One of the last times I did a hired-gun gig for a house band, I got a call at around 7:30 a.m. on a Friday in February 2023. It was Shawn Sasyniuk (drummer/multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire and all-around great dude), asking if I was busy the following weekend and if I happened to be available for a couple of days. The guitarist that he originally wanted for a house band at a gig backing up several artists was no longer available to do it and he needed someone to fill the spot.
Of course, I said yes! Playing a gig with great musicians, backing up some great artists? Sign me up!
L to R: Éric Sauvé (keyboards), Amanda Marshall and me at one of my first house-band gigs in 2009.
I soon went into prep mode to make sure I brought my A-Game to the gig, getting ready to play 20 or so songs in different genres for a variety of guest artists with some limited practice time. I do have a set procedure to get ready for such shows; here’s how I do it!
Get the details
Besides the usual details of when and where the gig was taking place, rehearsal times and locations and other logistical information (will there be snacks?), some of the first things I want to cover with the Musical Director (or MD - ultimately, the person responsible for making sure the band is top-shape) are the number of songs, what keys will they be in (original or otherwise)
and what needs to be played note-for-note and what is flexible (this usually applies to guitar solos, but it could be for any part of a tune).
I’ll also make sure the MD and I discuss my technical requirements for the show (i.e. I prefer a floor wedge to in-ear monitors when possible. I have a digital rig, so to let the house crew know that to ensure a DI at my spot rather than an SM57 for an amp that won’t be there). This helps ensure that possible technical issues are avoided.
Listen, listen, listen!
This is key in my preparation and I’ll do it long before I pick up my guitar to start playing stuff. If I’m going to play the songs, then I have to know the songs. Often I’ll be sent a batch of MP3s that I’ll load into an Apple Music Playlist and that’s all I’ll be listening to for the foreseeable future.
I’m also doing both active and passive listening. Sometimes I’ll focus on what the guitarist is doing, what signature licks and riffs there are, what tones and effects are being used, etc. (the active part) I’ll also just have the songs going in the background when working, cooking, etc. just to keep my brain familiar with the music (the passive part).
Charts, charts, charts!
In the past, I tried to memorize everything (and would often be quite successful at it). Now I use charts. Sometimes they’re provided (which I generally mark up with some notes for myself) and sometimes I write my own using a variant of the Nashville number system (where I use chord symbols rather than numbers). This allows me to analyze the chords of the songs in detail, and practice more efficiently by following the chart rather than relying on my memory.
What my typical charts look like. The beauty of a Nashville-style chart is that you can fit a whole song on one page.
The other advantage is that written charts can be easily modified during a rehearsal (add extra bars, repeat this section, put a stop here, etc.) changes can come quickly and it’s nice to have them written down.
A big plus is that you can use them during the show! The ultimate cheat sheet!
Practice, practice, Practice!
I’ve taken care of the details, I’ve listened to the tunes over, and over, and over... and I’ve written out my charts. Time to practice!
This is also where the previous two tips (listening and charting) pay off since knowing the songs cuts down on the amount of practice time I need to get everything down. When I do sit down to play the material, I’ll usually go through the songs a few times each to catch signature licks and riffs and play a few solos.
After that initial practice session, I’ll keep up a daily routine of going over the songs at least once daily. I’ll also continue listening to the material right up to the gig to keep everything locked in.
Pay Attention At Rehearsal
Some gigs have the luxury of a couple of days of rehearsal with the band and artists. Some gigs you don’t, meaning that you’re rehearsing during an extended soundcheck at the venue, where the artists will come in one at a time, do a soundcheck for their monitoring and the soundman’s benefit, and run the song once (maybe twice). On the rarest of occasions, it’ll be a throw-and-go (albeit VERY rare).
My typical live show setup. I also have my trusty Telecaster and Les Paul Jr. to cover guitar tones.
General soundcheck etiquette applies (ie. unless I’m asked to make noise, I don’t - which is very hard for a guitar player). I also know that if there are going to be changes to the tune (key, arrangement, etc.) it’s going to happen here. My pen is ready to make notes on my charts so that these are locked in.
After all of that, all that’s left to do is play the gig and have fun!
Some bonus gigging tips:
I enjoy hired-gun work like this. It keeps me nimble, I get to play some great music and hang with some cool people. Putting the above-mentioned tips in action makes sure that I get the call next time as well. Hopefully, this information helps you get (and keep) the gig!
By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.