The advice on this page is definitely not for amateur musicians who have no desire to give it all up "for music and the Free Electric Band!" Many bands enjoy regional success and even get to cut a few records, whilst their members have day jobs. Although the following is for the dedicated professional and those who are thinking of becoming such a person, we hope there is something in it for all musicians.
This guide is divided up into seven steps, going from practising scales all the way through to talking to promoters and recording your first CD and finally your bid for stardom. Succeeding is all down to you and your ability to meet the musical spirit of the moment. And some luck! But, above all, it is about your ability to be realistic about what it takes to be a success.
Step One: becoming a musician
Practise, practice practice. If you aspire to be a keyboard player, play scales, harmonies and progressions for an hour a day, two if you can spare the time. If you are a guitar player, learn to play a scale whilst lying on your bed and looking up at the ceiling. If you are a drummer, get a set of practice pads and always practice with an old-fashioned metronome. If the flute is your instrument, practice scales in all keys.
Whenever possible, practice with a metronome. This may sound tedious, but it will make you a better and tighter musician. The best is always the old fashioned type with a pendulum, because you can see exactly where you are in the beat. Everybody should practice with a metronome, not just the drummer or the rhythm player. At first, it seems to be more difficult, but after a short time you will suddenly realise why practice with a metronome is far better than without. You will begin to groove! You will enjoy that feeling of beat that the metronome gives you.
A great way to learn for jazz and rock music is to learn from a master. This is how all musicians used to learn and it is still the best. Find a really great musician, a top guy who is in demand and ask for lessons at least once a week. When you feel you have gone as far as you can with one teacher, move on to the next. Each will teach you something different. Remember singers - even rock and folk singers - have to take lessons too. And practice every day. It is better to put in several shorter sessions in a day, than to flog yourself to death for one long two-hour session.
The question often asked is "Should I study music at a university or music college?" If you are interested in classical music, the answer is almost definitively 'Yes!' But remember that if you thought that the rock-and-roll market was tough, try playing classical music for a living and find out what tough really means! The colleges are churning out first class musicians for a genre that only accounts for 3% of the market (and still falling!)
In rock and pop, nearly all successful musicians did not study music and cannot read notation either. In fact Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd) once stated very emphatically that he considered an inability to read music vital to being creative. "Otherwise it will just tie you down in rules and constrictions of classical notation that are pretty much irrelevant in modern music." he said.
When you can play just about anything within your chosen field, you are a musician. If you aspire to becoming a rock guitarist and you can play anything from a Chuck Berry riff to a wild Jimmy Hendrix solo - and can play a scale in all keys without squinting at the fretboard all the time - then you are ready for step two.
Step two: finding other musicians
You amaze your friends at parties with your virtuosity. Your drum solos are stunning, your guitar riffs are perfect and your piano playing reminds aunts and mothers of Mozart's first steps. But you have not yet performed in public.
Now is the time to start thinking about joining up with other like-minded souls and forming a band, or - if you are a classical musician - joining an orchestra. Over 90% of the market for CDs and concerts is for rock/pop music of one kind or another, so the chances are that you will be joining or forming a rock band of some sort. That means about four musicians, so each one had better be good.
You have to choose what kind of people you are going to work with, so you have to know what to look for in a musician.
Singer: The secret ingredient
A technically perfect singer is usually not a good lead singer. Ever since singers have stood up in front of an audience, people have shown that they respond to those that can project their personalities on stage or on screen. Emotional proximity is what the advertising and media industry calls it and it has little to do with the technical ability to hit a note. The three things an audience responds to in a singer are personality, looks and ability - and in that order. Sometimes a singer will have all three (Whitney Houston), but just one or two will do (Tom Jones) and that personality has to come over in the voice (Janis Joplin - perhaps the ultimate rock and roll voice). Conversely, good lead singers do not always make good background singers. Backgrounds are almost the opposite of lead vocals. Too much emotion or personality can defeat the purpose and distract from the intended focus the lead vocal.
Lead guitar and other soloists:
Most of the time, a 90 m.p.h. guitar player is of little use. Most great guitar players play quite slowly. They do, however, have a unique style. You will always be able to tell when BB King, Dave Gilmour, or Mark Knopfler are playing because they have spent a lifetime creating a special style. Mark Knopfler, for example, plays rock chords, but uses classical fingering and jazz phrasing. But all three play very slowly, so don't be fooled by a flash style. Go for the guitarist that can play a single note that tugs at the heart strings. The same applies to all solo instruments (sax, violin, trumpet, etc.). Most styles of music benefit from a careful and sparse style.
