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Blues Bands and What It Takes To Play In One and Succeed

Playing in a band is the best part of being a musician to me. Now you solo artists may not agree. And if you’ve experienced a band breakup or two, you also may not agree.

But being in a band where everyone is dedicated to making the best music possible and everyone is working together, is the epitome of making music. There’s no better feeling than being on stage and playing a song that you love and have worked together to make great… and then the crowd goes wild… well that’s just the best.

B B King Tour Bus 1950's

B. B. King Tour Bus 1950’s

But getting there is not as easy as it seems. Yes sometimes you can get lucky and find a group of other musicians who are all at the same level, like the same music, and are all committed to succeeding both musically and commercially… and no one is a jerk. But as you may already know, that’s very difficult to find.

Still getting there is worth the effort.

So learning how to survive and thrive in a band and to learn how to really play together is the goal and the skill required. To be a professional blues guitarist this is an important skill you need to develop (along with getting better on your guitar).

What Makes A Great Blues Band

The heart of what makes a band great is that the band is greater than the sum of it’s parts. When that happens it’s called synergy. To make that happen it takes special people. People who not only understand music but understand how to work together and above all listen. Now this is just my opinion, but in the 40+ years I’ve been a musician and played in bands, there’s a few things I’ve learned. I must have been in over 20 different bands in that time. During one period in the 80’s, I was playing in 3 bands at one time. All played different music and I had different roles in each band, but all were working bands. The point is, learning how to put together a band that lasts and is musically satisfying is a challenge and also a skill. It takes interpersonal skills like knowing how to get along with others. And it also takes musical skills like knowing how to communicate how you’d like to play that chorus and what each instrument should be doing during that part of a song (what is called Tension and Resolution). Plus each musician needs to be good enough to actually play the correct parts. Here’s some of what it takes to have a blues band that lasts.

allman brothers bandEveryone Needs To Be At The Same Musical Level

If one member of the band is not as good as everyone else this can hold the band back. Sooner or later everyone gets frustrated and that player becomes the weak link. Problem is sometimes that player may be a good friend or owns the PA. Now what? It’s best to start a band with the understanding and agreement that everyone must be able to “cut it” and hold up their end. One important aspect is being able to lock into the same groove. Here’s a page that talks about playing well with others.

Everyone Needs To Like The Same Music

If you just wrote a great New Orleans funk song and the bass player doesn’t like funk then you’ve got a problem. Everyone has to agree that you all pretty much like the same music and will play that type of music. Again, it’s best to have a long conversation at the start of the band on who likes what and what types of music you all agree to play. Of course the problem is… things change. We are all in musical evolution and find new things to like and want to play. We all want and need to grow. So having a band atmosphere that allows some flexibility and growth is critical for long term success.

Everyone Needs To Be Cool

If one person in the band is a jerk, even though they may be an awesome musician, sooner of later you’ll want to kill that person. It won’t help your band’s longevity if someone has to go to jail for murder. But seriously, if everyone is a decent person, and willing to give and take a little, the band has a much better chance of survival. As many experienced musicians say, being in a band is like being married to 5 other people. So for any marriage to work there has to be a commitment to open communication and a willingness to give and take. Of course, this is not so easy, but a conversation upfront about this might help things go smoothly in the long run.

The Benevolent Dictator Approach

After having a hard time keeping bands together so we could play the gigs we had, I finally came to the conclusion that perhaps being a “benevolent dictator” was a better way to go. Here’s what I mean by that… The ideal is to have a group of bandmates that are all equal. Everyone has the same power and you work out all the decisions together. Everyone pulls their own weight equally and works as a team. It’s a complete democracy. In reality, some members do more than others. Often there is a band leader who does more than everyone else. Maybe because they sing, or wrote, or arranged the songs. And often there are members who just aren’t able to make the same commitment as the leader. It’s only human nature. Also one person often is the one going out and getting gigs and has the relationship with the club owners or agents. They’ve made the business commitments and want to maintain their business credibility. So if you’ve got a lot of gigs lined up you’d like to have a steady group of musicians to count on so you can fulfill your gig obligations. But this isn’t always the case. Life often gets in the way. And when a band member quits or can’t make a gig, the “leader” is in the awkward position of finding a replacement and still trying to make the gigs already on the schedule. The band’s reputation is on the line after all.

Often what happens in a democratic band when someone quits is the whole band falls apart. With a benevolent dictatorship the band and the brand can go on.

So in my case, I found that having the understanding that I was the leader and made the decisions helped keep the band working and avoided some awkward situations. I always was very “benevolent” and tried to be kind and respectful of the needs of my players. They were all great musician’s after all. And if I wasn’t respectful to them, they wouldn’t want to play with me and would be gone anyways.

Plus, my bands played a fair amount of original or obscure music, so we didn’t gig all the time. Great players want to keep working so many of the good ones play in several bands. So I found that having several musicians who could fill each spot but still knew the songs well, was a good solution.

Sometimes this became more work but in the end, it kept the band working and I was able to keep “my brand” growing and stable.

Anyway, the point is, keeping a band together and moving forward musically is a challenge. But it is worth the work when it all comes together on stage and in the studio.

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