A large number of professional musicians, bassists included, make their living in part or whole by freelancing. Believe it or not, the term “freelancing” goes back to Medieval times when knights with no loyalty would “freelance” or hire themselves out as mercenaries. So, to a certain extent, when you are a freelancing musician, you’re a mercenary in that you’re working for pay and may or may not have any emotional attachment to the gig (other than having a good time if possible and playing what’s appropriate).
One of the first and foremost tools of the freelancer is his knowledge of songs. It doesn’t hurt to have a couple of hundred tunes in each genre memorized. You probably won’t need all of them all the time, but you never know. Fortunately, most of the calls for freelance bassists is with a General Business, Club Date, Corporate or Wedding Band. Those are different names for a loosely put together group of players with a given leader. Usually the tunes are a mix of book arrangements (everything from Real Books to arrangements specifically for that band that may require sight-reading and composing a bass part from chord symbols or number charts on the spot) and “head charts” (i.e. no chart at all).
What you will find here is that some tunes get called over and over: My Girl, Misty, Brown-Eyed Girl, Help Me Make it Through the Night, Wave and Sweet Home Alabama are some I’ve seen on gigs more than I care to. Since the Boomer population is aging and hiring bands for all sorts of private parties including their children’s weddings, I’ve noticed that Classic Rock (the top 40 type as well as some more familiar FM Rock tunes), Motown, and even Disco are creeping into the Evergreen category. Pick a dozen or so tunes from each category for a start. Classic Rock stations are a good source. It’s better to memorize these tunes and be able to play them in all keys if needed. I’ve also learned enough keyboards and guitar to read the guitarist’s or keyboardist’s hands to learn the changes on the spot.
You don’t need a particularly fancy bass for these gigs, a simple 4 or 5 string electric will do fine. A decent amp that’s fairly portable and loud like an Eden Metro will serve you well here. They’re really not looking for Victor Wooten or Billy Sheehan on these type of gigs, but if you amass an encyclopedic knowledge of Pop tunes (it’s amazing how many you can accumulate) and show up on time and play the right lines, you’ll be everyone’s hero. Needless to say, bassists who can do this are in continually short supply and the pay is good-often 4 to 8 times what you will make at a typical bar gig.
You’ll need a suit, slacks and black shirts, and (gasp) a Tuxedo. Don’t go buy a new tuxedo and spend hundreds of dollars-most tuxedo rental places routinely sell off their old suits and you can get a great deal. I spent under $100 for a complete tux outfit just last year when one of the largest formalwear rental places in Nashville had their annual sale. You can fake it for a while with a black suit, bow tie, and tux shirt, but most high dollar bandleaders will know the difference so go ahead and make the investment. This is not the sort of gig you can wear that shocking blue Mohawk to either, but reasonably hip styling is appropriate, and long hair can always be tied back into a Pony Tail (you might even be mistaken for a Record Company exec.).
It doesn’t hurt to have a music stand and stand light, either. Some bands will have their own, but don’t assume. I always take a stand and light as well as extension cords to these sorts of gigs, just in case.
Remember, your function on these sort of gigs is to use your live music skills to enhance the good time that’s being had. This is not the place for Star Egos-you’re a facilitator. The good news is that this can be a good source of income while you’re putting your band together to get that big Record Deal, networking to get that big tour, or chasing down recording sessions. It has only short-term commitments, most “bands” will have a revolving pool of a half-dozen players on each instrument. This can be a career choice, but I find it works best for me as a “job” for a source of income (and it’s a whole lot more fun than asking, “Do you want fries with that?”).
Most major metropolitan areas will have lots of these bands. You can either check with the Musicians Union (you might even have to join, but that’s for another column) or the Yellow Pages for Bands or Booking Agents. Then, you’ll need a lot of patience and perseverance. Let the leaders know what you can do and that you’re interested in working with them and check in often, but don’t be a Pest. Eventually everyone on their call list for bass players will be exhausted and you’ll get a chance. Be ready, be on time, and be prepared and you’ll get another call. I also broke into this business by taking bass from a busy player in the Dallas area as a college student. When he got double booked I would get the sub call and built a clientele of bandleaders. It takes a while to get this going, but it’s a decent source of secondary income and some people actually do this for a living and do quite well.
Peace and Low Notes,
Roy C. Vogt
Bass Instructor, Belmont University, Nashville, TN
About the Author:Roy Vogt is an internationally-acclaimed bassist and educator. he is the creator of Teach Me Bass Guitar, the world’s most comprehensive DVD course for bass guitar.
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