Acing the Big Audition
I may be one of the most fortunate musicians in Los Angeles. While I’m not the best guitarist, singer, or piano player in the city, I’ve been able to land most of my gigs by bringing confidence, engagement, and preparation to each audition.
At the outset, I should state the obvious: every audition is different. There is no single approach that you can count on for every set of circumstances. When I tried out for a spot as the background vocalist and keyboardist for Poison, for example, a portion of the audition was conducted via phone. First I went to C.C. Deville’s house. He got Bobby Dall on the line and asked me to sing along to a Poison record as Bobby listened from his home in Florida. They just took my word that I could play the keyboard parts. The rationale, C.C. explained, was “when it comes to Poison keyboard parts, it’s not Rachmaninoff.”
Perhaps the most important attribute for a musician is the ability to evaluate one’s abilities realistically. Consider the thousands who try out for American Idol. Many of them think that they are good enough to be contestants, only to be publicly humiliated because they have no chance.
Take an unmerciful look at yourself and your talents. Consider your chops, look, gear, personality, and so on. Ask for honest feedback from trusted friends, then brace yourself for criticism. Remember, you asked for it.
Let’s say you hear about an artist who wants a strong lead guitar player. If you are primarily a rhythm player (like me), listen to the songs in advance if possible, and decide whether you can do the job. It’s obviously better to nail an audition than to get in over your head. In Los Angeles, some of the musical communities circles are very tight knit. If you perform badly at an audition, it may be hard to get another chance.
Find out as much as you can about the artist, the management company, the tour, and other aspects of the job. Try to learn about the artist’s influences and favorite bands. If you know that you and the artist share mutual musical heroes, it may be a conversation starter. In interviews, for example, Michelle Branch lists Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles as influences. Equally important, try to find out what music the artist dislikes. If the artist hates the Ramones, for example, you might not want to show up to the audition with your Ramones T-shirt on. On the other hand, if you know the person is a huge Van Halen fan, break out the 5150 shirt—unless, of course, they hated the Hagar days. Even your choice of T-shirt makes a statement.
If possible, try to find out in advance who is already in the band. Maybe a friend of a friend knows one of the players. If you have a connection, invite that person out for coffee. Most musicians understand what it’s like when you’re trying to get a gig, and some may be willing to offer help. It’s an advantage if a member of the band can tell the other players that you’re a nice person before you play a note. And if your request for help isn’t well received, consider whether you’ll be comfortable living on a tour bus with that person for a year.
You may want to investigate whether the artist is religious and whether he objects to musicians who drink or smoke. Ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable in a band that prays together before every performance. Conversely, if you’re going to be on a tour bus with someone who has a serious drug or alcohol problem, could you handle that? While it can be awkward to ask these kinds of questions, it’s best to find out as much as you can in advance.
I got to try out for Tal Bachman (who released the hit “She’s So High”). His band needed a guitar player who could sing. They already had a drummer and bass player, and a friend of mine was playing keyboards. Tal’s recording had a fair amount of lead guitar work on it. Back in 1999, I thought it was more than I could handle. I called Tal’s manager to find out whether I would be asked to play the lead parts or whether Tal—who’s quite a good guitarist—would play them. I confessed that lead parts weren’t my forte and that playing rhythm guitar, keyboards, and singing were what I do best. He said not to worry about the leads, so I learned the rhythm guitar and vocal parts. But the day before the audition, Tal’s manager called and told me to learn all the leads.
Even though I expressed concerns, he urged me to audition. So I learned the parts as best I could. When the audition was over, I thought I’d blown it. I didn’t hear anything for a while and just assumed Tal had hired someone else. Then I got a call from my friend (the band’s keyboard player), who told me that he had to leave the group for a while to do another gig and that Tal wanted me to audition again. This time, though, I was to bring my keyboards. In the end, I was hired as a multi-instrumentalist. I learned an important lesson from the experience: it’s best to be up front. I believe that my honesty about my guitar playing and my confidence in my other abilities kept me in the running and ultimately landed me the job. Initially I was hired for a 12-day run, but the gig ended up lasting a year.
Listen carefully to the artist’s record. Sometimes headphones work better than speakers so you can hear the nuances of the parts. Most people just want things to sound like the record. Don’t embellish or make up new parts unless you’re asked to. My good friend Paul Mirkovich (the musical director for Pink, Cher, Janet Jackson, and the Rock Star: Supernova house band) says he looks for musicians to play the parts. “So many times, people come in and try to impress you by overplaying,” he says. “When I ask players to improvise, keyboard players frequently start playing jazz chords and runs. It’s amazing how difficult it is for some people to simply play quarter-notes in time—to just play a groove.”
