How To Become A Professional Guitarist & Musician: Facts And Myths

"What does it take to become a professional guitar player and musician?" The answer remains a huge mystery for the vast majority of people.

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"What does it take to become a professional guitar player and musician?" The answer remains a huge mystery for the vast majority of people. Traditionally, conventional wisdom has offered three separate statements that are supposed to be answers or explanations to the question. I choose to call them what they are? MYTHS! Here they are in order of greatest levels of falsehood.

  • MYTH number 1: If everyone knew how to do it [become a pro] then everyone would be doing it.

  • MYTH number 2: You have to get lucky, get discovered, and to do that you need to be in the right place at the right time.

  • MYTH number 3: You have to be talented and have key connections with important people in the industry.

    Like most clueless-guitar-playing-teenagers of my generation, my friends and I (back when we were in high school) believed each one of these so-called answers to our own questions about how we could make our records, tour the world, be rock stars, etc, etc, etc,. Since we all knew absolutely nothing about how the music industry really worked, the types of statements we heard from the adults around us (who were also clueless about the music industry) seemed logical enough for us.

    So in addition to doing all the stuff that music students do (take guitar lessons, read about music, listen to music, practice our instruments, jam with friends, form bands and dream about making it), I figured I needed to do more than the obvious (improving as a musician) and try to discover how to become a pro, how to create luck, how to know where the right place and right time is (and then figure out how to get there), how to get discovered, how become more talented faster, and how to make key connections with people in the music industry.

    Becoming more talented faster was the easiest task since I did have a really good teacher who helped me dramatically increase the rate of my improvement (you can check out that story here). But all of the other things seemed out of reach (it didn't help that I lived far away from any of the music centers in the United States.). My greatest perceived challenge was that virtually everything I thought I needed to happen for me was out of my own control (so I thought). In reality, my truly greatest problem was I was aimlessly chasing all the wrong things (and in the wrong order).

    Lets go back to the conventional wisdom (the myths) and we'll see how it is all wrong.

  • MYTH number 1: If everyone knew how to do it [become a pro] then everyone would be doing it.

    This could not be more false. There are millions of guitar players in the world today who dream and desire to be professional, successful, famous, or whatever. Now that I actually do know (and have done) what it takes to become a professional musician, I also know that the vast majority of people are simply not willing to do what it takes to make it. Many talk about it, dreams about it and some even try it, but few people have the will to take accurate-consistent-forward-moving-intense-action over the long term. This is also the primary reason why most people in America who want to be wealthy are not wealthy. (the opportunities exist for every American to be wealthy who wants to be). The problem isn't in knowing what to do. The main problem for most people is that they would not choose to do what it takes even if they did know what to do and how to do it.

  • MYTH number 2: You have to get lucky, get discovered. And to do that you need to be in the right place at the right time.

    About luck, I could talk about this one for many hours, but instead, I'll just say this:

    "Luck is the residue of design"

    and

    "Luck can be created, directed, manipulated and controlled" (at least as how it applies to our topic)

    Being in the right place at the right time is very, very, very easy to do. Have you ever heard of music industry showcases? Or Record Label showcases? Or MobFest? These are events (and there many of these around the world) where you (YES YOU) could go to (for usually a very small fee) and bring your songs, cds, etc. and give them to producers, publishers, record company A&R people, etc.

    But before you get all excited about those opportunities, you need to know that a very tiny percentage of the musicians that attend these events ever get anything out of it. Why? How can this be? Certainly there are many talented people there who are all in the right place at the right time. So why do so few walk away with anything significant after meeting with key people in the industry? Think about the answer before reading any further????

    Was your answer something like this?: "Perhaps the record companies/producers, etc, are only looking for 2 people/bands. So if 100 people/bands attend the event, 98% of those musicians will go home with nothing." That would seem to make sense, but is that how it really is????? No it is NOT!

