The Care and Feeding of The Jazz Guitarist, Vol. 1, or, “Tuning Up Your Life with PPPP: (Planning & Persistence Prevents Pain)”
January 1, 2017

Written by Doug Perkins

calvinhobbsnewyearsresolutionIt’s a new year and lots of people make a lot of resolutions to do things differently now. You probably have a list of things that you wish were different in your musical life, but possibly only a vague idea of what should be done about them, and not much of a real plan to get there. Well, rather than your typical “self help” article written for a generalized audience by a person that knows nothing about your musical world, here’s some concrete advice by someone that at least to some degree or another does. ALL of the things I am going to discuss involve taking “personal responsibility” for yourself and your music career, so if you don’t wont to hear about that, then don’t read this. Some of this stuff will also apply to other markets than music, and may even be applicable to life in general – read on and see:

There’s No Gigs (Hint: It’s probably not that there’s no gigs): If there’s something that is common to musicians in general, it’s complaining that there is either NO work, or not as much as in “the old days”. Well, keeping in mind that “the old days” are NEVER coming back and that everywhere you look on various media etc. there are musicians working, that statement HAS to be false to some degree. Granted, every location has a certain amount of paying live entertainment venues, and its easier or harder to find them based on where you live. But unless you are living in a two igloo town in northern Alaska, there is SOMEONE that would make more money in their venue if they had live music – and if not, go do any job you can find to make the dog sled fare to get out of there to a place that does. But the point is that wherever you are, it’s up to YOU to either find or MAKE the gigs you are looking for.

What do I mean by “making” a gig? Well, start by locating a number of places that it seems that live music could enhance its’ business and go in and offer it to them. What that could look like is this: In your nice “performing style wardrobe” and a shave and clean hair, go into the venue during off hours and talk to the owner (do it then so you are not bothering them and so you can get his full attention, usually 2-4pm between lunch and dinner). Offer him two sets of free music (either yourself as a solo guitarist, or a duo with a bass player, etc.) on the night of his choice, with the stipulation that he or the decision maker on music will be there. Make sure that you have talked over a price per performance period (2 hours, 4 hours, etc.) that if he likes what he hears he will agree to pay.

IMPORTANT: Tell him that because you are offering them something of value to lots of people, you will only play if the decision maker is present, and call the day before during the off time to make sure. Also, tell him that to make sure that he’s serious about this that he only gets one “re-schedule” time, because you are offering this to other venues as well and it will be first come first served until you are booked up.

Of course, you have to know what your market will bear on prices. If you DON’T KNOW what your market will bear, that is probably because you have another problem: You don’t know the working musicians in your market to ask. If that’s the case, you first need to take care of your problem in “networking”.

Networking (Hint: Yes, it IS who you know as well as how you play): If you’re going to be successful in your market, other musicians have to know, like, and be impressed with you; it’s that simple. The easiest way to make that happen is the time honored tradition of the “jam session”. Most every town has jam nights somewhere: they are on off nights like Monday or Tuesday nights, or even on Sunday afternoons. There is usually what is called the “host band” that brings the initial gear needed and plays the first set themselves, after which they “open it up” for people to sit in. (Note: don’t assume that there’s a guitar amp, throw one in your car before you leave just in case – and of course your guitar, no one will let you play theirs.) There will be a sign up sheet to put your name and instrument on when you arrive to be called up to play from.

IMPORTANT JAM SESSION SURVIVAL TIPS: To date, I don’t think I have ever met a musician that really “liked” sitting in at jam sessions – there’s gear you don’t know and people you have never met that you have to deal with. Here’s a few tips on how to come out of the whole thing on the plus side: 1) If it’s a jam that you know nothing about, don’t make your presence known as someone that might want to play at first. Sit in the back or at the bar like a patron and evaluate the “scene” first: how good is the host band? What are the other people who are going to sit in talking about and what “vibe” are they giving off? Are they playing the style of music that you want to play, and how well? A mismatch in terms of “way better” or “way worse” than you can be the reason to walk out, and if they don’t know you as a musician, you can do so without anyone the wiser or with any hurt feelings.

