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Glossary of Common Words and Phrases Used by Working Musicians

Updated on January 8, 2015

If you've ever been around a musician, you know that they have a language all their own. If you are a musician, you'll be familiar with many of these real-world terms below.

This glossary is a work in progress, as people constantly come up with new ways to say things, and I'm sure I've excluded many that didn't come to mind. So feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments below, and I'll add the good ones to this index.

This is the only list of its kind on the internet, so consider it a reference tool for you and your fellow musicians, and be sure to bookmark this page and come back often to see what's new!

A

Autotune

A software or hardware based effect that adjusts a vocal performance to correct pitch.

Axe

1. In rock music it's an electric guitar. (See also: Git-fiddle, Six-string)

2. In jazz, it can be any musical instrument.

B

Backline

The musical equipment that is set up on stage. The term is often used when referring to the gear owned and provided by the venue.

Blistering

A guitar solo that is played fast with a lot of notes. Perhaps derived from the fact that guitar players get blisters on their fingers. Or maybe something completely different.

Book

To schedule a gig. (Not necessarily legally binding)

Break

1. A pause in the music for dramatic effect.

2. The duration of time when the band leaves the stage.

Breakdown

The part of a song where the majority of the instrumentation falls away, leaving just one or two playing, adding a dramatic, dynamic effect.

Bridge

1. Sometimes the part of a song that connects the verse to the chorus.

2. The third section to a song usually after the second chorus leading into another chorus or a solo section

3. Part of a stringed instrument

Busk

To play music for tips. Usually performed outdoors - ideally around people with money.

C

Cans

Another term for headphones.

Cat

Musician that can plaaay. Often the guitarist in a blues band.

Chops

Ability to not only play your instrument well, but to also display a unique and personal flavor at a professional level of skill.

Clam

A bad or wrong note.

Cover

A song that you perform but didn't write. It's usually one that has been recorded and published previously and enjoyed some success that another artist chooses to record or perform live.

D

Dead air

An extended period of time when the band is on stage but no music is being played nor is anyone talking on the mic. First coined to describe a radio station that has gone silent. Best to be avoided.

Dinner set

A compilation of songs performed at a gig that creates a relaxed atmosphere.

Dive

1. A technique employed by a guitar player using the tremolo bar to create a quick, descending musical effect.

2. A venue that lacks general upkeep and patrons.

Downbeat

The time when the band is to start playing

F

Feel

An intangible quality possessed by most musicians when they turn off their brain and let the music just happen.

Fill

A section in a song that quickly spotlights a particular instrument - sometimes more than one instrument at the same time.

Fill-in

To play with a band in place of the usual player. (See also: Sub)

Following

The fan base of an artists or group

Front man

The lead singer. Sometimes it's a woman.

Front of house

This can mean the sound engineers running the mixing board, or the actual sound coming out of the P.A. speakers.

G

Gain

1. Knob usually found at the top of each input channel on the soundboard. Used to set input levels of the separate channels to relatively equal positions.

2. The amount of increase in audio signal strength, often expressed in dB.

3. The control on a guitar amplifier that determines how much overdrive or distortion the amp creates.

Gear

Musical equipment.

Gear head

Someone who knows a lot of details about all kinds of musical equipment and likes to talk about it.

Gig

Anytime you perform music live, usually involving some monetary compensation.

Gravy gig

A performance that requires very little preparation and effort.

Groadie

Combination of groupie and roadie. An ardent follower of the band, consistent attendee, and carrier of equipment in and out of the venue.

Groupie

A voracious fan of an individual or group - sometimes involved in personal relations with one or more group members.

Groove

1. Music that is being played in the pocket. (See also: Pocket)

2. General feel of the rhythm parts of a song

H

Hack

A musician that doesn't play well but acts as though they do.

Hired gun

A musician that is given employment with a band with the full awareness that he/she could lose his/her job at any time.

Hook

The chorus of a song.

Horn

1. A brass instrument

2. A speaker in a sound system that provides high end frequencies

Hot

Term used when the microphone squeals with feedback or is just too loud in general.

House

Can refer to the people in the venue, or the area where there could be people in the venue. Also a term for the sound in the P.A. (See also: Front of House)

House gig

A performance that follows a regular and frequent schedule at one particular venue.