The equipment a musician uses is an important part of the job and can be a deciding factor in an audition. Most of the time you get less than 15 minutes to audition. Don’t spend too much time setting up your gear. Avoid carrying in a huge amp that might leave you sweating and flustered before you have to play. If you’re a guitarist, there may be an amp similar to yours at the rehearsal hall. If you use it, you need to set up only your guitars and pedals.
Like many musicians, I’m not comfortable playing through someone else’s gear, so I bring my own. I try to get to the location early and set up before the audition starts. Sometimes the only way to get to set up early is to let other auditioners use your equipment too. This can work for or against you. The drawbacks are that your sound won’t be as unique as it could have been, and those holding the audition might not even realize that the really cool amp is yours. On the plus side, you know your amp better than anyone else and can dial it in to the sweet spot.
The right guitar can help you, but the wrong guitar may kill your chances of getting a gig. Consider the sound and look of the band and choose the instrument to match the job. If you’re auditioning for Bonnie Raitt, don’t show up with a Gibson Flying V. Many musicians are snobbish about gear, but you’re always pretty safe showing up with a Les Paul, Strat, or Tele. There are also lots of gigs where a Paul Reed Smith is the way to go.
Since time is a factor, don’t bring too much stuff. For many artists, huge amounts of gear aren’t impressive, especially if you take too much time setting up. You want to be making noise within two or three minutes. If you’re using pedals, make sure they are ready to go. If the pedals aren’t in a rack, make sure the cables don’t run all over the place. A messy rig can be a signal that you’re disorganized or don’t take the job seriously. I use a Trailer Trash pedal board that’s solid, and easy to transport, and looks great.
I try to get away with bringing as few guitars as I can. You should always bring an acoustic. Some singers will want to hear you play without effects. They may want someone who can join them at a radio station appearance and perform an acoustic version of their songs. If you’re a strong singer, playing acoustically will showcase your voice. It’s always good to demonstrate that you’re prepared and thinking ahead.
One of my first auditions was for Elektra Records artist Rebekah. The band needed a keyboard player who could sing, and I got a recording of the songs to learn for the audition. As I listened to all four songs, I noticed that while there weren’t many prominent keyboards parts on the record, there were tons of layered guitars. One of the audition songs barely had any keyboard. So I learned that song on acoustic and brought my guitar to the audition. Not only did I get the gig, I ended up playing guitar on more than half the songs. The lesson is to really listen to the music. Some artists might not know exactly what they want until they hear it or see it. So whenever possible, give them options.
Many times, playing live presents the difficulty of recreating the stacked vocal parts that are on their record. Playing along with prerecorded tracks is a popular remedy, but having live singers is still preferable. So I always try to showcase my voice at auditions. I can honestly say that I’ve gotten half my gigs because of my pipes. So learn those harmonies.
Believe it or not, I’ve seen musicians get hired or turned away because of how they present themselves. First impressions are everything. It might sound silly, but the right shirt, shoes, and hairstyle really affect people’s perceptions. In fact, many people decide whether they “vibe” with someone within a minute of meeting them, so you want to present an appealing image. Appearance is important not only for auditioning purposes but also for live performance. In a live situation, people listen with their eyes as much as they do with their ears. Is it a coincidence that many of the biggest music stars are good-looking or sexy? Side musicians aren’t necessarily front and center, but you should look like you fit in with the artist’s style. In the pop-rock world, appearance is important no matter who you are.
During the audition, limit your questions to those that are musically relevant. For instance, ask about a harmony or musical break that isn’t clear on the recording. Make sure the band isn’t doing a new or live arrangement that differs from the album version you’ve learned.
When you’re starting out in the auditioning realm, you might have to fake it till you make it. Once you’ve gotten a few gigs, you’ll gain confidence. Frequently, we are our own worst critics, so don’t let one mistake overshadow all the things that you’ve played well. Go out there and have fun with the music. If your love of music comes through in your playing, other musicians will want to work with you.
As some final words of wisdom, it’s very important to thank the management team or artist for allowing you to audition. As in any business, making nice can translate into making it. Last but not least, if you play like Jimi Hendrix and look like Lenny Kravitz and are trying out for a gig that I want, disregard all of the above and go home immediately—just kidding. And good luck!