    Many times it is the music industry people who go home with nothing. They meet all of the musicians and may choose not to work with any of them. It is also very important to know that the music industry is starving for new talent, with great music. Many of the musicians attending these events are very talented and do have excellent-marketable music. So it would seem that everything matches and deals could be made. But it doesn't generally work like that, its not that simple. Music industry companies aren't going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into an artist/bands career unless these companies are totally certain they are going to make a lot of money (and not lose their huge financial and time investments). So now, the truth comes out. And that truth is this: Investing large sums of money on Human Beings is extremely risky. When music companies work with you, they are investing in YOU - not just your music. They need to be convinced that an investment in YOU is going to make them tons of money with the least amount of risk. Yes, publishers want good songs and record companies want good music and musicians, but they want to find the "right people". That does not necessarily mean only someone with a name.

    I'll give you a very simplistic example. Lets say there exists a great musician with a great band and great songs. In addition the band has already established a strong fan base on a regional level and sold a respectable amount of records (for a band without a record company behind it). Now lets say the primary songwriter and lead singer are unstable, drug addicts. Put yourself in the shoes of the manger, record company, etc. Would you be willing to invest your $450,000 into a talented band with great-marketable songs and an established local fan base if the primary people in the band did not have their %&#@ together mentally? I wouldn't and most companies nowadays won't either. In decades past, some record companies did invest in these types of people and sooner or later they usually got burned and lost lots of money when the walls around the people in the band came tumbling down. This was an extreme example, but serves to illustrate how the risks associated with the people (musicians) can kill an opportunity.

    For many reasons, the music industry in general has become harder and harder for record companies to make money. (This is a worth going into detail about for your understanding, but is too huge a topic to get into here and now.) The bottom line is this, In searching for musicians to work with, music businesses will be looking for things that go way beyond the musician's musical skills, bands, songs or recordings. Many musicians can't understand why their latest CD won't attract the interests of the industry (even if the songs and the recordings are amazingly great).

    Producers, publishers, record companies and managers are starving for great new talented bands, songwriters and singers. And if all 100 musicians had everything about them that was ideal in the music industries eyes, all 100 of them would have been offered many opportunities.

    The fallacy is that the competition is too great, there are simply way too many musicians out there trying to become rock stars. The reality is NOT that record companies have "too many musicians out there to choose from". The reality is there are not nearly enough of musicians out there that have "the total package together". That total package goes far beyond music, far beyond your band and far beyond your songs. The secret to what is missing in most musicians, is what is (or is not) in their minds. Joan of Arc once said, "All battles are first won or lost in the mind." This is perhaps even more true today than it was in her time.

  • MYTH number 3: You have to be talented and have key connections with important people in the industry. My reply to this is basically the same as my response to myth number 2. I'll simply add this thought about connections: Record company A&R guys, executives, managers, producers and publishers know thousands of musicians (and have met thousands more throughout their lifetime). Just because somebody "knows" somebody else doesn't count for anything - unless two primary things are intact:

    01. You have a high quality relationship with that person (knowing someone is not enough - since they already know tons of other people).

    02. You are the "right person". Yes, that implies that you must have some musical talent, but as implied above, being the "right person" goes way beyond music. It must be obvious to the-powers-that-be that an investment in YOU is a safe, secure and very profitable one.

    It took me many years to come to these understandings, and they are true. Certainly we could point out some exceptions to what I'm writing here. The further back in time we look, the more likely we are to discover such exceptions. But the music industry is extremely different now than it was in the 1970's, 1980's, 1990's and even the first 2-4 years of this decade. It has evolved quickly and the nature of how the game is played has changed dramatically. As a musician, the most fundamental change that you need to understand that has taken place in the industry is this:

    01. Companies are increasingly reluctant to take on significant risk than they once were.

    02. Any companies greatest risk is in investing in the people (musicians and bands).

    This is the primary reason why in my Music Careers Mentoring Program my first priority is in developing the musicians mind to becoming the "right person". Then (and only then) do we begin to work on developing the additional skills and tools to advance the musicians future (or current) career in music.

    So?my advice to you (those seeking a music career) is:

    01. Focus on your mind and look at the value you have to offer the industry as well as any possible areas where parts of your personality, habits, actions, or situation may be a liability in the eyes of the-powers-that-be.

