Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be a master guitar player to make good money from playing guitar. Many more important factors come into play than your guitar playing skill.
When I was 13, I begged my parents for a guitar for Christmas. They were reluctant to take that path, I assume, because of the expected ensuing noise, but they went ahead anyway and bought me a guitar and amplifier from JC Penney. Two years later, I was playing in bars almost every weekend and making more money in one or two nights than my friends were making all week working the night shift at Burger King.
So at 15 was I a guitar virtuoso? No. I still basically sucked as did the band I was in. I mean, we were horrible, yet sold out every night we played. Literally, it was standing room only even on weeknights, and we played almost every bar in a 25-mile radius. It was 1980 when it began, and this band still packs them in anytime they play even though they still basically suck.
What was the secret? The leader of this band was a genius at giving people what they wanted. He knew what they wanted and found a way to deliver it. People want to be entertained. If you can entertain people, you can make money by playing the guitar. It is that simple.
At the time Oldies was a big thing, and this band happened to fill a local void by dressing the part, acting crazy on stage, and playing the songs that people wanted to hear. At 15 years old, I was signing autographs, fending off advances from older women, and making money playing guitar. My first experiences making money playing guitar came from merely giving the audience what they wanted.
A few years later, the whole Urban Cowboy thing happened and, I happen to get into another band that was jumping on the country bandwagon. By this time, I had spent a lot of time learning how to play guitar, and my playing and vocal skills had come a long way. I had also learned what it took to be a valuable member of a band even though I still wasn’t the best guitar player in the world. Another band followed that one and so on until I finally retired from playing live on New Years’ Eve 2005.
In addition to all the bands I played in, I also did some solo and dual work and never played in a group that wasn’t working. During that time, I learned the keys to making money playing guitar. The first key is filling the void for your audience. Most guitar players think they should go out there and play what they want to play. That doesn’t work if you’re going to make money playing guitar. People want to hear the songs they like, and they want to listen to it like the recording, solo, and all.
The second key is only to play material you do well. If that means only playing simple songs, then only play simple songs. The audience does not know if a song is difficult, only if it sounded right. You do not get extra credit for trying something hard to play. You only lose points for not doing it right. If you know the audience is going to request a particular song and you can’t pull it off, find an alternative song by the same artist you can play instead.
The third key is that you must be willing to travel. You don’t need to go across the country to make money playing guitar, but you will need to get out of your local town. Here’s an interesting fact: most people will pay a band from out of town more money then they will have a local band. There’s some weird belief that a band can’t be good if they’re local. I don’t get it, but I used it to get paid.
Building a fan base is the fourth key and is more important in the beginning than getting more money. Connecting with your audience, talking with them between sets, having good stage banter with the crowd, all of these things lead to more money. You can act as cool as you want, but it doesn’t pay as well as being friendly. And that goes double with the person that hired you.
You need to make them a fan by showing up on time, turning down if they ask you to, and always cleaning up when you’re done. If they like you as a person, they will have a stronger impression of you as a performer and will pay you more. It is easy to raise your price once you build a fan base.
So now you know a little more about how to play guitar and make money doing it. I have done very well financially playing guitar in my life even though most of the local music scene in my town never knew who I even was. It’s because I followed these keys that I got paid good money for playing guitar while the local “celebrity” bands were sometimes paying out of their own pockets to play. Always remember that being the best guitar player in the world does not mean that you will know how to make money doing it.