How to join or start a band
Thinking purely in terms of enjoyment and fulfillment, I believe that each category, listed above, offers a unique and valuable set of experiences. In other words, you can be either a rank beginner, an intermediate-level player, or an experienced professional-musician and still there exists an equal opportunity to enjoy and gain fulfillment from starting a blues band!
In other words, ‘starting a blues band’ is a ‘come as you are’ and ‘everyone is going to have a great time’ kind of opportunity!
Getting Started As A Rank Beginner
My first blues band started like this: An old friend from high school and I started to jam together. He played bass and I played guitar. This kind of loose and fun jamming went on casually for a while.
Then after he ended up with a drum set in his basement, which is a whole different story, he switched to playing drums during our jams while I remained on guitar. This is when we decided to put the word out that we were looking to find a bass player to join our jam.
At that time, the best way to get the word out was through a local music paper called the PA Musician, and soon we had our first bass player arrive for a session and begin to play.
It didn’t take very long to realize that our new ‘band member’ just wasn’t cutting it on bass, but previously he had mentioned that he also played the drums – so, in an effort to ‘save the jam’ I asked if we might put the ‘new guy’ on drums and my old friend back on the bass.
We made the switch and instantly things sounded a lot better, comparatively speaking, and we had a blast!
Musically speaking, at this point in our musical career the only player in our group who was actually playing reasonably well was my old friend on the bass, but we were still having a blast even while making, quite honestly, some pretty terriblesounding music.
Then, it got even worse once I started to sing. I remember my old friend on the bass shaking his head ‘no’ as if to signal that ‘me singing’ should never happen again. But, nonetheless we continued getting together each week and after a while we actually started to make some relatively coherent and energized music.
In this case, our passion for playing the blues, I think, was making up for the general lack of experience and skill.
Next it was the drummer who asked, during one of his smoke breaks, “Hey, where is this going – what’s next for us?” So, to make a long story short, what we did next was set up our little blues-trio to perform a short set each week at two separate open mic nights.
They were not specifically ‘blues’ open mic nights, they were just regular ‘play any style that you want’ type nights, and perhaps because we were a bit different than the usual participants, the audiences seemed to like us – especially on nights when we were joined by a hotshot harmonica player - and we thrived!
This gave us two “gigs” a week, and even though we were not getting paid yet, playing in front of an audience twice a week definitely provided us with valuable experience and valuable exposure.
Then, it happened! We got a call from a local club who needed a someone to fill in for another band who needed to cancel last minute. We quickly mobilized, went in with our blues-harp player, had our first gig, had a blast, and got paid.
It was awesome, everyone seemed to have a great time and our new connection turned into our first regular paying gig!
Pro-Level Tip: Along the way, we were talking with audience members between sets to collect names and addresses for our mailing list. Then, we would send flyers to people on our mailing list with the hopes of getting as many people out to see us as possible. In many cases, if not most cases, owners and managers of performance venues want to book bands that are going to bring people in and make money for the venue. Making and using a mailing list to keep your fans informed is one way to help make that happen!
We now had one monthly gig that was paid and two weekly gigs that were purely for the fun, experience and exposure. It was at this time that both venues hosting open mic nights announced that they were discontinuing their open mic series.
I took this as a great opportunity to secure both nights for our band to play the full bill. In other words, we offered to play for free in exchange for the benefit of being advertised, legitimized and exposed to local music fans.
So, to make a long story shorter, this time period really paid off because we started to book a steady stream of paying gigs on the back of being a busy-and-recognized local blues band!
Eventually, we phased out the ‘free gigs’ to make room for more paying gigs that were now starting to fill the calendar. Plus, one of the venues, which happened to be one of the area’s top ‘blues hotspots’, started to book us and pay us to play in ‘sought-after’ weekend spots!
The other venue stopped doing music altogether, something we’ll address later in this article.
Getting Started As An Intermediate-Level Player
As you can see from what I have shared thus far, gradual and organic pathways do exist when it comes to forming and gigging with your new blues band!
Once our trio and the occasional quartet was working a pretty steady schedule of gigs, I decided to start a ‘blues duo’ in order to go after a lot of weekday work that was available mostly in smaller bars, restaurants and coffee-shop type venues.
This time, as I describe my approach to getting gigs at this level, I will mention some factors that also contributed to the story above, but did not get mentioned.
1) I created a set-list for my new ‘blues duo’ concept and I practiced the set-list until I was feeling confident enough with my execution to then invite a bass player into rehearsals. Perhaps it was fate, but my old bass-playing friend, mentioned above, had just come off the road from being on tour and he was now available once again to help me start my second blues band!2) After rehearsing together for a bit, we recorded a simple demo to pass around to club owners and managers, and then it wasn’t long before the duo was working and helping to fill up empty spaces on the calendar! And it‘s worth noting that I found the smaller and quieter format to be a lot of fun!
Pro-Level Tip: I have found that simply calling and asking to speak with ‘the person who books the entertainment’ is ‘all that was needed’ to get my foot in the door. During those phone conversations I would briefly describe the type of band I had and ask if they might like for me to send our demo to them. Later, after I had bookings in a number of higher-ranking venues, it became easy just to say “Hi my name is Nate Fegan and I have a little blues duo that is already playing at X, Y, and Z (popular local venues) and I wonder if you might have room on your schedule as well? This approach quickly establishes that you are a trusted professional in the area and that your new contact is dealing with someone who is worthy of booking. Using this approach often allowed me to establish bookings without having to send a demo!
3) As time went on with my trio, and sometimes duo, I found that it was not always easy to keep the band together in terms of personnel. Right when the band was really starting to lock in, a musician might take a touring job with a top name, or a new and more-advanced player might state that they can only stay in the band if we upgrade the other rhythm section player.