As the name implies, this captain of the wang-chung has to have a good sense of rhythm. He or she has also to have a good command of the guitar and be able to carry the basic harmony structure of the music. If you are looking to create a funky sound, the rhythm guitar player is the most important member of the band.
All too often, the bass player is regarded as fairly unimportant. All he has to do is play a handful of repetitive notes. But if you listen carefully to popular music, you should begin to realise just how many hook-lines are given to the bass player. A single good flourish of bass notes can make or break a song.
The old saying goes "A band is only as good as the drummer." If the drummer cannot keep the beat, the other musicians will sound poor. If the drummer keeps a great beat, the others will sound great. Like the lead guitar, a flash style is not required. The ability to play 16ths on the bass drum is pointless. The ability to groove is everything.
The keyboard player today has to fill in for all the musicians bands do not have any more. That means technical ability really counts. He has to be a three part string section one second and a two part horn section the next. You may want him or her to play honky-tonk 12-bar blues, followed by the sound of a combo playing reggae. Even if you are a thrashing heavy metal band, audition the keyboard play on every type of music - you'll need it!
Step Three: forming and performing
Now you are just a bunch of musicians with a vague intention to play music and maybe get somewhere. But before you go on stage in front of a paying audience, you will need to become a band. That means you will need to have (1)a name, (2)a sound, (3)some equipment, (4)material and (5)sort out the relationships between the members.
(1) The name of an act is very, very important. Englebert Humperdinck had tried many times and had even had a recording contract. But when his manager gave him the name of a little-known German composer, his career took off. So, where do names come from? Some are well known expressions (Dire Straits) some are puns (Soft Cell) some are just nicknames of former band members (Hootie and the Blow Fish) some are bits of media jargon (Talking Heads) some are figures from history (Jethro Tull) and some are just things you find around the house (Red Hot Chilli Peppers).
You will often hear 'It does not matter what the band is called, as long as the music is good.' This is a very stupid statement. If the Beatles would have been called Consignia, George Harrison would have died in poverty. In other words, a good name is a name people can remember. A really great name tells you something about the band. Metallica is definitely not the name of a jazz combo. Also remember to search the Internet to see that no other band has ever performed anywhere under that name. Also keep away from brand names and song titles.
(2) Next the sound. Can you say who the band is just by the sound? If you do not have Mark Knopfler on lead guitar, a distinctive keyboard is the easiest way to sound unique. Do you remember the Doors and the fantastic bluesy sound of a laid-back Rhodes 76 and Hammond B3? How about the ARP sequence on Dark Side of the Moon? All keyboard sounds.
(3) It definitely pays to have a small sound and lighting rig - assuming that you have some means of transport. A basic rig with lighting will have paid for itself in the first ten gigs (and you can rent it out to other bands). As you progress, the question of sound and lighting will be taken out of your hands as you become the support band for some larger act. Right at the top, big acts have stage, sound and lighting designers that consult with hire companies and even manufacturers to create a concept.
But even at the very beginning, it pays to create a concept in your lighting, no matter how modest your budget may be. Try such tricks as putting some PAR 56 lights on the floor behind the drummer, or even tape torch lights onto the lead guitar. Talking Heads used have just one guy with a floodlight crouched in front of the lead singer - the cheapest effect one can think of, but wildly effective!
(4) Bands used to record other people's material. Nowadays, copyright laws have largely stopped this, as you need permission from the publisher to use their material. Like most successful bands, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones started out as cover bands. Today, promoters, labels and venues are looking for originality, which means that bands have less opportunity to learn their trade. In an age when audiences wanted to hear Chuck Berry tunes, the guitarist had to copy his riffs, note by note - and that made him a good guitar player. It also taught the musicians how songs were constructed and therefore was a basic education in song writing.
So even if it will not land that great recording contract and follow up World tour, include some Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Kinks in your live repetoir. You might even throw in some Hendrix or The Eagles. It won't have the promoters banging down the Green Room door with contracts in their hands, but it will do your musicianship the world of good!
But recording means original music. If you find it difficult to come up with good tunes, try listening to the classics. You can copy anybody who has been dead long enough - in most countries, that is at least 50 years. Pete Waterman uses Wagner.
