Professionalism: Making Your Mark in the Local Gig Scene

Q: I am moving to LA soon and wanted to know if you had any advice for me in regards to making my mark in the local scene and trying to score some gigs?

A: Great question. I’ll break it up into a few parts.

As far as very tangible steps to take:

Hit up every jam session you can find.

Even if you think they’re “lame” or kind of a drag, you never know who you’ll play with or who may hear you (and who they may know who is looking for a bass player, etc…)

Formulate a bio, resume, etc.

Hit up the studios (call and introduce yourself as a new player in town). You never know. Just try and get your face, name and sound out there to everyone that’ll give you a moment. It adds up. Even if they blow you off the first time, they may remember your face “from somewhere” the second time and pay more attention! It takes time in a new scene… Be patient. Get a coffee shop gig to make a few bucks in the meantime and be persistent!

Now for what I consider the most important side of this equation… professionalism:

I can’t tell you how many gigs, sessions, tours I’ve gotten because a songwriter or band-leader can’t deal with the guy they’re using now and have asked around looking for a more professional and easy to work with guy. When you’re known as pro in all of the following areas, doors open.

The following list is my recommendation for how to really make an impression.

Be early. Always.

Be the first one there. There’s nothing that stresses a band-leader out more than the guy who shows up at the last possible moment every time (leaving every one wondering what they’re going to do if he doesn’t show).

Have 2 of everything.

Extra batteries, one more cord than you need in case one craps out, extra strings, tools to work on your bass in case of emergency.

I even carry things other people may need. I throw a few picks in my case for the guitar player, I carry an extra power strip with 15′ cord, gaff tape, drum key, etc… I am officially known as the guy who will save your butt on a gig if anything happens. I’ve made many an impression as the “prepared for anything guy” with guitarists and (more importantly) band leaders! You have that screwdriver 4 minutes before down-beat that the guitarist needs and he will remember that.

It doesn’t matter how good you can “fake it” or “hear your way” thru changes.

Especially playing original material, do your homework. If you can sound like you’ve been playing these tunes for a year the very first time, they will call you back and they WILL tell others about the job you did when someone else asks about bass players.

Look professional.

Don’t wear jeans (I don’t care how much they cost) to upscale gigs unless you know that it is ok. Better to be over-dressed than under-dressed.

Les McCann said to me the first time I played with him, “Make sure to show up looking like you give a crap, and I’ll always remember thinking how classy the drummer looked playing that music in his 3-piece suit. I looked good, but he looked sharp!”

Accept suggestions and guidance.

It doesn’t matter how good you are in respect to the songwriter/bandleader. It is their gig, not yours. Play appropriately and do not give anyone attitude if they make suggestions on how you can better serve the music. Consider it a chance to learn; to see music from another perspective. Be enthusiastic in your efforts to play the music the way they want you to play it. Session players are good at this.

And it is especially important if you want to get gigs in the studio. You will learn to simplify, not do things you want to do at first glance, hear with another’s ears, cop different tones and get enjoyment out of playing simply yet perfectly.

Stay sober for the gig.

If you have a morning session, stay sober the night before, too. I don’t drink at all and band-leaders just love that fact.

Yes, sometimes they love my sobriety because it means that I can be the driver of the van after the gig on a tour, etc.. but it’s another check mark in the “things we like about that bass player” column that every band leader keeps in their heads.

Help others out.

If you’ve already shown up early and loaded in, tuned and are just sipping your 7-Up waiting and the drummer comes in with his first of many loads to the stage. Get up and offer to help him out. Simple kindness goes a long way.

Have your reading together.

I get a ton of last minute, emergency bass player calls because I have the reputation locally of being the electric guy in town that you can toss a book of crazy charts at without every tune being train-wrecked at some point. I can read well. That gets me a lot of gigs that would otherwise pass me by. I’ve also worked on my treble clef in case (on jazz or latin-jazz gigs) someone ever says, “can you play the melody on this one”? They love it when you say, “yeah, sure!” and are mightily impressed when they realize later that you not only were sight-reading the tune out of the real book but you sight read the melody in treble clef. They will remember you as a super-hero bass player (although, in places like NYC and LA, it’s just a part of being pro).

If you think about it, horn players are used to sight-reading and transposing to their key on the spot. You should at least be able to keep up with a chord chart with a coda or two.

Be cool.

That’s it. Don’t be a _____ (fill in the blank with your word of choice). Being easy to work with is huge.

Play simply.

Especially in the studio. I’ve made the biggest impressions on producers by playing great parts simply without getting in anyone else’s way. I did a session with Teri-lynn Carrington in Toronto for a great songwriter, Kate Schutt. We were nearing the end of the track list and we wanted to get experimental and super funky on one track. I took it as an opportunity to really do a bit of “my thing” and the producer came to me later and said, “I already was impressed by you as a great and solid bass player, but now knowing that you can do all of that other stuff and the fact the you never did or even hinted at it has now made you one of my favorites and I will be using you again”

Years ago it was, “can you do half of what you are doing?”

Now I strive for either, “That was perfect!” or “let’s add a little more to the bass part”. That gets you more work from a good producer in town.

If you have a rehearsal before the gig, bring a recorder and record it.

Just to make sure that you have the correct arrangements, etc. There are always little changes and the like and you want to have those documented (you will not remember everything, trust me) so you can shed a little before the gig.

Band leaders also don’t want to have to worry about you canceling on the gig.

As offers start to roll in, be wary of not pulling out of one gig for another that pays better too often. Of course, if one pays $40 and you get a wedding for $400, they’ll probably understand, but try not to abuse that power. I’ve run into band-leaders in the past who had stopped calling me and when I asked why we haven’t played together in so long, they’ve told me because I’m too busy and pulled out of too many gigs. Peace of mind is more valuable at times than hiring player A over player B to a band-leader. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

Word of mouth is really the key here.

You need to impress people enough that you become the first thing out of their mouths when someone say the words “bass player”.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. I really identify with the “prepared bassist”, ie. the drum key thing. If you get in good with drummers your gigs will instantly double. Being requested by a drummer is like a golden ticket.

    It doesn’t hurt to know how to schlep drum gear and set up drum equip either; just ask first.

    It’s great to hear that I’m not the only one with more than just my own gear. Keep up the great advice!

  2. Wonderful advice Damian.

  3. bong

    tihis interview helps me to become a bette player,,,an inspiration..thanks a lot..

  4. bong benavidez

    an,,inspiration tobe a better player.

  5. Corby Simpson

    Excellent column as always, Damian. Informative and
    inspiring. Thank you.

  6. Great article! You would not believe how topical this is in my world right now! Very bizarre that you put this out.

  7. I carry a bag with all of the same items to each rehearsal and gig. Ive saved not only myself but many band members at gigs. Ive been named Macgyver. Great article, all common sence but many still need to read. So many musicians I know leave thier house without thinking of anything then showing up not prepared.