5 Tips to Keep Your Gig

Much has been written recently on the topic of networking, and as a freelance musician, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of constantly seeking new sources of work.

But what about keeping the gigs you already have? Assuming you have a handle on the most commonly discussed factors like punctuality, reliability, playing in tune, keeping your chops up through regular practice, and even personal hygiene and social skills, there are other less obvious traits I’ve discovered (many through trial and error) that can make a lasting impression.

Unlike musicians who perform and compose their original music, a sideman’s key to success is understanding, meeting and ultimately exceeding the expectations of the artist to stand out from the thousands of other players available for the job.

1) Immerse yourself in the material.

This issue is a personal favorite, and one I feel very passionate about.

As a freelancer, there may be weeks when you’re learning material for 4 different bands, and full immersion simply doesn’t seem feasible, but I highly recommend listening to the songs at least enough to recognize each one by name. A blank stare at the mention of a specific tune can make it appear that you’re planning to mail it in.

I’ve found songwriters to be very appreciative when a band member demonstrates that he or she isn’t hearing something for the first time at rehearsal or intending to just sight read the charts and hope for the best.

There’s an excellent article on this site by Matt Baldoni titled, “Learning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” which thoroughly examines this topic and details a ritual I’ve successfully followed for years.

When people ask what music I’ve been listening to lately, my response is usually, “The songs I have to learn for shows this week.” It ‘s definitely a sacrifice that can seem excessive, and perhaps even a little obsessive, but if you ace the gig and get invited back regularly, the steady work is well worth the initial time investment.

If it turns out to be a one-time thing for reasons beyond your control (the songwriter moves away, decides he can’t afford a band and goes solo, etc.) the effort still isn’t wasted because you establish a reputation with your musical peers as someone who does his homework.

2) Be a supportive team player.

During a typical week, I record, rehearse and perform with a wide variety of people in a handful of different projects. When songwriters choose to hire full-time freelance musicians, they’re usually aware that our survival is dependent upon keeping busy with multiple bands, and willing to accept a smaller overall time commitment in exchange for efficiency and professional musicianship. That being said, I believe that during the two hours you spend in the club or practice space, the artist deserves 100% of your energy and enthusiasm.

If the bandleader has a carload of PA equipment, grab a heavy speaker, and unwind a few cables. If there’s a rush to start on time, offer to help with the set list.

If you’ve already recorded and uploaded a rehearsal to supplement your own learning, it only takes a few extra minutes to email the files to your band mates. Not only does this ensure that everyone is on the same page (especially with last-minute arrangement changes) but it also shows that you’re genuinely interested in the overall success of the performance, and not just in it for a quick buck.

You can separate yourself from the competition by consistently going above and beyond for the people who hire you, and becoming a valuable, and hopefully irreplaceable, part of their support system as a team player. If you maintain that reputation over an extended period, it’s possible that someone may even value your contribution enough to have flexibility with booking and plan shows around your schedule.

3) Play the part you were hired to play.

A few years ago, I got a call from a drummer friend to fill the bass position in a singer/songwriter project. As with many bands of this type, it quickly became apparent that my role was to provide a simple, solid foundation with the kick drum. After the first rehearsal, he expressed relief and thanked me, explaining that the previous bassist was an accomplished fusion player who used the songs as a vehicle to showcase his ferocious chops and rarely ever played a root note–clearly not playing the part the singer/songwriter wanted to hear.

In other situations, with wedding and corporate event bands, I’ve seen world-class jazz virtuosos fired because they felt it was beneath them to learn a Billy Joel song or insisted on re-harmonizing the chord progression of a Journey power ballad.

One of the most difficult challenges for younger musicians, especially recent music school grads with a high level of proficiency and a strong improvisational background, can be adapting to a sideman situation where a “less is more” approach is required. If you agree to work with an original or cover band and the idea of playing a three-chord song just like the recording makes you cringe, remember that you’re getting paid to execute the material a certain way.

It’s not always about you, so whenever possible, be flexible, be aware of what’s expected of you, and most importantly, be willing to check your ego at the door.

4) Be thorough with your pre-gig communication.

Another way to make a good first impression and instill confidence in your musical employers is to be thorough with your communication and address any aspect of the set list or the material itself that isn’t clear.

With original gigs, I usually start out by asking if there are mp3s and/or charts for the songs, and whether they accurately reflect the most current arrangements. Even if charts exist, I compare them to the recordings, and frequently end up making my own if I discover discrepancies or omissions.

In subbing situations, clear communication can be even more crucial, especially for weddings and club dates, where players are often expected to show up and nail a list of 40-50 songs with no rehearsal. Most seasoned musical directors will include the keys and artist names with the title and tell you up front whether they generally stay true to the original.

When you receive emails containing audio files, always listen to the attachment, and never assume anything, even if you’re convinced that the version in your iTunes library is the definitive one. Within the standard club date and wedding repertoire, there are multiple versions of many popular songs.

For example, if the song list includes “Soul Man,” you can avert a potential train wreck by asking if they’re doing the original Sam and Dave version or the Blues Brothers remake. The latter is in a different key, and repeats the intro for four extra bars after the bridge.

There are also common titles shared by completely different songs (“Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars and Billy Joel), as well as extended dance mixes, acoustic versions, and even an occasional customized edit a bandleader might make to fit a special dance request or guest entrance. Never assume anything!

5) Have patience and a sense of humor.

There’s a good reason for the immense popularity and widespread quoting of This is Spinal Tap among musicians. I read once that The Rolling Stones couldn’t bear to watch the movie because it hit too close to home, but I personally love to exchange stories about double booking debacles, no-shows and blown lighting systems.

Obviously, when you’re in the middle of a set, a technical meltdown is anything but amusing, but when you’re sharing stories of past shows, are you more likely to recall that funk gig where everyone nailed the outro section of “What is Hip,” or the retirement party where the jeweler downstairs went ballistic because the bathroom flooded and leaked all over his display counter?

One of my first paying gigs during college was a beach party for some wealthy young clothing company executives who offered $20 per man and free boxer shorts as payment. Every few years, when I mention the event to any of the other musicians from that night, nobody really remembers what we played, but everyone recalls very clearly (and with hearty laughter) that the band set up on a narrow concrete pier in a lightning storm, and made it though about 5 songs before the skies opened up and the guests lunged forward to cover our equipment with wet, sandy tarps.

When you perform several nights a week, year after year, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter plenty of adversity. A large part of paying dues as a musician is repeatedly dealing with humbling experiences, like getting ripped off by shady club owners, or arriving to play at a crowded house party with the promise of great exposure and learning that you’ll be singing to a pile of coats in a remote bedroom.

If a band loses a weekly engagement because one of its members has a volatile temper and engages in altercations with belligerent drunks over Skynyrd requests, there’s a good chance that person won’t have their job for long or won’t be asked back at all if they’re a sub. There will be nights when you want to sell your drums as firewood, or slam your guitar down mid-song and make a dramatic exit, but your ability to keep a cool head and see the humor in these absurd fiascos will endear you to your fellow musicians and demonstrate that you’re mature, professional and emotionally stable.