Also, it’s VERY IMPORTANT to have AT LEAST a half a dozen tunes that you HAVE MEMORIZED ready to play – and that means know the chord changes in the regular keys they are usually played in and THE MELODY as well. The worst thing you can do at a jam session when being called up to play is say “I don’t know, what do you want to play?” – unless of course, they are players that you know and you are making an inside joke because you immediately suggest something very hip and count if off right away when everyone says “cool!”.

Also, remember that some musicians are very into emotional mind games in terms of trying to “psych out” other players (especially on their own instrument) into feeling bad about themselves – don’t get into that. Be nice enough to say “sounds good” at least to others you either played with or heard play – there’s no need to suck up to anyone or be fake, but you can always at least say that and be nice. Remember to BRING BUSINESS CARDS with you, or ask for theirs and send them an email or Facebook etc. message to follow up.

Also, a few other “little things” to remember: The same bartenders and waitresses that are there for the jam nights you go to will be there at the paying gigs that you get at the same places – they should ALREADY KNOW AND LIKE YOU when that happens. What that means is asking their names and even if you are just having water or a soda, TIP THEM WELL – they are working for a living just like you are trying to do.

Also, remember to “dress to impress” looking like what you want to portray yourself as – meaning, don’t wear a suit to a country jam and don’t wear jeans to sit in with Wynton Marsalis. If you don’t know what image you are wanting to put out, then you probably have ANOTHER problem:

Branding / Marketing (Hint: You’re in the Entertainment Business as well as the Music Business): You might think that REAL musicians are above thinking about this stuff, but I can prove it to you that you are wrong: Go look for a picture of Pat Metheny from the 70s at least into the 1990s and see if you can find one where he’s not smiling with those huge white teeth, that huge mane of hair, and his signature horizontal striped pull over shirts. I’ll guarantee you that you CAN’T, he expanded to adding some ethnic type print shirts and some suits around the 2000s, but the hair and teeth stayed as is. If you think this wasn’t at least to some degree done deliberately, you’d be wrong again. And think of other musicians you like, and I bet you can find things in terms of “look” that they branded themselves with as well.

The point is that it IS important what you look like and how you present yourself to the public, and that needs to be thought of every time you go out to perform in public – ESPECIALLY when you are out looking for work. And it should go without saying, on your website should you have one (and at a cost these days of not much more than $100-200 a year, you SHOULD have one if this is some level of career for you). The picture and videos there should support that brand as well.

Now, on to any actual “musical issues” that you might have – it might seem weird to put marketing before that subject, but I assume that you’ve put FAR more time into the music part so I wanted to address the marketing side first! Here’s some suggestions on how to really “tune up” your playing to where you will see real improvement:

Getting “Your Sound” (Hint: it’s probably not about gear): I will confess to not really spending the time that I should with my gear getting sounds (but I’m CHANGING), I am more practicing improvising etc instead but I tend to forget that the more things SOUND good to me, the better that I will play. The most common thing that guitar players think of when they are not getting the sound that they want is that it’s the gears fault: they don’t have the right guitar, effects, amp, pick, etc to do what they want. Well, MAYBE that’s true, but I have found that it’s more learning to use what you have than anything else – even if your gear really sucks, there are things you can do to sound better without changing ANYTHING but how you use it and how you play / use what you you already know:

Listen to the guitarists that have the closest sound to what you are hearing in your head as “your sound”. Try to write down some words to describe that sound (“round”, “edgy”, etc.) and then try to sonically define what those words mean to you – for example, “round” might mean where the high end above a certain frequency is rolled off, and the midrange in a certain frequency is boosted. Watch some videos of them playing on YouTube, etc. , and make notes as to anything you see that is specific to how they are physically playing that might contribute to their sound (like Wes Montgomery picking with his right thumb, etc.) Try some of these techniques and see how you like what you hear. Also, play through the rig you use live and compare your sound with theirs. See how turning knobs differently than you usually do might help improve your sound – for example, a friend of mine recently showed me how that turning the bass control on a Fender Deluxe beyond a certain level will make the whole amp distort, turning the ’65 Reissue Deluxe I had into something that I DIDN’T sell and now use all the time. A simple different way of looking at the same gear made all the difference.

