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From Amateur to Professional: How to Turn Guitar Playing Into a Career

January 25, 2021

From Amateur to Professional: How to Turn Guitar Playing Into a Career

So you want to turn your hobby into a gig that pays the bills? Music can be a hard career but it is doable. You may never headline Madison Square Garden but with enough work and dedication you can build a career that keeps you fed both spiritually and creatively. Here are ten tips for making the transition.

1. Practice Practice Practice

two musicians pursuing guitar and music careers together

Before anyone is going to pay you to play music you need to be good at music. This might seem obvious, but I’m not talking about natural talent, creativity, or inspiration. The skills you need to make a living at music are also consistency, precision, and dependability. And that means practice. Sit down and play your scales and drills. Every day. No really, EVERY DAY. Professionalism isn’t how good you are when you’re “on,” it’s how good you are when you’re not. And for that, there’s no substitute for putting in work.

2. Treat it Like a Job

Music may be fun (hopefully it is for you, otherwise trying to make it a career would be a strange choice), but the truth is nothing is enjoyable all the time. There will be days when you don’t feel like practicing. Do it anyway. There will be days when you feel like you’ve done enough already or you would rather be at the bar or out with friends. Don’t blow it off. Keep regular hours. They may not be the same as your friends’ regular hours (music work is a lot of nights and weekends), but whatever schedule makes sense, hold yourself to it, and resist the temptation to cut corners. The people you’re competing against for gigs won’t.

3. Be Flexible

Most working musicians cobble together a living from a number of revenue sources none of which alone would be enough to live on. We play weddings and bar mitzvahs, we sit in on recording sessions, we teach students, we do beat production, and maybe occasionally we get a paying gig with our own bands. Don’t get married to the idea of one specific way to make money. Think in terms of the skill set you have and all the ways it might be marketable. Then pursue every avenue open to you.

a woman in a recording studio pursues a guitar career

4. Get a Day Job That Can Be Just That

Very few people can get started in a music career without a day job, but picking the right one is key. If you’re set on a music career, don’t get a job that regularly makes you stay late unexpectedly. Don’t get a job where you’ll get fired or disciplined for taking a day off for a gig. If you really want to make music your priority, commit to that, and find a day job that will fit in what’s leftover of your life, not the other way around. This may mean taking a job with worse pay, or that you hate. Getting to build a music career is what you get in return.

5. Know the Language of Music

It’s not enough to be able to play music. If you’re going to make it a career, you need to be able to READ music. This means standard notation, tablature, and chord sheets. You also need to know how to improvise. When your singer tells you she needs you to take it in a different key, you need to know what that means and what the new chords are IMMEDIATELY. Music theory is not academic. It’s the language musicians use to communicate with one another, and you have to speak it.

6. Develop Eclectic Tastes

If you want to work, you’ll have to learn to play lots of different kinds of music. The wider the range of styles you can work with, the more employable you are. If your interests are narrow try to broaden them. You don’t have to love everything, but the more styles you’re competent enough to play the better. And learn to pretend not to hate wedding standards. You’ll be playing them a lot.

7. Invest in Decent Gear

Make sure the stuff you own sounds good and won’t break. This goes obviously for your guitar, amp, and pedals, but also for the little things too: strings, cables, tuners, capos. Your tools are your livelihood, don’t skimp on the things you will need to look and sound your best. You don’t need to drop thousands on top name brands, but be prepared to spend for dependability. If you were a lawyer you’d spend money on suits because you’d know your clothes set the tone and establish first impressions. As a musician, treat your gear the same way.

8. Find the Community

Every city, no matter how small, has a music scene. Find it. There is no better way in than meeting the people who are already making music work. They are your best shot at work. This band has a booking next week but they need an opening act. Another band’s bass player just moved back home to Missouri. Someone else thinks your style would work great on one track he’s working on in the studio. Musicians are the best source of opportunities for other musicians, so make sure you know them.

9. Market Yourself

Play that open mic. Even though it doesn’t pay. Even though there are only a dozen people in the audience, and half of those are drunk, and the other half are there to play, and your slot is 2am on a work night. Do it anyway. And do it again tomorrow at the bar down the street. Get a work Instagram, and facebook, and twitter, and a decent looking website. Get on youtube and start making content. Put up physical flyers. Go busking. Anything you can do to get noticed. You never know what will put you in front of the right people who will give you work.

10. Get Comfortable With Being in Someone Else’s Band

Musicians are notorious for wanting to be the center of attention and having creative control. But most work in the industry is being a side player for someone else, whether at a gig or in the studio. Learn to be a team player and be a valuable contributor to someone else’s vision. Be professional and do what’s asked of you. Working leads to more work, and there are worse things in life than getting to play on somebody else’s record for a living. Hopefully it’s still fun. And if not, maybe a different career is a better fit.

Two years ago, I decided to leave academia to pursue my own music education business, JC Instrumental, after five years of teaching piano and guitar part-time. My professional training is in American history, but I’ve been a musician for the past twenty years, writing, performing and recording with groups in genres as diverse as punk, folk-Americana, and jazz. I have been very fortunate to take that training and experience and to build it into an educational practice that I find extremely fulfilling, and which allows me to continue my first passion of teaching in a new field that has always been an important part of who I am.

Ben Rubin