Skill Sets For Gigs

Skill Sets For Gigs

A Gig is a Gig is a Gig is a Gig, right? Well, that’s not really an accurate way to think of a career in music. When you’re younger and less experienced you tend to see every gig in the same way.

You haven’t traveled musically enough to have a depth of the skill set required for each style of gig you may encounter.

Through my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to get many different experiences. I was eager and willing to put myself in as many different circumstances as I could.

This of course was stressful at times. Just because I had experience as a performing musician didn’t make walking into some situations easy.

I’ve been thinking about what each gig requires. What makes each gig path different. What are the expectations from each gig superhighway.

Here are my observations as an undercover guitarist spanning over 20 years of gigging experience.

The Bar Gig


I would call this type of gig the most basic of the gig variety. Not because they are easy (they are not), but because they are the type of gig that most musicians experience.

Bar gigs are often 3-4 hour gigs at a watering hole that specializes in adult beverages. It doesn’t mean the patrons act like adults. There’s a careful distinction there.

Some of the skills needed to play a bar gig are as follows:

Stamina: Playing 3-4 hours is no joke. It’s a workout. Playing in your home for 3 hours isn’t the equivalent of a 3 hour gig. You tend to be more physical both in playing and movements. It takes more energy and concentration.Your fingers are likely to be a lot more sore after a gig then a long practice.

Song Library: As you could imagine, you need to know a lot of songs to fill three plus hours. Most cover bands know well over 3 hours of music. The key is not to run out of songs.

You have to remember songs that you might not play every week or even month. A deep musical library is required.

Hot Licks: Bar gigs tend to lean more of the traditional arrangement of songs. This often means playing the solo from the record. The point of these gigs is to entertain the crowd. They often want to hear their favorite song with all the tidily winks.

Dynamics: I’m going to enter into an area of discussion where I don’t want to offend anyone. So, don’t take offense. This is an observation and isn’t intended to say it’s good or bad.

OK, now that I got that disclaimer out of the way…

Bar gigs tend to lack dynamics. There are often two shades of volume. Loud and softish. Big on the ish..

The environment definitely has a direct result on the dynamics. Bar gigs tend to be in places that are noisey. There are a lot of people talking and partying.

Although they may be there to see and hear you, they’re not attached to the performance in the same way they would be in a theater setting.

This often results in the wall of sound approach by a lot of musicians. Volume up all night. Sometimes, this can feel like trying to hang a picture with a bull hammer. This means you have to think about the parts you’re playing and what’s going to come through. Delicate parts don’t cut as well. Even though we may be trying to play the record, sometimes you have to adjust to the environment in a way that’s not noticeable to the audience.

It takes some skill to predict whats going to work in that environment. What will sound cluttered at bar volume? What will get lost at bar volume? These are two big questions you need to ask yourself in preparing.

Songwriter Gigs

You may find yourself gravitating to play with singer-songwriters or original bands. Depending on the type of artist you’re playing with, the experience can be radically different from a Bar Gig.

At the BBC in London with Amy Helm

At the BBC in London with Amy Helm

Songwriter gigs tend to be in spaces where the audience listens more carefully (we hope). This allows you to play with more dynamics. The better the artist, the more in touch they will be with dynamics.

I’ve done gigs where we’ve learned a song in sound check and the artist was very sensitive about the dynamics for each section. It was as important as learning the chords in the song. And it was expected that you could nail the dynamics immediately.

Songwriter Showcase 

Original gigs can vary with the way an artist may want you to approach a part or solo. Often, they tend to be more liberal on your interpretation. The audience isn’t as hooked to a solo as they are to “Mother” by Pink Floyd (Unless you are playing an iconic song with that artist). Artists tend to be creative and want to explore. The isn’t always the case, but more often then not.

You’re expected to play with a lot more nuance on an original gig. The bigger the gig, the more nuance is expected. Space becomes really important. What you don’t play becomes really important. In fact, it’s just as important as what you do play.

Working with songwriters is going to require team working skills. You have to be ok with the fact that you’re a spoke in the wheel. It’s a sum of all parts. This often means you have to have a great awareness of the form and build of the song.

Wedding Gig

There is a skill set to playing wedding gigs. You can spot musicians that have a number of weddings under their belt. It’s not the same as a bar gig or an original gig.

Material: A top level wedding musician can recall hundreds of songs without hesitation. There are a lot of staples of the genre.

Transpose: Not only do wedding musicians know a lot of songs, they can transpose them in a heartbeat. This means they’re not just under their fingers, they’re aware of the theory behind each piece of music.

It’s not uncommon to work with a variety of singers in Wedding Bands. Because of this, song keys often get moved round.

Seque: Once the music starts, it doesn’t stop until break time. There are no endings to songs, there are only transitions to the next tune. It’s possible that transition spot could change on the fly or be a mash up of a song you’re not used to.

Wedding musicians are astute in transitions. Although some Bar Gigs will transition from song to song, it’s rarely to the extent of a wedding gig unless you’re in the Casino circuit.

Bar gigs and wedding gigs do share some limitations with dynamics. I would say that it’s possible weddings have three shades of dynamics as opposed to the 2 shades in a lot of bar gigs.