    02. Continuously work on your songwriting.

    03. Learn about the industry that you are seeking to enter into and don't listen to anyone that hasn't actually "lived in the industry". If you want to tour the world, don't take advice from anyone who has not done that. If you want to sell records worldwide, don't take advice from anyone who has not done it himself/herself. This is why going to college to learn about the music industry is usually (but not always) a bad idea since most university professors are not (nor have ever been) professional musicians (that why they teach at the college and are not out in Europe or South America or anywhere else, out there "living" what they are talking about. (Yes there are some rare exceptions to this and you might find someone that has done things in the past).

    04. Be certain you know exactly why you want to become a professional musician. This might seem like a pointless piece of advice, as we all think we know why we want what we want. However, on a deeper human level, people generally want more than what is on the surface. To read more about this final point, read my previous article called "Take the Test".

    For more information check out these following resources:

  • Tom Hess's Music Careers Mentoring Program
  • Tom Hess's instructional web site
  • Tom Hess's world tour dates

    Copyright 2006 by Tom Hess. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

  • 99 comments sorted by best / new / date

      TheUnholy
      I don't find this guy's articles helpful at all...I sometimes wonder if he's just trying to sell his website to the gullible. Yes, you have to work hard to be a pro. Big wow. Not trying to be offensive, and maybe there are people who are actually helped by stuff like this, but still ...I'm with Redass on this one.
      Missino
      redass wrote: What a bunch of ****'n crap! Everybody could know this with a little bit off logical thinking!
      Nope, not true bud... Good article!
      hadesdaman
      BaxTurkey wrote: justin_fraser wrote: redass wrote: What a bunch of ****'n crap! Everybody could know this with a little bit off logical thinking! I have to second that motion. you mean notion? you dolt
      No he means motion, as in an stance or suggestion put forward by somebody. Whats with all the hostilities btw?
      fdogg
      pretty good article... ive been reading ur other columns and im a fan. i like em alot. thanks dude! PS keep it metal!!!
      Muusik
      hadesdaman wrote: BaxTurkey wrote: justin_fraser wrote: redass wrote: What a bunch of ****'n crap! Everybody could know this with a little bit off logical thinking! I have to second that motion. you mean notion? you dolt No he means motion, as in an stance or suggestion put forward by somebody. Whats with all the hostilities btw?
      If he meant motion, wouldn't he be talking about a movement? Or an act against something? Sorry if I'm talking crap but that's what I think it means. Good article, kept me interested.
      tomhess
      byker : just out of curiosity where do you get your information about the record industry, and with all this information about how to become a professional guitarist why is it you arn't one yet.
      I guess you don't consider things like performing world tours, including huge festivals in Europe for 30,000+ people pro level, or record sales in 59 countries around the world, etc. etc. or the fact that I am paid to write articles for sites such as this one...
      byker
      just out of curiosity where do you get your information about the record industry, and with all this information about how to become a professional guitarist why is it you arn't one yet.
      King Zeppelin I
      Ah, they like being hostile, makes them feel better about themselves. Nice article, some good points in there.
      A.S.G.
      If you have any understanding of capitalism or economics it is very clear that not everyone can be rich and famous. You still need people to scrub the toilets etc... Even if you ignore the massive inequality levels of America you could still theoretically make it. But you probably won't. this is basically an arvicle telling you to forget who you are and what you believe and just go for the target. this would include ****ing over your friends and family just to get ahead. It means comprimising your style and vision to become part of a machine that has no interest in you, only in making money. You can make crap music and become famous. Some bands don't write their own songs (Bowling for Soup and S Club 7 spring to mind) and they get ****ed over and only see a tiny bit of the money they make for their record companies. He says music companies are 'evolving' but they are just becoming more conservative and investing in a more stable 'product'. the movement is towards making music more mediocre to appeal to more people to increase sales. this entire set of articles stinks of a method of self-publicity to make more people sign up for his course. It's just another get-rich-quick scheme designed to rip off the stupid and desperate. If everyone followed his device, music would be of far poorer quality, less diverse and musicians would become just another employee of a company.
      musicmydrug16
      well you told us how to get famous but how do we stay famous? who wants to be a one hit wonder because that really sucks