I

Idiot check

The act of going back into the venue after everything is loaded out and packed up to ensure nothing was forgotten. Should be performed by two different people.

J

Jam

An extended musical passage with improvisational performances.

K

Kick

The bass drum

Killed

Performed an above average quality show that was well received by the people in attendance.

L

Lick

A short, sometimes repetitive musical passage - usually played on guitar.

Lifer

A musician that will play because they have to and refuses to quit, even in the face of difficulties.

Load In

The moment in time that the crew or band shows up to unload and set up the equipment.

Load Out

To carry musical equipment out of a venue.

M

Mains

The speakers facing the audience along with the system of amps, equalizers, and effects attached to them.

Mash-up

A combination of two or more popular songs played as one.

Merch

Short for merchandise. Physical product that a band or artist sells to promote the act and earn extra revenue.

Middle 8

British term for the bridge of a song.

Monster

A really, really good musician.

N

Noodling

Playing nothing in particular on an instrument. Heard often in music stores and when someone else is trying to sound check.

P

Pad

A sustained note - usually played by the keyboard player.

Paid rehearsal

A gig where there are somewhere between zero and only a few people in attendance, but the band still makes money.

Patch

1. Voice (sound) on a keyboard.

2. In complex guitar and bass rigs: A particular set of amps and effects' signal routing that can be operated via MIDI or other electronic methods.

Pedal

Effect or tuner on the floor of the stage used by guitarists and bass players. Keyboard players use one for sustain. Drummers have at least two - one for the kick and one for the hi-hat.

Pipes

A singer's voice. The term is only used when the singer is good.

Pocket

The place where the tempo and groove of a song feels the most comfortable.

Primadonna

A musician who feels and acts entitled.

R

Rack

1. Electronic components set up in a compact casing - usually employed by guitarists and bass players.

2. The hanging toms on a drum kit.

Ride

1. Sometimes used to indicate a guitar solo.

2. A cymbal

Riff

A guitar part that serves as the basis for a song's musical theme.

Rig

A collective term for a musician's equipment.

Rip

To play very well on guitar. (See also: Tear, Burn, Kill, Shred)

Roadie

Person that works with a group that specializes in carrying equipment in and out of a venue, helps the band set up and tear down, and travels with the band.

Rough mix

An initial playback of a recording before the instruments are optimized.

S

Scat

A vocal improvisation without any actual words.

Set

The period of time a performer is on stage.

Set List

A grouping of songs to be played during a performance.

Sit-in

To play on stage with a band that you don't usually play with.

Slap

A style of bass playing - usually employed in funk music.

Snake

A box of connectors musicians plug into that is wired to the mixing board.

Solid

An above average player or performance.

Sound check

Activity sometimes performed before a show to set the proper levels for each instrument and vocal.

Staging

Planning the proper location for each individual on stage.

Stomp box

Effects pedal. Can also be a tuning pedal.

Strike

To take down musical gear off of the stage

Sub

1. Short for substitute. To fill-in for another player who is absent.

2. Short for subwoofer

T

Talk box

A guitar effects unit that allows a voice to modulate (control) a guitar signal by a vocalist talking with a tube in his/her mouth.

Tear Down

To take apart your equipment and get it off stage when your show is over. It's the part of the gig that is the least amount of fun.

Tempo

Numeric representation of the beats per minute.

Top

The beginning of the song.

Train wreck

A frightful moment during a live performance where the band loses its way during the song beyond the point of salvation.

Twang

A term for a particular guitar tone, often used in country music.

Tweak

To make minor adjustments. A slang term for calibration (a setting of all operating controls and adjustments for optimum performance of a device) especially very precise calibration.

V

Vamp

1. To play a line or riff that can be repeated to fill up time

2. To kill time speaking on the mic

Vertical

A weekly gig at a particular venue. (They line up vertically on a calendar)

W

Wail

A musician who can sing very well or "bring it" on an instrument.

Weekend warrior

A musician who usually has a primary vocation during the week that doesn't involve playing music.

Woodshed

To practice with determination under time constraints.

Z

Zone

The place where all thinking stops and the music is being channeled through you. A time when your subconscious mind, usually dormant during waking hours, takes the lead.

Comments

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    • profile image

      James Browne 2 years ago

      Common one in Ireland is Beard. i.e. A very long drive, long enough to grow a beard.

