At 14, I was a precocious little shit.
I was filled with naïveté, a love of Led Zeppelin, and fascination for my newly acquired guitar.
It was a combination that lead not only to dreams of rock stardom, but to assumptions about its inevitability.
Spoiler Alert: I didn’t become a rock star.
There are no Hard Day’s Night-style hordes of screaming girls chasing me around.
Fender isn’t calling me to collaborate on a signature Telecaster.
I don’t trash hotel rooms.
Maybe that’s not surprising, given how few of us who dream of rock stardom ever attain it.
But I did stumble my way onto something surprising:
There is a job even better than Rock Star:
I’ve been touring as a sideman for three solid years now, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t trade it for being a star.
I lay out all my reasons below, but the TL;DR is this:
Being a sideman gets you all the best parts of the rockstar dream, and none of the drawbacks.
To paraphrase Tim Ferriss, the goal isn’t to be a rockstar, it’s to live like a rockstar.
As Danny Barnes says, there’s no need to be “the person that comes up with the ideas, signs the checks, negotiates the deals, writes the music, does the interviews, provides the credit for all the travel arrangements, keeps the books, collects the receipts, pays the taxes, mails the checks out, has likely spent years starving and building his scene before you ever got there, and as well takes the heat if things go in the crapper.”
Without further ado, here are 9 reasons why being a sideman is better than being a rockstar:
1. Same great treatment, fewer obligations.
You still get paid to play music for enthusiastic crowds, paid to travel, and paid basically just to exist.
You eat the same catering, stay in the same hotel, get just as many free drinks, and date people way out of your league.
You know what you don’t have to do?
Wake up early to go be interviewed by some local morning show.
Sit in endless meetings with your agent & manager.
Freeze your ass off in your sweaty stage clothes for two hours while you sign autographs at the merch table.
Gamble your entire career on a predatory contract with some shady label.
Worry that even if you do hit it big, your career won’t last.
2. The finances aren’t your problem.
The album was a flop? You still get paid.
Tour doesn’t make money? You still get paid.
Record label screws the artist over? You still get paid.
Worrying about the financials of a tour or album is stressful.
Keeping the calendar filled with dates is hard.
When you’re a sideman, it’s not your job.
3. When the band is all hired guns, the people who suck don’t last.
If you’re a sideman, that probably means the rest of the band are sidemen too.
So unlike all those bands who are praying the group hits it big before the frontman’s drug habit spirals out of control, a band of sidemen can mix and match members as needed.
That bassist who still sight reads the show, even after a year of playing the same tunes? Get someone else.
That piano player who’s just not that into bathing? Get someone else.
The drummer who can’t seem to play with a click? Get someone else.
That fiddle player whose dark moods are infecting the rest of the band? Get someone else.
4. The Diversified “Portfolio”
The thing about being a rockstar is that it’s a pretty big gamble. You’re going to gain enough traction to make a living or you’re not. You can’t really change your name and try again.
But a sideman isn’t tied to one group.
If the band you’re touring with implodes, you can go join another.
If the promising young singer you’re backing doesn’t yet get enough gigs to fill up your calendar, you can pick up other gigs on the side until her career picks up a little more momentum.
You have the opportunity to play with two great acts, but you’re not sure whose career to bet on? Play with both.
5. The Diversified Portfolio, Part Two
Have a wide variety of musical styles that you’re into?
Unless you’re Paul Simon or Beck, it’s tough to get label support for a new genre of music on each successive record.
But a sideman gets to play as many genres as he or she can get hired for.
Pino Palladino played bass with The Who, Erykah Badu, John Mayer, D’Angelo, Nine Inch Nails, and Eric Clapton.
Steve Lukather played guitar with Bob Seger, Al Jarreau, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, and Miles Davis.
Vinnie Colaiuta played drums with Mary J. Blige, Frank Zappa, Travis Tritt, Paul McCartney, Herbie Hancock, and Megadeth.
And all three of them can buy a cup of coffee, go out to dinner, or sit next to you on a plane without being recognized.
At more terrestrial heights, it wouldn’t be even a little uncommon for a successful sideman to:
be a rehearsal pianist for a ballet troupe on Monday,
play an original jazz gig on Tuesday,
record with a singer-songwriter on Wednesday,
play in a Merle Haggard tribute band on Thursday,
play a bar in a live hip hop group on Friday,
do a wedding ceremony on Saturday afternoon,
play a corporate event Saturday night,
MD a church service on Sunday morning,
sub on a Broadway show that afternoon,
and then on Monday fly to meet the tourbus for two weeks of touring with a boy band.