All of these tips basically boil down to having your act together and being so dependable and reliable that, when you’re committed to a date, the person hiring you feels more relaxed and confident. Obviously, self-discipline, musicianship and dedication to your instrument are very important, and helped you land the gig in the first place, but to keep it, you need to exhibit a greater sense of professionalism that can’t be learned in a practice room.

How Do I Get a Job After Music School?

T., a guitarist and soon-to-be music school grad, wrote us last week with this question:

I’m getting my degree soon, but I feel that I don’t really have a lot of actual work experience to flesh out my resume. How far do you think a degree can take me and where would be the best place to help get some work with my skills?

That’s a good question, T., and I’m sure there are other MW readers that are in the same boat.

So, you’re about to leave music school and you need a job. You don’t have a lot of credits on your resume and you’re not sure how to get started.

Let’s start off with what jobs are available these days. I often think about jobs in the musician industry split into to categories:

  1. Your music
  2. Other people’s music

Your Music

There are two of us that maintain MusicianWages.com – Cameron Mizell and myself. Cameron is an expert in category #1, so instead of rambling on about things I don’t know, I’ll defer to his incredible breadth of knowledge.

Here are some of Cameron’s articles that will help you create a career with your own music:

Also read the archives of Cameron’s articles, I’m sure you’ll find a ton of useful information.

Other People’s Music

Although I do write and record my own music, I make my living playing other people’s music. I freelance as a Broadway musician, a church musician, a for-hire accompanist, a music director for theatre, a vocal coach, and many other things.

So let’s say you’re like T. and you’re about to graduate college and you want to be a freelance musician like me. Aside from experience (which I’ll get to later), what do you need to succeed?

  • Sight-reading

    I would say that this is the real value that I give to my employers – if you take everything else away, this is the one thing that they are really paying me for. I show up and I play whatever they put in front of me. It saves them time and money – it cuts down on prep and rehearsal time, it allows them the convenience of thinking about other things, and allows them the flexibility of changing music at the last minute.

    If you’re sight-reading isn’t up to par, you can improve it. I’ve written about the subject before, and it basically boils down to practice. The more you sight-read the better you’ll become.

  • Recommendations

    I never audition or apply for positions in my business, all work is passed around through word-of-mouth. That can be really frustrating for someone starting out, but I promise it gets easier. Make sure that you keep in touch with your fellow classmates from your music school – those will be your first contacts. As they find work, they will pass work to you and vice versa.

    Giving away work is worth pointing out – you should have a small list of colleagues that you pass work to now and then. They’ll do the same for you when they have gigs they can’t take.

    There are some colleagues that will take the work and never pass anything back to you – and those are probably the wrong colleagues to have on the list. Generally, creating a sense of generosity and community around you is much more effective than creating a sense of competition.

  • Geography

    Look, if there isn’t any work where you are, you should move somewhere else. If you want to work as a freelance musician, I’m very sorry, but you just can’t live anywhere you want. You’re career will always be limited by the amount of work available (divided by the number of musicians) in your city. I just don’t see any way around that.

    When I was just out of college I moved back to my home town in the suburbs of Chicago. I took all the gigs I could get. I music directed local theatre shows, I played cocktail music at the country club, I accompanied at the local schools, I joined a band, I taught lessons. I made about the same amount of money as my friends that had entry-level day jobs. It was cool for awhile.

    But check it out – I was playing every gig in town. I’d already hit an income ceiling and I was 25. I tried Chicago for awhile, but I felt like the scene in that city was locked up tight and paid worse than the suburbs. So I left.

    I worked the regional theatre market for awhile, and eventually settled in New York – not because I necessarily wanted to live in New York – but because there was a lot of work here for my skill set.

    I think I’ll always live in New York. I can make a living here. Other players like me are making a living here. It’s not a musician utopia or anything like that – but there is a need here for musicians and I am a musician – so this is where I ended up. Luckily, I’ve also grown to really enjoy living here.

    You don’t have to live in New York. There’s a good discussion in our forums about the best cities for musicians. See what other musicians have to say.


Ok, so now on to your actual question – how far can a degree get you and how can you get more experience.

Your degree is a piece of paper, and it won’t get you a gig. What you really paid for at your college, as I touched on before, is the connections you have with your faculty and fellow students. This is for real – stay in touch with your fellow students. That’s where your work will first come from.

There are several entry-level positions for freelance musicians. None of them are particularly well-paid or comfortable, which is why they are relatively easy to get.

  • Cruise Ship Musician

    Cruise ship musician is the route I took. It’s pretty easy to get a cruise ship job – you take an audition with a talent agency and then wait for a call. Read this article for more info on how to book the job.

    If working on a cruise was a totally amazing, satisfying, well-paying gig, nobody would ever leave it. But in reality, it can burn you out within a few contracts (see: What Was There To Be Dark About?). But if you are just looking for some experience, it’s perfect. Take a contract or two and hone your chops in the real world. Think of it as your internship.

  • Theme Parks

    There are other gigs like the cruise gig. There are summer gigs at theme parks. Try this link at Backstage.com and search for “Theme Parks”. Expect the gigs to be long, hot and poorly paid. But don’t worry, just work the gig and get the credit on your resume. You gotta pay your dues.

  • Non-Union Broadway Tours

    Non-union musical theatre tours are a step or two up from entry-level. They can be pretty cool gigs if you get on a good tour. They can be brutal if you don’t.

    Jobs at this level start to be word-of-mouth placements for musicians, but you can submit your stuff. Networks is a major non-union touring company. Bookmark their jobs page and send your resume and website to musicresumes@networkstours.com. You can also visit BackStageJobs.com (search for “Musical” under the Departments category), they sometimes list these kinds of jobs.

    Also, dive into this discussion in the forums for more info about non-equity tours.

  • MusicianWages.com Jobs Board

    I have to give a plug to our musician jobs board here at MW. We have a growing list of musician jobs categorized by instrument and location. Subscribe to the RSS feed and have the jobs sent to your feed reader. I moderate that list myself, so it’s only good stuff going up. You might find a gig there.

I hope that helps – good luck T!

5 Traits of a Professional Musician

Being a musician is awesome. It’s almost a crime that people are allowed to play music for a living. But like crime, music doesn’t usually pay. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, musicians need to exude a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less glamorous than the sexy life of a rock star. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many prima donnas out there don’t get it.

1) Follows directions well.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want. If that sounds vague, it is. Whether you’re hired to play a wedding, write a jingle, perform as a sideman, be a studio musician, be a pit musician on Broadway (or your local community theater), you have to be good at taking directions.

More often than not, those directions are poorly communicated by people that don’t know music, but a professional musician knows how to translate any kind of instruction quickly, without getting frustrated, and make the client happy. Other times you’re getting quick directions from a music director that knows exactly what she wants, and your ability to adapt quickly is key. These are one way communications where there’s either no time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and ultimately more work.

2) Well organized.

