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The Many Ways to Make a Living Playing Guitar

Updated on July 14, 2015

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How Not To Get A Real Job

When Mark Fitchett was attending Cal State Long Beach, he was asked by Neal Finn, who was the director of jazz studies at the time, what Mark thought was necessary to teach guitar in an academic situation that would reflect the needs of the real world.

Fitchett was an older student who had been working in the music business for many years, so Finn felt that Mark would have a perspective not yet attained by the majority of the younger students regardless of their talent. The following report is based solely on Mark's own personal experience and is a reflection of his "real world" as a Los Angeles based professional musician.

Fitchett's Report

In my opinion a jazz or classical guitar only program at a college or major university is not going to give a guitarist the skills needed to survive in today’s commercial world. Obviously many students have no aspirations other to get a good teaching gig in a school somewhere but that is not what I am addressing in this writing.

Studying jazz is an excellent way to learn harmony and should be the subject of considerable focus, but it needs to be applied in a practical sense as in how to make money with it. Learning how to play the hot licks may be good for the ego or self-esteem but in the commercial world for the most part no one else really cares.

So unless someone is going to be the "starving artist" and do it their way until the world recognizes their talent, that person needs to be practical in their approach to what they learn. This doesn’t mean I don’t think a guitarist should strive to be the best player they can be and be as impressive as humanly possible (I am a guitarist after all!), but they should realize the difference, or perhaps the compromise between being the artist and the income generating musician.

In a perfect world we become the artist we desire, people buy our music, pay to come hear us play and we end up making a good living. Hopefully, if one perseveres this will happen, and then we get to call the shots. Meanwhile, there are essential skills to be learned that can enhance the guitarist’s ability to make a living in music and not have to work a day job while they are waiting for their big break.

In my case when I do the things I do for a living, I don’t classify myself as being any one style in particular. I’m just a guitar player trying to get a job done. The following is a list of things I do to make a living with music and some of the skills I’ve found necessary to accomplish this.

Teaching Privately

In my experience, there is little income derived from teaching jazz (or classical guitar), at least outside of an educational institution such as a college or university. As an employer I have never found it necessary to hire a jazz or a classical teacher. There simply has not been a market for these styles.

Those that get their degrees in either of these disciplines usually find that they have to teach the latest rock styles to survive as a private instructor, or not have as many students as they would prefer. This doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t get a degree, it’s just that they should be prepared for the reality that it may not help them if they want to teach privately.

In my teaching business, styles that seem to occur most often are current rock, classic rock, country, and blues. There are of course subcategories and other styles as well. I tend to feel lucky when I actually do get a student that wants to study jazz, or something besides rock. (Trust me, I always try to talk students into learning more about jazz.)

Degree or not, what is important is being able to explain and demonstrate solid musical skills using sometimes really bad music. Knowing how to transcribe on the spot and write in the guitar tablature and/or standard notation is a must.

Along with harmonic, melodic and rhythmic studies, I make it a point to pretty much to teach some form of improv regardless of the style. Here is a challenging one, many students do not want to/refuse to read music. This is where clear visual explanations of musical concepts are important. The problem (and also what contributes to the guitar’s popularity) is the ease of the "just show me" method, and the fact that everything is so visual and pattern oriented.

Literally anyone can be shown how to finger a one or two octave scale in a very short time. To transpose this scale they merely shift the exact same pattern to the left or right, thereby enabling them to play all keys in a matter of seconds. The same applies to chords and pretty much anything else on this instrument.

By the time someone has been playing a year, they would need years of reading to read what they can play in this short of a time. Now imagine how many rock and roll students I would have if I said "you have to read everything you play." People come to take lessons for the fun factor, and I would say most students are into it for the recreational aspect.

This is probably why you don’t have that many guitarists coming up through the ranks who are able to function in anything besides basic rock. This has happened with many of my students where they start playing rock at age 12 or 13, and then around the their last year or two of high school, suddenly they get interested in playing for the school jazz band.

So now, even though they've been playing for three or four years they have a lot of reading catch up to do and find it very difficult (Don’t want to tell them "Told ya’ so," but I do!). Private instruction has been a big money maker and allowed me to pursue purely artistic (that means no money!) goals , as well as attend university full time. Teaching is an excellent way to be paid to be exposed to other styles that may come in handy in other projects.

Employment Opportunities

Private lessons, night school extension, community centers, university extension.

