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How to Lead a Band - Part I

OK... I'm not Bob Wills, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, or Johann Strauss the Elder, nor even the Younger. I'm just a seat of the pants geetar picker who start his first band at age 12, and has been at it now for 55 years. If you're reading this after 2015, then add an appropriate number of years on to that figure... I assume that if you can read, you can probably add.

I've played probably close to 10,000 gigs plus or minus, both as leader and sideman, so this blog comes from the perspective of both. I've played for as many as 25,000 people, and as few as zero... that's right -- ZERO. (I'm not sure I like ZERO, but I'd far preferred the ONE GOOD LISTENER to 25,000 inebriated idiots, just for the record.)

First, here's a few things that leaders should be aware of, followed by some things that sidemen should be aware of. If you're in a "band" and it's very democratic and no one is really the leader... enjoy your childhood. This is not the real world.

For leaders dealing with sidemen (learned by experiences as a sidemen)

1. Respect your band. Sidemen are your peers... not your servants. Treat them with ultimate respect, listen to what they play, and enjoy!

2. Sidemen are human and like most creative people, have somewhat fragile egos. Don't confuse "professional" and "hey, I'm giving them money", with "needs no praise or encouragement." Express your appreciation first time and every time.

3. NEVER NEVER NEVER, no matter how badly deserved, criticize a player's performance in front of his peers and the audience. If you have a problem with a performance, address it privately. (This does not apply for certain substance induced behavior which needs to be addressed immediately... you know what I mean and you know the difference.)

4. Hire great players who are good human beings, then let them play -- no need to micromanage. Roots music is NOT Beethoven. It's fun to hear what great players -- specialists in their instruments -- contribute to your music. This doesn't mean you can't guide or shape... just trust that you're going to hear some great licks that you never would have thought of.

5. Know your repertoire. Everyone forgets a lyric now and again -- this isn't what I mean. I mean know the songs. For covers: who wrote it, what other versions have been recorded, the meaning of the lyrics, where it was recorded, who were the players. This doesn't mean you have to cough this up to the crowd before (or after) each song. But it's part of making it real... if you don't know this stuff, you're just regurgitating. For originals: when you wrote it, why you wrote it, when you recorded it, who recorded with you. You get the picture? If you're not inside the music, your band will be off in the pasture.

6. Talk to the audience, not the band. Yes... you need to be sure the band knows what song is up. Even a regular band often needs the key. Most of us in Austin play with at least a half dozen other bands, many times the same songs but in a different key, with a different groove, intro and all.

7. Be sure your sidemen pay attention. Lead the band -- be sure they know who has an upcoming solo... cue breaks when needed. Also, cue endings -- but, keep in mind, a good musician will guide the band musically with their outro lick, if it's not a rehearsed ending. Trying to cut off the band visually before an outro lick reaches its logical conclusions will almost certainly cause a train wreck.

8. Make the band look good. Often, an audience need guidance -- cue them in on the virtuosity that's happening on stage. When your band looks good, you look good.

9. It's all about the song. Yes -- I know there are charismatic stars who could sing the preamble to the constitution and make it sparkle. But, without fail, I'd rather hear a good band working well together. And, if you have good, appropriate repertoire, well ordered and well played, it'll work. If everyone plays "the song", it'll be great.

For sidemen (learned by experience as a band leader)

1. Watch the leader. It doesn't matter what kind of music you're playing -- symphony orchestra to garage band -- or, for that matter, garage orchestra. This is how you play together and all music sounds best when the musicians play together. I can't think of anything that irritates me more than having to holler to get the attention of a player who's lost in a daze.

2. Commit. Be there in your entirety. If you're dragging your gear out to a gig because you think it'll make you more attractive in the eyes of the opposite sex, your in the wrong business -- it might for a night or two, but the attraction is on the surface and wears off quickly. Nope... BE THERE. Stay connected to your bandmates emotionally. Make it happen! That's what makes it fun!

3. The gig is not practice. Know the songs, learn the lyrics, know your parts, know how to play those parts, know the melody, know the groove... or be quick to pick up.

4. Dress for the gig. Don't wear the clothes you wore to change your oil that afternoon. Show some respect for your audience... dress appropriately, but dress for the gig, not for couch. Miles Davis said he wanted his audiences to think he was special, so he dressed the part.

5. Don't whine. Keep your eyes off your watch. Don't complain about the leader's song selection -- just play it to the best of your ability. A player who complains just signs his own pink slip.

6. Maintain your gear. You were hired for the gig to make good sounds. Broken cables, noisy tubes, rattling speakers, and intermittent pickups do not make good sounds. It might be a good idea to step off stage and take a peek at how your gear looks to the audience -- if it makes you feel like you're looking into the shower in Bubba's trailer, maybe you should dig out the handy wipes.

7. Don't show up drunk or whatever! I once played a gig as a sideman alongside a player who was so screwed up that he sat down and went to sleep in the middle of a song! After the gig, he looked at me and said, "Are you playing tonight?"  Believe me, this guy would never play another gig in my band. Everyone has their threshold... know yours and don't step over.

8. Be musically flexible. Rock and roll, jazz, country, bluegrass, and virtually all roots music is largely improvised... be ready to go with the flow. Even in non-improvised music, some nights the tempo may be slower or faster... the group louder or softer. Don't be so committed to your particular concept that you can't change to make the ensemble sound its best. Maybe your amp doesn't sound like you want it to sound... hey, just play the sound that it IS making.

9. Listen. Possibly the largest difference between poor or mediocre players and top notch players is the higher level player's ability to listen to the other players and to the whole group, not just their own part. Players who have not yet mastered their instrument will be so intent upon keeping it together that they don't hear the other players... they'll be too loud/soft for the band, or they'll determinedly pound on a wrong chord. They rush, drag, play inappropriate or out of genre parts, noodle over other players fills. So... just listen and be a contributing part of the whole.

10. Make the leader look good. I've done thousands of sideman gigs and I know some front people are egotistical, blathering idiots. (I've had my own moronic periods.) Still.. while you're on the gig, if you make the leader look bad, it winds up making you look bad, and pretty much like an idiot for taking the gig in the first place. Do your best... take it up with the leader when you're off the gig and/or don't take that gig again! A corollary -- don't step on the leader's patter. It may be stupid and you may have heard it every night for the last 10 years. The audience has NOT heard it as often as you have. Think about Steve Martin saying, "Excuse ME!" for the millionth time, to thunderous applause. You may be wittier... if so, get your own gigs. For tonight, just go with it.


  1. 50+ years condensed in one blog. Priceless...

  2. just wish I could get people to rehearse...

    1. That's like herding cats! LOL.Personally, I like rehearsal... it's where you can be creative.

    2. By the way, Mr. Justice Ornery... I know who you are! Master of pseudonyms.


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