In terms of your own physical playing technique, you can of course get any of the killer master class video lessons we offer here at JGS (sorry for the shameless plug), but here’s a FREE tip that will pretty much help ANYONES’ playing technique, no matter how good they are – in fact, it’s what I consider to be the VERY ESSENCE of how to do anything well with your body, it’s called “ergonomics”. Ergonomics is the name given to the science of doing anything the most efficient way possible. In terms of guitar playing, that translates into not wasting any energy or speed with motions that are larger than you need to accomplish what you are trying to do.

Here’s two great things to do to ergonomically improve your playing technique: For picking, play a VERY SLOW alternate “up-down-up-down” on any string, open or not. Take a look at how far your up and your down stroke goes past the string after it hits it. Ideally, it should not be more than a pick‘s width or two to get out of the way of the vibrating string, immediately moving in the other direction to pluck again. This is true for both the up and the down strokes. If they are wider than that, tightening this space up will immediately increase your speed once it becomes second nature. Notice that I do NOT mean that you’ll be faster right away – you will first need to reprogram your picking to move more ergonomically without thinking, and that is only done by SLOWLY playing to the point that you can control what is going on, you must RESIST trying to play faster in practicing this until is starts to become natural. (Note: whenever you are learning a new technique, just focus on it when you are practicing technique, just play however things come naturally to you when it’s time to perform. The “new way” will take over whenever it is ready to use.) Also, practice ergonomically cross picking between strings. Try playing a down stroke on that first string, and then follow that by each lower string successively (1/2, 1/3, ¼, etc. and back).

For your left hand, here’s something that is GREAT to do to break bad habits like having fingers that lift too high going to new notes, or just to be able to play “more legato”, meaning “longer sounding notes overall”. It’s very simple to say, but not very easy to do if you’ve never done this: Take any scale pattern that you know and make a rule for yourself that every finger that plays a note has to STAY holding that note until it’s needed to play another. This will FORCE you to play with your finger tips (or the back of your fingers will mute the new notes) and with your wrist up and thumb flat on the back of the neck under the second finger. So if you are playing an ascending G major scale starting on the root at the 3rd fret on the 6th string, what this means (amongst other things) is that your second finger will not move until it is time to play the C on the 5th string, and then will not move AGAIN until you have to play the D on the 2nd string. YES, it’s hard, and YES, it will drive you crazy, but do this 2-3 times a day for a FOCUSED 2-3 minutes at a time and watch what happens to your playing – EVERYTHING will start to sound better. You will also probably start to get rid of any open string ringing that you don’t want because you will be going slow enough to HEAR it happen. YOU’RE WELCOME 😉

So, there you have it, my little (actually, sort of long) treatise on things that most anyone can do to have a better musical life in the New Year. You can bet that I am talking to myself as much as anyone with this, I have an excel sheet with individual sheets in it for each of the project goals I have for the year. And besides that, I schedule everything into my calendar because I know for a FACT that they only way I get things done is by making deadlines, even as artificial ones as Google Calendar entries… or better still, telling your friends that you are going to do something, and then having to do it so you don’t look like a loser – that works great too, that’s how I got my first CD done 😉

OK, I know that’s a lot after you might be tired from your NYE gig – maybe re-read this in a couple of days when you’ve recovered – Happy 2017!

Doug Perkins,

Dec 31, 2016

2 responses to “The Care and Feeding of The Jazz Guitarist, Vol. 1, or, “Tuning Up Your Life with PPPP: (Planning & Persistence Prevents Pain)””

  1. Barrett says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write what I needed to hear.
    At first I thought that I’d take your suggestions and implement them at the beginning of the new year (2018), but I realized that today is a better time to start.

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