The bottom line is that it is not always easy to attract and keep top-level players for long periods of time. Eventually things settled around myself – singing and playing guitar - and a steady bassist. Then, I just booked freelance drummers, keyboardists, saxophonists, and back up bassists whenever needed.
In this way, I remained free to book just as many gigs as possible, which at the time was three to five gigs a week.
Then, I would simply match and hire personnel for each gig based upon availability. Using this method I was able to attract, book and play with some top-level musicians who had great musical stories to tell, including those who had toured with Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Ella Fitzgerald, Horace Silver, and more.
Many important musical lessons were learned from having my butt-kicked by real musicians that I was certainly very fortunate, but not necessarily deserving at the time, to be on stage with!
Pro-Level Tip: By being both the singer and the guitarist in my band, the band itself was able to survive changes in personnel. This is not always true for other bands if they lose their singer and/or front-person. By being the singer and/or the front-person you can keep the band’s “brand” and “set list” going even as changes in personnel take place. The flip side of this is that bass players and drummers can simply jump in-and-out of just about any blues band in order to maintain a busy gigging schedule. My next blues band experience might just be as a freelance bassist! Either way, with a bit of strategic planning, gigs are available to keep the calendar satisfied for both ‘front-people’ and ‘rhythm-section players’ alike!
Getting Started As An Experienced Professional
At a certain point in my musical career I decided to switch from full-time performance to full-time teaching. Then, after more than ten years of being away from performing had gone by, I decided to start another blues-project and ‘get back out there’ to do some gigs.
The way I did it this time was essentially another successful repeat of what had worked well in the past with just one interesting twist.
This time, now living in a new area, not near as blues-friendly as my past location, I went looking for musicians that might be a good fit for the gigs I had in mind.
Without too much trouble, I found a great drummer, but finding a bassist turned out to be a real challenge! Yes, there were great bassists in the area, but among those still available, I didn’t end up finding the right fit!
This reminds me of a story: a long time ago a seasoned drummer once said to me, “If I could do it all over, I would become a bassist. For years and years I have watched bands in a struggle to find a great bassist – if I was a bassist, quite simply I could be working every night of the week!”
So there I was, just needing a bassist to get my project off the ground! Before getting to this point, however, this - below - is the formula that I followed:
1) Assemble A Blues Set List To Cover Three Straight Hours Of Performance.- During my first-ever first paid performance, I remember that we took breaks between sets and still had to recycle a few songs, at the end of the night, in order to complete the third set! During my most recent run of gigs, I didn’t take breaks – I just played straight through (there is a fun story about why I started doing this - perhaps I will have a chance to share that story with you in the future)!
2) Practice, Practice, Practice!- In this phase, I used an app called ‘Session Band’ to program and practice-with bass-and-drum arrangements that I had chosen for each song. This phase, the process of getting comfortable and of getting competent-and-confident enough to ‘take the show on the road’ took longer than expected.
One, I had developed much higher expectations and two, with higher expectations I discovered that I needed to do a lot of learning-and-growing to get ready, and that took time. Still, what I eventually went out with was nowhere near perfect, but I did continue learningand-growing while on the gig – practicing the set-list each day and then playing nonstop for three hours per gig will do that to a musician!
3) Jam With Local Musicians To Find Gig-Worthy Players!- As I was preparing myself musically for the gig, I began my search for gig-worthy musicians. Sometimes I would let them know that I had a project in mind, and other times I would just invite players to jam for A) to have fun and for B) to find out more-covertly if they were someone I might enjoy gigging with.
4) Assemble A Rhythm Section For The Band!- As it turned out, I did not find a bassist. This led me to turn my Session Band practice set-up into my ‘official rhythm section’ for performing in small venues. This brought me right back to the days of playing duo in smaller venues – it was a format that I had greatly enjoyed in the past, so I just went with it!
- If you are serious about booking gigs, be sure to generate and have at-the-ready a call-list of back-up musicians just in case one-or-more of your band members cannot make a booking.
5) Record A Demo And Book Some Gigs!- This time, my demo was simply a video-montage of partial songs – this allowed prospective venues to hear the variety that I had built into my set-list and allowed them to see how small my footprint was in terms of set-up (remembering that I was marketing to smaller venues). Plus, I could now simply email a ‘press-pack link’ to club owners and managers with an invitation to visit my website in order to view my band’s description and demo-video.
For this, I used a simple shotgun approach. I sent my ‘press-pack links’ first to owners and managers who had their email addresses publicized on their websites, then I followed up with a phone call if I did not hear back from them within a week.
Phase-two was to call venues and ask to speak with the person who books the entertainment, just like I had done years before. Using these two methods, it wasn’t long before I was out gigging again, and it was a lot of fun! Soon after, I also began to host a blues-jam-night at a local club, and that was even more fun!
Pro-Level Tip: Performance venues often change their musical formats and change their rotation of bands, so if you want to ‘get booked and stay booked’ here is a helpful tip. Watch very closely the advertising of other blues bands in the region, especially the ones who are using booking agents. This is an excellent source for you to find newand-upcoming venues to perform in as they pop up. Having bookings is often like riding a wave. While you are riding the ‘first wave’ that you have created, you must work diligently to stay up-to-date with the creation of wave number two, three, four, five, and so on. Some venues, you will find, remain constant while others simply come and go.
Looking back, my sense is that there has been a truly valuable form of adventureand-enjoyment to be experienced at each stage of musical development.
We are always set to experience-and-enjoy being the ‘best that we have ever been’, and this simple fact makes each ‘musical step forward’ one that is certainly worthy of celebration and enjoyment.
In this way, you are invited to ‘start your first’ or ‘start your next’ blues band project with all of the pure-excitement that comes right along with it.