I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Careers in Music for Guitar Players
For many guitarists, the thought of a career in music involves becoming a rock star. After all, most of us are inspired to play by famous guitarists who have the world at their feet, at least for the time being.
But it's smart to realize that not everyone makes it big in the music world. When I was a kid, my parents always told me I needed a backup plan, even though I was pretty sure I was going to become the next Eddie Van Halen.
They meant I should become an accountant or plumber or something in case my music dreams didn't pan out. I always hated that. While plumber and accountant are both very respectable professions, it's pretty stupid to spend time learning to crunch numbers and twist pipes when what you really want to be is a musician.
But it's equally stupid to throw all your eggs in the "rock star" basket and hope it works out. While many famous bands went all-out to achieve success, I sometimes shudder to think what would have happened to them had they not made it big.
Have a backup plan, but make it something you love. There are plenty of music careers for guitarists that you can work hard at while not giving up on your rock star dreams. And, if the rock star thing doesn't work out, you'll have built a solid career in music that will reward you for the rest of your life.
Here are some ideas for finding a career in music as a guitar player.
5 Ways to Make Guitar Playing Your Job
Yes, you can have a career in music, even if you aren't famous! Here are five ways to do it:
- Start a successful cover band.
- Become a professional songwriter.
- Work as a studio/session guitarist.
- Play in a backing band.
- Start a business teaching guitar.
Bonus: Write about music and the guitar as a blogger or journalist!
Read on to learn more about how to get started with these career paths.
Cover Band Guitarist
Cover bands make a living playing music by famous bands in public venues like bars and weddings. A really good cover band that's in high demand can make a lot of money, and find themselves booked for months in advance. If you want a career in music, this is one way to do it.
However, there are a few pitfalls. Even though the money is good, you have to be willing to sell a little of your soul to get it. Most successful cover bands are willing to play what people want, not what they themselves enjoy. You'll have to learn popular songs you may not especially like, and cater to the whims of whoever is hiring you.
Some cover bands can stay together for years or even decades and still command big bucks. But in many cases, bands need to reinvent themselves every few years when people become bored with them locally, or when musical tastes change.
It's a tough gig, but there is money to be had if you are willing to put up with the nonsense. It's all part of being a pro.
How to get started: Work hard on your ability to learn songs quickly, and become versed in many different styles of music. Get out there and network with other musicians to get yourself known. Get a band together and start looking for gigs!
Most of the guitar players I love write their own music. To me, this is required. I couldn't imagine playing in a band, or performing as a musician, and using "original" music I did not write myself.
And I don't think I'd feel the same way about Van Halen, Rhoads, Hendrix or Page if I knew their songs had come from someone else's head.
However, that sexy pop singer with the great voice probably isn't a very talented songwriter, and to keep on paying the bills for her limousines and mansions she is going to need someone else to write some hit songs for her. Even though you may not understand how someone could make it big in music without knowing how to write a decent song, this is a great opportunity for you to make some money.
Songwriters are in demand in other markets too. You might write commercial jingles. Or, you might write the theme song to a new TV show. You might specialize in movie soundtracks.
The downside is that it can be tough to break into a business like this, and you're going to have to show a lot of perseverance and thick skin to make a career out of it.
How to get started: Work on your songwriting skills, and write a lot of songs. Invest in a basic digital home recording studio and get good at using it so you can create solid demos. Establish a schedule for sending your work out and pitching to various publishers.
Studio musicians come in during the recording process and lay down tracks the artist can't perform themselves. This can range from throwing in a guitar solo here and there, to performing on an entire album. They also may be hired to fill in for live performances, or even travel with a band.
As a studio musician, you are kind of a "gun for hire". It's important to be an excellent musician, but even more important to be professional and easy to work with. Much of your work will come because someone recommends you, or knows you are the best person for the job. Rock-star attitude won't get you very far in this line of work.
A hired guitarist who comes in with a good attitude and helps the band or artist create an awesome piece of music time and time again will be in high demand. Not only will the artist look to you next time they need a guitar player, but producers will recommend you for jobs. And producers are in the studio a whole lot more than most artists!
