Being a Freelance Guitar Player in NYC, 2010 by John Shannon

This is a guest post: by John Shannon. Modern guitarist, vocalist and song crafter John Shannon believes in the power of music to enlighten the mind. Having already toured the globe with some of the brightest rising stars of indie rock, folk and jazz including Sonya Kitchell, Haale and Hiromi, Shannon's solo work has taken him on a journey into his soul and beyond. More about him @

Flexibility and Minimalism

There are two things that come to mind as far as the lifestyle requirements of a freelance guitarist in New York City: Flexibility and Minimalism. Lets take a look at what it means to be a flexible musician. First off, what it means to be musically flexible. This is not meant to feed the age old idea that you have to master all styles to be a great player, which is pretty much an unattainable ideal anyway. This is to suggest that you can jump into any musical style and bring something appropriate to the table as a guitarist. Most times I find people are hiring me not to blow them off the stage, but to play a part in the alchemy of their music. Iʼd like to note here that the highest goal as a sideman should always be to make everyone around you sound great, always be a servant to the music and the musicians around you. To be flexible means to be able to play a few jazz standards, to pull out a Beatles song or two off the top of your head, to fake Jimmy Pageʼs solo on “Stairway to Heaven”, to know all current bands in case someone sais “can you make it sound more like Kings of Leon”, to play quiet, to play loud, to have a range of guitar effects that cover most scenarios, to know when to lay out and stop playing, to have a few classical pieces under your belt, to be able to conjure a decent intro to any given tune, and most of all to listen. You have to become a great listener. Not only constantly listening to new and old music, but to know that when someone sais they want something musically, to know what they really mean though they donʼt know how to express it in guitar terms. Such as “can you play it more like thereʼs a tumbleweed rolling by…” To which you either walk out the door (just kidding) or switch to your bridge pickup, put on a little tremolo and twang out a straight open D minor chord.
The other flexibility Iʼm talking about is with your schedule. You have to make things work as much as possible for the people who are hiring you so that itʼs easy for them and so theyʼll want to have you back on their gig. You have to be up for a rehearsal or two with or without pay to begin a new music relation. You have to be up for a hang at all times to keep meeting new people to play music with. Saying all this may make it all seem like a big old hustle, but if youʼre playing music because you love music then itʼs a joy to constantly meet new people who also love to play music. This is also not to say that you shouldnʼt turn gigs down. For the most part as a freelancer you should take all gigs that come your way, but if you really donʼt like a project, do yourself and the artist a favor and donʼt take it. If weʼre gonna play music for a living we should enjoy it. With that being said, part of flexibility is knowing how to enjoy all music. Get to know your limits on all fronts so that you donʼt burn out because free lancing anything in New York City is a very active lifestyle.
Next, a key factor, I think, in being a free lance guitarist in New York City is adopting the minimalist mindset. Hereʼs why: If you play guitar with the minimalistʼs mindset combined with aware listening, you will never get in the way on someoneʼs gig. That is the first unspoken rule for any artist when they are considering whether or not to continue working with you. It is much better for someone to ask you to turn up then to turn down. Be aware of the space you occupy in any given situation, and start small. Minimalism in music relates to appropriateness in music. Also in naming minimalism as a key factor in NYC freelancing, I mean that your lifestyle may require it. I donʼt really need to say this, but if your motivation for playing music as a guitarist is to get rich, you are better off practicing Guitar Hero until they enter it into the Olympics. Iʼm not saying it wonʼt or canʼt happen, Iʼm just saying it takes alot of standard $50 gigs to buy a penthouse apartment. For that matter the same goes for anyone who is in music to make money before making music: better to become a doctor instead and help people while earning alot of money because creating intentionless music governed by the latest music fad to dominate the radio, internet, and tv waves only serves to make society less intelligent as a whole. Stepping off my soap box now, you also need to figure out how to achieve a great sound with a minimal amount of gear. New York has an extensive subway system and you donʼt want to have to worry about finding a parking spot right before the gig. For me a small light solid state amp on a cart (bumpy sidewalks can ruin small tube amps), a small shoulder strap pedal board and a gig bag guitar case work just fine. You also want to spend time learning the range of your effects so you can make the most of just a few pedals.
You have to be willing to live minimally and enjoy it. Learn how to make the money you earn spread. Minimalism will take care of that. Itʼs important for me to say that you donʼt have to be a “starving artist”. With this mindset you can be a “surviving minimalist”, doing what you love.
In conclusion, the main thing is to learn how to let the music guide your life. If you love to play guitar, then make it your spiritual path and learn how to listen to it for guidance. Donʼt respond to vibrations of urgency or negativity from anyone. Stay in the zone and believe in your own guitar playing. The rest will take care of itself.



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