In a nutshell, keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than tardiness. In a world of great players scraping together $50 gigs to make ends meet, schedules are usually both busy and erratic. Everyone is trying to squeeze a rehearsal in before teaching a lesson and then get to a gig later that night. But if you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Additionally, you will probably need to keep track of a large amount of material. Many sidemen play in multiple bands and have to learn both original music by songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. Storing all this music in your head gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it. Matt Baldoni, a successful and very busy freelance guitarist, wrote an article on learning music quickly and efficiently.

There’s a saying among musicians that goes something like this:

An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

3) Good communication skills.

When dealing with people that don’t know anything about music and not much more about the business, you have to be able to lead most of the conversation. Offer suggestions, draw up contracts, and know how to say what you want without coming off as brash or greedy. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll be dealing with other musicians. Show up to the first rehearsal with the music prepared. If it’s your gig or you are the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program like Finale or Sibelius. Make sure the sheet music communicates the road map of the tune clearly (repeats, coda, etc.). If you expect the other musicians to learn from a CD or MP3s, make sure they have the proper tracks and are aware of any key changes or cuts that are not on the recordings. These things will make the first rehearsal run as smoothly as possible.

4) Plays well with others.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised. Not only should you be able to play your butt off, you should be able to tone it down and play what’s called for in the music. Stereotypically speaking, guitar players are notorious for turning their amps up too loud and never shutting up. Singers zone out when they’re not singing and miss their entrances. Drummers are too loud. Horn players don’t listen to each other and sound sloppy as a whole section. This is all Music 101, but it’s often over looked.

While it’s very important to nail your solo, it’s more important to blend in with the ensemble or make the soloist sound better. Playing tastefully and in the appropriate style will get you more calls than being able to shred.

5) Prepared for the job.

Ultimately, the big difference between a professional and everyone else is preparation. This is the same in any field. A professional salesman is expected to know his product. A professional marketer is expected to know her target audience. A professional custodian is expected to know what kind of cleaner to use on what surface. Likewise, a professional musician is expected to show up for the gig with the right instruments, dressed appropriately, and prepared to nail the music. Let me repeat part of that. A professional musician dresses appropriately. Whatever the gig, make sure you know what to wear. Flip flops are probably a bad idea unless a grass skirt is involved.

In summary, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate these five qualities. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your instrument is simply the first step to becoming a working musician. For those that want to take their craft to the next level, the thing that sets professionals apart from the rest is what they can do beyond playing their instrument.

When To Take an Unpaid Gig

You get a call. It’s a friend of yours, they are throwing a big party, and they want you to play for the guests. They don’t have a lot of money, though, so they can’t pay you. But you can pass out business cards and try to sell CDs. There will be lots of important people there and it’ll be great exposure they say.

You get another call. [Paper]tiger Jams {Explored}
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cameron Cassan
It’s a local non-profit. They are throwing a fundraiser at a fancy venue and they want you to provide entertainment for a couple of hours. They can’t pay you, but you’d really be helping out the cause if you would do it.

A third call comes in. It’s a local venue. They are having an event next month and 5 bands are playing a 30 minute set each. They’d like to invite you to perform. It doesn’t pay, but everyone gets a free drink and you can set up a merch table in the corner.

So what do you do? Do you take these gigs? You know that you have to make a living, but you know you also have to get out there and play for people.

People Die of Exposure

In my experience, taking a gig for “exposure” has questionable value. What kind of exposure are you really getting? I mean…are you playing the Tonight Show? The local news? Or are you playing for a group of 20 people that are generally not your target audience?

There’s a big difference between general exposure and specific exposure, and I think that’s the thing to consider in these situations. People that call you and use this term often mean it in the general sense.

Definition of general exposure:

There will be a room full of people, and there will be you. You will play your music. It will travel through the air between you and the people, and the people will hear this music. In this way you will expose yourself to these people, and it’s conceivable that they will care one way or another.

But I’m telling you, this kind of general exposure is usually not valuable. If the situation is not targeted to the kind of audience that you are looking for, you’ll waste your time. Say you are a sci-fi string band and you get a call to play at a Star Trek convention – that is good exposure. But say the same band gets a call to play the Christmas party for a ladies luncheon group. Sure, it’s possible that someone at that luncheon will be a sci-fi fan and care, but the odds are not good.

Definition of specific exposure:

There will be a room full of people that love the kind of music you play. They will resemble your target audience in every way possible. You will play your music and they will listen to your music. It’s very likely that many of them will want to know more about you, sign up for your email list and maybe buy an album.

My point is that you should be very, very cautious anytime someone uses the term “exposure” in the sense that it is some kind of compensation. Oftentimes that is the sign of a pro bono gig that will waste your time. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the exposure they are peddling is relevant and valuable to you, in a specific way, before you take the gig.

Will You Enjoy It?

I’ll tell you a story. When I first came to New York I got a call from a celebrity. She’d been on TV, on Broadway – my mother was a big fan. Imagine my surprise. She asked me if I would play at a non-profit event at the Plaza Hotel. She couldn’t pay me, but there’d be a ton of rich people there (it’d be great “exposure”) and I’d get a free meal. And bonus – I could bring 2 guests to the dinner.

I played some cocktail jazz during the event, passed out a few business cards, chatted to some of the guests. At dinner I brought 2 friends for an incredible meal. We sat next to the celebrity and a city councilman. We all took gift bags full of perfume at the end of the night. I followed up with the celebrity and city councilman afterwards. I gave the perfume to my girlfriend.

Altogether it was a cool event. I’m glad I did it – but certainly not because of the “exposure”. I never got another call afterward from anyone involved. The truth is that is was a lot of fun. I was able to treat 2 friends to a fancy dinner, I played at a historic venue, I met a celebrity, and I gave my girlfriend a bag full of perfume.

I enjoyed it – and that’s a perfectly good reason to take a free gig. Being a musician can sometimes get you into the hippest situations.

Meeting New Colleagues

It would be great if you took a free gig and suddenly you had 100 new, dedicated fans who, from that day on, buy everything you ever create. Great plan, but let’s assume that won’t happen. Ah! – but what if something better happens?

In everyone’s career there are key people, friends, usually, that help further your success. I’m talking about colleagues and collaborators. You are both heading down the same road, but maybe there’s a time that they travel quicker toward success and they bring you along. And then at another time you are traveling faster down that road and you take them along.

These relationships are really important in a musician career – the best successes usually involve a team of people like this. Playing free gigs is sometimes a great way to meet these kinds of friends, colleagues and collaborators.

I’ll tell you another story. I volunteer regularly for a non-profit in New York that puts on big productions at least once a year. They contact musical theatre composers and lyricists and ask them to write new music for the events. I music direct the production, and we find great musicians to perform with us.

Throughout the process I meet and work with tons of new people. Some of them I really click with and we become fast friends. Months down the road maybe they are working on something else and they give me a call to music direct, or play piano, or whatever. And maybe this time it’s a real gig that pays.

That’s a best case scenario! I took a free gig, I met a ton of colleagues and we collaborated later on something else. I think the key here is that the free gig was a big production involving a lot of artists all working toward a common goal. Compared that to the Plaza Hotel gig where I was the only musician in the room and there weren’t any colleagues to connect with. Two gigs, I’m glad I took both, but for very different, specific, reasons.