Like a bar gig, it’s optimal to play parts and solos from a record. You’re a human jukebox. Consistency is important on wedding gigs. You’re not really expected to have a identity on a wedding gig. It’s somewhat transparent. You can’t expect people to come up and ask you about your tone or choices of phrasing. People are there to have a great time and dance. You’re the master of ceremonies for that party. That’s usually about as deep as it goes.

Theater Gigs

So ya wanna be on Broadway kid? Theater gigs are entirely a unique situation. You’re not only dealing with specifically composed music, you’re dealing with live actors with cues.

You may end up playing the same show for an extended period of time 6 days a week. This can get old for some players who like variety. There is no improvisation to keep things interesting. It’s nailing the same parts with the same sounds every night. Some guitarists find the repetition comforting.

One thing is for sure, coming up in the theater is difficult. I know some guitarists that learn 4-5 shows to sub. Subbing on broadway has to be one of the hardest gigs there is. You don’t get a rehearsal. The first time you’ll play with the full band is on the gig. You need to have all the cues down and understand the main guitarists pedalboard and effect changes.

This takes quite a lot of prep time before a show. Subbing theater guitarists spend a lot of time learning the book and going to a few shows to observe the main guitarist. It’s hard enough to do this for one show, let alone multiple shows.

The Dots: Reading is important on theater gigs since the parts are so specific. It’s possible you may only get charts and not a recording before the first rehearsal.

In those charts, you’ll need to make a lot of markings about cues and edits. It’s a pretty strict environment. It’s not the sort of place you “try” different things on each gig. There are so many interwoven parts, if one thing is off, it could create a domino effect of doom.

Turn it up, I Mean Waaaaay Down: Theater gigs tend to be pretty quiet. Even when it’s supposed to seem loud. It’s all about the actors. You’re backing them up.

In a similar way to original gigs, dynamics are very important. There will be many shades of loud and soft.

Attention: You can’t check out on a broadway gig. There is no getting lost in the moment and being groovy man. You have to be in it at all times. Unless you’ve done the show a 1000 times, you’ll need to be hyper focused. There is a very small margin for error.

Major Artist Tour

Rehearsal for a tour at Levon Helm Studions in Woodstoc,k NY

Rehearsal for a tour at Levon Helm Studions in Woodstoc,k NY

If you happen to land a major tour with a well known artist it can be similar to a songwriter gig. But, things get amplified. There is def more pressure. You’re often expected to have a level of nuance on the first gig that would normally take 3-4 gigs to embody.

You have to walk in and be in touch with your dynamics. Understand any instrument changes and execute them with no lag or tuning issues.


You’re expected to nail things on the first try with a second try given as a token of generosity. This means your focus and attention have to be on point.

The musicians on high level gigs tend to run on high intensity. it doesn’t mean they’re in your face. It means they expect you to able to hang musically. Showing up late, not knowing material and spacing out are all attributes that will make you less desirable in the future. Word travels. The higher up you get, the smaller the circle.

1,2,3 GO!: How fast can yo grab changes? We’re gonna move the bridge around. You got it? You better, because that was just soundcheck and the show is in an hour.

One of the drawbacks to singer/songwriter gigs is that you often don’t get to play the music enough. A lot of artists don’t have the budget to to tours or regular gigs.

Sometimes, every gig feels like the first even if you’ve played the music before. A tour allows you more time to become comfortable. After the initial crash course and breath holding of course.

You don’t necessarily have to know how to read music for a major artist tour. It’s not often required. I find it helps especially when changes to the music are being made. it allows me to visualize the alterations. To make one more association for remembering.

Another note on the intensity thing. There is playing notes and “playing notes”. You really have to mean it on a gig with a major artist.

The type of audience they draw are looking to go deep into the music. There is no watering down and getting through it. You have to be convincing when you play. Play each note from the heart.

On tours and major gigs the “hang” becomes really important. This basically means what you’re like to be around off stage. You spend a lot of time together off stage on tour. People want to be with people they get along with. Bad habits and a bad attitude wont make you desirable even if you think your chops are up to par.

Session Musician

There is a completely different skill set for being a session guitarist. First of, you don’t need to know a huge library of songs. Having a huge understanding of songs is important.

In the studio at Sweetwater giving a clinic on guitar sounds

In the studio at Sweetwater giving a clinic on guitar sounds

Being in the studio is about creativity and creating something new. Sometimes this does require referencing something of old, but it doesn’t hinge on reproducing it.

Session musicians are fast on their feet to make changes. You may be expected to swap out a chord or a voicing. You may be asked to harmonize a line or change a form. Adaptability is key here and may go as far as adjusting your technique.

In modern times, it’s not as impotent to read music as it once was. I notice that players that have some knowledge of reading perform better under stressful circumstances where changes happen fast.

The studio is like a giant audio magnifying glass. For this reason, every part of your tone and playing gets exposed. Much more then in any live setting. All anomalies get exposed.

There are plenty of guitarists that are great live players that don’t excel in the studio. They are different mediums. Sessions are about execution, adaptation and creativity. Live performances can be more forgiving. If you’re not locked in the pocket for a session, it’s as obvious as a wart on your nose.


In your guitar journey it’s important to find where you’re most comfortable. Not every type of gig is for everyone.

My comfort zone is working with songwriters, major tours and sessions. I tend to like the many shades of dynamics. I like to have flexibility in creativity and I can adapt quickly. It took me some time to find my comfort zone. What are yours and what do you like about them?

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