Life as a Hired Gun

  • 03/14/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

For those of you that don’t know, I am currently on tour with The Three Degrees. They had worldwide smash hits in the 70’s such as “When Will I See You Again” and “Dirty ol’ Man.” They were formed out of the Philadelphia music scene in the 1960’s and were on the Philadelphia International label alongside artists such as Patti Labelle and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. As a group, they have been together for a long time and know exactly what they want their music to sound like. Therefore, it is my job as a hired gun to deliver exactly what they want, but at the same time, add some of my own flair and style into the mix.

You may play the part exactly as on record, but until you start playing with the group, you don’t know if that is exactly what they want. For example, I was playing a part and they said they wanted it to be “less choppy,” meaning that they wanted it smoother and less rhythmical. As a musician it is your job to make sure you interpret their requests accurately and come up with a suitable alternative part. Therefore, creativity is an important and essential element when being used as a “hired gun.” It is never your place to question their authority. If you don’t think it should be smooth, don’t say "I think it should stay choppy." It isn’t your band. Therefore, you must do as they request and do a good job of it. Letting go of your ego is essential when playing for someone. If you don’t like authority, or someone telling you what to play, then being a hired gun is probably not for you. If you approach things with the right attitude, it is one of the most fun and rewarding experiences you will ever have.

Understanding musical terminology is also an essential part of being a hired musician. Here are some terms that are frequently used:

Push = Anticipated syncopated rhythm.

Stab = A rhythmical accent played together as a band.

Repeat markers = The markers that indicate the start and end section of a loop.

1st and 2nd time ending = Inside the repeated section, there are subsections that vary depending on whether you are playing the 1st time round or the 2nd.

Soli = Musical phrase played in unison as a band.

Coda = The last section of a song indicated on the sheet music by a “Coda” sign.

Reprise = When the music comes back in after having finished.

Understanding these terms makes it easier for the musicians to communicate with each other and to be on the same wavelength. A lack of understanding will slow down the whole band, and people will have to explain at length or play entire sections to show you what exactly they mean. This is impractical, so learning the lingo is really an essential part of being a good gigging musician.

A certain amount of detective work may also be necessary when learning the songs. I ended up learning 3 versions of every song. First of all, I was sent the original mp3’s of the songs in addition to live versions that are often in different keys than the originals and may even have a different feel or different guitar parts. I had to learn an approximation of both of these versions so I was well equipped during rehearsals to play whatever they requested of me. A certain amount of personal taste may be required in determining the appropriate parts. During our first rehearsal (there was only 1!), things were changed around. So, the final version may turn out to be different from both the live and studio versions.

The choice of guitar is also more important than you may think. It would not be a good idea to show up to a gig with The Three Degrees with an Ibanez Jem for example. For this gig, I chose more traditional instruments - my Stratocaster and Telecaster. These guitars not only fit in appropriately in terms of sound, but also in terms of look too. If you are going to get into the professional realm, it's good to have some classic guitars that can fit into many different genres. The Strat, for example, can be used in funk, pop, rock, soul, blues, country and even jazz. It isn’t totally necessary to have tons of guitars, but it's nice to have some of the main classic guitar types. I always take more than one guitar with me on tour in case a string snaps on stage. That way I can quickly change guitars without having to spend time changing strings on stage, which is too time consuming in a live situation.

The last piece of advice I can give is extremely important! Always be on time! Remember, if you are not early you are late. Make sure you get to the sound check early to set up any amps or pedals and also to get your guitar in tune. Also, if there is something wrong with your amp, you will have time to get it fixed before the singers get there. We sound check at 5pm but I am always there at 3pm. I always say that it is better to be 2 hours early than 2 hours late! Also, dress well, polish your shoes and iron your shirt – oh, and don’t forget to shower! With all this is mind, you should be all set for a glittering career in show business.