    • profile image

      Bob Kaye 2 years ago

      These are mostly used by rock musicians more than jazz musicians. To a bebopper, and axe is any instrument. The term "cover" didn't exist 40 or more years ago.

    • profile image

      Carl Howard 2 years ago

      Dots: Sheet music, often handwritten and transposed, given to an in-house band by a singer. Common term used on the British club/cabaret circuit.

    • profile image

      Joe Sanford 2 years ago

      Load in.....load out.

    • profile image

      gordie 2 years ago

      train wreck , I thought that was the name of an ending

    • profile image

      Mark Newstetter 2 years ago

      A 'vamp" isn't really "to improvise on an instrument" but to play a line or riff that can be repeated ad-nauseum to fill up time, usually while the singer is coming out on stage after the band has started playing, or while they're leaving the stage. It comes from Vaudeville when, if a scheduled act was late, they would send a sexy dancer (a vamp) on stage and she would keep dancing (vamping) while the band played until the act was ready to go on.

    • profile image

      Rob 2 years ago

      Set-List: The list or grouping of songs to be played during a performance

    • profile image

      Rob 2 years ago

      Noob: a musician whos a beginner or novice.

    • profile image

      Rob 2 years ago

      G.A.S. or Gear Acquisition Syndrome: an intense lust or desire for a particular musical instrument, effect or amp, etc. Dude I'm totally Gassin for that 68' Fender P-Bass.

    • profile image

      Rob 2 years ago

      GC: Short for Guitar Center

    • profile image

      paul 2 years ago

      sub - can also be sub woofers - refers to low end of PA

      axe - generally refers to the main instrument of a multi-instrumentalist...

      poser - one who looks the part but can't play for $hit...

    • profile image

      Catherine 2 years ago

      Vocal Vamp: When the vocalist Adlibs and re-arranges the words or scats on the melody line, and / or alters the melody with the vamp while the accompanimest continue on the chorus section.

    • profile image

      OC Last 2 years ago

      take it from the EDGE...beginning of song...

    • profile image

      Dan 2 years ago

      Cave: like a paid rehearsal, but more demoralizing

      Sausage party: a crowd full of men

      panty soaker: a tune the ladies will enjoy

    • profile image

      RayJ 2 years ago

      Hook - another name for the chorus

      Head - another name for the verse or the melody

    • profile image

      Kit Packham 2 years ago

      Surprised you didn't have...

      Dep - noun: A musician standing in for (ie deputising) a regular band member on a gig or rehearsal.

      Dep - verb: to stand in for a regular band member on a gig or rehearsal.

      Changes - the chord sequence of a tune or passage. Mainly used by jazz musicians.

      Vanilla changes - the most basic chord sequence of a jazz standard, ie not using more elaborate chords that might be favoured by be-bop stylists, etc.

      Turnaround - a short sequence of chords that returns to its starting point, often used as a vamp.

    • profile image

      Gardner 2 years ago

      Do-Ya-Do: An incessant, sometimes mind numbing barrage of requests or the incessant requester.

    • profile image

      Damico 2 years ago

      Cake: the amount of money paid to each musician

    • profile image

      Vincent Pendley 2 years ago

      Ostinato - This is a baroque term, but still being used. It refers to a simple repeating bassline of a song. The bass line will repeat but the chords change over it. - Example is Billy Jean by Micheal Jackson.

    • Joyce Mann profile image

      Joyce T. Mann 2 years ago from Bucks County, Pennsylvania USA

      Loved this! I didn't realize that the last time I played in a bar for "tips and beer" I was really busking.

    • profile image

      Ninja Dave 2 years ago

      From the top - beginning of a song

      Heavy - music played primarily in the low-end frequencies,

      Brutal - extremely heavy

    • profile image

      Tedd 2 years ago

      Backbeat: Accent on the 2 and 4 beat in a 4/.4 rhythm pattern.

      Fatback: Extra emphasis on the backbeat.

      Four on the floor: Straight 4/4 rhythm.

      Straight 8: Rhythm with evenly divided eight notes.

      Shuffle or Swing: Rhythm with a triplet feel. Sometimes expressed as "just a few, just a few".

      Texas shuffle: A particular type of laid back country or western swing shuffle, sometimes called "behind the beat".