Solo Guitar Chord Melody Style

(Thank you Ted Greene, you'll be missed!) In this style a guitarist has to have their chord chops down so they find the right position and inversion on the neck to accommodate the melody. It’s useful to be able to create arrangements on the spot, as well as have a repertoire of standards and pop tunes handy.

Depending on the complexity desired and the guitarist’s skills, they could incorporate walking bass lines, single line fills, chordal fills, unaccompanied solos, chordal solos and re harmonization techniques as well as apply various rhythmic/stylistic interpretations. It actually doesn't need to be complicated to be effective.

One should be prepared to work outside the jazz idiom in these types of gigs. As an example, I played a gig recently where I was told beforehand that they wanted light jazzy instrumental background guitar for a 35th wedding anniversary.

Well it turns out the party was a backyard barbecue at the son’s house and there were a lot of younger people there. I think I played one standard. The rest were Beatle’s and 60’s pop tunes as well as blues and even some Hendrix (all played instrumentally, at low volume and clean sounding). I even accompanied a couple of "singers." You can’t say no to the host! This is a fantastic way to get paid to practice because people rarely listen at these kinds of background music gigs.

Employment Opportunities

restaurants, lounges, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, anniversaries, bookstores, galleries, real estate open house and private parties.

Guitar/Vocal or Guitar/Solo Instrument

This pretty much requires the same chops as the solo guitar gig except for a greater possibility of accompaniment techniques since the melody is now being handled by someone else. Besides having a greater variety of chord voicings available, various bass lines such as walking, bossa nova, rock and others are now much easier on a consistent basis.

Learning how to do a good rubato, or coming up with an appropriate rhythm pattern is important. These would include arpeggiated patterns, finger style jazz, classical and folk hybrids, Latin and rock styles and even country. Transposing by sight is useful, especially with singers.

Employment Opportunities:

Restaurants, lounges, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, anniversaries, bookstores, galleries, real estate open house and private parties.

Bands, Trios and More

Even in bands with a jazz emphasis there are the possibilities of many other styles being incorporated depending on what era of jazz you are talking about. A historical perspective is important so the guitarist knows when it is appropriate to play in a Freddy Green style as opposed to a Pat Metheney or George Benson style.

A working knowledge of other idioms is necessary if the guitarist wants to be versatile in all forms of jazz. Some of the ones that I've dealt with are, funk, gospel, blues, r&b, Latin, including Brazilian and Afro-Cuban, country, fusion, reggae, world music and many styles of rock.

This a general list because each of these disciplines could be broken down into further subcategories. I have found that playing in a band like Studio One at Cal State Long Beach has demanded a lot stylistically. In this situation, the need to come up with the appropriate stylistic parts is apparent, since often there is nothing but chord symbols and perhaps written instructions regarding the style.

Techniques to study would include comping, voicings and soloist skills idiomatic to each style and how they relate to the jazz idiom. This would serve as a double duty in that it is important for the versatile guitarist to be able to perform separately in these other styles as well because it is very likely there will be opportunities to play in something other than a jazz band. A comping class with a rhythm section would be a great requirement for an up and coming guitarist.

Employment Opportunities

Venues include restaurants, clubs, weddings, birthday parties, anniversaries, bookstores, galleries, real estate open house and private parties.

There doesn't tend to be as much opportunity to consistently perform standards style jazz, or any jazz for that matter in most clubs unless they are specifically jazz clubs. Even then there aren't that many jazz clubs, the work isn't consistent and the pay isn't usually that good.

Owners are still paying what they did 30 years ago and usually like to pay a set price regardless of the size of the band. Solo and duo work usually pays a lot more. Weddings are where the big bucks are at. Many well known LA session cats do these when they are off the road.

Session Work: Film, Jingles and Albums

These are areas where a guitarist can do well if they can score the gig. The skills required are not so much technical chops as they are versatility. Film composers are looking for someone who can come up with a part on the spot and in a specific style (or not). Often there is no chart, and sometimes the guitarist has to actually come up with a chord progression and melodic material.

For example, in one of the film projects I've done in the last couple of years, I created on the spot, Spanish/Flamenco sounding tracks. Also on this project were wild atonal distorted guitar lines on a techno groove and some physco mandolin lines. In another, I came up with country music for a rodeo documentary.

Other projects I've done have been mainly sound effects and textural guitar. Directors tend to like it when you can come up with a unique, special sound just for their picture. This makes the composer look good. I have also been called upon to create in the styles of country, bluegrass, delta and Chicago blues, techno/disco, most rock styles, classical and surf.