      ahg_9004
      Interesting article. Kinda obvious, but many people needs some help (lol). However good work. And in conclusion: "The worst fight is the one You dont make"
      beastiebeatles
      doki : pay attention kids. it's important to make sure that your music doesn't have any personality at all. individuals don't make money for labels, the following exceptions noted: the ****ing beatles nirvana tool rage against the machine weezer foo fighters the list goes on. listen, the key thing here is persistence and patience. keep playing, keep giving things to anyone who wants them and hassle everyone you can. don't try this and be dissapointed when it doesnt work
      o yea those are the only bands with personallity
      priest.fan.
      I think that you make some very good and well-informed points in the article, but I would also say that those "myths" have a good amount of truth to them.
      ArcherTheVMan
      Ramco wrote: Being in the right place at the right time is very, very, very easy to do. Have you ever heard of music industry showcases? Or Record Label showcases? Or MobFest? These are events (and there many of these around the world) where you (YES YOU) could go to (for usually a very small fee) and bring your songs, cds, etc. and give them to producers, publishers, record company A&R people, etc. First of all, that paragraph sounds like a commercial or blurb about a showcase. Showcases and label talent searches are nothing but crap, and I speak from experience. The showcase itself is never the label's main interest; the people sent from the label are usually lower-level A&R (sometimes still in training), and they are sent there because the showcase company pays the label a large sum of money (which is why the "small entry fee" is usually huge, or at least for a small-time band). The showcase company is really just a promoter that has found an easier way to make money off of booking shows. The entire thing is a scam to get musicians to pay so that "big time record executives" can hear their music, they skim a bit off the top and then pay the label reps for being there, sometimes going on a national showcase tour to "find talent all over the country" (read: get money from bands and fans from all over the country). So the end result is not only do the bands play a show where they make nothing, they have to pay to play a usually badly-planned show, and their fans have to pay to get in (sometimes the fate of the band is determined by how many people pay the insane door prices to get in to see just them). It is a total scam, and while there may be ones out there that could possibly get you signed, the labels know that you are desperate (you're playing a showcase) and will give you an awful contract, but you won't care because you "made it" and the money you spent to be in the showcase "paid off". You have better odds in Vegas. This happened to my band several times, including being caught in a lousy record deal. There is only one other band I've ever known that has been signed from a showcase, and they're currently fighting to get out of their contract. Labels want to make money, and they don't care how; they make more money from the showcases themselves than from signing any band they see playing.
      you are quite right. i find that some of this article would be useful to some people although i consider most of this simply logical information about the music industry, i mean you have to have your head pretty far up in the clouds to not realise some of these things for yourself. all in all it was ok though informative to those new to the business i guess. p.s. if you think this guy was a tad sarcastic at times get used to it cos pretty much every experienced professional (in music) is like that.
      Feel bad inc.
      i agree with your make your own luck, but even then you still need a lil bit of luck of meeting the right band mates, meeting the right label thats going to be right for YOU and just having what the label may be looking for at the time
      doki
      pay attention kids. it's important to make sure that your music doesn't have any personality at all. individuals don't make money for labels, the following exceptions noted: the ****ing beatles nirvana tool rage against the machine weezer foo fighters the list goes on. listen, the key thing here is persistence and patience. keep playing, keep giving things to anyone who wants them and hassle everyone you can. don't try this and be dissapointed when it doesnt work
      Spawn6937
      Decent article, most of it is logical common sense stuff but it doesn't always occur to everyone, nice job.
      insight1234
      Make musical drugs and you'll be a classic. Make catchy songs and you'll make hits. Try to combine if you want to remain big, I believe. But, yea. I'm not famous or anything! B)
      lefty_musician
      i like the artical but how do u know all this stuff coz for all we know you could be making it up??
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      FortheMetal
      Thankyou so much for this article. It put me back in my right mind, back on track.
      kiposas
      the question is about a professional guitarist to become and I tell you this anyone could become Professional guitarist but what matter is what kind of professional guitarist you wanted to be - a good earning guatarist or just for a living or what. A true guitarist has all it takes - passion, very few people have.