What Is In It For You?

You can’t just play everywhere and anywhere for free. This is a career. People expect musicians to play for free much too often. There is value in what we do, and most of the time we should get paid for it. When someone approaches you with a free gig think specifically about what value the situation holds for you. They are getting something out of it – what about you?

Let’s take the 3 situations I opened with. I can’t give you definitive answers, but I can give you the questions you should consider.

Ok, first situation – someone calls for a private party and wants you to play for free. My first question would be: why can’t they pay? It’s a private party, not a fundraiser for a good cause. It’ll probably be a room full of 20-30 friends, drinking and having a good time and…uh…that’s called a gig.  It’s supposed to pay money.

Sure you can sell CDs, but who’s going to buy a CD in that situation? It’s not a house concert, they aren’t specifically there for the music. Who knows if they’ll even like your music?

Personally, I wouldn’t take that gig.

Second – a non-profit calls for a fundraiser. First question: do you believe in the cause? You’ll be donating your time to the organization, and you should think of it just like you’re donating money. Forget the “exposure” you’ll get – the people that attend the event will be there for the cause/organization and it’s unlikely they’ll also spend a lot of energy on you too. So it really comes down to whether or not you want to donate to the cause.

The third call – a local venue wants you to play. This could be good. Do you know the other bands on the event? Are they a similar genre, or at least a similar target audience, to you? Are there musicians in the other bands that you’d like to meet? Do the other bands have a creative team (manager, publicist, etc.) that you would like to meet?

If this is a situation where you could meet colleagues and future collaborators – I say take it. If it sounds like the venue is just trying to fill a spot and there’s nothing in it for you – your instincts are probably right.

What If Someone Else Calls?

A 4th call comes in. It’s for a real gig with a band you regularly play with. Unfortunately it’s for the same night as the unpaid gig that you’ve already committed to. Now what?

If the unpaid gig has enough value to you that you committed in the first place, this shouldn’t matter. Nobody should ever cancel on a valuable gig – and if it wasn’t valuable, why’d you take it in the first place?

This is a problem that is so common that you should plan on it happening before you take any unpaid gig. Expect that someone will call you with something that does pay for the same night as the free gig and make your decision with that in mind.

Live Music Is a Valuable Thing

The truth is that live music is a valuable thing. These days people have constant access to music – but it’s not usually live music. There is an energy in live music that humans just can’t get enough of. People love live music so much that they will pay money just to be in a room where it is happening.

So when someone approaches you to give away this valuable thing for free, it’s fair that you should still expect something in return. Maybe the compensation is new fans, new experiences, or new colleagues.

On the other hand, if there is nothing in the situation for you, don’t take the gig. If you take an unpaid gig and it ends up being a dead end – no one bought a CD, no one seemed interested, there wasn’t any worthwhile networking, it didn’t manifest any future gigs – then maybe you took the wrong unpaid gig. Before you take an unpaid gig, ask yourself: what’s in it for me?

Create Invoices, Get Paid

As a freelance musician, or freelance anything, making sure you get paid for your services can be a tedious task. Individuals or small contractors might be overwhelmed or not very organized and you’ll have to follow up to make sure the check gets in the mail. Large companies tend to have a lot of red tape, and your invoice has several departments to pass through before a check is processed. To speed up your payment, look like a true professional, and make your own book keeping more organized, you should get in the habit of creating detailed invoices for every job performed.

What goes on an invoice?

In it’s most basic form, an invoice is simply a bill stating how much is owed to you and where to send payment. For the sake of professionalism, I recommend including a little more information. Some companies may require certain information before they can process an invoice, so it never hurts to ask before submitting. The information I include on all my invoices was, at one point or another, required by a client.

  1. The word “INVOICE” – This is easily overlooked, but how else will people know what you’re giving them? Some large clients might require a properly labeled document for processing.
  2. Date – Record the date you are sending the invoice to your client on the document, and perhaps even the date(s) of the services performed.
  3. Invoice Number – Similar to a check number, the invoice number will make it easier to refer to the specific job performed.
  4. Purchase Order Number – Also referred to as a P.O. #, these are used on invoices for products. For example: If you design a poster for somebody, you do not need a P.O. # for your service. However, if you’re the printer that sells the actual posters, then you may need a corresponding Purchase Order number.
  5. Bill To: Address – This is the address of your client–the person or company you are charging for your services. Even if you’re emailing your invoice, it’s still good business practice to include the Bill To address for the sake of specifically identifying that client. On some occasions, if I’m just billing an individual person, I will use their email address and phone number instead of a mailing address.
  6. Amount Due – Don’t forget to tell them how much they owe you!
  7. Services Performed – My invoices include a basic table that breaks down the job and how the Amount Due was calculated. I use four columns:
    1. Time/Amount: How many units of measurement I’m charging for (hours, sheets of music, etc.)
    2. Rate: To specify how much I charge for one unit of measurement
    3. Service/Job Description: A brief summary of the work performed. Sometimes I might include a separate page for a more detailed description.
    4. Line Total: This should be the Time/Amount multiplied by the Rate. Add up each line total for the Amount Due.
  8. Payment Terms – This may vary from client to client. My default term is “Due upon receipt.” Terms for Net 30 means the payment is due within 30 days of the invoice date, Net 60 would mean the client has 60 days to pay, and so on. You may also request payment by a certain date. A good rule of thumb is to ask for payment upon receipt unless the client has asked for a different set of terms before services are rendered.
  9. Payment Instructions – On my invoices, I simply have the words: “Please Remit Payment to:” followed by my name and mailing address. This verbiage is a formality required by some of my past clients, so I include it on every invoice.
  10. Tax ID (optional) – If this is your social security number, I do not recommend including it on your invoice. This information should be on file if you’ve turned in a Form W9 for tax purposes. But if you have a business tax ID, it doesn’t hurt to put it on the invoice to help processing.

Is there a standard layout for invoices?

The short answer, no. I’ve seen invoices that are no more than the above information listed down the side of a Word document. I’ve also seen very creatively branded invoices. The most important consideration is that your invoice is easy to read. Invoice templates can be found in standard accounting software programs, or you could use the Tables feature in your word processing program to do something similar. If you haven’t seen an invoice before, look at a packing slip from Amazon or any company that ships you something you bought. That is pretty much how most invoices look.

If you want to get creative, be consistent and keep the important information away from your fancy design elements. I used to work in the Creative department at a record label that employed a handful of designers on a regular basis. Each of their invoices was uniquely branded, but also very easy to read. I noticed a few advantages to their branded invoices. First, people remembered whether or not they’d seen the invoice, which helps if the invoice has to go through several people’s hands before it’s paid. Also, branding your invoice simply looks more professional. Putting your logo in front of the people that hire you one last time just might help you get another gig.

What file format should I use?

If you can email your invoice, I recommend sending a PDF. That way it can be opened on any computer, and it can’t be altered. I’ve also received invoices that are no more than the information mentioned above in the body of an email. That might work, too. When in doubt, mail your invoice!


