Freelancing: How To Survive In The New Millennium By Playing Your Guitar

I've been freelancing for about the last 20 years, and have been fairly successful at it. I've played a zillion gigs, met a lot of interesting folks (and a good share of slimebags as well), and have managed to avoid the dreaded day gig (except for a brief stint in a
music store). I would like to share the things I've learned along the way, in the hopes that I can help other musicians who would like to branch out a bit, those who would like to play a wide variety of jobs, and improve their chances of financial stability (ha ha). Now, I'm sure not getting rich, but that's not why I play in the first place. If the big bucks ever come, well and good...but, my deep love for music and the guitar has kept me going through many low times, and is an integral part of who I am as a person. I enjoy playing many styles, but my original motivation was not $$$, just the delight of learning all I could about music As I got better at various genres, I later found I could, indeed, turn this passion into a way of staying alive, playing the instrument I love.

So, just what is freelancing? About the closest I can come is this: freelancing is making a living playing music, without being a part of just one band. Now, this does not mean that a freelancer cannot have an original outlet for his/her original music, or be a part of a band. For example, I have been composing and recording original music for years,
and have three CDs of my music out; many other freelancers I know also have original projects that are dear to their heart as well. In fact, the ability to make a living playing commercial jobs can help keep you afloat while you get your real stuff happening...there's no conflict at all. I enjoy playing a lot of styles of music for many reasons, but the main one is this: I have been able to apply many of the lessons I've
learned playing other folk's music to my own concept, thus enriching my own compositions and technical skills. It has only helped my development as an original artist to delve into the secrets of the many masters around the world.

So, let's look at a few of the things one needs to be aware of if they're thinking of taking on a freelance career. There are many facets to consider, and all are important. And, on any one gig, one or more of these concepts may come into play. First, I would say versatility is a major factor in freelance success. In other words, the more styles you can play, the more gigs you'll get...simple as that. For example, in the last few months I've done a number of gigs, including: a concert with a flamenco dancer; solo (nylon string) guitar in a fancy restaurant for Sunday brunch, playing Latin, classical, jazz standards and Travis style; a concert with a Japanese koto/samisen player; several blues gigs; a concert with some monster jazz guys; a workshop for a new play I'm part of, to be staged next spring at the Denver Performing Arts Center; filling in with a classic rock band in some funky dives; and there's more of the same on the horizon.

Now, we'll go into more detail about versatility in a future column, but you get the point. One of the interesting things about being versatile is that some styles are easier to fake than others to get by on a gig. You don't necessarily have to be the best there is to play some gigs, although we always want to play our best (you never know who's listening). For example, you cannot fake a jazz gig - you can either play the tunes, or you can't. Yes, there's levels of expertise, but in jazz, you must be at a certain level to even make the gig. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of guys that weren't that great at playing country guitar playing in country bands, and getting away with it - the
changes aren't that hard compared to jazz, and in your average little funky dive, the standards aren't often that high (at least here in Denver). Remember, we're talking working to make the rent, not necessarily playing like Brent Mason.

Whenever I worked at learning a style, I tried to get the basic concept of what makes the style work. What makes Joe Pass different than Don Rich? Why is Albert King different than Kenny Burrell? Again, there are levels upon levels, but with a bit of intelligent analysis, I don't think switching styles is as hard as one might think. There are reasons why country guitar sounds different than heavy metal, and why Paco de Lucia doesn't sound like Leo Kottke. My mentor in Kansas City, Ed Toler (a monster genius) used to refer to his "Joe Pass parody," or his "Gabor Szabo parody." His point was this: he could get a sort of general overview of why a player sounded the way he did, and then do sort of a musical Rich Little impersonation. Sure, he might not play just like the artist in question, but he sure could play a lot of different concepts. I've taken this approach as my motto in freelancing.

A good lesson for me came on a gig years ago with a great bassist named Adolph Mares. We were doing a wedding, and somebody wanted to hear "Fire" by Hendrix. Well, I knew Adolph was a monster jazzer, but we kicked into "Fire," and he played the shit out of it - note perfect. And, he did not sound like a jazz guy playing rock - he was a rocker on
that tune. I've played with Adolph on many occasions, and heard him play just about anything you could imagine - he knows how to get inside a style, and sort of grok the essentials. That's probably why he's one of the best and busiest players in Denver. On the other hand, I've played with guys who tried to fake a style, and it sucked - but, it doesn't necessarily mean that they don't get work. Again, it depends on the situation. For example, on a big band gig at a fancy society party, the jazz usually sounds great, and the rock and country are awful. However, the folks attending could usually care less, so it doesn't matter - see what I mean? Expectations will vary from gig to gig, but again, versatility is a strong weapon in the freelance arsenal.

Another major asset as a freelancer is being businesslike and believe me, this is, in many situations, more important than being versatile.There are a lot of components to being businesslike, and I hate to say it, but many of my brother musicians are awful business persons. In the freelance world, there are a number of things expected of you, such as: having the proper clothes for various situations; being extremely punctual; returning phone calls in a timely fashion; and knowing how to take directions from the leader, down to the teensiest request. Sounds easy, but I've seen folks do some mighty dumb stuff. One of my favorites involves a legendary ditz (since moved elsewhere) who
got hired by a top local contractor to play a fancy, rich folks party. The orders were: musicians do not eat on this gig. And believe me, when the rich folks give an order, they expect you to follow it. Well, our hero couldn't resist snatching a brownie, got busted, lost any possible future gigs with this contractor, and possibly cost the contractor this client. Sound stupid? You bet, but this sort of scenario happens all the time, and in more ways than you can imagine. The point is this: if you want to play the game, than play the game. If not, don't take the gig. You not only ruin your reputation, but you may very well cost others future work as well.

