Knopfler, Segovia. As backward and southern as we may seem, Nashville is actually amazingly open minded about melding guitar genres. Half the time I get a Nashville chart I find copious notes in their margins with allusions such as: "Back in Black vibe," "Credence Lick," or "Think Doobie Brothers." Current Nashville guitar is an amalgam of just about everything.

My brain is cursed with a very limited storage capacity, and although I regret that I can''t remember birthdays or where I parked my car, I am grateful for all the sonic garbage cluttering my memory banks and stealing away valuable gray space. Every once in awhile someone will say, "kind of a Dixie Chicken thaaaaang" and I''ll know what they mean. Perhaps Chet was referring solely to clothing, (you have to admit, the Strokes look good in those skinny ties), but my guess is, if Premier Guitar could arrange an interview from beyond the grave, Chet would encourage all of us to hang on to our hopelessly outdated licks as well as skinny and/or fat ties.

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Tips for auditioning like a pro

I''ve been gigging a bit with a killer new act on Arista Nashville.  The drummer, though talented,  has not been a particularly good fit and, though he doesn''t know it yet,  he''s going to be replaced.  I feel bad for the guy; it''s not his ability -- he plays the parts right -- it''s one of those indefinable can''t-put-your-finger-on-it mysteries: groove. He might be right on the click hitting every cue but it doesn''t make my dick hard.  Management has since booked a room at SIR to try a few hopefuls. 

Across the board, these so called "drummers" who auditioned disappointed in every conceivable way. Although management paid me to take part in the auditions, it felt like a colossal waste of time; I would rather have had my testicles nailed to a table than spend an afternoon trying to ease poor percussionists through songs they did not bother to learn. 

Having been on both sides of the audition dilemma,  I''ve gleaned some empirical insight into the pitfalls one should avoid and insight into how you will be judged by your future employers.

You''ve got to punch your own weight

If you are still a bit of a novice and everybody in the band comes from a much deeper end of the talent pool, don''t bother auditioning. You won''t get the gig and if by some fluke they hire you, they will replace you when they discover your inadequacies. This sounds harsh and maybe contradictory because you should always strive to work with players who are better than you in order to learn and rise to their level, but if you are way out of your league you will not have the foundation to understand what the others are doing. You will also be hard-pressed to live down this terrible first impression. Years down the road when your playing has improved, these seasoned pros will assume that you are the same hack you were years earlier. There''s a band in Nashville called The Time Jumpers that plays killer Texas Swing stuff. I watched them the other night and thought, "This gig is out of my league." I could fake my way through part of the night but they would leave me in the dust eventually and I would want to sneak off the stage and disappear forever come second set. When one is out of one''s league it''s not going to end well.

Show up on time

This is part of the test. If the audition is for 12:00, that means a noon downbeat, not start to set up at noon. If you arrive early you''ll have time to set up, prepare and maybe listen to other auditioners so you will know what to expect. This valuable time will help you get ready and closer to relaxed. It''s normal to be nervous, but if your heart is racing, so will your tempo.  

Dress appropriately

Get a general idea of the overall look of the act and use it as a guide. You don''t have to be what would traditionally be considered as "sexy" to look good; just find a look that works.  Even the elephant man pulled a cool cap and cowl kind of thing that worked; you should too. In the same vein, your gear should have the right look, too -- not just the right tone. I watched in dismay as a bass player carried a seven string bass into a hardcore country audition once. I''m sure the tone was fine but before he even plugged in we were all thinking, "Next." 

Do your homework
Know the parts and be ready for key changes. If it''s a Nashville gig, assume that they will be number charts so get comfortable reading them. Ten years ago I was working with an act on Sony that needed a new second guitarist. This guy who had flown in from New York for the audition had painstakingly transcribed every song on the album note for note on a staff. Regrettably for him, the artist couldn''t hit those notes live so we dropped four of the songs down a half step or more. Had this poor soul read number charts, the transposing would have been no big deal, but he was left staring at a staff that had very little to do with what we were playing; all in all, it was a pretty humiliating and costly experience for that guy.

No excuses

Nobody cares that you "just got the material;"  learning quickly is part of any gig. Don''t complain about your monitor, as monitors suck about half the time on any major tour. No sleep, frazzled from a long flight, slammed with work: join the club. If you can only play when conditions are perfect, you''d be just what they are looking for in the group "Fantasy" on Imaginary Records, with a big gig on the tenth of never at Make Believe Meadowlands. In the real world, conditions are often bad, occasionally good but seldom perfect.

