How to Make A Living as a Guitarist

[This is the original, unedited version of the GUITAR PLAYER magazine article titled: FREELANCING—How To Get Hometown Gigs Now. Guitar Player Issue 311—Vol. 2g No. 11, November 1995.]

Many guitarists want to make a living in the music business. You get an instrument and learn to play because it looks fun, exciting or cool—and off you go. After awhile you’re jamming, and making a career with music sounds like a good move. At some point this “good move” can become a fruitful career... or a disaster.

Record Industry vs Music-playing Business
The “music business” is composed of two main categories: the record industry and the “music-playing business.” I introduce and define the term “music-playing business” as any paid musical work a musician does outside of record industry activities. Over the past few decades it seems like the term “music business” has grown to mean the record industry, and this has caused some confusion.

Musicians who confuse these categories generally have a hard time or fail. You can play too many stock licks in your original band—or be too original at a cover gig where people want to hear music that’s familiar—not something they’ve never heard before. This is just a fact of life.

Musicians who function according to the category they’re involved with have the best chance for success. True, these categories can overlap and weave in and out of each other like a solo through chord changes, the common denominator being music itself. How-ever, they are two different areas requiring two different sets of skills and abilities.

This article is about the music-playing business, and the working guitarist in it. The work-a-day musician is a highly skilled craftsperson who gets paid for playing. Playing is your job, and the better you play, the better your chances of making a living. It’s very simple. Most working musicians don’t have record deals, though, of course, having a deal is something to aim for. Original music is where it’s at for many, including myself—but does that have to exclude everything else?

Being a working musician is an art and a business rolled into one, which is perhaps why so many people don’t understand musicians: there’s more to it than meets the eye. There are different styles of music, personal preferences, day jobs, conflicts, rent and people’s attitudes (some valid and some not). “I’ll never play covers! (But I hate my day job).” “I only play lead! (But I can’t find enough gigs).” These are comments heard daily nationwide. When you dig below the surface, there are many elements involved and many decisions to make.

When you want to play for a living... play! Play music. Any kind of music. I’d rather play a show of corny music for a few hundred bucks than work a job I don’t like.

I’d rather play for a living while striving for the original thing.

It all depends on what you want to do.

To be a full time musician you have to develop the right frame of mind. You need to firmly establish priorities and be willing to do what’s needed without fussing or copping attitudes that could slow down your progress. You need to be self-motivating, develop confidence and be professional in all that you do. You have to replace the original-music viewpoint of “I’m going to do it my way” with “I’m going to play to make this gig a success!” A professional does what he needs to do without letting his or her personal emotions interfere, and adopts viewpoints that promote the growth of a career— not the collapse of one.

If you like what you’ve read so far, the complete article contains the following:

12 Ingredients for Success
Types of Gigs
Finding Work
To take your next step:
~ Decide what kind of lifestyle you want.
~ Determine what skills you need to generate the amount of desired work.
~ Determine how much time and energy you are willing to invest in your future.
~ Create a plan that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be.
~ Do it—or don’t do it. The choice is yours.

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