By Askold Buk
Many people believe that possessing talent alone is enough to guarantee an artist success in the music business. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a perfect world, the best musicians—the best guitarists—would be amply rewarded for their abilities. The music business, however, is far from perfect.
And unless you’re one of the blessed few (such as Eddie Van Halen) who can single-handedly change the course of guitar history, the harsh reality is that killer chops and perfect time impress only other guitarists, not the people who hire you or buy the records.
Talent, of course, is any artist’s basic bread and butter, but whether you’re a fingerpicker or a two-handed tapper, in order to survive the music business and distinguish yourself from the thousands of other guitarists who are after your gig, you must boast some other essential qualities.
These range from good people skills to practical, common-sense approaches to your business (face it, that’s what it is), both of which will help you stand out from the pack—and believe me, there’s nothing more frightening that a pack of hungry, feral guitarists.
For your edification, I have crunched these qualities—the many do’s and don’ts of guitar existence—into 10 hardheaded, clearly wrought maxims. Learn them, memorize them, master them and imbibe. You’ll be a better person for it, a better guitarist, and you just may make your way from the garage to the arena stage.
01. Having a great feel is your most important musical asset
No one will want to play with you if you have bad time. You must have a great feel-it’s that simple. By “great feel” I mean the ability to lock in with the rhythm section and produce a track that grooves. If there’s one thing I would recommend you to constantly work on, it’s developing your groove. Listen to the greats to learn how grooves should be played: from rock (Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” to 16th-note funk (James Brown’s “Sex Machine”) to blues shuffle (“Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan). Tape yourself (with a metronome) playing them-you’ll be able to isolate and work on your problem areas. Or pick up the excellent JamTrax series (Music Sales), a series of play-along tapes covering everything from blues to alternative to metal, to stay in shape. This is the one area where you should be most brutal in your self-assessment. You’ll be a much better player for it.
02. Develop your own sound
There’s no better way to learn how to play than to cop licks from your favorite guitarists. The problem to watch out for is when you start sounding too much like your favorite player. Remember, rules, especially musical rules, are made to be broken.
03. Listen, listen, listen!
When you’re on stage or in the studio, don’t be in your own world-listen and interact with the other musicians you’re working with. React to what they’re playing. Don’t play too loud or get in the way when someone else is soloing. Put their egos ahead of yours-your number will always be called if the other musicians feel that you made them sound better.
04. Know what you want to be
The most successful people in the music business are totally focused-they have specific goals in mind and do whatever is necessary to achieve them. The simple realization that you don’t have to be a musician to be a rock star and don’t have to be a rock star to be a musician can spare you years of cynicism and bitterness.
05. Play for the song, not for yourself
It’s imperative to play what’s idiomatically correct. For example, don’t play Yngwie licks on Bush’s “Glycerine” or a noodly jazz solo on Soundgarden’s “Outshined,” no matter how much it impresses you. I learned this the hard way while auditioning for a punk singer. I thought I’d show her what a good, well-rounded musician I was and ended a thrash song in A with an Am(add9) chord, instead of a more appropriate A5. I was promptly shown the door.
06. It’s essential to have a great touch, or vibrato
There are players who say it took them 10-15 years to develop a great vibrato. They’re the lucky ones-most never find it. Your touch is like your fingerprints-it’s what distinguishes your blues playing, for instance, from that of countless other guitarists. Think of B.B. King or Jimi Hendrix-they are instantly recognizable. There are two main types of vibrato: one generated by the wrist (a la Hendrix and B.B. King) and the other from the fingers (favored more by classical guitarists). To determine which type works for you, check out your favorite guitarists’ vibratos and try to imitate them. You can also pick up B.B. King’s video Bluesmaster (Volume 1) to see his unique “bee-sting” vibrato demonstrated in-depth.
07. Get your sound/tone together
I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Know your gear well enough so that it works for you, not against you. For example, if you’re looking for a Stevie Ray tone, you won’t get it with a Les Paul going through a Marshall. You’ll need a Strat running through a Fender Bassman (with an Ibanez Tube Screamer for extra punch). Unless you’re a studio tech-head, a great guitar and amp (with an overdrive or chorus pedal) will probably sound 10 times better than a refrigerator full of rack-mounted shit (believe me, I’ve been there).
08. Practice what you don’t know, not what you do know
In order to improve, you must practice. That sounds frightening, but let me reassure you that good practicing doesn’t necessarily entail sitting grimly in a basement (while the other kids are outside playing), mindlessly running scales and arpeggios-you can get all the technique you need by learning licks from your favorite guitarists. For example, Eric Johnson’s intro to “Cliffs of Dover” is a veritable lexicon of minor-pentatonic ideas. Here are the three axioms of good practicing:
A. Master small bits of music first (no more than four to eight notes at a time), then connect them to form longer passages.
B. Start out playing new ideas at a slow tempo (this builds muscle memory), then gradually work up to speed. It’s much better to play slow and clean than fast and sloppy.
C. Always practice with a metronome
09. Contrary to popular belief, taking lessons and listening to other styles of music doesn’t hurt
It never hurts to broaden your scope, no matter how great a player you already are or how much you think you’ve already learned all there is to know. Opening your mind to other styles and techniques makes you a better, more well-rounded musician. Period. A great teacher can inspire and enable you to develop as a creative, exciting player.
10. Develop authority as a player
You have to get to the point where you feel as creatively comfortable in front of hundreds of people as you do in front of your sister and the dog. And the only way you can attain that authority is by putting in the time. Playing at home only gets you so far-it’s imperative that you play out as soon as you can. Attend jam sessions. Take less-than-ideal gigs, just for the experience. Take any gigs, for that matter-it’s the experience that counts!