There are many levels of sideman work, from playing in a small-town cover band to backing up Sting, and lots in between. Regardless of the size of the gig, the skills needed are mostly the same. Musicians who master these skills are among the most sought-after working sidemen and women in the business.
Here are some pieces of advice that can apply to just about any sideman gig, big or small, and help you become an in-demand working musician.
1.) Become a Stylist
The best way to ensure that you can get work as a sideman is to be competent in several musical styles or genres. The short list is: rock, pop, jazz, blues, R&B. You can also choose to build on that list with some specialties, like country, classical or funk.
Chances are, you’ll end up working in only a couple main genres with an occasional gig in another, but you want to start out with this mantra in mind: my specialty is not having a specialty. This leaves you open for many types of gigs, and once you get going you can steer yourself towards the genres you prefer. Keep in mind, however, that having a long list of styles on your resume doesn’t amount to anything on the bandstand if you aren’t competent in them. It’s better to play 3 styles well than to claim to play 7 styles but play them poorly.
This leads us to our next topic…
2.) Know Your Abilities
From the moment you get the call, make sure you understand your ability to play the gig. For instance, if you’ve never played country before and someone calls you to do a country cover band for a 4 hour casual, be honest with the contractor and tell them your limitations. If you show up for a gig you don’t have the chops to do and make it a drag for everyone else involved, you tarnish your reputation and your chances to be hired in the future. The music world is a VERY small world – the drummer on that country gig might play in a slammin’ pop band that you would be perfect for, but he will recommend against you after a poor showing at the country gig. So be honest with yourself and your ability to play the gig.
I was called once to play solo classical guitar for a wedding that paid really well, but I had to be honest and tell the contractor that I hadn’t played classical in several years and was not the best choice. He respected my honesty and then asked where my musical strengths were – I didn’t get the gig, but mission accomplished: I’m still on his list, and in good graces.
3.) Do Your Homework
Once you book the gig, it’s time to start preparing. Depending upon the gig, there will be material of some sort to learn. Sometimes it’s easy and they give you a CD or a website to download mp3’s from. Sometimes you have to track the music down yourself and buy it. Sometimes there are charts, and sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes the charts they give you are good, and sometimes they are terrible and you either need to fix them or make your own. Sometimes there is a rehearsal, and sometimes there isn’t. Whatever the case, the bottom line is this: it is up to you to learn the material backwards and forwards so that you can nail the gig when it comes time to play.
Like I mentioned in #2, your performance at the gig plays a big part in your continued success. If you only lightly prepare and only sort-of know the tunes, faking the rest, it will show and you run the risk of losing future work. Similarly, if you do your homework and learn the gig inside and out, it will show, and you will portray yourself as a professional who can be counted on in a sideman situation.
Learn the music. Period.
4.) Learn to Memorize
This goes along with #3, but is so important I felt it necessary to give it its own section.
There are so many things that happen on stage (both musical and non-musical) that can make having your eyes glued to the page a real disadvantage. Granted, there will be some gigs where memorizing the charts is unrealistic (i.e. big band jazz or classical gigs), but the lion’s share of gigs as a sideman will be situations where you will be playing basic songs or parts that can be memorized with a little effort.
I was fortunate enough to have the importance of this tool instilled upon me by a mentor of mine at the University of North Texas, Dan Haerle. When you memorize the music, you not only know what to play without looking at the chart, you also know what’s going on musically. Yes, there are those gifted few who can read charts with incredible musicality, but for the rest of us, looking at little black dots has a tendency to take us away from the meaning of whatever music we’re making. If you know a song from memory, understanding the different sections and transitions, you can play dynamically with the flow of the song as well as react to possible changes that may happen in the moment (i.e. the singer wants to do another chorus).
Taking your eyes off the page also has the incredible side effect of opening your ears.
