Lady Gaga's Lessons

By 
Ben Levin
February 19, 2010
Ben Levin, a Berklee student guitarist, performs. . . not with Lady Gaga.
Photo provided by the artist

I recently had the opportunity to audition for the guitarist position on Lady Gaga's international arena tour. I made it to the final 15 and learned a few valuable things about the music business. The experience was fascinating.

The opportunity fell in my lap by sheer luck: My brother's girlfriend saw it on an acting forum. I emailed the casting company, saying I was a guitar performance major at Berklee with experience in rock, pop, electronic, jazz, and funk. I sent links to my Myspace page and a performance video, adding that of course I would dress "Gaga-esque" when playing her music.

After I was chosen to audition, I immediately began learning as many Lady Gaga songs as possible, starting with the ones that have guitar parts and then moving on to her hits and newest songs. I also bought an outfit that reflected her videos at a used clothing store.

The first day of auditions was Monday, January 18 in New York. It was supposed to start at 11:30, so I arrived at 10:50 to warm up and get used to the environment. The waiting area was full of people dressed in insane outfits straight out of The Matrix. Many looked like they were headed to a rave in the year 2070. I felt intimidated, but most were friendly, with a few exceptions. I was fortunate enough to see a few of my friends from Berklee waiting, as well.

Read about Berklee alumni who perform with Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas, Kanye, and Matisyahu

A few hours went by. Finally, the casting staff told the guitarists to line up. I turned to the guitarist in front of me and said, "I can't believe I am really about to do this!"

She replied, "Why? We are musicians. This is our job."

"Yeah, but this is the biggest band in the world right now," I said.

She answered with a longwinded response about how she went to jazz school and blah blah blah. . . I stopped listening and started thinking about what it must feel like to be that jaded.

The audition room was a big hall with stadium seating and a huge mirror. There was a panel of four judges who looked like they were pulled straight out of American Idol. They actually seemed pretty friendly. There was a full band setup, including a drum set, keyboard, and guitar and bass amplifiers. The guitar amp was a Fender Twin Reverb.

One of the judges explained that they were looking for a guitarist who can rock a whole stadium with great stage presence. The first guitarist played for about six seconds before the judges told him to stop. I realized that I would have to grab their attention immediately, and I began planning. Keep in mind this audition did not allow backing tracks.

When it was my turn, I stated in a monotone, "Hello. My name is Ben Levin, and I am going to play 'Summer Boy' by Lady Gaga." Then I screamed "ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!" and began to play "Summer Boy" as if it were a cut off a Rage Against the Machine record. I flailed around and jumped and the cable came out of my guitar. I ran up to the judges' table so they could hear my guitar acoustically. That made them laugh and they applauded. They told me I should plug back in and show them a "rocking mad crazy shredding solo." I cranked the distortion all the way and played a Gaga riff, then soloed over it.

I left, and the casting director told me that I had made it to final callbacks. I was thrilled!

The next day I practiced and arrived for the 4:30 callback at 3:50. I found out that Lady Gaga would see selected musicians in a third audition the following day. I cringed at the thought of missing three days of school but realized I was learning a lot that I couldn't learn anywhere else. The other guitarists were generally really nice. A Berklee graduate who had moved to L.A. gave me a lot of advice. Two hours passed, and the guitarists finally lined up. I had the misfortune of being called second.

So, there I was . . . with 15 guitarists from all over the world dressed up like vampire bikers, about to play for managers, casting directors, famous musicians, and who knows who else, for a spot on an international arena tour with the biggest name to hit pop music in a long time. It was so surreal. I couldn't help but smile. I figured, let's take yesterday's fiasco up a notch.

I played all of the open strings really loud, then a bunch of over-the-top shred. I simulated the love act with my guitar and then I picked it up by its whammy bar and held a really high harmonic while pointing to the sky. I looked the judges right in the eye and started playing "Just Dance" by Gaga. They stared at me blankly. I knew that I wouldn't get to the next round. I forgot to groove and phrase well. Some players made my playing seem average. A couple went really crazy literally smashing guitars, which made me seem even more average.

If I had gone later, my strategy would have changed, but that's just how it goes. The truth is that a lot of the guitarists were very good. Here are some things they all had in common:

  • They made great use of effects pedals.
  • They avoided moving around too much at first so they established a great groove.
  • They shredded a little—not a ton.
  • They played as long as they could.

Here are some things I found disturbing:

  • One finalist was an attractive girl. The judges asked her to remove her coat so they could see her body better. I thought it was demeaning, since they never inspected any of the male guitarists, and it was my first significant brush with the sad but predictable reality that the pop industry has a shallow and rotten side.
  • They never asked the instrumentalists to play in a band setting, and I think that made the audition less effective.

Final thoughts:

  • Prepare as thoroughly as possible, and have a resume ready.
  • Learn how to shred, how to groove, how to improvise, how to move while you play. Tone and groove are just as important as chops, at least for this audition.
  • Dress the part, but don't put too much weight on that.
  • If there's one thing you can count on, it's chaos and surprises. A friend told me, "Luck is when good preparation and opportunity meet." I definitely believe that now.