Musicianship and Good Conduct

This article aims to shed light on some of the key factors in becoming a successful musician, as well as offer some advice on how to improve your musicianship.

Ultimate Guitar
"Musicianship - knowledge, skill, and artistic sensitivity in performing music."

It is fair to say that there comes a certain point where musicians of all backgrounds will aspire for something bigger. Whether you are a concert pianist or a punk guitarist, we all exist in the same sphere and therefore should all try to truly adhere to the concept of musicianship and practice good conduct toward each other in order to build bridges and help our aspirations turn into our reality. This column aims to shed light onto some of the "do's and don'ts" of being a musician, as well as offer some practical advice to help you become a better musician.

1. Make a Good Impression

It is highly probable that anybody reading this has, or will one day, collaborate with another musician in some form, whether it be performing, writing or simply crossing paths. Therefore it is important to understand the human side to being a musician rather than just the technique, the business, or the know-how. These people are humans too, just like you. They have put copious amounts of their time and money into learning their craft and honing their skill, so should be treated with respect just as you'd wish to be. Whether you're interacting with a new guitarist learning their first chords or a sound engineer with decades of experience it is important to be courteous.

For example, I was once in Paris for a small concert when I was very young - I was an accompanist for a choir - and I was sat on a chair playing away to myself during some spare time we had after soundcheck. My memory escapes me, but I believe it was some part of Van Halen's "Eruption." Anyway, whilst at that time I was a pretty good guitarist, I was having trouble with some parts of the piece. I was then approached by a guy that was doing technical work for the show. He spoke minimal English: a few words here and there. He then gestured to play my guitar, so I let him. He then proceeded to play the parts I was struggling with back to me slowly so I could see how it was phrased, and then handed the guitar back to me to try. A few pointers later I had finally passed the point that I was originally stuck with and was able to play the piece with a great level of accuracy.

Herein lies the lesson. This person - my superior - could have completely pulled rank on me and done something like outplay me and leave or given some sort of negative gesture, but he didn't. Despite being in a position to do such, he was courteous and respectful that I was just a kid with a passion learning to push their limits and decided to help me on my way. Courtesy is a universal language.

Similarly when I play with other people, whether it be back-and-forth or playing along to a simple song with a student, I make a point of having fun whilst remaining conscious of the other person's feelings. If somebody plays a lick to me that isn't all too difficult during a clinic then it would be wrong to completely outplay them and make them look foolish or feel like they're struggling to keep up. In many ways it is instead advantageous to do something of similar difficulty in return since it forms a better impression in the other persons mind of you - being both respectful of their skill level and their feelings. Therefore I would instead interpret musicianship as "knowledge, skill, artistic and interpersonal sensitivity in performing music."

2. Don't Undersell Yourself

You might be thinking that this directly contradicts the previous point. After all, telling people how good you are surely can't coexist with a courteous and humble presentation, right? Wrong.

It's no secret to those that know me that I always have been a very shy person, and I myself have only really acknowledged this point myself over the last few years. The fact is that the music industry is extremely competitive and over-saturated, therefore one simply can't afford to sit quietly and hope something comes along. It won't. You need to really put yourself out there and make people know who you are. There are session musicians on the road with huge names who couldn't hold a candle to some of the people you can see on the Internet, and yet they're the ones with the opportunities. Why? Because they can balance an outgoing nature with a courteous, humble personality. Most work comes from people referring you to others. If people enjoy working with you and you're up to the mark technically, they'll be more inclined to work with you again or refer you to other people. Say for example you were auditioning for a position somewhere, you wouldn't keep interjecting with arrogant comments like "I'm the best you'll find" or "you need me," but rather project confidence whilst maintaining a degree of humility by saying things like "I'm well up to the standard required and would love a chance to be given this opportunity, and thank you for considering me." You wouldn't walk into a job interview exclaiming your greatness, but would rather elaborate on specifics when prompted.

3. Make Sure You Can Deliver

This one should go without saying. I find that in many people this is where confidence can be mistaken for ego. Whilst it is important to push your limits, don't overreach. For example, if you can't sight-read don't ask to be hired for a pit job, because chances are it'll be sightread - and no, tablature is not sight-reading without the little black dots also. If your knowledge of chords, modes etc isn't very good and you're a punk guitarist, don't ask to be part of a jazz band - especially if you have no experience in the area. I've been guilty of overreaching in the past, and it has been like trial by fire. Everything takes time and experience to learn, you can't simply jump into everything. This leads me nicely onto point 4.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice! (And Not Just Your Instrument)

Without sounding arrogant, from an early age I had already mastered some of the most difficult pieces for electric guitar out there. Everything from short, cataclysmic Malmsteen pieces to 20-minute masterworks from Dream Theater. There wasn't a lot I struggled with, and certainly nothing that I couldn't attempt learn. People still ask me how I got the the level I am now, and the answer is simple: practice. From the age of 6 or 7 I played guitar for hours and hours on end, whole days at a time just disappeared. Sure enough I came to possess a very high level of skill which I have only built on since. However, I only focused on my own sphere - rock guitar and the techniques it used. It was only when I was around 14 that I realised I was still only a guitar player, not a musician. I view these as very separate things - you wouldn't put on a plaster and call yourself a doctor, would you? The very definition of musicianship includes knowledge. And that means knowledge of all areas of music, not just yours.

I realised that whilst I had an excellent mastery of the instrument, I wasn't all too good at versatility or theoretical knowledge. It's the difference between Angus Young and Steve Vai, skill really isn't everything. Not by a very long mile. Anybody familiar with business will recognise the term "Kaizen." It is a Japanese word meaning "constant improvement," and is a principle that I still try to apply to myself.

I decided to start practicing jazz and classical pieces alongside my rock pieces, and quickly I became quite versatile and could easily go from playing Satriani style note flurries to sensitive Pat Metheney passages, or minimalist Steve Reich counterpoints. I practiced improvising in different modes and awkward time signatures, learned as many chords as I could. I meticulously analysed the orchestration of classical works and soon wrote a number of classical pieces myself, from rhapsodies and nocturnes to concertos and minimalist pieces. Then I turned my attention to instrument maintenance, business, studio production, the list goes on. Even now I'm trying to expand my horizons by venturing into this world of article writing. Soon enough I had amassed a fair number of academic qualifications, as well as greatly improved myself as a player, and had gained musicianship.


Of course it is perfectly acceptable to do none of these things. If you're happy jamming away to a CD of your favourite band or writing some simple songs in your spare time that is completely okay. If you don't want to learn about theory or about any other genre, that is also completely okay. If you're content with your situation, then why change it? I had a thirst for knowledge, all the achievements I've had were simply a byproduct of doing something I love.

If you managed to get to the bottom of this article, I just wanted to say thank you for reading my first effort in column writing and I hope it has been of some use to you. Please feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think, and what topics you would like to see in the future!

1 comment sorted by best / new / date

    Good stuff. Especially the part about becoming a musician instead of a guitarist. I wouldn't be half the guitar player I am (although half of zero is still zero) without the 6 years of trumpet playing I had before it.