Your practical guide on how to be the perfect guitar sideman


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Not every guitar player makes his or her living playing their own solos or singing their own songs to their loyal fans. No, there’s another breed of player out there – a hired gun, a mercenary, a travelling axe-slinger who joins other artists on the road to help out. Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the underappreciated world of the sideman (or woman)…

So you’re the sideman; that hired hand hovering at the far reaches of the stage.

Sideman, sidewoman, sideperson: any way you slice it, the job title could sound a bit demeaning to those of a more delicate persuasion. Yes, you do have to practice your art in the shadows while the spotlight favors the protagonist.

The part you play is the supporting kind.

Hey, they give out Academy Awards for those too, so it’s an important role, but it does require a service-minded attitude.

You’re the underappreciated sidekick, and your job is to make sure that crazy diamond center stage shines brightly next to your more inconspicuous presence; a line of work that requires discretion, dependability and unflagging professionalism.

A life outside the spotlight

But perhaps you were born to stand in the limelight.

Maybe “does not play well with others” was a recurring comment on your kindergarten report cards. In that case, this blog is not for you, but this video could help send you down the right path:

 

And a few tips from Alastair Greene can’t hurt. Check out all his advice on making a living from playing the guitar right here.

Who becomes a sideman?

But I digress. The sideman’s role may not be the most coveted, but it can be very gratifying and instructive.

Besides, it’s a challenge you’ll relish mastering.

The roads to sidemandom are many: artist A needs a stand-in for a no-show guitarist. Director B of a downtown musical is desperate to fill a vacancy left by the rhythm guitarist and the understudy who jumped ship for better gigs. Lip-syncing studio sensation C needs a backup band that’s willing to wiggle to a canned beat on TV.

Introducing Dan Tracey, sideman extraordinaire

There are a thousand ways to suddenly find yourself on stage as a sideman, but Dan Tracey‘s tale has to be one of the more unusual. After starting out as production manager for Alan Parsons‘ touring band – the Alan Parsons Live Project – Dan then made the transition from side of stage to being onstage as the group’s second live guitarist in 2014.

How did that happen, you might ask?

Well, Alan Parsons himself regularly heard Dan singing along to his songs during gig preparation. Now, Dan’s something of a harmony singing expert (more on his vocal talents a bit further down this blog!) so Alan asked him to perform some backing vox live with the band – from a mic at the side of the stage.

As time wore on, though, it became apparent that (a) Dan’s guitar chops were also more than up to speed, and (b) Alan Parsons’ elaborate arrangements had plenty of room for more guitar and vocals.

This led to Alan formally asking Dan to be an onstage part of the band, where he now shares vocals with the rest of the band, alongside indulging in a two-pronged electric guitar attack with the aforementioned Alastair Greene.

Dan Tracey (back of shot) watches on from the right side of the stage as Alastair Greene tackles a solo for the Alan Parsons Live Project.

Dan Tracey (back of shot) watches on from the right side of the stage as Alastair Greene tackles a solo for the Alan Parsons Live Project.

Not bad work if you can get it!

So, what do you do once you’ve landed the gig?

Dan let us in on some secrets, the most important being the furthest thing from the rock star mindset…

Be on time, always and everywhere

Punctuality is a must because being professional means being on the clock. Production schedules are tight and often grueling, as anybody who has spent time backstage will attest.

Forget the glitz, glamour and groupies, because that rock ‘n’ roll circus left town long ago. Punctuality will win you brownie points even if the gig is further down the food chain and you’re just filling in for a sickly strummer in your buddy’s band.

Being on time shows that your heart’s in it; that you’re up for the project and on top of your game.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Be prepared. It goes without saying that the sideman has to be able to fire off on command every lick of every song on the set list.

That takes some serious skills, so if that kind of mastery is still beyond your reach, stop reading and start practicing, practicing, practicing.

Practice makes perfect, and you'll need to do a lot of it if you're to succeed as a sideman! It can be a lonely life playing at home most of the time, but the onstage rewards can certainly make it more than worthwhile...

Practice makes perfect, and you’ll need to do a lot of it if you’re to succeed as a sideman! It can be a lonely life playing at home most of the time, but the onstage rewards can certainly make it more than worthwhile…

Learn to be a more flexible musician

There are cushier ways to make a buck than being a sideman.

You may find yourself having to finesse your way through an unfamiliar genre. For many of us, it was the love for a particular type of music that drove us to pick up the instrument. If that sounds like you, you may find the idea of playing music that you would otherwise never listen to all night long hard to stomach.

