Last week we looked at some gear-related tips for young rock gods playing in a band for the first time – things like making your sound fit in with the rest of the band, and coping with the kind of volume levels you might encounter in a proper band situation, instead of jamming along to your iPod in your lounge room.
Writing last week’s article got me thinking about my early days playing with other musicians. The first time I played with a drummer was when I was in Year 7. I dragged along my 3-watt practice amp and $50 distortion pedal, cranked the amp to what was probably only a little louder than speaking volume, and was blessed with a horrendous, buzzy, scratchy little tone that did nothing for my early confidence as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Guitarist. Flash forward to 10th Grade and I auditioned for a covers band featuring local guitar hero Jamie Payet. The rest of the guys were a bit older than me, and since he was already a seasoned pro, I learned some very valuable things from Jamie about adjusting my playing to fit a band context. I didn’t end up sticking with the band – study pressures ate away at my ability to be anything but a miseryguts that year so I jumped ship, and it wasn’t until later that I got to put into practice all the great stuff I learned in rehearsal.
These days, Jamie is a recording and live audio engineer and a guitarist, who works for the European speaker company KV2 Audio and still plays gigs regularly. I asked him to revisit some of the advice he gave me back then.
“Do not play overly loud! This allows you to actually hear what the others in the band are doing,” Jamie says. “Play as loud as the drums, no louder! You need to also consider the singer may not have good monitors and even if they had, they usually have to turn up and compete with everything on stage or in a rehearsal room. I have found in the years of playing, if you want loud, face the amp away from the rest of the band. Sure it may not be cool in terms of showing off your cool quad box set up, but you will make much more friends on and off stage.”
Jamie advises that unless you are going to play on big stages or you are a touring act go with a 30 to 50 watt amp. “I use a 40 watt valve amp and still get told to turn down,” he says. “Look for tone and not volume. In order to get good tone you often need lots of volume, hence a lower wattage amp is the key. Volume can turn to mush at crazy loud levels.”
The most important thing I learned in that covers band was how to listen to the other musicians: to play as part of the unit, rather than just play the same song at roughly the same time as them. “Listen, listen, listen,” Jamie says. “That is the key. Listen to what you are playing, listen to what the other musicians are playing, listen to what experienced guys tell you, listen to your sound guy, he is your key to an awesome sound! This advice may sound a little corny or odd or I sound like your dad, but this is the key to success.”
Jamie learned a lot of these tricks in his days playing in bands as a teenager. “My early gigs were pretty simple in terms of production, musicianship and experience. I was 14 at the time and for a bunch of kids who were in an era where pub rock was at its best, it was a great learning curve. We suffered the same as all young bands go through, we overplayed a lot, had little concept of locking in as a group, we played way too loud and we didn’t listen; everything most teenage musicians still do! I was fortunate to then play in a band with older guys when I was 18 years old which was such a great learning curve for me in terms of making music a career.”
Jamie’s advice for young guitarists is: “Be yourself! If you follow a trend you end up being like everyone else. Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young, Tommy Emmanuel are examples of guitarists who bring attitude to the stage. One of my favorite quotes is from Alex Van Halen (yep a drummer!) ‘When you go out on the stage you go and play like it will be your last.’ I guess like anything in life if you do not have passion it aint worth doing.”
Jamie’s last word of advice is: “Learn to be a musician before you become a superstar. There are to many superstars who haven’t become musicians yet.”
This article was originally published in Mixdown Magazine in May 2008.