Let our in-house expert guide you to finding your ideal instrument, in Rock Band or the real world….
I started playing in a band when I was really old. Like, owning an oriental rug and using the phrase "roll over my 401 K" kind of old. I’d wanted to play in a band since the first time I saw Joan Jett on television when I was still attending pre-school. But I didn’t have the balls to actually get something going until I started hanging around with a lot of musicians at work and they managed to convince me that all you really needed to start a band was the desire to do it. That, and lots and lots of Wild Turkey. 101 proof, preferably.
If you’re thinking of starting a band but don’t know how, I’ve created this simple step-by-step guide to help you out, compiled from the wisdom I accrued from doing it myself and from mercilessly hounding every "actual musician" I knew for information for several months. (By the way, unless you are a girl and a charming and easy one at that, I do not recommend hounding people in this method. It will make you seem lame, and no one will want you to open for them, and if you ever get more successful than your mentors, they will talk shit about how they played music when it "meant something" and how you’re copying their hairstyles. Musicians are great that way.)
First, some warnings about being in a band:
- You will not make money. Ever.
- No matter how close you are now with your future bandmates, at some point you will hate each one of them and hope they drown in their own vomit. Or yours.
- After playing a show, you will smell like sweat, beer, and Smarties candy for about two days. No one knows why.
If you’re okay with all of that and still want to play in a band, I present to you the first installment of:
"TheHellion’s Guide to Starting a Band"
Step 1: Determining What You Play
If you don’t already know which instrument you’d like to play, here’s a simple personality test to help get you on the road to mediocrity:
Do you interview yourself while walking around? Does the imaginary hip, young writer for the Village Voice use phrases like "reminiscent of a young Iggy Pop" and "oozing with charisma" when pretend describing you? Have you ever tried to rock a long scarf and aviator sunglasses indoors at night? Do you assume that people who don’t like you are "just jealous"? Do you always manage to look good in pictures, mostly by hanging around with people who are at least a few degrees less attractive than you? If so, then you are a: SINGER.
Do you assume that people who don’t like you are "just jealous"? If so, then you are a: SINGER.
Singing is the easiest and hardest job you can have as a member of a band. It’s the easiest because you don’t need actual talent to do it, and it’s the hardest because most of the crowd will be watching you for the majority of the performance... unless one of your bandmates is much better looking than you or has a flirtatious smirk, in which case you should fire him or her immediately. Before you start looking for bandmates, the most important things that you can do as an aspiring singer are:
- Know what kind of band you want to be in - I’ll make this simple for you. If you are starting a band in order to get laid, then you should be fronting a rock band. If you want to get back at your parents for making you choose who to live with during the divorce, you should have a metal band. If you have ever worn an item of clothing that someone else knit for you, you should be in an indie band. If you enjoy spitting and having people give you the finger, a punk band is for you.
- Sing the way you sing. Do not try to emulate anyone else no matter how much you love them. Guitarists can get away with it ("He reminds me of a young Tony Iommi") but singers absolutely cannot ("She is totally trying to copy Kathleen Hanna.")
- Learn all the words to every song ever written. Once you get to the point of playing music with your band, your band mates will quickly determine which five songs they all know how to play. If the guitarist doesn’t know a song, the band won’t play it. If the bassist or drummer doesn’t the song, he or she can fake it. If you don’t know the song, they will not care at all and you will be forced to sit in the corner and sulk and think about how little they appreciate your unique genius. You will do this regardless at some point, but it’s better to head it off at the pass. Learn songs.
Are you really good at stopping fights between your friends by saying things like, "Come on dudes, you guys are like brothers, let’s just play already!"? Do you spend a lot of time arguing about which legendary mainstream bands are overrated and which obscure ‘60s garage bands are underrated? Are you always the one who ends up holding your friends’ hair back while they barf and saying calming things like, "Don’t even worry about it, no one even noticed that you were out of tune for the entire show"? Do you like brooding quietly and gently correcting people’s pronunciation of "espresso"? If so, then you are a BASSIST.
As a bassist, you are the only member of the band that has the following option:
- You can work really hard and be really, really good. If you like Zeppelin or early Metallica, you should go with this option. You should also choose this option if you are ugly.
- You can slack off and just play the root notes. If you like the Sex Pistols and sleeping a whole lot, this is a viable option. This is also an excellent choice if you tried playing guitar and gave up on it because you couldn’t play bar chords. I don’t recommend this option unless you are really popular and have pretty hair.
