Surviving The Gig

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to play a lot of different styles of music in a number of bands.  In terms of gig referrals, this has pluses and minuses.  In the plus category, when someone needs Frisell-ish textural guitar on one tune, post-tonal shred on another and fretless on a third – I’m on a short list of players that people call.  On the minus side, for generic guitar needs (“We need a (rock, jazz, blues, etc) guy for this track”, other people who specialize in that type of vibe will often get the call.

If you have a stylized sound you’ll get calls for some gigs, but to keep working, you’ll also need a generic enough skill set that you can cover other things if you have to.


Each band I’ve played in has had different challenges to approaching material, but there are two general points of emphasis I’ve come across.  The situations all call for quality, but depending on the quantity, quality may be a very relative term.

How To Learn 110 Songs In 6 Days

Years ago, I had a gig opportunity open up for me when I was living in Boston.   A friend of mine on faculty at Berklee gave me a call  to see if I wanted to take over what we in Boston called a GB (General Business) gig.

GB gigs are typically weddings, corporate gigs or something similar.  The emphasis on these gigs isn’t to make a big spectacle.  Your job is to provide some background entertainment and stay out of the way of the function as much as possible.

The gig pay wasn’t great but there was a challenge that I couldn’t pass up.  I’d have to learn five one-hour sets of music (110 songs) in a week. The songs were mostly covers (60’s to top 40 in scope), and while I had heard most of them, I didn’t know any of them.  There were also at least six originals that I needed to learn as well.

I’ve always liked challenges so I said, “Sure! Let’s see how it goes.”  I got through the gig and ended up making money playing with the band for the better part of a year.  So here’s what I learned.

  • Have a game plan.  Since the gig was in 6 days time, in reality I needed to learn all of the songs in 5 days and would possibly be able to carve out some time to run trouble spots in the 6thday.  Since some of the songs were ones I had already heard a lot, I worked on the assumption that figuring them out would not take a lot of time.

    I started with a plan of getting down 20-30 songs a day (depending on how long it took to learn them.)  The gig itself was only 4 hours, but I wanted to at least have gone through all the tunes in case people called them out.

  • Start with the hardest and/or most unfamiliar tunes first.  They’ll be the longest one’s to get into your head (or your fingers) and if you start them first you’ll be able to review them each day while you work on new material.
  • Top priorities:  PRIMARY SONG elements (the key, main riffs, chord progression and song form).  Day tripperwon’t fly if no one’s playing the opening riff.  The focus here is essentials.Here’s the question to ask when determining essentials.  If the tune was being played as a duo with you and a vocalist, would someone recognize the song?
  • Secondary priorities:  Is there a signature solo?  Are there specific rhythm parts that you need to copy or will generic voicings do?  Are there specific timbral elements unique to the song?  If you’re playing Purple Rain, you better have a chorus or a flange and the right rhythm (and voicings) or it ain’t going to fly.
  • Take notes.  There’s no shame in a messy set list.  I had crib notes everywhere for the gig.  Usually this was just a reminder of what key the song was in and some short notes on progressions on song form

    (i.e  “song x” –

    G (This indicated the key)

    unison intro (just a reminder)

    3rd chorus solo.

    The point was to just have enough notes to jog my memory about the tune.  Unfamiliar tunes had some more detailed notes like chord progressions written in (like a verse or a chorus).

  • Smaller is better and stay flexible.  Tone wise you should have 2-3 primary tones (clean, dirty and lead) that you can tweak to get close to the song.  If you have patches for every single tune, it’s going to fall apart.  I did this gig with a Pod 2.0, pedal switcher and a fender amp.  I never used more than 5 settings.  Part of this is to know your sounds and get close rather than perfect.  Having said that, this rule changes if you’re in a tribute band.  If you’re playing in an Ozzy Tribute band for example, then you better plan on having every tone identical, every lick and every solo note for note.  In gigs like this, the goal is to get it close enough that it doesn’t draw attention to what it is, namely a cover band instead of the real thing.
  • Take lots of breaks.  You’re going to need to stay focused for something like this so plan on taking frequent breaks to recharge and come back to it fresh.
  • Play with good musicians because they will save you.  While the music we were playing wasn’t my favorite, the musicians were very good and had the tracks down cold.  If everyone knew the tunes at the shallow level that I did, we wouldn’t have played the gig nearly as well as we did.  Additionally, since the keyboardist/vocalist and other vocalist knew a ton of tunes, if a request came up and I didn’t know it they could generally do a stripped down version of it as a duo.
  • Be professional.  This is really right next to musicality in importance if you want to gig consistently.  People who show up late, drunk, unprepared, or not at all are people I’ve never seen on a stage more than once.  Gigs are stressful enough that people don’t want to have to worry about you.  Make sure that you’re not part of any problems that come up.
  • Finally, no one wants to work with a jerk.  I don’t care how brilliant a musician you are, it doesn’t mean much if you’re a crappy human being.   This doesn’t mean that you have to suppress your strong opinions and kowtow to everyone around you but it does mean that you’re not the only person at any gig and there’s no reason to act that way.

As general advice, what this really speaks to is the depth of which you know (or need to know) something.   I saw the movie Rock Band again recently and there’s a funny scene early on in the film where Mark Wahlburg’s character stops a band rehearsal over a small discrepancy in a performance and I laughed because I’ve been in situations where rehearsals stopped because I threw a fret hand slide in somewhere or where days were lost because I was required to match tones exactly.  I’ll save that story for another time…

In the meantime – thanks for reading.