The afternoon sun beat down on me as I squinted at the set list of soul, pop and Motown standards and I frantically tried to connect the title to any sort of tune to remember how the next song actually started. Before I knew it, the drummer was giving his count-in, and off we went. Wonderful thing, memory, it seems to kick in almost automatically in the nick of time to save you from certain doom.
Such is the life of a humble depping guitarist – flying by the seat of your pants, last minute cram sessions, tweaking your rhythm parts as you go to fit the band's arrangements (which they may or may not have remembered to tell you about) – it's tense, it's challenging... but it's also a hell of a lot of fun, and something I would recommend to any musician.
Why? Surely it's a waste of time, learning all those songs for just one gig?
Woah. Back up there, pilgrim. We're musicians. It's never a waste of time learning a song. Besides which, anyone with a half decent ear and a grasp of the Nashville Number System (see Zero Point Guitar link for more on this) can pick out most of the pop/soul/Motown standards which form the bedrock of many corporate/ wedding cover band repertoires without too much trouble. I, IV, V, vi and the occasional splodge of bIII and bVII – and if you really can't find a particular change, just lay out. Most of these songs aren't particularly guitar-centric anyway, so a couple of bars of muted strings letting the bass, keyboards and/or brass section carry the load isn't going to spoil things.
Your rhythm chops will thank you as well – making a rhythm part work in a situation like this is a long way removed from strumming big barre chords in a steady quaver rhythm. Being able to fit your parts into the whole of the music requires a sensitivity to what's going on around you – where the keyboards are, what the brass is up to, the register of the bass line and vocal melody. A good rhythm player chooses their voicings to complement the whole. A solid knowledge of triads and inversions is utterly invaluable here – even if it's not the kind of skill that will wow an audience with a fleet-fingered rendition of “Eruption”, playing rhythm well is an art form in itself, albeit an underrated and overlooked one for many guitar players (dep story – one of the hardest gigs I ever did was filling in for a local rock 'n' roll band, as basically every song was a 12 bar in A. To play two sets of that stuff and keep each song sounding different really stretches your imagination!)
And let's not forget the value of actual gigging experience itself. Any working musician will tell you that it's only when you get to the gig that the real problems start – how do you deal with an amp that worked fine at home or in rehearsal but now is buzzing, squawking and farting like a cockerel after a vindaloo? How do you arrange your gear so your lead doesn't get wound round a mic stand or trapped under your wah pedal? How do you tune your ear into a band's sound that may have been beautifully balanced in a purpose built rehearsal room but now in the confines of the Dog & Duck is just a featureless wall of noise? Experience, that's how.
So how do we overcome the perennial Catch-22 situation – how do you get experience when no one will take you on because you don't already have experience?
Well, you can always just lie. Sometimes it works (according to various musician's autobiographies). In the real world, though, it doesn't work, and serves to blacken your reputation for the future (“Oh, you don't want so-and-so. He's full of sh*t, can't play.”). One great way to break in and get yourself known, however is the open mic night. These have been gaining in popularity in the last few years since the economic downturn as pubs try and entice audiences in without having to pay for a band. True, you're mostly playing to other (frequently drunk) musicians, but it can be a valuable low-pressure introduction to the world of live performance. For myself, I've played with the “house band” for a couple of local open mic/jam nights for the last few years, and found it very rewarding – thinking on your feet, adjusting chord voicings, key, rhythm etc to what the singer is doing, responding to the arrangements that frequently exist in the singer's head and nowhere else, “reading” your fellow musicians – all this contributes to that “sixth sense” that many experienced players seem to have.
It can also be a path to new and unusual challenges that push your playing in different ways. One of my most terrifying but also rewarding dep experiences happened years ago when working at the local music shop. The head of the local amateur dramatic society came in looking for a guitarist and banjo player to cover for their regular guy performing George Gershwin's “Anything Goes”, and me being me I jumped at the chance, thinking “How hard can it be?”
Very, as it turned out. I was presented with a CD and a score of music vast in size and terrifying in complexity, told band rehearsal would be in two weeks, dress rehearsal with the cast the day after that, and then we'd be performing straight through the week. I spent the first night with the score struggling to keep my bowels in check before starting to realise that a great many of the insane chord changes that peppered Gershwin's music contained a great many similar notes – for example, D7 contains D-F#-A-C (R-3-5-b7), F#dim7 contains F#-A-C-D (R-b3-b5-bb7). Therefore, no need to play anything different as the bass player will be looking after the root note (D and F#) anyway – Eureka! My sanity was saved, and I made it through the gig without suffering a nervous breakdown or being lynched by my fellow orchestra members. And I've never lost the deeper understanding of harmony that making those connections between chords gave me.
So, to sum up – the great things about open mics and dep gigs are experience, exposure, confidence, practical application of theory and licks learnt in the practice room, a few quid in your pocket at the end of the night (sometimes) and more than anything a hell of a lot of fun to be had. So the next time you're asked to an impromptu jam or to cover last minute for a friend – just say yes. You'd be surprised what it can lead to.