The Next Step: Playing in a Band
By Carlos Walter
So, you’ve practiced endless hours at night and in the weekends, up and down the fretboard going through strenuous and often tiresome fingering exercises, memorizing scales – major, minor, pentatonic, dorian, etc. – jamming to your favorite songs, and carefully selecting your gear.
Now you’re about to embark on the quest to find a band where you can shine. Whatever you’ve learned in your tablature books and instructional videos won’t really help much in this stage of your musical quest. This in an exciting time, and you should embrace it fully. Personally, I started out with high school buddies, probably one of the best settings there is. Why? Because you’re all friends, there’s no stage pressure, no fear of being boo-ed, and everybody’s basically having a good time.
However, once you start feeling the need to get to a more serious – let’s call it, professional – level, you have to take several things into account with respect to yourself and your fellow band mates:
- Common ground: Make sure all of you agree and commit to the same band goals – if you just want to do bar gigs, weddings, festivals, concert halls, or even go into the recording studio and put all your innovative ideas on tape… or hard drive, what have you.
- Friendship and respect: If you are not friends with your band mates, or don’t plan on becoming friends with them, find another band. Chances are it won’t last. Also, don’t become a “backseat driver” for the other instruments; focus on what you do best… in this case, play killer [insert your music style here] guitar.
- Share ideas and be open to them: Think about your band’s direction, where you want to go, how your audience wants to perceive you, and what you want to deliver. Try crazy stuff out while on stage, it’s all about trial and error. You’ll find the sweet spot.
- Keep it tight: Now this one is crucial. You have to become one with the band. Like a living organism, if one of you is out of sync both musically and personally, you get sick. I’ll talk a little bit further about this one.
How to keep it tight? One point of view – probably the most common one – is that the drummer controls the rhythm and tempo.
All of you control it, all of you sync it up, all of you keep it tight. The first thing you have to do is make sure you can keep a steady rhythm going. Spend some time on your own – with a metronome, perhaps – pick your favorite power cord or major seventh, and start strumming a pattern. Go from solid rock, to swingy blues, to chopped funk, to steady heavy metal. Change your tempo, go up and down. Try different BPMs (Beats Per Minute). And please, DON’T do this sitting down; tap your foot, bob your head, move your body, jam to the flow and flow into the jam. Move around. Heck, march if you want to (this works well for marching bands!).
Getting your band tight is nothing you talk about or discuss – it’s something you feel, all of you. Like a collective unconscious, like invisible waves, like an unspoken train of pulses. It takes time to fall into this very special groove. I like bullets, so here are a few from past experience:
- Listen: Not to yourself (you’ve done that quite enough already), but to the other dudes – or gals. Get a feel of their rhythm and beat, and just try falling into it. Again, move any or all parts of your body to the song’s beat. In short, listen with your ears, your stomach and your heart. I know, it sounds corny as hell, but it works. Trust me.
- Cues: You know all those nice breaks, backbeats and sudden stops that make a song just plain “cool”? Throw those in once in a while. Planned or unplanned. But stay connected with the others throughout each song, from beginning to end. Don’t plan the cues, just learn how to read and interpret them. It could be as subtle as a wink of an eye to a more obvious three-foot-high roundhouse-kick jump to end a song. (Is “sweet” is the new “cool”?)
- Stick to practice: The whole band has to commit to an agreed upon practice schedule. This goes without saying: practice makes perfect – as a band.
- Take a step back: Get a cheap MP3 recorder and digitize your band rehearsals. You could even get your dad’s 80s boombox and some 60 minute tapes, if you want. (Do they make tapes anymore???) Listen to your songs, listen to your playing and your sweet guitar solos, listen to the other instruments. Find your own weaknesses – I prefer to call them “opportunities” – and improve. Feel comfortable with your fellow rock gods and give them good feedback that the band can benefit from. Take it one step further, do the same but with a camera. (YouTube, here we come!)
- Baseline: Check out other bands. There’s nothing wrong in copying. I mean, don’t imitate, but get different ideas in your head, see other bands in action, find out what makes “them” tight.
Just get in there and do what you like to do and what you do best. Remember that one thing is for you and your band to have fun on stage, but the feeling is exponentially augmented when the audience has fun with you.