Joining my first rock band was an embarrassing moment.
I asked a bassist, drummer, singer, and guitarist from my school if they wanted to be in my band, and they all showed up for the first rehearsal.
The issue was that they were far more advanced than I was – a beginner.
It was a problem for me because I could tell I wasn’t on their level. It was a problem for them because they were interested in forming the band but needed to find a polite way to fire the person who had brought the band together in the first place.
They did it by compiling a list of 15 covers they wanted to be able to play live in a few months, despite the fact that there was no way I could learn even one given my level of knowledge and the difficulty of the songs.
This is when the humiliating reality set in: I realized that the only thing I could be in this band was a burden.
It was painful at the time, but after decades of playing in bands, I’m glad it happened. It was one of those learning experiences that shaped many future decisions (the most obvious being firing the guitar teacher and replacing him with a teacher who could play rock music instead of teaching me how to read notes from the staff, which didn’t help me achieve my goal of joining a band).
It also pushed me to work harder on the guitar and musicianship so that joining my second band, which landed me my first gig, was a pleasant experience.
Before you join a band, here are a few things you should know. These will teach you how to avoid embarrassing situations, how to learn from every experience, and, most importantly, how to be an asset to any band you play in.
- Music you can play well
Whether it’s a formal audition, or a meeting of friends, a question that will surely crop up is “Can you play something?”
It is critical that you learn some guitar licks, riffs, or solos (or create your own) so that you have something to show for your hours of guitar practice.
The music you play should reflect your current abilities. Don’t try to impress with techniques you haven’t fully mastered. It’s better to play something a little easier than what you’re capable of playing and play it well than to try to play something more complex or fast sloppily.
- What will you bring to the table?
Your guitar playing abilities are the most important asset but there are other things you can offer to the band.
The following are a few things you can contribute to a band that are not directly related to playing your instrument:
- A great personality that motivates people and makes rehearsals enjoyable.
- Problem solving skills
- Skills in IT
- Skills in Marketing
- Songwriting skills
- Lyric writing skills
- Rehearsal space
- Constructive criticism
- Relationships with people who can help the band in the future (musically and otherwise).
- Many more – think of your strengths, your abilities and your passions (other than music). Which ones can you use to add value to the band?
The value you bring to the table, will determine whether you get to join the band, and what your role in the band will be.
- Matching level of playing
If you’re a beginner on the guitar, it’s better to start playing with other beginners, or wait until you reach an intermediate level of guitar playing before joining a band.
An exception to this is if the more advanced musicians are your friends and are willing to wait for you to catch up. In that case, you should grab the opportunity and use it to motivate you to practice even more.
If you’re an intermediate or advanced player, you can afford to have more disparity in musicianship, but playing with musicians who aren’t far apart in their level of playing is usually a better choice.
- How to play on time
To start playing in a band, you don’t need to master many techniques, learn a lot of theory, or have a large song repertoire. You surely don’t have to be able to play fast.
However, you must be able to play on time.
If you have serious timing issues (as I did when I first joined my first band), you’re going to waste everyone’s time.
To test your timing, play your guitar riffs, licks, and solos with a metronome, a backing track, or a drum machine.
- The genre
Though it is not necessary to master a large number of techniques and other musical elements in order to play in a band, it is important to become fluent in the techniques and musical elements that are commonly used in the genre of music being played.
Here are some examples:
If you want to join a blues band you need to become fluent in string bending, vibrato, the blues shuffle, pentatonic and blues scales.
If you want to join a metal band you should be fluent in palm muting, power chords, diatonic scales, use of drones and the heavy metal gallop.
If you want to join a funk band you need to be fluent in extended chords, semiquaver patterns, fast strumming, and muting.
The above are just a few examples of how some genres of music require fluency in certain elements. This does not mean these elements are used exclusively in the genre. For instance, the blues scale is commonly used in metal, extended chords are regularly found in blues and vibrato is common in all genres.
- The band’s goals
Many bands are formed for fun, with no higher aspirations. Writing songs, enjoying the company of friends and playing an odd gig for free beer is a great way to spend one’s free time.
Other bands are formed for fun, but have higher aspirations, like releasing albums and touring. The band members are passionate and may dream of making it big one day, but still consider the band as entertainment rather than a future source of income.
Then there are the pro-minded musicians for whom the band is part of their career in the music industry.
There is not right or wrong type of band and all types can achieve the musician’s objectives in life. What is important is that you know in what kind of band you are and that your goals are in line with those of the other musicians.
Note: I suggest that you start with the fun bands if you’re joining your first band. Playing in bands has a learning curve and it’s better to gain the experience with musicians who can spare their time, than pro-minded ones who want to use every minute constructively.
- Listen and learn
The points above are focused on becoming an asset for the band while this one is about what you get in return.
If you want to build a career in the music industry, your first band is unlikely to ever become a serious source of income.
However, you can be certain that every band you play in, whether professionally or for fun, will be a learning experience that will help you build your career.
Thus, while you should provide the highest value to the band, as suggested in the other six points, you should also make the most of being in the band by listening and observing.
Here are some of the things (musical and non-musical) you can observe and learn from when playing in a band:
- How to play music with others
- Musicianship – people who play different instruments, or approach the same instrument differently, will widen your horizons on the way you look at music.
- Playing music in front of others (your first gigs)
- Developing self confidence
- Goal setting and planning
- Band chemistry – how people work together to achieve an outcome, conflicts and resolutions etc.
- Marketing (promoting your first gigs)
- The Songwriting process
- Jamming and improvising
If you view your first band as part of a wider learning experience and self-development process, you can only win, irrespective of whether the band takes off and becomes successful, or not.
You may consider giving a donation, by which you will be helping a songwriter achieve his dreams. Each contribution, no matter how small, will make a difference.