Here is a basic invoice template as described above. There are two formats, both are available on Google Docs which you can download and edit on your computer:

Top 10 Gigs You May Not Have Thought Of

1. Transcribing songs

There are a few different ways to get paid for this.

I once worked with a singer-songwriter who didn’t read or write music, but worked with musicians who did.  His situation called for written lead sheets, so we would sit down together once or twice a week and write down his songs.  He’d play them (slowly), and I’d input them (quickly) to Finale.  In the end he’d have professional lead sheets and I’d charge my hourly rate.  It was a good gig – one of those odd jobs for musicians.

Another thing I’ve done is transcribe and arrange songs for musical theatre singers.  Sometimes singers really want to audition with a particular song that they’ve heard on the radio or YouTube, but either they can’t find the sheet music, or the sheet music is totally lame.  Arranging singers’ “books” for auditions can be good jobs for musicians with great ears and notation chops.

Is there a similar gig you can think of in your scene?

2. Applying for grants from local arts councils

A few years ago I received a $1,000 grant from my home town’s arts council to play a recital at the library.  I had to come up with a theme for the recital, fill out a one-page form, and the check came a few months later.  I hired two guys and made it a trio event – it was a great gig!  That particular arts council gives away grants each year to a number of local artists.

Check out this article on grants for musicians.  There is some really great advice in there.

3. Church gigs

When I first showed up in NYC, I had some ideas of what I thought I’d do here.  I planned to hustle theatre and other contracted musician jobs, and if that didn’t work out I’d temp or teach.  Good plan; good back-up plan.

A job I certainly hadn’t thought of was playing organ for a primarily Spanish-speaking Catholic church in the Bronx, but that’s what happened.  It turns out that New York church-goers take their music very seriously, and pay much better than the churches I’d known in my home town.  At the going rate of $100/service (and sometimes 7 services a weekend at larger churches), the Catholic church pays better than some off-Broadway shows.  Organist gigs and some worship band jobs are worth looking into if you haven’t considered them before.

4. Hotel gigs in Dubai

I promise you that I have never heard of this one either.  Check out the info from Natalie, one of our readers, who was good enough to explain the job in our forums.

5. Accompanying at schools

Sorry if this particular one is piano-centric, but that’s what I know best.  In fact, before I’d starting touring and traveling with theatre, I’d made a lot of my bread as a piano accompanist at the high schools, middle schools and 2-year colleges near where I was living.

There are countless music programs in cities across the country that are lead by teachers that either don’t play piano themselves, or have the budget to hire separate accompanists. These gigs can be great jobs for musicians that can play piano well, and working with kids (but not having to be the teacher!) can be a very rewarding experience.

In my experience, the best school accompanying jobs are college-level (even community colleges) because they have the budgets to pay you what you’re worth.  I have also seen some full-time high school positions with benefits, which could be great for someone looking for stable work.

6. Clinics/master classes/assemblies/business seminars

I’ve lumped all these things together, not necessarily because they are all the same, but because they all involve a similar hustle.

I know of a conductor in NYC that gives business seminars on leadership by bringing in a full orchestra and showing how a performing orchestra is a model of teamwork.  I have a friend in Chicago that is an inspirational saxophonist that is frequently hired for clinics and master classes at middle and high schools.  Schools look for educational and inspirational programs to perform at school assemblies.

What knowledge do you have that you can share?

7. Transposing music & various other copyist work

This is the younger cousin of #1 on this list, and also includes computer notation skills.  Key changes most often happen for singers (not to single y’all out, sorry), but also for those times that your music director wants the oboe part re-written for the clarinet, etc.  It takes some quick inputting to Finale or Sibelius, a few clever mouse clicks, and BAM, you’ve got an easy job for a musician.  There are a lot of people out there that never have the opportunity, time, or whatever to get past the learning curve of Finale or Sibelius.  They are often happy to pay you to do it for them.

There are often other, miscellaneous copyist jobs here and there if you have notation skills (and obviously there are great big, successful copyist jobs too, but you’ve probably thought of those).  I used to do some work for a choir near Chicago that wanted a jazz bassist to play with their group.  They hired me to write out (and transpose up 8va) the bass notes from the piano part.  Now there’s a gig you didn’t expect, right?

8. Page turner

I’m serious.  It’s a job.  NPR wrote a story about it. According to the report it pays $50-100 per concert in Minnesota (where the story was done).

9. Recitals for local social groups

I was hired once by a women’s league that wanted a jazz musician to play a recital at their luncheon.  The year before they’d hired a inspirational speaker, and apparently the guy had been a perfect bore.  Feeling some pressure to come up with something a little livelier, they’d found me on a recommendation.

There are lots of social groups (leagues, committees, sci fi conventions, who knows?) that have periodic meetings that need interesting entertainment for their membership.  See if you can find some in your area and ask them if they’d like to hire your group for a recital.

10. Teaching lessons on a secondary instrument

This idea is so widespread that I maybe shouldn’t include it here, but for those of you that haven’t thought of this yet – you don’t have to teach lessons on only your primarily instrument.  If you had to, don’t you think you could teach beginner piano lessons?  Or guitar?  Or whatever instrument you know a little about?  If you have a firm foundation in the fundamentals of music and a familiarity with a second instrument, I bet you can keep a few lessons ahead of your beginner students.

I don’t mean to advocate teaching something you don’t know anything about, I’m just saying that a beginning pianist doesn’t need their first lessons from Glenn Gould.  You should give it a shot.

What do you think?  Do you have any unexpected musician jobs to add to the list?

Establishing Good Practice Habits as a Professional Musician

One of the most difficult duties of a professional, freelance musician, is finding time to practice. Yet practicing should be at the heart of the musician’s daily routine. Much like a professional athlete needs to constantly maintain their level of fitness, so must musicians keep their skills sharp. Yet unlike an athlete, musicians’ skills can continually improve over decades before peaking, making for a long, fruitful career. It’s just a matter of focused practicing.

Since college, I have struggled with keeping a steady practice routine. Life has always been full of distractions. Some distractions have nothing to do with music, like day jobs or TV, and others have everything to do with music, such as writing new music or booking gigs. Unlike college, when I’d practice roughly eight hours a day, I now rarely have a solid hour of uninterrupted time for practicing.

But let’s face it, everyone deals with the same types of distractions. The people that are the best at what they do have simply established better practice habits than everybody else. Everyone has their own methods–here are some I’ve adopted to improve my own habits.

Set Goals

What are your goals as a musician? What skills do you need to reach those goals? This seems obvious, but knowing what you want to do as an artist is the first step towards being the best. John Coltrane didn’t happen by accident!

When time is limited, you need to be very focused with the time you have. If you’re not sure what exactly you want to do, keep working on the skills that are in demand for better paying gigs such as sight reading and memorization. Those can come in handy in a variety of musician jobs. It’s also always valuable to use your metronome and work on your tone. Excellent time and unmistakable tone are the two things every great musician has in common.