The most important thing you can do before you start playing with a band is to actually listen critically to the bass lines in the songs you like. If you do this already, then you’re definitely a bassist and have made the right choice. You should also consider taking a class in conflict resolution because you’re goingto be holding down the entire operation. Everyone in your band will be a bigger jerk than you are and you are going to have to mitigate. You should also consider learning graphic design because no one else in the band will have the motivation to make posters for shows or design your album art except possibly the singer but he or she cannot draw and will try to get you to agree to a photoshoot involving train tracks or a chain link fence.
Have you slept on friends’ couches for more than 5 nights this year because your girlfriend/boyfriend kicked you out of her/his place? Do you work out? Are you one hundred percent positive that the rest of the band could not possibly survive without you? Do you "not know what the big deal is" about wearing shorts on stage? Do you do that annoying slapping-your-thighs-along-to-songs-
in-the-backseat-of-your-friend’s-car thing? Do you own towels used for the express purpose of mopping up sweat? Do you like Rush, even the stuff after Moving Pictures? If so, then you are a DRUMMER.
The great thing about being a drummer is that you are always gonna be desirable. Not to the audience (haha, like anyone would ever want to take a drummer home – everyone knows that if you take one of those things home, you end up having to feed it and clean up after it until it resents you and steals your George Foreman grill) but to other aspiring musicians. So unless you really suck, you can always find a band that needs a steady drummer.
Don’t bother playing drums unless you have the energy of a coked-up five year old in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese.
There are two things that are particularly hard about playing drums:It’s like exercise.
- Ugh. Don’t bother playing drums unless you have the energy of a coked-up five year old in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese.
- You have to find somewhere to practice. Since listening to people practice drums is almost worse than listening to Limp Bizkit, most people will not want you to do it in their house or apartment building. If you have a basement or really freaking cool parents, you might be okay, otherwise you’re gonna have to improvise and use some gumption. One tried-and-true method is finding some past-their-prime drummer in your town and pretend to idolize him or her. Drummers are easily flattered by nature, and with a few choice compliments and a carefully placed, "Man, I wish I could play like you but I can’t afford to rent a practice space and my dad won’t let me play because he says drummers aren’t real musicians" you may find yourself with a mentor who is willing to let you bang on his or her kit while he or she is hanging out at the local record shop talking smack about how cocky guitarists are.
Do you find that you’d rather dry hump a can of Diet Sprite than sit down for five minutes and finalize lyrics? Are you convinced that it’s "supposed to be about fun"? Were most of your girlfriends/boyfriends previously involved with friends of yours and it isn’t your fault if they showed up on your doorstep drunk one night? Are you perpetually 35 minutes late to everything because you are a really busy person with a life and nobody seems to understand that? Do you feel that the Stones could’ve been successful with any singer but that without Keef they would’ve been nothing? If so, you are a GUITARIST.
So here’s the thing about playing guitar: you should probably be good at it. This means practicing kind of a lot. If you’re broke, you can actually learn to play really well without taking lessons - Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, and Jimi Hendrix were all self-taught. The other thing they have in common is that they clearly all made deals with the devil because in all likelihood, you will never play as well as any of them whether you’re self-taught or not. Still, it’s pretty inspiring to know that if you have a good ear and you work really hard, you can get good. Having said that, I highly recommend taking lessons if you can shell out the dough. I went the self-taught route and ended up having annoying conversations in my band that went like this:
Chrissie (my super-talented bassist): "What chord are you playing right before the bridge?"
Me: (pointing at my own hand) "I don’t know, this one."
Chrissie: "Is that C sharp?"
Me: (pointing at hand) "I don’t know, who cares? It’s THIS one, the one that sounds GOOD when you play it right before the bridge."
Chrissie: "I think that’s C sharp."
Me: "Okay, I’m gonna call it ‘The Spider’ because that’s a way better name. So we’ll just call it that from now on."
Chrissie: "Um, how about you call it C sharp since that’s what it is."
Me: "I was lying when I said I liked your shoes."
So long story short, learn to play guitar before you start the band. If you’re just starting out, listen to a lot of AC/DC. I dunno why, exactly, but it will make you better.
If you’ve read all of this and feel that none of these descriptions fit you, then you might be better off in one of those "musical ensembles" that are all proud of the fact that they aren’t adhering to a traditional notion of what a band is. You can play electric viola or a bunch of different-sized empty cardboard boxes and put the word "Experience" in your name and play edgy modern covers of old Willie Nelson tunes. Have fun with that.
For the rest of you, stay tuned. For now, you can bask in the glory that you are a necessary and integral part of a band. Unless you play slap bass, in which case you are pretty much just annoying.
Until next time,