5.) Learn to Sing
This may seem a bit silly, or maybe you feel uncomfortable with the idea, but adding “vocals” to your musical resume is massive when working as a sideman. I can’t tell you how many times contractors, musical directors and other peers have asked me if I sing when inquiring about gigs. Being able to provide background vocals (and/or the occasional lead) in addition to your instrument is very attractive. When choosing between the keyboardist who can sing and the keyboardist who can’t sing, guess who the contractor/musical director/client is going to hire? This is especially relevant when auditioning for higher profile pop or rock gigs, but is equally beneficial in the cover band scenario.
If you feel uncomfortable or inadequate as a singer, guess what always works… practice! Sit down with your instrument or at a piano and sing scales every day. Sing along with music in the car. Sing along while on a gig where there isn’t a mic in front of you. It isn’t a must, but it is definitely a huge plus in the sideman game.
Oh, and if you are already a vocalist as your primary instrument, the same applies to you but in reverse: learn an instrument! Singers who can play some auxiliary guitar or keyboards are primed for work as background vocalists.
6.) Be Professional
Okay, the word “professional” can have several connotations attached to it, so let’s clarify. Again, I have to cite my mentor Dan Haerle for this one, and in fact I’ll quote him:
“There will always be another musician who will show up on time, has the right attitude, wears the right clothes, brings the right gear, knows the music better than you do, and plays better than you.”
It sounds a bit harsh, but it’s true. A large part of your success as a sideman is based on your ability to do a lot of things that have nothing to do with music! Showing up on time (which means 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled time), having a positive attitude, wearing the appropriate clothes for the gig, bringing the right kind of gear (that works!), returning phone calls and emails promptly, being respectful of your musical director or band leader as well as the rest of the band, and acting appropriately on stage are all part of being a professional musician.
Again, this is another example of a facet of being a sideman that can set you apart from the rest. If a musical director has a choice between two guitarists, and one has the reputation of being very professional and the other doesn’t, who do you think will get hired? I guarantee that professionalism always wins. In fact, I know of situations where a lesser musician was hired because they were more professional than their more musically skilled counterparts. That’s the difference between a musician with a bunch of chops, and a sideman.
A sideman is a talented musician who also understands his or her role in the band/gig/situation, and acts accordingly. A good example of this is guitarist Dominic Miller, who has been playing for Sting since 1991. Dominic is an incredible player, but if he was a drag to be around, do you think Sting would still be using him?
In every level of sideman work, you will encounter the requirement to audition at some time or another. The good news is that everything you’ve read so far about being a sideman applies directly to auditions.
Treat the audition like a gig and apply everything you’ve read so far to it. One thing to remember about auditions: don’t take it personally. Many auditions are in “cattle call” format, which means there will be upwards of 20 or more musicians auditioning in addition to you. If they don’t pick you, don’t take it personally.
I’ve come to realize that in every audition I do, everyone there is capable of doing the gig – they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t musically capable. Often times, especially in higher profile auditions, they’re after a certain look/image/personality, and you’re either it or you’re not. But don’t be discouraged – you may not have the right look for one gig, but be perfect for another. Do your best – prepare, be professional, and you won’t go wrong.
With all that said, here’s a bit of closing general advice that I’ve picked up over the years: things always change, and you will never be able to predict everything that can and will happen. So pay attention and learn from every situation you find yourself in. I’ve given you an overview of what I’ve learned from being a sideman, but your situations will be different. Be prepared to adjust, and learn from it.
Every gig, even the ones that are a real drag, presents an opportunity to hone your skills as a sideman, both musically and non-musically. Take all the experiences you accumulate and put them in your proverbial backpack that you will keep with you throughout your musical career as well as your life in general. There is a reason why the older working musicians who have been around for a while have…well, been around for a while. Experience is an incredible teacher, so never miss out on an opportunity to learn from what you are doing. The best musicians that you and I admire have a lot of life experience in addition to musical experience. Sure, you’re playing music to make a living, but don’t forget about the connection between life and music that made you pick up the instrument in the first place.