I am not necessarily an expert in all of these styles but know enough to capture the vibe. I can’t overstate the importance of being up on the basics of as many genres as possible, in other words, how to fake it convincingly. .

In TV commercials, one is also required to come up with sounds (usually in various rock styles) on the spot. This kind of work is demanding because, even though the music is less than a minute and simple, the composer is usually under a deadline, as well as competing with other composers for the same job.

Working on other artists albums demands a lot of creativity and a knowledge of styles as well as guitar orchestration. Many times when working with a producer he’ll just say "play something," and I will try different things to try to capture what he may be hearing. I become a "guitar smorgasbord" for him, demonstrating the various possibilities such as what combinations of guitar parts "layer" well on a track as well as guitar and amp sounds and effects. This allows him to pick and choose.

My advice is to be as versatile as possible. Most producers or composers would rather "one stop shop" with their musicians, rather than hiring a specialist for each track. The more one player can pull off, the more likely they will be called back again.

If teaching is part of a working guitarist’s gig as it is for me, then these are some places where the music learned for the students can be incorporated. It’s not a bad idea to study bass guitar, as well as have a rudimentary knowledge of banjo, mandolin and other stringed instruments to make one even more employable.

Employment Opportunities

Independent film composers, jingle composers, artist’s producers. This is a tricky thing to get into because it is very competitive. The trick is to make oneself indispensable because of their stylistic knowledge, general versatility and ability to come up with effective parts fast.

Composing

If a guitarist has the studio equipment and skill, he or she can try their hand at composing as a commercial songwriter, jingle composer or a film composer. Also there are options to licence your music and get paid a royalty. This can be pretty difficult to get into at first, at least where the big money is concerned. However, if that is a direction someone wants to pursue, then there many avenues available to get started.

I have found success working for other composers creating background pop songs and instrumentals in various styles for independent films. Also, dance companies have used my services for their works and I do licence my music online.

Employment Opportunities

Far and few between. There is usually a lot of freebies in the beginning to get experience and a resume.

Publishing

There is a market for instructional material. If a guitarist has some good ideas for a book they can either publish it themselves or pitch to a company. Even the big ones are fairly approachable, and there are quite a few smaller outfits around. My first book "Chops Builders" was written for Cherry Lane Music and distributed by Hal Leonard. They actually approached me because I had done some transcribing work for them in the past.

Transcribing

If you like long hours of tedious work listening to music that is sometimes downright awful then have I got a job for you. Transcribing (mainly hard rock) was something I did for a few years for Cherry Lane Music. It was great ear training and there was money to be made. There is still a market for good transcribers.

Reality Check

Regardless of the instrument played maybe there should be a class in the reality of being an artist. Not to discourage a student by any means, but on the other hand it should be let known what is involved in such an endeavor.

If there was a hard honest look at the subject of success maybe it would save certain students years of fruitless labor at something they are not cut out for thus allowing them to focus on something attainable, and even still be a successful musician. Trying to make it as an artist or even as a sideman to an artist is not for those without absolute determination.

There is too much of a "pie in the sky" attitude among inexperienced players. I’ve heard too often things like "As soon as I graduate I just want to get out and play" or "maybe I’ll move to New York and see what‘s up," "My bands gonna make it," etc., etc. What do they think? That someone is going to see or hear them and go "Oh wow, this person is awesome, I’m going to sign them on to my band or give them a huge record deal and pay them lots of money."

Not likely in most cases. How many people coming out of a state university (or not) actually "make it" in this capacity and what is the percentage of that success? I’m suggesting a "no guarantees" course on these realities that prepares the student if they are willing to sacrifice and do what it takes to achieve their goals.

More like a course in how to handle rejection and not let it deter one if they've made up their mind on a course of action. As well teaching plan B, and plan C if the first one’s don’t work. Maybe this won’t sell the program but it will certainly save a lot future disappointments.

I firmly believe anything is possible if you put your mind to it, just keep your eyes open.


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    • profile image

      Marc Nicholas 2 years ago

      I like this article! I made one about the 7 Rules that I use to make money as a guitarist, and there's a free PDF of 9 specific ways to make money! http://marcnicholasmusic.com/make-money-as-a-guita...

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      Mark Edward Fitchett 3 years ago from Long Beach

      As one Candadian to another I wish you much success!

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      russ walker 3 years ago

      you might enjoy this guitar player

      http://igg.me/p/549925