Once you''ve done all you can,  let it go

I''ve practiced like crazy, annoyed God with constant prayer and set all of my hopes for happiness and fulfillment on a few soul-crushing auditions. I failed to land those jobs many, many times. Sometimes I played terribly and they hired me, sometimes I thought I nailed it but left empty-handed. There were times where I''ve been involved on both sides of auditions where the act already had somebody they fully intended on hiring but were going through the charade of auditions to satisfy the label/management/producer or network that claimed the act could do better than the player he or she wanted. Those auditions were a fool''s errand made to fail;  enabling the act to tell the powers, "See, my guy is the guy. I''m right and you''re wrong."

This illustrates some of the many factors involved with landing a gig that are beyond your control. Auditions are not the preferred way to land a gig. Here''s the thing about working in the arts, be it as a musician, actor, anchorman, model, etc: you got, you get. When you gig, be it big or be it small, do it well or not at all. Every gig serves as an audition. You never know who''s listening.

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The remedy: getting uncomfortable

Music is a hard way to make an easy living; it''s kind of like professional gambling only without the security. Although I''ve been a professional musician for nearly two decades, I''m still amazed that music actually provides a living wage for tens of thousands of artistic-slacker-gypsy-outsider-underachieving Americans. When you think about it, the concept is pretty absurd: somebody pays us to play. (I mean "play" as in: "To occupy oneself in recreation, amusement or sport") What a delicious scam.

There are a few downsides to this scam:

  1. Every gig eventually ends and replacement gigs are sometimes late in coming.
  2. Sometimes gigs run too long, the thrill is gone, you''re sick of the songs and you want to move on --but can''t. 
  3. Every now and then gainful employment in the business of music requires musicians to engage in activities that seem frighteningly close to actual work.
My past week in Nashville illustrates these pitfalls.

On the Road Again

Monday morning I returned to Music City via tour bus from a three day run on the Nashville Star Tour. We have been gigging heavily since June and have only a handful of dates left in the year before I begin pre-production for our next season of Nashville Star at our new home on NBC. Nashville Star is a dream gig: challenging, rewarding, fun, great people -- the whole enchilada. Although the fans, the band and the artists have loved the tour, after this many shows the songs play themselves and we are at times hard-pressed to inject each performance with the fire and spontaneity of our July and August shows.

On the bus, band, crew and singers now tend to escape into solo activities like reading novels or searching the web rather than group functions like watching DVDs, listening to music or critiquing our performance. Don''t get me wrong; everybody on the Nashville Star Tour loves each other, loves the fans and loves the gig, but like prison lifers in the yard who''ve been listening to a re-telling of the same ten jokes for years, we crave input from the outside world. On this run I''ve felt like I''m phoning it in, growing stagnant, losing my chops. I''m tired of hearing myself hack through my same trite guitar licks ad nauseam. In short, I''m burned out, soon to be unemployed and in need of a new gig.

The Phone Rings...

Miraculously, on Tuesday I get a call from the good people at Doc McGhee management about Jypsi, their new act on Arista. Jypsi is a wildly talented group of blue-grasser siblings who have just finished a killer country album replete with tight, blood harmonies, fiery pickin'' and what sounds suspiciously like hit songs. They want to augment their sound with an electric guitar and have an industry showcase at the Rutledge on 4th street in Nashville on Wednesday: six songs, an SIR rehearsal the day of at 11:00 am, load in at 3:00 and show at 6:00. I''ve caught the act before while playing tip gigs on lower Broadway and I loved them. I also love the guys at Doc McGhee. I don''t even ask what it pays, I just tell them I''m in and I''ll pick up a CD at the management office that afternoon.

I''m home with Jypsi''s CD by 2 o''clock and start charting. I feel like a former Olympic sprinter who spent the entire summer drinking beer and watching made-for-TV movies. My brain has atrophied to the size, texture and shape of an old walnut. It takes a while to get into the groove. On the first listen, I chart in broad strokes, get the changes right, note stuff -- it''s a straight (D) in the chorus but a "D7th with an F# in the bass" at channel into the chorus. I try to write an accurate outline of the songs. The next time through, I look for the harder aspects of the songs, like the intricate unison and harmony lines.

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