You will also probably find it easier to compose from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. In other words, it is easier to start with an arrangement and a chord progression and put a tune on it, than to find a tune out of the thin air and then write an arrangement.
And remember that all compositions are made of many tunes. Even simple pop songs are several tunes put together. For example, the Beatles 'Help' is four tunes (or musical themes, to be more accurate) put together. 'Somewhere, Over the Rainbow' is about three. To be more up-to-date, 'Music' written by Madonna and Mirwais Ahmadzai has three tunes in the lead vocals and eight tunes in the arrangement. And that is for a song with just eight lines!
(5) The personal relationships within the band can be difficult because working together as musicians is rather like a four or five-way marriage - so the chances of incompatibility are much greater!
Most good bands break up before they have had any success because of some internal tension. That is why you should have been very careful about your choice of musicians right at the beginning. Perhaps the most common source of tension is unequal talent. A typical situation is the unofficial band leader (who is also the song writer and arranger, he books all the gigs and is a dedicated musician) getting more and more frustrated with the weakest member of the band who can't keep the beat, plays the wrong chords and does not turn up for rehearsals. When the first guy says 'He has to go!' then others often say 'If he goes, then I go!' Or the band may struggle on until a label or promoter tells them they have to replace the one guy. (If the Beatles had stuck with their original drummer, we probably would never have heard of them.)
The next source of conflict is a member having another career. If the lead guitarist is a dentist, the chances of his wanting to sleep on a pile of unsold boxes of CDs in the back of the band bus on a cold winter's night in Southern Germany are probably quite slim. Given a far more comfortable alternative, his commitment will be less than 100%.
So the moral of the story is to be prepared to dump the weak and uncommitted sooner rather than later. The alternative is to stay a pub band (Sultans of Swing!) until you give up though frustration and lack of progress.
But be prepared to have to buy him out of his share in the sound and lighting rig and also his stake in the name and other intellectual property belonging to the band. To do otherwise would be unfair and you will often find that he will be only too happy to take the money and run.
It is at this point that you will realise the importance of having a written contract. It does not have to be much. Just a simple piece of paper with the words 'The Band X and its equipment is the joint property of X, Y and Z. In the event of someone leaving the band or being voted out by the majority, the name remains with the remaining members and he is to be paid X.' is better than nothing. If you don't, the departing member may force you to either drop the name or keep paying him, even though he is not playing.
Step Four: building a following
Call it a fan-base, call it a constituency, call it a following, but whatever you do call it, you'll need one - but it will not come to you automatically, you have to work at it. To do this you'll need posters, demos, bios, pics, a website and a CD.
If you want bookings, even as a pub band, you will need posters. They definitely do not have to be in full colour, but they do have to have a great design and the bigger they are, the better. A2 size is minimum, A1 would be ideal.
Even a pub band has to have a demo so that the venue knows what it is getting. Just a CD-R with two or three of your best songs recorded in as professional a manner as possible is best for getting live gigs. If you cannot afford a studio, download ProTools (the 8-Track version costs nothing!) and use that. But in the long run, it is usually easier and cheaper to book a two-day session in a studio and use the first day for basic recording and the second day for overdubs and mixing.
Sooner or later, you will have to approach a promoter or an agency in order to get bigger and better gigs. Typically, a promoter will want bios, pics and demos (or ideally, a proper commercial CD) and he will need at least six of each. So you will need good pictures of the band taken by a professional photographer (or a REALLY good amateur). There should be one of your really fantastic show on stage and another that is a good studio head-and-shoulders shot. These should be accompanied by biographies of the musicians and the story of the band so far.
Step Five: recording
Sooner or later, you are going to have to have a commercial CD made. Not a demo on a CDR, but the real thing distributed in the shops. In an ideal world, you will get a recording contract and the trouble, expense and financial risk is passed onto the record company. You will have noticed, however, that few if any of the labels are signing new bands that have not recorded before and are a proven success (read our Music Industry page on this website).
That means recording your own CD and at your expense or finding an indie label that will take you on. Here, at The Byre Studio we run a special project for 'first timers' that makes it worthwhile coming here from just about anywhere. We also encourage bands to use home recording to cut down on costs. But before you waste time and money on amateur systems that will not give you the results you are looking for, check with the studio where you are going to finish the project. (See our Home Recording Page.)
From here on, to find out more about recording, go to the FAQ, Typical Recording Session, Home Recording, How to Get Great Sounds at Home and the Music Industry pages.