One can learn a lot from being businesslike, valuable lessons that can help you through your whole career/life. When playing as a sideman/woman, there is a definite etiquette to follow. Tommy Tedesco, the legendary studio player, often talked about the difference between music and the music business, and it's true. Many artists are knuckleheads when it comes to the real world of taking care of business. This is a major consideration for potential freelancers - if the thought of taking direction makes you angry or moody, than the freelance world is not for you. I've been on many Symphony Pops Concerts (with the
Colorado Symphony), and when the conductor tells you to "play that last 16th note a little quieter," he means it, and has every right to expect you to follow his directions. Speaking of Symphony gigs, I know of a very good local guitarist who got the call to do a Pops with a famous singer, and then proceeded to show up an hour late for rehearsal. Think he got called again? Don't hold your breath. And, when a musician screws up on gigs like that, word gets around real quick, and only bad things come of that.

Of course, the good thing is, if you do keep your business act together, this also gets around town, and people know they can depend on you, and the phone will ring. I have a number of folks who have been calling me for many years, and as long as I keep doing my part, I have every reason to believe they will keep calling me (and believe me, I do not ever take it for granted...a bit of thankfullness and gratitude can go a long way). We will certainly look at the various facets of versatility and good business behaviour in future articles; there are a whole lot of things that can happen on gigs, but a person can certainly learn survival skills, skills that will help you navigate the treacherous waters of the music business.

Okay, you're versatile and businesslike - what else do you need to freelance? Well, this may seem overly simple, but it isn't; a cool and confident personality is very, very helpful - naw, it's essential to being a good freelancer. Basically, you have to believe that you can pull it off in the first place, that you even have the right to be
there. The better the musicians one plays with, the greater the expectations; this can lead to stress and pressure to perform, which can really mess you up. Now, feeling stress is nothing new - it's surviving under pressure that's the issue. Can you pull the gig off, even though you're unable to breathe because you're so scared? I did a play in 1998
(Eliot Ness in Cleveland), a new musical, a world premiere. When I got to the first rehearsal, I discovered that Michael Starobin was the orchestrator, and was going to be on the scene for a month. Well, Michael is one of the top orchestrators in the world, has worked with Disney for years, and won top awards on Broadway. Plus, his brother David is one of the top classical guitarists in the world, so I knew there would be no shucking on this gig. To make matters worse, I am not the world's best sight reader, and when I saw the score, I felt ill. Literally, I almost had to go to the bathroom and puke, because I thought my number was finally up. I was going to be exposed as a dud, a fake, in front of the best musicians in town.

However, it was not to be. Somehow, I putzed through the rehearsal, and discovered that some of the real good readers were even having trouble with the parts. It was a tough gig, but Starobin seemed happy, and I escaped again. Was it worth it? Yes, but sometimes I
wonder - every time a reading gig comes up, I think really hard about it (and I have turned some down. I am not a total fool, and I know my limits). Point is this: it's one thing to be the best guitarist on your block, another entirely to be among the best in the world. The atmosphere, shall we say, becomes more rarified the higher up one
climbs, and to deal with this is another sort of skill entirely. I've read accounts where even the best LA studio guys have psyched themselves out on occasion, and blew a part. Of course, the really great ones even overcome this, but it's a wise thing to know what you can and cannot handle, and act accordingly. To take a gig where disaster awaits you is not a wise move.

Which brings me to the closing comment of this article - what do you want to do with your career? To know this bit of information is vitally important, and will have a great effect on what you do. Again, it's not always as simple as it might seem. Do you want to be a "rock star?" A studio whiz? Do you want to travel the world, or raise a family and hang out in one city? Do you have the chops, technically and psychologically, to achieve your goals? Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? Are you honest with
yourself? If there's one thing I've discovered after 35 years of playing the guitar, it's to be brutally straightforward with yourself, first of all, and with others next (of course, when dealing with others, a bit of tact is a good thing). It will keep you on an even course in life, and will earn you the respect of others as well. I have been successful as a freelancer because I know my limits, and act accordingly. When I am called for a gig, I know if I can/cannot cut it, and then proceed. To arrive on a gig that is out of your league will only lead to disaster. I am reminded of the time I saw a (very nice) gentleman completely blow a Symphony Pops rehearsal; the conductor asked him to stop playing, in front of the whole orchestra. He was gone the next day. He was a very fine jazz guitarist, but for some unknown reason, he was playing bass on the gig - it didn't happen, and it was painful to see.

Of course, when freelancing, sometimes you have to stick your neck out a bit, and take a chance. My first Symphony gig, in 1983, was as part of a 2 guitar, 4 mandolin, 2 English horn section in Verdi's opera "Otello," with Opera Colorado. When I got the call, I said what the heck, and tried it. It worked out fine, and I wound up doing many Pops Concerts with them over the years (and recording 2 CDs as well, which was another rather stressful gig). If I wouldn't have taken the chance, I would not have been on those other gigs, believe me. Like Kenny Rogers said in "The Gambler," you've got to "know when to hold them, know when to fold them..."

Good luck, and we'll get into more details about the freelance lifestyle in future editions.

Neil Haverstick is a guitarist out of Denver who won Guitar Player magazine's 1992 Ultimate Guitar Competition (Experimental Division) with a 19-tone guitar piece, "Spider Chimes".

Neil has written for Guitar Player and Cadence and has written two music theory books, "The Form Of No Forms" and "19 Tones: A New Beginning".

His latest instrumental CD is entitled "Stick Man".

Neil Haverstick