The other day I was asked if there were any “levels” to guitar playing.
Though I think there’s some merit in the commonly-used-but-vaguely-defined terms “Beginner,” “Intermediate,” & “Advanced,” this is what I answered:
1. Good enough to enjoy yourself.
2. Good enough to perform in front of people.
3. Good enough to get paid to perform (or teach).
4. Good enough to quit your day job.
Good enough to enjoy yourself is generally the longest stage, and for most people it’s perfectly fine to never leave it. After all, they’re enjoying themselves.
Good enough to perform in front of people is where another big chunk of folks end up––playing at open mics & camp fires. Again, lots of fun, absolutely nothing wrong with not having higher ambitions than this.
Good enough to get paid to perform (or teach) is tricky, because (like the first two) it encompasses a wide range of skill levels. Quite frankly, many folks that are here don’t exactly deserve to be here, ie. they’re making a little money but they’re not terribly good, and in the case of the teachers, are often doing as much harm as good.
But the fourth one––Good enough to quit your day job––is what made me excited to answer the question, because what separates the good-enough-to-ocassionally-get-paid people from the professionals is completely illegible to anyone who’s not already a professional.
To make a living playing music, there are a host of skills necessary that have nothing to do with exotic scales, 32nd note triplets, modes, or any of the other wonkish things that reading about guitar online will lead you to believe are useful as a working guitarist.
Here’s my list of non-obvious things that separate pro guitarists from the merely good.
• Rock solid time. No getting around this one. If you don’t have your time together, you are a lead weight around the neck of every other player on stage, dragging the whole ensemble down.
• An understanding of “feel.” This is where you put that rock solid time in relation to the beat (on it, behind it, just-about-never ahead of it) and what your subdivisions sound like (you can play in time but still feel rushy, or your triplets can sound awkward)
• The ability to play by ear AND by reading chord charts AND by reading proper notation AND by memorizing your part beforehand AND by deciphering poorly written “charts” by musically illiterate songwriters.
• Idiomatic knowledge. It’s your job to know what’s been done in similar musical situations before. This probably involves learning a ton of songs that you don’t love. It definitely involves listening to a wide variety of music.
• Versatility. One guy who can do ten things works as much as ten guys who each do one thing. Probably more. Being able to fingerpick will make you more money than being able to two-handed tap. Being able to play The Way You Look Tonight AND You Shook Me All Night Long will get you ten times as much work as only knowing how to play one or the other. Not just styles either: singing, singing harmony, doubling on mandolin, playing shaker or cajon like a boss, being a wedding DJ, running sound––these are all gloriously valuable things. (And just about no one gets paid to play metal, so don’t count it as one of your things.)
• Sound great. You need to be able to get just about any sound, on the fly, and have it sound great, and be at an appropriate volume level. If the patch you have for wah (or distortion, or your acoustic) isn’t reasonably consistent volume-wise with the rest of them, you fail. If your acoustic sound is crappy, you fail. If your patch cables short out or your batteries die, you fail. If you don’t have a pedal board, but rather a collection of beer-stained pedals splayed out all over the floor, you fail. If your amp doesn’t work at restaurant volumes, you fail. If you didn’t bring an extension cord and an outlet strip, you fail. If you insist on using a wireless, but it’s a piece of crap that cuts out, you fail.
• The ability to play appropriately, Part 1. Quit fucking showing off when someone else (probably the singer) is supposed to be the focal point. Look at the person who’s the focal point so the audience knows what to do. If you need to switch guitars/get a drink/move around on stage between songs while someone is having a moment with the crowd, try to be subtle. Or wait four seconds. But don’t distract people from the thing they’re paying for.
• The ability to play appropriately, Part 2. If the music this band is playing is boring you because it’s not hip enough, it’s not in an odd time signature, doesn’t use the phrygian mode, only has four chords, or in some other way fails to live up the standards of your epic talents, kindly fuck off. Get off the bandstand. Go get a regular job and start telling real musicians that you “used play music.” But do not, repeat DO NOT try to cram a bunch of shit into a song because you’re bored by “simple” music.
• Reliability. If you took the gig, you’re expected to move heaven and earth to make it happen (or send a qualified sub). You are expected to be early enough get set up and ready to start on time. You are expected to have spare guitar strings within arm’s reach. The most ridiculously talented musician I’ve ever met is a flake, and he’s chronically underemployed and poor.
• Good hang. People of lesser talent that are enjoyable to work with (and hang out with during the downtimes) get called before people of greater talent that are assholes, (or even just sullen, moody, or boring). Having a good attitude when things go wrong is a tremendous asset.
• Look good doing it, Part 1. Sight-reading with a smile is vastly preferable to sight reading with a look of terror on your face. Knowing enough of the songs to not have your head buried in the book is huge win. A horn section that sways/snaps/dances while taceting is a team of superheros. Smiling your ass off while singing is contagious. It’s not a concert, it’s a show.
• Look good while doing it, part 2. Dressing the part. Taking care of yourself physically. Personal grooming. I can’t send my no-suit-owning-dirty-ass-hippie friend to sub for me, even though he’s a better guitarist than I am. I know a very talented dude who got squeezed out of a lucrative residency gig because he’s fat and sweaty.
• Look good while doing it, part 3. If you show up at a country gig with a heavy metal guitar you’ll be treated with extreme suspicion, even if your tone & playing are spot on. I get tons of extra work from having an Elvis mic and one of those slick Bose PA systems that blend into the background. Neatness counts, especially when it comes to gear. Tidy up those cables. Neatness even matters while you’re loading in. Don’t take up loads of space while setting up. Load the gear in in the order that you need it, and stow the cases as you go.
Once you’re good enough to get paid to perform, I am of the opinion that you should work on these things next.
And not whatever bullshit your teacher/the internet/music school thinks you ought to be working on.
You’ll have plenty of time for that once you quit your day job.
[This post was adapted from an answer I wrote on Quora]