Can’t decide which you love more, the blues or bluegrass?
You don’t have to choose––you can be in several bands.
6. The Best Players Are In Your Orbit
Just like being a sideman puts a wide variety of genres on your music stand, it also puts a wide variety of musicians on stage with you.
And I’ll tell you a secret: the best musicians in your city are almost never the people in just one original band. They’re sidemen.
If you’re a sideman, you get to work with them all the time.
Being a sideman puts a wealth of talent at your fingertips.
If I need a band to back me up for a gig (or an album), the best drummers, bassists, pianists, and horn players are all a phone call away.
Same goes for horn, string, or vocal arrangements, sound and lighting guys, and record producers.
On the off chance that I need (let’s say) a violist for a gig, and I don’t know any violists, someone in my network does.
7. Hire A Sub, Take Three Weeks Off
Of course, there are also plenty of other guitarist sidemen in my city. But it doesn’t feel like a competition.
It feels like I can take a vacation whenever I want.
In August I blew off a week’s worth of gigs in Memphis. I sent another guy in my stead while I hung out in Portland for a friend’s birthday. In February the same badass guitarist is covering my gig in Indiana while I go to a wedding.
If I’m looking for a bassist for a gig, and Patrick Williams (The Other Welsh BassistTM) is already booked (or chilling in Puerto Rico with his wife), he’ll hook me up with another thoroughly badass bassist.
Of course, rockstars get downtime too––just not nearly as much.
And try subbing out of a gig as the lead singer.
8. Work begets more work.
When you’re out there gigging, more gigs come.
When you’re on the collective radar of working sidemen, your phone rings more.
If you play well and you’re easy to work with, people are going to recommend you.
If you tell me you’re looking for fiddle player in Chicago, I’m going tell you about Andy Ohlrich.
If you tell me you need a drummer in Kansas City, I’m going to give you Rod Lincoln’s number.
If you say you need a pianist in NYC, I’m going to ask if you know Jesse Elder.
If you want a sax player in NOLA, I’m going to recommend Brad Walker.
If I play a gig with you and I’m cool and I don’t suck, and someone casually mentions they’re looking for a guitarist for a gig, maybe you’ll mention me.
It’s math and psychology.
Corporate types call this “networking,” and infuse it with sleeziness.
Sidemen call it “life,” buy each other drinks, and swap hilarious stories of strange things that happened on gigs.
9. Still want to be a rockstar? Being a sideman is a great way to get there.
Just off the top of my head, no Googling: Jimi Hendrix. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Warren Haynes. Steve Vai. Jimmy Page. Lou Rawls. Shannon Hoon. Sheryl Crow. Michael McDonald. Louis Armstrong. Waylon Jennings. Marvin Gaye. Tony Rice.
They were all hired guns before they were stars.
It’s a fantastic way to get experience, make connections, earn a little money, learn the lifestyle, and figure out what kind of bandleader you do and don’t want to be.
Plus you’ll have a killer band on your record and you’ll already know who’s cool to live with on a tourbus.
Want To Become A Sideman?
Obviously the ability to play your ass off is more or less a prerequisite. That said, beyond a certain threshold more talent isn’t as important as being someone who’s easy to live with in the close quarters of a tourbus.
There are also a number of things that are equally important but not at all obvious. Check out What Separates The Pros From The Merely Good here on Fretboard Anatomy.
If you’re not all that convinced that sideman-ing is where it’s at, check out The Definitive Guide On Why You Should Quit Your Band.
And while I have you reading, here are two of the best things ever written
on the subject on the entire fucking internet, both by Danny Barnes:
Paper Beats Rock. Learn To Read.
I know you don’t want to hear this, but––in this day and age––you’re gonna have to read music.
Even the guys jumping around onstage with spiky dyed hair & ripped jeans are readers now.
Yes, it’s harder for guitar than for a lot of other instruments. But it’s not harder than having a job you don’t like. It doesn’t take any more energy to learn than it does to complain about how hard it is.
The GuitarOS course lays the foundation for all the skills a working guitarist needs, and it walks you through it one day at a time.
If you’re at all serious about living the dream, stop gambling on rockstardom and start doing the work necessary to be a sideman.