And remember that making a living as a musician isn’t necessarily about being front and center. Highly skilled sidemen are always in demand. Guitarist Gary Melvin recently contributed an article to this site called A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman. In it, he recommends starting out with a broad skill set in various genres that can become more focused later:

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.

Most importantly, by setting goals you can determine what not to practice. If you have no ambitions to be a studio or theater musician, then sight reading could be a lower priority. If you want to be the first call accompanist in town, then sight reading should dominate your practice routine.

Honest Self Assessment

If you don’t study with a private teacher, then it’s up to you to evaluate your own skills. Record yourself whenever you can, date the recording, and save it. I learn the most from video taping my gigs. Seeing myself play live really helps diagnose the weaker points in my guitar playing and musicianship. I find recording to be the best method of self assessment available, and listening to recordings made over a year ago really helps me chart improvements.

One Hour Before Noon

If you need to force some practice time, I’ve found that the One Hour Before Noon rule works for me. Regardless of what I have going on each day, I can get up and give myself one hour of dedicated practicing before noon. The idea is that once your day starts, you’ll have more distractions and find more excuses to not pick up your instrument. But if practicing never happens later in the day, at least you had your hour before noon.

I’ve also found that by giving myself this hour I can warm up for the day. Then if I have a few minutes here and there, I can pick up the guitar and my hands feel ready to go. These small chunks of time add up to more hours.

Practice Before Bed

When you learn something new, your brain forms new connections, or synapses, between neurons. Through repetition, these synapses become stronger and permenant, which is essentially how learning takes place. There have been studies that suggest sleep enables these connections to become stronger.

Understanding this idea in college, I never pulled an all nighter. I also discovered that if I practiced a new transcription or etude before going to sleep, it was significantly easier to play the next morning. If you’re into efficiency, practice the really hard stuff right before bed, and your Hour Before Noon will be even more productive.

Practice in Your Head

I used to have an hour commute between home and work, and it was a great time to zone out and visualize myself playing guitar. Because a great deal of playing music is just knowing what you’re going to play, visualization can be highly effective. Your brain won’t know that you don’t have your instrument, yet you’ll continue to strengthen the connections between neurons.

Tip: You need to be idle to do this properly. I don’t recommend visualization while driving or listening to your significant other.

Keep Your Instrument Easily Accessible

Most musicians don’t have a problem keeping their instruments out of the case and ready to play, except after a gig. I’ve gone days without even realizing my guitar is still in it’s case (granted I have several sitting out), but now I take it out after getting home from every gig, so it’s ready to go the next morning. Sometimes, just the act of doing this leads to an hour or so of inspired practicing before bed.

Practice vs. Maintenance

One mistake many beginners make is thinking that noodling counts as practicing. Professionals make the same mistake, but the noodling is just fancier.

I used to be a competitive distance runner. When you first start training, you make huge improvements through relatively less intense workouts. When you reach your peak fitness level, it takes more intense workouts to make incremental improvements.

It’s easy for a skilled musician to just keep working on what’s already in their bag because it’s full of great things to play. There’s nothing wrong with this, but sometimes we need a little shove to get outside our comfort zones and work on the stuff we can’t do. At this stage it takes a lot more work to show smaller signs of improvement, but unlike distance running, the improvement is virtually limitless. Be honest with yourself and know whether you’re practicing or maintaining.

Turn off the Computer

We have control over everything that distracts us, yet it can be so difficult to get away from something like your computer or TV. Just remember, nobody will really care if you saw the latest episode of American Idol, or are caught up on all your blogs. But you will only disappoint yourself if you screw up on the next gig!

Schedule Practice Time

Finally, set aside the time for yourself. Allow yourself a solid chunk of several hours a few times a week to really practice. Put it in the calendar ahead of time so you don’t book yourself with other activities. I’m not suggesting you turn down a paying gig, but schedule your social life around your personal improvement. I know people that work their schedule around their favorite TV shows, so I doubt your friends will mind!

Now then, get away from your computer and give me 15 minutes of arpeggios!

The Next Level – Getting Started As a Musician, Part 2

You’re out of the gate with your music career and now you are trying to get to “The Next Level”.  You’ve established yourself in one circle or another and you’ve come to realize that you deserve more money, recognition, and better gigs than you are getting now.

For starters, let’s refer back to my first article on “Getting Started”.  The first 3 issues need to be revisited: Honest Assessment, Gather Information, and Set Reasonable Goals.  Whether you are a part time musician looking to become a full time musician or you are a full time musician seeking to increase your gig schedule, we need to establish what constitutes “The Next Level” since it’s quite different for all of us.  Steps for getting to the next level are not a secret but they are uncomfortable and difficult to implement. There is no substitute for hard work and perseverance.  Very similar to getting started in the music business, there is also no single answer for getting to the next level.  Are you ready for “The Next Level?”  Assess your situation, gather some information, set a few goals and read on!

Practice More.  Is it time to update your playing?  Are you getting the same gigs with the same people because you are playing the same notes and licks over and over again?  Is it time to get back to some private study or find a new private teacher?  Try to cut down on the wasted time that occupies a larger than normal portion of your day and use it to get back into the practice room.  Talk to some accomplished professionals and ask what books or techniques they are working on at the moment.  Ask them what’s in their iPod and what they are listening to right now for motivation.

Increase your Versatility.  Are you playing the same job or same types of jobs because it’s all you can do?  Are you in fact limited to one style of music or one situation?  Maybe it’s time to explore some other possibilities. This is difficult because increasing your versatility may mean exploring some kinds of music or situations you are not familiar with and fall outside of your comfort zone.  For example, if you are world’s most undiscovered burning guitar player but you have one gig between now and Easter, what can you do?  How about get a lap steel or a pedal steel and learn a few country tunes?  How about making yourself available for solo acoustic gigs?  My point is that change is always fine, as long as it’s happening to someone else, right?  Time to look inward.

Learn to Read Music.  It’s 2008, it’s expected.  Formal training or no formal training, learn to read music.  It saves everyone time and money especially if you plan to do any studio work.  Reading music increases your value as a musician.  The more you read music the easier it becomes, don’t keep putting it off because it’s difficult at first.  Riding a bike was difficult and we all fell the first few times.  Get up, get back in the saddle, and figure it out.

Always be Prepared.  Are you ready for the “next level”? Whatever it may be? What happens if you get the call to audition for the gig of a lifetime?  Are you prepared?  I cannot stress the importance of doing your homework.  This can take on a bunch of different forms and it’s applicable to a lot of different situations, but it usually always comes down to learning the music.  Whether you are learning 3 or 4 tunes for an audition, or whether you just got a gig and you have to learn 3 decades worth of music, learn it.  Learn all of it, inside and out.  Don’t just be able to “get through it”, that’s not good enough.  Learn to “play it”.

Positive Attitude.  The music business is difficult, and it has politics like any other profession.  Sometimes the best players get the best gigs, sometimes they don’t.  An early mentor of mine always told me to worry about the gigs I did get and not to worry about the gigs I didn’t get.  The message is quite simple, but putting into play is a little more difficult.  Nobody wants to hire someone who is dark, miserable and has a poor attitude even if their playing is stellar.  Keeping a positive attitude and surrounding yourself with people who are successful, innovative and positive will increase your chances far beyond sitting in a coffee shop or bar complaining about the politics, unfairness and inequality in the music industry.