Don’t let that deter you.

Take up the challenge and put it down to a learning experience. The hard rocker can benefit from an evening grappling with the intricacies of polka (yes, really! Even Rob Marcello‘s at it) or the exotic strains of bal-musette.

And never underestimate folk music: sitting in with a southern Balkan combo playing grooves in 25/16 time is a lesson in humility.

So, get out of your comfort zone and dive into the deep end. Ask for a setlist straight away, find out which versions of the songs you’ll be playing, and get your hands on those tracks so you can start woodshedding.

And remember this: 99% of the sideman’s job is down to perspiration and mindset. Do the work, get your head in the right place, and you will succeed.

There's no doubt about it: playing as a sideman means you definitely won't be playing your favorite kind of songs or music onstage every night. It also means you won't be the center of attention out there. In some cases, of course, this can be a good thing!

There’s no doubt about it: playing as a sideman means you definitely won’t be playing your favorite kind of songs or music onstage every night. It also means you won’t be the center of attention out there. In some cases, of course, this can be a good thing!

You really don’t need a big rig

Keep your setup simple. A rack the size of two refrigerators and a floor-switching station that requires a firearms license to operate may give you untold hours of playing pleasure, but is it really the right tool for your sideman gig?

Remember, you’re not the center of attention. You’re usually there to provide accompaniment, and I dare say that standard equipment will serve you well for most of these gigs.

Two guitars, a small head and cab and up to a handful of effects pedals should do the trick. Besides, the simpler the setup, the less likely it is that something will go wrong.

That peace of mind is invaluable, especially on stage. A streamlined, no-nonsense setup frees you to focus fully on your role as a sideman.

The GrandMeister 36 that Dan Tracey played the night he got the Alan Parsons gig was the perfect tool. Parsons’ arrangements are tricky indeed, but the amp’s base tones, built-in effects and smart foot controller were up to the task. This little machine mastered that challenge rather grandly.

Show your own creativity – if the moment asks for it

Be creative when the opportunity presents itself. I was once, in a fit of romantic fervor, persuaded to contribute the guitar parts to a children’s musical.

It was practically a carbon copy of a hit kiddie opera in Germany – this one, in fact:

 

So the score was all but chiseled in stone. However, there were a lot more parts than players in our little orchestra, so a note-for-note rendition was out of the question.

The musical director threw down the gauntlet by saying, “Give me something I can work with.” Well, that’s like shouting “show me what you got!” at an exhibitionist.

I pounced on the chance to get creative; not to flaunt my chops, but to do my part to make this piece of music come together. Even if my interpretation at times strayed far from the score, it was still a nod to the original that worked rather well in this context.

How do I know this?

The kids in the audience had the original tracks on constant replay in their heads. I could see in the eyes of those delighted kids that we had captured the spirit, if not the exact arrangements, of the music.

It sounds cheesy, but that was all the recognition I needed for this job.

Learning from the best

Getting back to Dan Tracey’s unusual lateral career move from Alan Parsons’ production manager to sideman, though: when we witnessed him and the APLP in live action in Germany, Dan delivered the goods on stage with consummate professionalism and confidence.

Dan Tracey (far left) helping the Alan Parsons Live Project do the business. Like we said: not bad work, if you can get it!

Dan Tracey (far left) helping the Alan Parsons Live Project do the business. Like we said: not bad work, if you can get it!

A Connecticut transplant who now calls Nashville home, his ‘poppin’ rock ‘n’ roll style’ is very much in demand in Music City, and he’s also beginning to make waves with his own rock band, Save The World.

And, of course, he’s no slouch at the microphone: which brings us to the point of this blog.

The sideman’s warm vocals and tasty guitar parts enriched the Parsons’ show without stealing any of the main man’s thunder. His absence would certainly have been conspicuous, but his presence was not overly so.

Everything Dan did, he did in service of his boss’s songs, sophisticated arrangements and show. And his performance was a masterclass in taste and musicianship; a lesson all guitar aficionados, session players, studio musicians, and budding sidemen would do well to heed.

It was a great show, and further proof that the sideman’s job is indeed interesting and rewarding.

Have you tried your hand as a sideman, or woman? How did it go? Are you an experienced hired gun? Do you have any advice for fledgling sidemen?

We look forward to hearing your side of the story.

 

Check out Dan Tracey’s band, Save The World, here: www.facebook.com/savetheworldband

First published: October 22 2015. Most recent update: October 22 2015.

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