Gigging Life: Elevating Your Game with the Right Musicians (or Vice Versa)

Eagles and turkeys

Q: I’ve found myself in somewhat of a middle-ground with my gigs. Some gigs I have are with much better musicians than me, and I find that I actually play better with these guys. But many more of my gigs are just your everyday bar gigs. I’m noticing that I just can’t play the same way when the musicians around me are not up to my level. I’m not trying to have an attitude, but I do find myself wondering if I should only play gigs which elevate my playing?

A: You aren’t alone. I think many of us can relate to what you’re saying, through similar experiences.

When you play at the level of those around you – when those people are at or above our level – there’s this fantastic feeling of musicianship and an amazing flow of ideas. But in the “bar band” setting you’ve mentioned, those flowing ideas tend to slow to a trickle, and while we can still play, it isn’t inspired playing.

When the music around us is uninspiring in one way or another, we are, in turn, uninspired and regress to old habits, patterns and/or licks. If the other people in the band can’t listen and react to you in a natural and musical way, we have nothing to feed on. If the drummer has bad time, nothing we play will feel good to us and the ideas will stop.

While this can be hugely frustrating and somewhat deflating, try not to let it get to you too much. Of course, everyone’s situation is different, but I’ll share my views:

Every musical opportunity is an opportunity to grow in some way or another.

There is always a way to make a gig challenging for yourself, in a constructive way. You can take the opportunity to test yourself in different ways.

For example, if it’s a blues gig and you are going crazy playing the same lines night after night or week after week, try changing up your fingerings to challenge your fretboard abilities.

If the drummer has bad time, try talking to him and getting him to follow you and test your time by virtue of your ability to guide the drummer along and keep him on track.

Find a way to challenge yourself in whatever context it is that you find uninspiring.

Don’t take every gig, if you don’t need it.

If you have a day job and don’t rely on every $75 gig to pay your bills, you can probably get a little more selective.

However, you still need to play (and playing with other people is always better than just practicing by yourself), so don’t just quit every gig you have that you don’t enjoy and find yourself without any.

Again, try and use it as an opportunity. Maybe you could try and make suggestions and guide the band along and try and teach them in one way or another, what you have learned. Don’t be holier than thou about it either. Just lead with a gentle hand and make suggestions here and there. Bring in music that might inspire them or give them ideas (or which might to help and make a point as to what they need to work on).

Find more productive musical outlets.

If you have enough regular work with the quality of musicians that you prefer, then maybe it could be an opportunity to take a few nights off and spend the time practicing, writing or even making YouTube videos to get yourself out there and/or help to educate others. Just make sure that if you take more time for yourself, that you do something constructive with that time. Make better use of it than you would have gigging.

I’ll admit, I have bowed out of quite a few gigs because they were embarrassing or painful in some way, but I would generally prefer to be gigging than not so I do still take many B- and C-level gigs, simply because I love to play (and every dollar counts when music is your day job).

Here’s another way of looking at it, based on opportunities and experiences:

  • The mediocre jazz trio offer a chance to practice playing through changes in a low pressure environment (and to try things like emulating one player or another to explore different ways to approach the music).
  • The mediocre blues gigs offer a chance to reinforce the roots of most of the music we play.
  • The mediocre rock gigs offer us a way to have fun doing something different (if you don’t do many rock gigs, that is).
  • The mediocre singer-songwriter gigs are a chance to practice supporting the song with restraint.

It is a matter of perspective.

You may find approaching these lesser gigs with this mindset that you’ll elevate those gigs by what you’re doing. Keep this in mind: when you play with better musicians, it elevates your game. Be the better musician in these situations to help elevate the musicians around you in the same way.

Now, if a band is just outright horrible, then yeah… stay home and practice or spend a night with a loved one or friend. It’s always a call to be made on a case by case basis. There’s no sense torturing yourself.

As I’ve said many times, always remain humble and give every gig you take the respect that you’d hope for if it was your own gig. If you take the gig, do your job the best you can do it. Lead by example and always try to be the side-man that you would want to hire!

Readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. Please share them in the comments.

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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  1. You’re right of course, you have to make the best of it. I was just telling someone the other day that in the 30+ years I’ve been playing professionally, I’ve encountered only 6-7 drummers that I would consider very good. The rest have been just good at best and even some really bad ones (funny how I remember them as well as the very good ones, lol). Sometimes I’ve had to simplify A LOT so that I could take the lead on timing etc.. But, along with our own gratification, we have to consider that our essential job is enternaning people and we can only do that (really) by playing as part of the team to present the most musical output possible given the circumstances. Chances are that the crowd won’t even notice that you’re not syncopating your lines or playing inversions, but they will notice if the band sounds like a broken washing machine. Sometimes learning to play with restraint is an even more important lesson.

    • “Sometimes learning to play with restraint is an even more important lesson.” — Very well said!

  2. here’s my take on this issue. please go to Mel Bay’s to read my piece on “the worst gig ever” read it here.

  3. We are often judged by the company that we keep and we have to remember to be true to ourselves whether we attempt to elevate to the level of great players or trying not to get dragged down by apparently lesser players. Either situation will always offer a learning opportunity but that lesson is not always clear cut and it may not always involve music directly. For example how many parents have learned something from their young children who see things so simply. Marcus Miller has said that he has learned a lot from playing with bad drummers. One last thing to keep in mind is that you never know who is in the building. There may be somebody in the audience that has the potential to further your career based on you handle yourself or there might be another player on the gig who might be filling some time before he goes to his big time gig. They might remember the bass player at the $50.00 bar gig and that could be you.

    • Yup. That’s happened more times than I can count – a call out of the blue from another good player on a horrible gig that I barely remember. Several of those calls turned into successful long term projects. You never know who’s listening, so always play at your best level no matter what the situation.

  4. We all have those nightmare gigs and then there are those where we wished Marcus or Stanley was right there watching and listening. Between those are the ones we learn from. I’ve even played for no pay at all just for the chance to learn from unreal jazz keyboard players or drummers who could match Vinnie Colaiuta or Billy Cobham. It’s interesting, but when you play with these people, you gotta push for everything you got just to be right. Then, after, ya sit back and think,”Did I really play that?” Sure, we all gotta practice on our own, but when you get exposed to playing on that level and you’re holding your own, the exhiliration and the realization that you’ve just played with the pros and got it done is far more beneficial than any money you could have received. When I was around 17 or so, all I did was sit at home and practice, listen to records and try to pick out the basslines. Then, I met this drummer who invited me to jam and he was a kickass fusion player with impeccable timing. Stuff was coming outta me that I never thought for a second I could play!