The Side Gig — How to Prepare as a Side Musician
By T. Perry Bowers
I’ve been playing the drums for over twenty-five years. I’m not amazing, but I can keep a beat. In my own studio I’m sometimes hired to lay down simple grooves on someone else’s music.
My son is also in a band. I’ve watched them grow together for the last ten years. I’ve heard their songs so many times I practically have them memorized. A few months ago they lost their permanent drummer and I told them if they wanted me to cover their gigs I’d be happy to learn a set of songs to get them through the summer.
Surprisingly, they took me up on the idea and I played my first gig with them last week. It was simultaneously terrifying and gratifying.
It was terrifying because I want my son and his band mates to be proud of me. I’ve had the audacity to give them musical advice over the years so it was time to walk the talk. I want the band to do well and I was scared their fans might be disgusted by a lame, old drummer.
But it was gratifying because I was playing rock and roll with my son. It’s always been a dream of mine and finally I had the opportunity. When I hit the last note of the gig I felt a deep sense of satisfaction.
Taking on this side gig has taught me a few things. Maybe my experience will help you.
The first step in preparing for any side gig is to learn the songs. I had the band send me digital recordings of all the songs we were going to perform. They were only playing eight songs for the first gig so it wasn’t like learning three hour long sets of covers as many bands do every night.
I listened to the songs on my iPod and played along. If I didn’t have a decent PA system at my disposal, I would just listen through headphones. But in my rehearsal space we have awesome sound equipment, so I plug my iPod into the PA system and crank it up.
I wear quality earplugs that lower the decibel level and even out all the frequencies. Playing the songs through the PA gives me the same feeling as a live situation.
My first few times through I’m just trying to get a feeling for the song’s structure. I’m not trying to get the beats perfect yet, much less the fills and stops. I’m just listening for the basic grooves and getting a feel for the songs.
After a few times, I try to dial in the beats. Rather than playing the general groove, I’m listening for exact placement of the hi-hat, kick and snare.
Finally, after a few more times through, I’ll start to pick up some of the fills and stops. It might take me ten times to get the song down. Depending on how much time I have before the gig, it could take a week or so to play through the whole set ten times.
If I’m under time pressure, I might need to spend the whole day learning the songs, but typically, a rehearsal session for me is playing the songs once through and then going about my day. It’s funny, but doing this is actually very efficient. I find my mind and body are constantly working on my coordination even when I’m not physically practicing the songs. Often, when I come back to rehearse the next day, my body has figured out things that I couldn’t play the day before.
When I have the grooves down and most of the fills and stops, I’ll hammer out any problem areas. For example, in one of the songs there was a triplet fill written by their previous drummer that was just slightly out of my ability in terms of speed. Slow it down ten BPM and I could nail it. At speed, it was just slightly off.
I use an app called Anytune. It lets me slow down the song (or any part of it) and loop it. I looped the fill, slowed it down to where I could play it solidly, then I raised it one BPM at a time until I could play it at speed.
To be honest, I never did get it down perfectly, so for the gig I substituted a different fill. I’m going to keep working on it as a personal goal. The band seemed to like the fill I created, so until I’m one hundred percent confident I can nail the more difficult one, I will stick with the one I know I can do.
As well as practicing the songs on my own every day, I was also practicing with the band once per week. They helped me dial in some of the nuances of the songs. If I was dragging or rushing the tempo, they would let me know.
Right up until the last couple of practices before the gig, we were practicing to a click track. I find this very helpful. When the click is going, there is no question about tempo. You’re either on or off. Practicing to a click ensures no bad habits are created when you are learning the songs. For some reason with one song I would slow down ever so slightly in the chorus. If I didn’t have the click to track to lock me in, I may never have noticed the drag.
After about seven practices with the band, we all felt confident I could pull off the gig.
As a side musician, it’s very rare you would get seven practices with a band before a gig. My band hired a drummer once and we only had one practice with him. And my band’s music is much more complicated than my son’s band’s music. However the drummer we hired was a full-time professional drummer (his name is Dave King, some of you might know him). He nailed the full set with maybe one mistake.
I’m no Dave King! I did this gig for the sheer joy of playing with my son. I dedicated a couple months of practice to it and we rehearsed together a couple times per week. As a professional, you would never get that much time to nail it. You’d be lucky to have more than one rehearsal. Sometimes, you won’t even get a rehearsal. You’re expected to know the songs perfectly, show up to the gig and play them without a mistake.
Obviously, the better drummer you are, the less time it will take you to prepare. Blues gigs often just need a simple groove. Others are more progressive and jazzy. You need to know how long it will take you to prepare for the gig and allocate the time in your schedule before the gig to ensure you get the songs down.
If you’re planning to become a sideman or a session musician, you’ll need to create a practice formula that works for you. Err on the side of allocating more time than required but keep the process as efficient as possible.
Eventually you’ll have to get your pay in line with your time too. If you spend two months practicing and don’t ask for a dime, you’re a sucker like me. If you ask for two hundred bucks and you nail the set with one practice and a short set at a club, you’re getting somewhere.
Once I was hired to play two sets of covers for a vanity project. A CEO of a business wanted to be a rock star for a night and play at the company party. They wanted two rehearsals and we played two sets live at the party.
I charged them one hundred dollars for the rehearsals and two hundred dollars for the gig. It all happened in one weekend, so it wasn’t a terrible weekend for me, especially as I never spent a second outside of those rehearsals working on the songs. I simplified every beat, figured out the beginnings and endings and called it good. Everyone was happy. After all it was all about making the CEO look great!
As you get more side gigs, work on your strategy. If your goal is to make a living playing music, you need to be efficient with your time and consider the money. Alternatively, you can be like me and dedicate a few months of your time with no financial reward but the pleasure of knocking something off your bucket list.