Guitar players, in general, would love to have music careers, instead of only pursuing their passion in their spare time. That goes for singers, and players of other instruments as well. In another article, we explored the possibilities of full-time music careers as a producer, studio session player, music teacher, sound engineer, or in gear sales. Here’s a more in-depth look at some of these careers.
First, let’s look at the idea of being a session player. This is where your skills are sufficient that when a producer needs to record your type of instrument, they go down their list and call you for the recording session because they know you can really deliver the goods fast. So what skills are necessary?
First, you have to play in tune, and right in the “groove” of the piece being recorded. That means you need to develop a very fine sense of pitch, way beyond just tuning your instrument well. As far as rhythm and time go, the best way to develop that innate sense is to get used to “subdividing” each beat in the music into two, three, or four equal, inner pieces. When this becomes intuitive instead of forced, you’ll find it much easier to avoid rushing the beat (a non-professional player mistake), and to play with what the pros call “feel” or “groove.”
Next, you have to know how to play lots of different styles on your instrument, including rock, pop, mainstream jazz, fusion, various latin sub-styles, new age, hip-hop, and about a billion more. The only way to get these styles down is to become a true eclectic, and listen to many styles — all styles — with relish, and pick them apart to see what they can teach you. Saying, “Oh, I hate rap” or “I hate country” can be accurately translated in a producer’s ear to mean “I don’t ever want to play a studio recording session,” because sessions are built on a knowledge of styles, and the ability to play them all well.
Finally, you have to be easy to work with, communicate well, especially the listening and understanding part, and you have to show up on time, ready to go, and not waste session time jabbering with your friends. If you feel like you want to learn the above, then you may very well have a future as a session player. It pays pretty well, all things considered, and it beats flipping burgers, that’s for sure!
Now, take all those skills mentioned above, and hone them even finer, and add a heavy dose of business wisdom and people skills, and you can work your way into a music career as a producer. Most successful music producers started out as session players. Additionally, they are most often accomplished arrangers, and sometimes even composers or songwriters in their own right. A producer will take on an artist’s project, either do or hire out for the arrangements or orchestrations, either contract (schedule and pay) the session players or hire that service as well, and then, will “produce” the session itself, overseeing everyone’s performance, and deciding on the fly how to draw the most out of everyone, and just what performance needs to be recorded to make the music the very best it can be for the artist, genre, and market. The producer then finishes up by producing the “mix” and “mastering” of the recordings, so that everything is ready for duplication and release to the public.
Being a teacher is, no pun intended, a low-key version of the above. The stresses — and pay — are lower, but you are still drawing the best out of someone else’s musical abilities. In this case, however, those abilities are beginning or intermediate, and you need to be patient, and a really good motivator. In return, the pay is steadier, and the client base many times larger, than you’d have as a producer or session player, and you can often do it from your home.
We’ll skip gear sales in this article, and finish up with the possibility of music careers for nerds — being a sound engineer. o do this, you need to have a fast working knowledge of the favorite DAW, or digital audio workstation software; at the time of this writing, in almost every studio of any note (oops, another pun), that DAW is ProTools (HD or successor). On top of that, an audio engineer needs a working knowledge of the principles behind audible sound, signal processing, signal flow, the deciBel, impedance, microphone types and patterns, stereo and sometimes surround miking techniques, and musical taste, so that both tracking (recording) and mixing of songs turns out with world-class sound. That means no hiss, distortion, funky coloration, clutter, or any other unsatisfying characteristic. Sound engineers do not get paid, in general, as well as session players or (especially) producers, but the work can be really satisfying, and again, it beats flipping burgers or holding construction signs.
All these pathways in are ways of doing music for a living. They are competitive, but they are very fulfilling. If you think you’re up to the challenge, come join us pros in the music business, and enjoy a music career of your own!