How to become a Lead Guitarist
The question might not be how to become a lead guitarist but why? The Chicks?
If you do choose to pursue lead guitar as a career I can give you some tips I learnt the hard way that might help you kickstart your quest.
As a lead guitarist you have three choices...
- The music
- The money
- The people you're playing with
You only get to pick two of those, so choose wisely!
What are your choices?
The main career routes for musicians to consider are...
- As a band member
- As a sideman
- As a session player
- A combination of all the above
Some Do's and Don'ts
Breaking your own band is the dumb move. It takes the longest, it is most risky. You ride their success - or failure. But at least you share it with some great people.
The sideman, a gun for hire with gigging bands, has very little job security but it can pay well and get you networking with the right people.
They say it’s not what you know it’s who you know. That’s true. You can be the greatest lead guitar player ever but languish without the right industry contacts. Those contacts just don't exist outside of the main cities. You will have to move to LA, Nashville, or New York. I myself moved from leafy Cheshire to London aged 19.
For session players it is also what you know. You must be a great reader - or the client will get someone who is.
Building a Career
If you are considering being a lead guitarist as a career I would say think long and hard. It’s a crowded space with declining demand.
Bear in mind...
- Over the years lead guitar solos have gotten shorter
- Often the guitarist is relegated to merely giving the vocalist a break, but we will take what we can get!
- Guitar solos are now limited to just a couple of genres most notably rock and pop
If you are hoping for a career playing lead guitar as a sideman you must get yourself in an established band. Don't try and work your way up. You only need impress the other band members at the audition and that can instantly project you into a salary.
I achieved modest success first time around but with hindsight I was distracted by my songwriting. I lacked focus. To succeed you need to be ruthless. If the band isn't going anywhere dump them!
I had a misspent youth gigging with various bands. My road eventually led me to jazz, but I have never tired of the beauty and a well-structured guitar solo. I've been rewarded a few times by the look of adulation from someone in the audience. Who wouldn’t want that?
My best piece of advice to aspiring musicians is always take care of #1 (yourself) as far as money is concerned. Being single minded is a good trait to have but not to the detriment of your own or family’s welfare. I hung up my guitar for 20 years and I’m glad I did.
I’ve always kept the day job and, in the process, accumulated 40 years business acumen - including 18 years running the #1 underwater photography website.
I’ve made the mistakes, so you don’t have to.
One final piece of advice that may set you ahead of the pack is to nurture the most common attribute of successful lead guitarists; to be able to sing. You don’t have to be a lead vocalist, but you should work to add BV's (backing vocals) to your CV.
Examine your motivation
I've been playing lead guitar for 50 years having was brought up in the Blues Boom when 15-minute guitar solos were not just optional, they were expected.
There were plenty of other less demanding instruments I could have taken up, but my heroes were Clapton, Page, Beck, and Hendrix. Who could resist? It was the era of true improvisation and guitar was the instrument.
I wanted to become a lead guitarist for the freedom of expression, the pure art, and the chicks! I should add that I achieved the first two goals but not the last one. If you want to be a lead guitarist solely to score p*ssy you will be sadly disappointed. It’s the drummers, who get that!
To be a lead guitarist you have to be a bit of an egotist and believe that your stream of consciousness has something unique to add value to music. You can be humble when you're famous.
I've seen myself on those lists of the 100 best guitarists, and if they think that I'm that good, I thank them. Thank God for them. But I don't think so. — B.B. King
At the end of the day you choose the money, the music, or the people. Be ruthless about the bands you are in. Networking is vital.
Would you sooner be talented, or lucky? I choose Lucky every time!
If you want to be a rock star or just be famous, then run down the street naked, you’ll make the news or something. But if you want music to be your livelihood, then play, play, play and play! And eventually you’ll get to where you want to be. Eddy Van Halen