      JeffMcClain
      Thank-you very much. I hope to one day have a career as a guitarist. This really helped me. Great article!!!
      mmaley
      Scourge441 wrote: Anyone criticizing this guy needs to realize that not all of us have the kind of experience that would bring this knowledge. I agree, to all you critics instead of criticizing this guy for pointing us in the right direction maybe you should consider that he is far more successful than almost all of you Great article.
      mastermo411
      Good article. I have thought about getting into art. I wish there was a place where "amateurs" could get their name out there. I found a cool idea about that at http://bit.ly/al1Vhv. It'd be awesome if there was a place like this where up and coming artists could have a legitimate marketplace.
      dragon1552000
      Good solid article but I have one comment. You mention many times that a lot of people don't have what it takes to make it in the business. I believe that. Then you say there are areas other than music that you have to excell in so that the right people notice and trust you to make an investment. However, you do not say what exactly these people are looking for. You only say they are looking for someone they can trust. What kinds of things are these record companies looking for? Also I think the example that you gave about a band with a great songwriter and singer, (but are drug addicts) is a poor one. My band is drug free, we have great songs, a good singer and are rock solid live but we don't have a record deal.
      Chaos23x
      Very nice article Tom. As I read this I felt exactly the same as probrobly anyone else here who wants to have a career in the music industry. Thanks to you I am not as uncertain about this whole thing as I was before and I know what to believe now. It's so true - it's all in the mind
      bowletta2
      tomhess : byker : just out of curiosity where do you get your information about the record industry, and with all this information about how to become a professional guitarist why is it you arn't one yet. I guess you don't consider things like performing world tours, including huge festivals in Europe for 30,000+ people pro level, or record sales in 59 countries around the world, etc. etc. or the fact that I am paid to write articles for sites such as this one...
      jajajajaja byker,tom made you eat your words XD nice article tom
      B_Parsons12
      I agree with this. Look at Mudvayne for example. Decatur Illinois. They worked and got to the right place. I'm from Illinois and I find it hard to believe a band this famous came from Illinois.
      j053montenegro
      Man, thanks for sharing these thoughs, also I'll try to read the Test you mentioned, like you said, many unexperienced people keep on saying fake stuff about Music industry, great job, thanks.
      mzar54
      good article but people with no musical talent (like jonas brothers) still succeed. im only 13 and have been playing for 7 months, and im way better than those disney "bands"
      aaciseric
      tomhess wrote: I guess you don't consider things like performing world tours, including huge festivals in Europe for 30,000+ people pro level, or record sales in 59 countries around the world, etc. etc. or the fact that I am paid to write articles for sites such as this one...
      Well put Tom and yet another great article.
      yellowcab643
      I can play anything on the guitar that I've heard [more or less]. I discount that the University system can help you to be professional because I had sucess playing piano and had to change instruments. The University of Utah is telling me to push a broom to repay $30,000.00 because I had to change my degree to sports becuase the Music College was mentally retarded. I'm a member of ASCAP and I hope to finish reading your article. It is very interesting!
      Schmeg Junior
      Anyone know this guys e-mail address?...Oh adn great article! Extremely Helpfull (even though I'm only thirteen, i'm trying to write using my formal concert playing theory, and my jazz/blues/fusion teaching)
      BennyStruggle
      insight ur pretty much right, if u want to make it u need : most of all catchy/iconic songs, image!, commitment, persistance, thirst.
      bgroen
      This article sounds like a load of bull, The only way to truly make it in music is to just play. Fame and success can be measured on many levels. You may be a local celebrity with a record deal from a small label in the area and you may never see commercial success. Where I'm from in Rockford, IL there is a band called the felix culpa and they have a small record deal with a label in chicago called Common Cloud Records, they are local celebrities because they have some success. They can't live off that success yet, but they are on their way. There also isn't just one way to become a famous musician and tour the world, there are many different ways to do it. The one thing I have noticed about many bands that "make it" is that they just play as many shows as they can, wherever they can. They just want to play, they don't care if they get famous. They are in it for the music, not the fame, if they get famous then they get famous, if not then they don't.