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How to make it as a pro guitarist: 6 tips from an industry veteran

Dan Maher
(Image credit: Martin Caulfield)

While there’s no single path to being a professional session guitarist, there are certainly a few things you can do to put yourself on the right path. Here are six tips I wish I’d been given when I was starting out.

1. Get stuff!

Get yourself an interface, speakers/headphones, mic and DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and learn how to use them. Gone are the days of resident studio musicians; it’s now possible to produce high-quality tracks in your bedroom with a modest setup. 

GarageBand comes stock on Macs, and most budget interfaces come with free versions of programs like Ableton Lite. YouTube has a plethora of tutorials to help you get the most out of your software.

2. Serve the music (not your ego)

No matter what, the focus should always be to make the music feel good. If you’re creating an original part, assess what the song needs, guitar-wise – and do that! It’s great to have chops, but having the maturity to use them sparingly is more impressive than overplaying. Treat the music with care and attention to detail and you’ll go far.

3. Be versatile

Broaden your skill set to bring more to the table. Learn to read notation in addition to developing your ears. Having secondary instruments like banjo and ukulele at your disposal never hurts, either. 

Listen to as many styles as possible so that when a producer (or online client) tells you, “This track needs a Freddie Green chonk” or a “Jeff Beck vibe,” you’ll know exactly what they’re after and will have the sensibility to execute these styles authentically. This also applies to the sounds you choose. 

4. Support the vocal

Whether you’re recording or playing live behind an artist, it’s important to be a strong support for the vocal. The ability to play dynamically – with sensibility, solid timing and confidence – is paramount. Music is rarely about us as individuals; it’s about the overall sonic experience we’re giving the listener.

5. Get clients!

In order to get the ball rolling, you need to get your name out there from as many angles as possible, especially if you don’t have a pre-existing network of clients. Start by making a website and Soundcloud profile (and link them!), then sign up to multiple freelancer sites such as Craigslist, Fiverr and Starnow. 

Upload some guitar loops/demos to give prospective clients a feel for your sound and playing. It’s important to have examples of your work available when people search your name.

Jammcard is an incredible app (if you live in the U.S.), a place where artists/producers can browse through musicians and hire who they believe will be the best fit for their song(s). It’s an incredible networking tool, and I highly recommend signing up.

6. Be social

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for networking and promoting your work. However, it’s important to not let it take precedence over honing your craft and becoming a quality player.

Nobody will care about your 10,000 followers if you can’t play to a click track. Your online presence will be of greater value and authenticity if it’s a reflection of your work as a musician, rather than serving your image alone.

  • The Sydney, Australia-based Dan Maher has been a session guitarist and sideman for more than a decade. For more info, find him on Instagram at @danmaher.