MUSICIAN: ASSESS THYSELF
Chances are you have a pretty good idea of how good a musician you are. You may even have a good concept of areas where you might improve. Or you could be blissfully ignorant. If you think you are Elvis and the Beatles glued together, chances are you aren’t. Most of us have known great musicians that did not think they were, and sadly, a few musicians that thought they were much, much better than reality reflected.
I have things I do well as a musician, and some things I don’t. There’s a wide range of duties involved, since if you play even semi-professionally, you are not just playing. You’re booking gigs, making CDs, promoting your music, etc.
So I’ll start with me. What are my strengths as a musician? I am a pretty good vocalist, have a decent voice and a pretty good idea of how to use it. I know what keys will be an issue, and I’m a fairly quick study… except for harmony vocals. I can often pick them up on the fly but for anything even remotely difficult, I will need to study and practice. And although I am a pretty good vocalist, it is doubtful that I would be hired as a lead singer in most bands. I am actually rather proud of my improvements as a vocalist, since several of my early career reviews pointed out a lack of strength in my singing. In fact, so much so that by the time my first solo CD was reviewed by the LA Times, the author felt compelled to rebut some of these thoughts: “While Reed lacks the vocal stature of his influences, he doesn’t have to make any excuses for his singing. He is gently in command throughout….” I continue to practice and learn about singing. A sinus surgery a couple of years back helped bring back a few notes at the top of my range, though I still find I sing much better in a drier climate than the beach town I live in.
I am a competent songwriter. Fame and fortune have escaped me, but after many decades of writing, I can cobble together a decent song. My lyrics are often stronger than my melodies, and although I have co-written many songs, I probably prefer doing it solo. I have been blessed that some folks have thought highly enough of my work to record my songs. I stopped the fun and excitement of “pitching” songs many years ago, after about a half decade of semi-seriously shopping my songs in the country market. I was fairly successful in getting a number of my songs published, even a couple with well-known Nashville publishers. But I never got a big star cut, and the machinations of the country music business finally wore me down. I put my efforts elsewhere. There is only so much time in the day, and until very recently, I had a 50- to 60-hour-a-week day job that put food on the table but restricted the time devoted to all things music.
Instrumentally I am a guitarist, a bassist, and a mandolin player. Last to first, my mandolin chops will never put Sam Bush in jeopardy. I took up mandolin when I was playing bluegrass, and although I was a fan of the instrument, my motivations were mostly mercenary. There are many bluegrass guitarists, and a lot of bluegrass bass players. Mandolin players are scarcer. And although my rhythm was and is pretty good on mandolin, my ability to solo on the instrument is fairly pedestrian. Even so, for a period in the 1990s, I made more money as a mandolin player than any other musical endeavor. With my bluegrass days apparently behind me, I rarely perform with the mandolin, though I use it fairly extensively when recording. No improvisational solos, but with a little work I can adequately put the notes where I want them.
I bought an electric bass on sale in the early 1990s, and played it enough to grab a couple of gigs. But when a friend with a touring bluegrass band and a record deal got fed up with a parade of “bass players with problems,” he asked me to join the group. One little problem: I was not really a bass player and the group did all original material, some of it far more complicated than the “average” three chord bluegrass song. It took about two months to learn approximately 30 songs. And for a time I did okay in my new role, but truthfully I was still a guitar player playing the bass. This eventually caught up with me, and for the first time in my life I took music lessons, something I should’ve done decades prior. I learned how to hold and fret the bass properly, and with the lessons and a baptism by fire touring the US and Canada, I actually became a bass player. And in 1995, four years after my beginnings as a bassist, I was featured in an article in Bass Player magazine that had Paul McCartney on the cover. From that extremely lucky 15 minutes of fame, I eventually ended up on a “1000 best bass players in the world” website, though I can personally name 21,178 better players offhand. Six years in a country bar band also helped me hone my craft, and I finally feel comfortable being called a “bass player.” I can still stand to learn more walking bass patterns, and also to experiment with different genres of music.
I am a guitar player by virtue of many years of service. I can flatpick an acoustic, rock with an electric, and fingerpick enough to get away with saying I can. I am able to transpose, know multiple shapes for most chords, and can hold my own in most jam sessions… unless I am called on to play a solo. I confidently say that I am a very solid rhythm player in several genres of music. But like with the electric bass, I had to finally address the issue and take lessons on guitar leads. After about a year strapped to the mast, I was capable of playing simple leads in several keys. Years of church service noodling has also helped me learn songs on the wing, and compose less than embarrassing solos. Since my brother Don is a very accomplished lead guitarist, I have had situations where musicians made the mistake of thinking I exist in that same realm. I do not, and have learned to decline solos in many situations. I was at a jam session years ago, primarily holding my guitar as songs were called that I could not handle: an amazing up-tempo instrumental by Traffic; the Beatles’ “Day in the Life”; Ray Charles’ version of “Georgia”… A nationally renowned keyboard player leaned over to me and said he couldn’t hear what I was playing. I replied that I wasn’t playing anything, and that it was some of my best work. Know your limitations, and be prepared to have others know them too if you decide to let them.
Since I am running near War & Peace length, I’ll revisit this subject in the near future and cover the “non-musical” parts of being a musician, like whether you can book gigs, keep a calendar, and run your work as a business. In the meantime, support live music, remember that weeknights are weekends for someone, and if you can’t say something nice about someone, say something nasty… but smile.
Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.