CD/DVD’s.  Do you have CD/DVD’s for sale?  Are you on anyone else’s CD/DVD’s?  Hopefully the answer is yes to both, if it’s not, get busy!  Are you promoting them or are they collecting dust in a closet somewhere?  Are you for sale on iTunes?  Nowadays there are many, many outlets for promoting music online.  Websites like CD Baby and Music Submit are filled with valuable information that is updated daily with information you need to get your product out there.

Increase your Exposure Online.  Sure we all have a website, a Myspace Page, a Facebook page, but is that enough?  What happens when you go to Google yourself in quotes?  If 1 or 2 websites come up, it’s not enough.  There are hundreds of websites, web rings, and link exchanges to join.  Increasing traffic to your website is only a start, especially if you have a CD to promote.  Reviews on other websites about you or your CD are also particularly helpful because they give you legitimacy.  Are you exposed in any other languages?  Do you have video’s on You Tube?  How is the quality?  What kind of comments are you getting?  I know I enjoy watching someone play in addition to listening to them play whenever possible.  Most of the time, video is a more accurate and complete representation of someone’s performance than audio by itself.

Increase your Exposure in Person.  How often are you actually out playing?  How often are you playing shows the public can come see?  How often do you go out to see others play?  Do you see what I’m getting at?

Web exposure is fine and extremely beneficial, but how often does someone get hired purely because of what’s on their website?  If you’re lucky, a website is where people go after they’ve seen you perform to find out more about you.  Make sure you are playing an ample amount of shows that showcase your playing in public.  Hang around afterwards instead of heading home.  On that same note, be sure to check out as much live music as possible.  You can greatly increase your chance of “being in the right place at the right time” if you increase the amount of places you visit.

Seek the advice of professionals.  Ask someone who is doing what you want to do how they got where they are!  It’s okay to pick someone’s brain a little, and even okay to steal and incorporate.  You can steal and incorporate a lot of things.  You can steal and incorporate music, marketing, and networking ideas in general.

Seek out Endorsements.  This is more difficult now than ever, but not impossible.  Endorsements in 2008 are more about marketability than playing.  It’s more about relationships with the companies and what you can do for them.  I have several friends that are not “big names” that do clinics for reputable companies.  They have good endorsements and their names get spread as a result.  They are all competent players and have excellent business skills.  Talk to reps at the NAMM show or visit some of your favorite companies online and try to gather some of the endorsement application requirements.  Don’t ever be afraid to approach a company’s artist relations representative to talk about your situation and your interests in promoting their product.

My last suggestion is a bonus suggestion and needs to be prefaced by a story because it comes from personal experience.  I was 22 or 23 years old and wrapping up my last year at the University of North Texas when I got wind that my absolute favorite local band was auditioning drummers.  I had been listening to this band for a year before I got to North Texas and all 5 years I was there.  I was very familiar with every single one of their tunes and I was ripe for the gig.  I practiced their music for the audition, but the truth is I knew most of it already since I had been listening and playing along to it in addition to attending their concerts for nearly 6 years.

I did more than the necessary homework because I had recently run into a string of bad auditions.  I had been denied a few gigs prior to this audition because I was young, ambitious, I hit hard, I overplayed, and I generally played too loud.  These are all very normal things for a young drummer mind you, but I was very conscious that this was obviously not working and not what people were looking for.  I went in to this audition very conscious of what was not working and decided to go ahead and use plastics instead of full on drumsticks for fear of being too loud.  During the first song, I really held back on the fills because I was very conscious not to overplay.  During the next 2 songs I was very cautious not to hit too hard because I was told many times prior that I was quite heavy handed.  After the final song I was careful not to let on how ambitious I was and how badly I wanted the gig.

At the end of the audition the band told me that they really liked my playing but they were looking for someone who was a little more ambitious, hit harder, played more fills, and generally played a little louder.

Be Yourself.  There is no sense portraying a false image, ever.

Music Notation for Guitar

If you’re a composer or arranger that plays any instrument other than guitar, this is for you.  Creating sheet music for a guitar player is simple, but like any other instrument, the guitar has strengths, weaknesses, and limits as to what is physically possible to play. Understanding these things will make you a favorite composer of guitarists for generations to come. No exaggeration–my mouth waters when I see certain arranger credits because I know my part is going to be well written and fun to play, while a few other names prompt me to just turn off my amp.

Before you can start, you need a good guitarist that reads music. [Insert guitarist joke here.] I will stick to the basics, but advanced guitarists, depending on the size of their hands, can push the limits of these chord voicings to great effect. You also need to understand basic music theory because I’ll be talking a lot about intervals, inversions, and chord tones. Once you start writing your music, it helps to have some good music notation software so the final results are easy to read. I use Sibelius, but I used to be a Finale guy.  Either will do the trick.

Throughout this discussion I will use relative terms to describe similar but different concepts:

  • ‘Low’ and ‘high’ relate to pitch–this should be self explanatory.
  • ‘Bottom’ and ‘top’ relate to strings–bottom = lower pitched, top = higher pitched.
  • ‘Up’ and ‘down’ refer to left hand position on the neck–the further ‘up’ the neck you move, the higher the pitch on each string. The terminology here suggests vertical movement, but physically, the hand is moving horizontally. Simply picture where the pitches go on the staff… up and down.

When I list pitches, I’ll start with the lowest pitch on the bottom-most string and work my way to the highest pitch on the top string. I also put an asterisk (*) next to terms that are defined in greater detail at the end of the article.

This article deals mostly with chord voicings because guitarists have fewer limitations with single note lines, as long as they stay within the range of the instrument.  Towards the end we’ll discuss notating nuances like bends, slides, hammer-on and pull-off slurs, muted strings, effects, and other manipulated sounds.


Guitar is notated in the treble clef.

A standard guitar has six strings tuned in 4ths, with the exception of a major 3rd between the second and third highest strings. The pitches are, from low/bottom to high/top: E, A, D, G, B, E.

This next part might sound obvious, but it’s very important to understand.  Guitarists use four (4) fingers to change these pitches. Some of us might use our thumb to reach over the top of the neck and grab a bass note, but in general, we’ve got four fingers to work with.  Similar to a piano player pressing two adjacent keys with one finger, a guitarist can press two or more strings down with one finger.  This is called barring*.  On a piano, the technique produces an interval of a major or minor 2nd. On the guitar, it produces an interval of a 4th or major 3rd, equivalent to the tuning of the open strings.

For example, take a look at the diagram notating the open strings’ pitches.  If I barred the highest three strings, G, B, and E, I would essentially have a first inversion minor triad that can be moved up and down the neck with parallel intervals.  This knowledge will help you notate specific chord voicings for your guitarist.


The guitar sounds an octave lower than written.  If you want your guitarist to play middle C, you must write it on the C in the staff.