      Ice cream changes: The old doo-wop, C, Am, F (or Dm), G7 progression.

    • profile image

      Ted Gonlag 2 years ago

      Head: When referring to the intro or beginning of a song.

      Tag: Repeat the hook at the end of a song

      Take it out: Wrap up the song

    • profile image

      BassmanPDX 2 years ago

      Play the ink

      In a jazz big-band, means stick to the sheet music and don't improvise.

    • profile image

      BassmanPDX 2 years ago

      Quick four: In a blues jam setting it means "play an IV chord in the second bar rather than staying on the I chord." The first 4 bars would then be I, IV, I, I, rather than all I.

      Trade fours (or eights or twos): Soloists will take turns playing solos of the stated number of bars.

    • profile image

      BassmanPDX 2 years ago

      Diamonds: Playing sustained chords. In the 'Nashville Number System' of music notation, when a chord is to be sustained for a whole bar it's usually represented by a diamond shape.

    • profile image

      BassmanPDX 2 years ago

      Cow, calf: Jazz jive-talk - not used much any more. "Calf" rhymes with "half" and means $50 (half a hundred). Therefore "cow" is $100. "That dive only pays a cow and a calf for 4 sets, man."

    • profile image

      jeff 2 years ago

      joplinsk saw this for real in a show..denotes style

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 22 months ago from Oakley, CA

      Great glossary! I like "autotune." That sounds like software that could make even a tone-deaf person sound good--remember "Mrs. Miller" from back in the 1960's? (Yeah--I'm dating myself! LOL)

      My ex-husband was a musician (not by vocation, but as a hobby--but he was very good--and could figure out how to play any instrument handed to him.) "Chops" by his definition meant muscular strength in the jaw for playing wind instruments; both brasses and reed instruments. (He did not have 'good chops' due to polio as a youngster--but he could play recorders; from sopranino to great bass.)

      I think some of the terms are also found in other areas, such as "gearhead." That is also heard around automotive shops; a person who is really "into" cars and what makes them tick.

      Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • profile image

      Jimmy Fingers 22 months ago

      A "Screamer" . In the wedding band business in the NYC area--a hastily put together band of substitute musicians for wedding where none of the members are those promised for the affair.

    • profile image

      Jimmy Fingers 22 months ago

      Here are a few more

      "Money song" Term used by "one hit wonder" groups to describe their hit record which keeps them working.

      "Opener" the song that opens the show.

      "Closer" song that ends the show.

      "Games" songs where the audience gets to participate either singing with or being a guest performer within the group for one song. All done in good taste of course.

    • profile image

      Herohog 22 months ago

      "Lay Back"

      To play slightly behind the beat, almost sloppily.

    • profile image

      herohog 22 months ago

      "Second-Line"

      A funky New Orleans style rhythm carried primarily by the drums and bass.

    • profile image

      Dave 22 months ago

      Play the ink - play the specific notes that are written on the page as opposed to improvising.

    • profile image

      Dave 22 months ago

      Also "hit" as a synonym for downbeat - the start time of a gig. Also used as a synonym for gig in general.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 22 months ago from Texas

      Good glossary, but after Axe ( 1. In rock music it's an electric guitar. (See also: Git-fiddle, Six-string) 2. In jazz, it can be any musical instrument.)

      I did not see Git-Fiddle listed, and I always heard my mom refer to he violin as a Git-Fiddle when she picked it instead of using a bow. Of course that was many years ago.

    • profile image

      JohnnyCajonEDM 22 months ago

      "pick it up!" Works in the Ska context of "pick up the beat and dance" but as a drummer I use it all the time when we count in to the song and it's a little slow.

    • profile image

      Vicki randle 21 months ago

      Play "footballs" usually bass players, playing whole notes

    • profile image

      Bob 12 months ago

      Hook is often the chorus but not always. A better definition is a part of a song that is unique and "hooks" the listeners attention.

      Pipes is not only used for good singers. I've heard the term rusty pipes, or bent pipes to describe a vocal performance not up to snuff.

    • profile image

      Ross 8 months ago

      Tubs = Drums

    • profile image

      AGA0899 7 months ago

      Lug, In or out, means to carry band gear into, or out of, a venue.

    • profile image

      Hugh 2 months ago

      Blowback: Stage monitors.

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