Let’s face it – the guitar is an incredibly popular instrument to learn.
Look at any “top instrument” list and you’re sure to come to the same conclusion.
Granted, not everyone who picks up guitar blossoms into a Jimi Hendrix. Most don’t.
But even if we were to suppose that “excellent guitarists” fall into the top 20%, that number still represents a lot of players.
And, watching YouTubers like Stevie T or Igor Presnyakov gives you the sense that the bar for excellence is higher than ever.
So, how do stand out in a sea of guitar players? How do you get more gigs and opportunities? How do you carve out a niche for yourself?
Here’s what I’d suggest.
Be Easy to Work With
I’ve observed that a lot of musicians are not dependable.
I once had a musician who booked three studio sessions with me – and never showed up once.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I’m not going to let that experience color my friendship with him, but now I know I can’t count on him when it counts. And, there’s clearly no money in it for me.
You always need to be mindful of how you’re coming across and how you’re adding value to others.
Being reliable is just one aspect of being easy to work with. You also need to have a good attitude, be adaptive and be wiling to serve the people who choose to work with you.
Treat everyone you work with like a client. Understand what their needs are. Then go above and beyond the call of duty, surprise and delight them.
Get to Know People – Lots of People
You need to create your own opportunities. Don’t wait to be picked. Never wait to be picked. Choose yourself!
People hold the key to opportunities (not social networks). So, knowing more people equals having more calls for gigs, sessions, projects, collaborations and so on.
If you’re shy or awkward, get over it! Anybody can walk up to anybody, smile, shake a hand and say, “Hello, my name is…”
If that leads nowhere with one person, no problem, move on to the next. But saying “hello” could also be the beginning of a great friendship, partnership or otherwise. You just don’t know, and that’s what’s so exciting and fun about life.
Realistically, you can’t keep in touch with everybody. But don’t hesitate in reaching out. You could end up landing some great gigs because of who you know. I have.
Learn to Play in a Variety of Styles
Now, marketing yourself as a versatile guitarist probably won’t get you anywhere, because the term “versatile” could mean anything! So, don’t try to sell yourself that way.
But it’s still a good idea to be able to play in a variety of styles.
There are so many other aspects of guitar playing that are subjective. What it means to be a great guitarist depends on who you ask. Some say shredding. Other say sweep picked arpeggios. Still others say jazz chords.
In my opinion, none of these are qualities of great guitarists in a concrete sense.
But there’s one quality that’s hard to argue with – and that’s the ability to play in a variety of styles competently, if called upon.
So, you should have at least a basic understanding of all the core genres – pop, rock, blues, R&B country, jazz, folk, reggae, Latin and so on. That should help you land more opportunities. The people you work with will thank you for it too.
Develop Your Signature Style
If you develop your own style and you create a demand for it, you won’t be able to stop people from knocking down your door.
Sounds awesome, right?
But this is hard – incredibly hard. Because it probably means you’re well-known. Maybe not a household name, but you’d be well-established in your region, at the very least.
When I think of guitarists who have a signature style, I think of people like The Edge, Eric Johnson, Eddie Van Halen and the like. If you’re a guitar buff, you know exactly who these people are.
Sure, others try to emulate them. But they never sound exactly like the original. If you want to get someone who sounds like the original on your record, best case, you’d hire them!
So, you can see why this might be an uphill battle, though developing a signature style is often passed off as good advice.
I’d say it’s a good thing to aspire to, but it’s a long-term proposition to say the least, because you’d want to push yourself to your limits, experimenting with a variety of techniques, playing styles, effects and so on.
Be Clear About What You’re Trying to Accomplish
Think about what you want to achieve in your career. Envision it in your mind. Then, work backwards and figure out the exact steps you’d need to take to get there.
Look, I can’t tell you what your goals should be. Only you know what you truly desire!
And, as we all know, the shortest path from here to there is a straight line.
Many years ago, I remember going in for a job interview and being asked what I wanted. I answered by sharing the projects I was excited about, what I wanted to accomplish as a musician, the fact that I was looking for web design clients and so on.
After listening for a moment, the interviewer said to me: “It sounds like you aren’t very sure what you want. The only way I can help is if you know exactly what you’re after.”
Now, as it turns out, I’m not cut out for the nine to five working world and though I’ve had a few part-time jobs along the way, that never stuck.
But I think you know what my point is. If you can tell others what you’re looking to achieve, in a few succinct words, they are more likely to be able to help you on your journey. If they aren’t clear on what you’re trying to do, they won’t know how to help.
Tap Into Your Inner Entrepreneur
To me, this is the most important thing.
And, it goes back to what I said earlier about choosing yourself.
The best way to separate yourself from the pack is to do things differently.
And, what are most guitarists and musicians doing? Waiting to be discovered. Waiting for the phone to ring.
Don’t do that!
You don’t need permission to pursue your passion. Just begin at whatever level you’re at. It doesn’t matter whether you have the right look or the right gear. Use what you’ve got and upgrade later.
This is what we often say, jokingly, in the entrepreneurial world:
If you see everyone doing something, turn and run the other way!
So, stop thinking of yourself as a starving musician. Be empowered, fellow guitarist – go forth and conquer.
Do you need to be an amazing player to stand out from the crowd? No way!
It’s good to develop your skills and become the best player you can be. But the most technical players don’t always get the gigs. Why? Because they don’t know anyone, and no one knows them! They’ve been cooped up in their basement a little too long.
Now, don’t kid yourself – there are certain standards to meet, especially if you’re hoping to call yourself a pro. But your ability to entertain and engage an audience are just as important as – if not more important than – your technical abilities as a guitarist.
So, start getting out there. You don’t need to take everything I’ve said here as canon. Take the ideas that work and leave the ones that don’t!
And, most of all, never stop growing. Thanks for reading, friend. See you on the road.
David Andrew Wiebe is the author of The Essential Guide to Music Entrepreneurship. He has built an extensive career in songwriting, live performance, recording, session playing, production work, investing and music instruction. In addition to helping musicians unlock their full potential at The Music Entrepreneur HQ and as staff writer of Music Industry How To, he also maintains a performance schedule with various local bands.