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Making a Living with the Guitar

I've been earning a living with my guitars now for thirty odd years. I did a stint as a commercial artist for a couple of years when I finished high school -- I say commercial artist, what I mean is I worked in a commercial art studio learning the ins and outs -- but after a couple of guitar playing jobs I decided to focus on music as a career. I could earn more in a couple of nights playing than in a week of the day job.

My first job was playing instrumental acoustic guitar at the Sir Winston Churchill Pub in Montreal. I used to arrange popular tunes for nylon string guitar, my most ambitious effort was a finger style rendition of the Beatles Abbey Road album.

"The most important element in all the above is to maintain a professional attitude."
Anyone who has a flair for the guitar and decides to embark on a career of playing naturally aspires to be someone who sells millions of records and tours the World, like Mark Knopfler or Eric Clapton or Santana. We'd all like to be household names. The reality, of course, is that very few achieve that level of success. Apart from being a stand out player, many factors come into the recipe, not the least of which is luck. To be at the right place at the right time is often the bottom line.

For most of us, earning a living from our instruments is a hard row to hoe. The main factor I think is to keep all options open, don't be precious about your music and always keep a professional attitude.

There are several ways to generate money as a guitarist. I try to keep them all ticking over at all times.

The most straight-forward way is performing, getting paid to play your music to an audience. It's often the most satisfying way too, especially if you're doing your own thing, either solo, or in your own band. When all else is falling apart around you, there is usually some place to play, even if it means busking. I live near a place called Byron Bay, famous for it's surf and blues festival, where players come and stand in the street with their guitar cases open for people to throw money in. A dear friend of mine down there is in his sixties and still does it, and does well at it.

The other form of performing involves hiring yourself out as a freelance guitarist for other bands. I am presently playing in five different line ups. I play in two of my own bands, MumboGumbo and The Train; I play in David Bentley's Blues Revue, where keyboardist David is the front man; I play with Elizabeth Lord, a country / blues band; and I also play with Ted Tillbrook, who has moved away for a while. Juggling dates can be difficult, but it always seems to work out. They know that my priority is my music, and if I can't make a show, they have a couple other players they can call.

If you're proficient enough as a player, and you have the right attitude, you can hire yourself out as a session guitarist. Times have changed and technology has put a lot of musicians out of this kind of work, but guitars (especially acoustic) still can't be synthesized. Thank goodness. Pity the poor drummer.

There are a couple sub-categories here, namely commercials (TV or radio) and album tracks, both require a certain kind of player. You must be able to cover a few different styles to do well, especially in the jingle world. Reading helps, but is not essential. You must be very professional and follow directions. Often the producer will ask you to play something you think stinks or doesn't fit. A polite suggestion of an alternative is OK, but don't insist. You may not be aware of what is going to be overdubbed later on, or what the singer's part is. Punctuality and good equipment is a must. Guitars with poor intonation or amps that buzz are not appreciated when the clock is ticking.

Finally, if you get to the point where you know more about playing than most, you can become a teacher. It's not the most lucrative way of earning a guitar living, but one that will allow you to lead a more normal life, to get to bed earlier, and is probably more consistent and reliable. I know people here who have dozens of private students and also teach regularly at schools and colleges.

If you're so inclined, you can do quite well as a repairer. My old pal Seymour Duncan who I knew in London in '73 or so, was the guy who set my Strat up at Fender Sound House, where he worked as the tech. He sure went on to bigger and better things. There is a guy here in Brisbane I have yet to meet, Chris Kinman, who makes pickups that are sought after the world over. He's doing OK.

I'd say the most important element in all the above is to maintain a professional attitude. Musicians are often seen as vague, lazy, stoned, unreliable, probably alcoholic. You'll often be treated like someone who doesn't really care about money, who just wants to get out of it and play music. To counter this perception, you almost have to be overly accommodating. I don't mean grovel, but I mean be straight, punctual, civil, reliable. Make sure the money is talked about and settled early in the piece. Get it on paper.

Or you could be a chef or a stock broker.

Kirk Lorange lives in Australia and is the author of the instructional book, PlaneTalk