Again, take a look at the pitches for open strings.  Those all sound an octave lower than if you played it on a piano.

We know that E is the lowest pitch available based on that chart.  The highest pitch available on most electric guitars is D four octaves higher.  But compose in that range at your own peril, because playing that far up the neck chokes off much of the tone and sustain, and is more difficult.  Therefore a safe range is the G below that.

Notice that even though guitar is written in treble clef, it’s range actually covers the entire bass clef.

If you want your guitarist to spend a lot of time in the higher range, write the part an octave lower and mark the section with 8va so he or she knows to play it an octave higher. Music is simply easier to read and write when you avoid passages with a lot of ledger lines.

Standard Chord Voicings.

Generally, when you want your guitarist to play chords, writing chord symbols above a staff with generic slash marks for each beat will do the trick. If you want a particular rhythm, create rhythmic slashes.  If you want a particular note in the top of the voicing, simply notate it with the chord symbols directly above, like a lead sheet.

However, sometimes you’ll want specific voicings.  It helps to understand the intervals found in several very basic chord voicings frequently used by guitarists.  These voicings can all be played as bar chords* and moved up and down the neck, maintaining the same intervals between each chord tone. In other words, if I play a C major bar chord and move it up a whole step (or two frets, in guitar lingo), we get a D major. Move it up another whole step and it’s E major.  Unlike moving triads up and down the white keys of a piano, the chords do not transpose diatonically on a guitar. That would require a different voicing.

Here are four triad bar chord voicings I play regularly, with a fifth option used occassionally.

Let’s take a look at a few things:

  • 1-4 have six notes, one for each string. 5a and 5b use 5 strings because the fingering gets tricky with all 6 strings as you move up the neck. Of course, you will probably use 3 or 4 note voicings most of the time.  Just because a pianist has 10 fingers doesn’t mean every chord has 10 notes!
  • Comparing any of these to the open string chart, each note is no more than a minor 3rd from the open string.  This is to avoid large stretches.
  • The chords are made up of 3rds and 4ths, with no more than one 5th or 6th. That’s due to the standard tuning of the guitar.
  • You never find more than two adjacent 3rds.

Transposing these chords coupled with changing notes by 1/2 or whole steps will give you the garden variety of major, minor, and 7th chords, along with your basic suspensions.  These would all sound very idiomatic on the guitar, or dare I say guitaristic.

Drop 2 Voicings.

Perhaps you need to be very specific and write your own voicings.  A simple way to ensure every voicing you write is playable on the guitar is to use drop 2 voicings*. Here’s an example of a Cmaj7 chord in all four inversions–block chord first and then the drop 2.

I have yet to find a block chord that cannot be converted to a nice guitar voicing using the drop 2 method.  It is a fail-safe way to make your guitarist happy.

Fourth-y Voicings.

Because of the way the strings are tuned, chord voicings built on 4ths are very guitar friendly.  It’s common to add a major 3rd at the top as well.  These sorts of chords are very common in jazz when you want an “open” sound.  The chords Bill Evans plays on Miles Davis’ “So What” and Herbie Hancock’s opening piano part to “Maiden Voyage” both use these sorts of voicings.  These are an excellent option for the guitar.

Things to Avoid When Writing Chords.

Cluster chords and voicings with more than two major or minor 2nds are difficult if not impossible to play.  The only exception is when open strings are utilized, but this is a tricky technique to use without some experience playing the guitar yourself.

You should also avoid writing passages with many different chords changing rapidly.  The only exception is if the chords use the same or very similar voicings, moving parallel up or down the neck.  Generally speaking, this is a tricky thing to execute, and will require some shedding by your guitarist.  Use your descretion.

Avoid dropping large chord voicings into single note lines.  Again, even if you follow all the rules and make guitar-friendly voicings, you could be sentencing your guitarist to hours in the practice room.

Chord Arpeggios

Guitarists often play arpeggios one of two ways, either as a melodic single note line or as a broken chord with sustaining notes. Composers often want the latter, but are not sure how to properly notate ringing arpeggios for guitar.

The easiest way to indicate that you’d like an arpeggiated chord to be sustained is to notate it like the example below.

Keep in mind that your chord voicings must follow the ruled mentioned above. If two notes have to be played on the same string, only the latter will be sustained.

You may also notate the rhythm while leaving the exact voicing up the the guitarist. Simply leave the note heads blank and write the rhythm. Do not use slash notation, because that would indicate strumming. Notice in this example I’ve also given some shape to the arpeggio, which could act as a guide for the guitarist to play ascending or descending patterns.

Slurs and Articulation.

You can notate slurs the same way you would on any other instrument, by tying a connecting notes with an arch.  Remember, notes on the guitar are plucked, so there will be a certain amound of decay on notes further away from the initial attack.

If you want to use notate specific types of slurs, see the figure below.

Each of these assumes the high G is sounding on beat three and is being approached with a different slur.  The grace note tells the guitarist where to start.

  • A slide simply means sliding one finger up or down the string to the target pitch. Notice the line between the grace note and target pitch.
  • A bend is executed by pulling the string until the target target pitch is heard.  You’ll notice the “W.B.” above the curved line.  That stands for Whole-step Bend. You can also have 1/2 step bends, notated as “1/2 B.” You can start on a bent string and release it to the target pitch.  It’s noted in the opposite direction as the example above.
  • Hammer-on’s and pull-off’s differ from a slide in that two fingers are used, one for each note.  These are useful in fast scale-like passages where you don’t want 1/2 step pitches to sound.  It’s best to not write these kinds of slurs for intervals beyond a major 3rd.

A common articulation technique used by guitarists is called palm muting*.  If you have a long passage of notes that you want played staccato, you can ask for the passage to be palm muted.  Here’s an example of a funk guitar line that uses palm muting.

You’ll also notice the ‘x’ note heads.  This is notating a muted, percussive attack of no particular pitch. It’s easiest for the guitarist to read if you write the ‘x’ on the same note as the previous pitch.

General Tips and Advice.

  • Listen to your favorite guitarists.  Better yet, transcribe what they’re playing.  Most of what Pat Metheny plays is very idiomatic for the guitar (though the rest is incredibly difficult to execute).  If somebody recorded it, then you’ll know it’s at least possible depending on the skill of the guitarist.
  • Study classical guitar sheet music.  This is the place to see examples of excellent guitar notation, down to what position a passage is played.  Of course, most music does not have to be this detailed, but it’s a great reference.
  • Ask a guitarist!  Leave a comment below, or better yet, talk to the guitarist that will play your music.
  • Trial and error.  This is how I learned how to write for brass, woodwinds, and drums.  I also got pretty good at dodging airborn pencils in the process.  Just be open to changing your parts.

*Definitions of Common Guitar Terms.

Bar (or barre) – The technique of pushing down several strings with one finger.

Bar chord – Chord voicings that do not use open strings.  These can move up and down the neck in parallel intervals.

Drop 2 voicing – Voicings where the second highest note of a block chord is dropped an octave.

Palm muting – The technique of slightly muting the strings with the palm of the picking hand.  Creates a staccato effect.