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How to sit in without butting in

One of the best ways to get your name around town as a musician is to get out and play whenever you can, or sit in with other bands on the nights you’re not giggin’. Personally, I have always found sitting in to be a difficult venture.

Musicians talk a lot about gear and tone. Gear starts out broad with amps, speaker cabinets, and guitars, and comes down to the very finest of details: strings, picks and even cables. They all have their place, and once you choose one it becomes a part of your personal sound. Players sometimes spend hours and hours adjusting and tweaking every point of connection, including pickups and volume pots, to get their personal sound. What works for me may not be right for you—all of these modifications are specific to us.

With all of that attention to detail in creating music, it’s no wonder I never feel comfortable sitting in on someone else’s rig. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a great honor to be asked to play in a club or bar anytime I go out. However, rarely will I find a little of my own comfort zone and have one of my own picks in my pocket. Short of that, I’m charting open waters without a compass! I’ve never played through anyone else’s guitar rig that sounded anything like mine. I’m not saying that mine is better or worse—it’s just always different. We’ve all made distinctive choices on our rigs. We like our guitars set up to specific string heights with various gauges of strings. We prefer different effects pedals, and so on. I think in my entire career I’ve only felt good about sitting in maybe three times, and in all three of those instances I never would have expected to get anything decent out of the guitar that I had in my hand—so go figure. In spite of the gratuitous, “Man, you sounded great up there” compliments from other players and members of the audience, I generally feel it could have been better if I’d had all my own stuff and was able to give them my “personal sound.”

I’ve been on both ends of the sit in. There have been occasions where I’m the guy with the club gig and someone is sitting in on my stuff. I’m sure they walk away thinking much the same thing: It sounded great when he was playing it, so why did it sound like I was playing with my feet when I got up there? I imagine that will never change. It’s not practical to go out every night dragging a Marshall half-stack and Les Paul around with you from club to club, hoping that somebody might ask you to play a couple of tunes, so you just have to deal with the gear that they have and understand that it’s probably not as bad as you think it is.

I can, however, give some advice for when you do sit in. Treat the other guy’s gear with respect. I had a guy once sit in on a club date, and he started playing slide with a beer bottle. I’m sure it made the appropriate impression on his hottie gal pal, but I spent the next break cleaning sticky beer residue out of the pickups of my vintage strat. Even though you want it to sound as good as it can, any time you pick up another player’s six-string, don’t make any drastic changes to his setup. It’s his gig. You’re only gonna be up there for two songs, so don’t start tweakin’ knobs like you’re sound-checking for a big arena gig. And finally, leave them wanting more. Don’t overstay your welcome. It was great that they asked you to come up, but don’t take over the stage for the rest of the night—or even the rest of the set. I actually got a couple of paying gigs doing just that. I did my two songs, I never touched a knob, and I returned that axe safely back to the guitar stand, just as if it were one of my own high-dollar guitars. On the break, the guitar’s owner commented that he not only enjoyed my playing, but appreciated how much respect I showed his equipment. He then asked if I was working the following weekend because he was doing a gig across town and needed a second lead guitarist to fill out the band. So, always be a pro and try to play your best. You never know who’s listening.

Keep Jammin’

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