How to get started: It goes without saying that you have to know your way around the guitar, big time, and it definitely doesn't hurt to learn to read music. Then, get to know the different local music studios and the people who run them. Consider making up some inexpensive business cards to leave with studios and music stores. You'll have to work your way up from the bottom and build up your reputation.
Some guitarists make a career out of supporting others. That painted pop princess needs a group behind her for touring and live performances. You've no doubt seen these guys standing in the background while she prances around onstage.
You might not know their names (she probably doesn't either), but these musicians likely have more talent in the pinky finger of their picking hand than ten Miss Pop Divas have in their entire bodies.
Backing musicians may be relegated to the shadows but, if you can suck it up, you can make a living as one of these guys. You get to play in front of people most nights, travel the country and do all the other cool things a rock star gets to do, except you aren't a rock star. Nobody will care who you are, but that might be okay too.
The idea here is similar to becoming a studio musician, and some players do both. Be professional, be easy to work with, know your instrument and you will be in demand.
How to get started: The advice for becoming a studio musician applies here as well. Learn everything you can about the guitar, and be ready for any situation. In addition, keep an eye out for auditions and opportunities, and network with other musicians.
A lot of guitar players make some money on the side teaching Little Johnny to play a "C" chord correctly, but I'm thinking a little bigger here. Consider making the study of the guitar an academic pursuit.
Someone has to teach guitar in university-level music programs, and that someone may as well be you. You get to play guitar, teach guitar, be around guitars all day, plus you get all the perks of being a teacher. (Hint: Summer off.)
Taking a career track like this is no different than becoming a biology teacher or math teacher. First and foremost, you need the proper education, which means earning at least a Bachelor's Degree in some form of music study, along with the education credits required for teaching in your state.
You may wish to eventually earn an advanced Master's Degree or even a Ph.D. Then, your buddies might start calling you Dr. Shred or something cool like that!
Working as a guitar instructor will still allow you to pursue any of the above career ideas on the side. Of all the thoughts mentioned in this article, this one is not only the most flexible but also the most stable in the long run.
How to get started: Start researching good colleges for music education and make plans to attend. Consider giving guitar lessons to earn money while you work toward your degree in order to hone your skills.
You might become a luthier: someone who builds guitars
There are a lot of ways to make money, if not a career, out of writing about guitars, guitar playing, and guitar players.
Consider those big guitar magazines. One of the highlights of my writing career was when a major guitar mag published a rant I sent them in the Letters to the Editor section a few years ago. I don't think that counts as a writing credit, but it was still cool to finally see my name in a guitar magazine after all these years!
Anyway, those guitar magazines have to get their articles from somewhere, and some of them accept freelance submissions. If you play your cards right you might find yourself on the writing staff of a major music publication.
Or, you can do like I did and just start your own darned blog.
The downside here is there is a steep learning curve to both writing and successfully blogging. But if you are willing to put in the work, you might make a go of it.
How to get started: Write! The more you write the better you get. Take some time to brush up on your grammar and all those English usage rules you learned in high school but have probably forgotten by now. Then, start sending your work out there!
Making it Big in the Music Business
I started out writing about five music careers for guitarists, but I think I ended up with more than five!
Not everyone can be a rock star, and that's okay. Some of the careers mentioned above are more stable, and in the long run sometimes more lucrative, than hitting it big in a rock band.
Remember: For every bad-boy rock band who lived life by their own rules, partied like there is no tomorrow and rose up to conquer the world there are a thousand bands who lived life by their own rules, partied like there is no tomorrow and rose up to be gas-station attendants.
Not that there's anything wrong with being a gas-station attendant, but hopefully you get my meaning.
Have something to fall back on, but make it something you love. And don't feel like you're selling out and giving up on your dreams either.
There are music careers for guitarists that have nothing to do with being a rock star, and they can be very rewarding.
Your Thoughts on Music Careers for Guitarists
Michael James (author) on May 02, 2019:
@Selena - This article can get you started.
Selena on April 30, 2019:
how do i get good a playing guitar?
Muhammad Abdullah on April 15, 2019:
Well, I am not a Guitarist but I will be sure to informs a few friends that I know are Guitarists...
guitar kid on September 13, 2017:
cant you do all of the above