With everyone on the internet these days trying to one-up one another, start younger, and shred faster, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to be the best or nothing at all. Here’s a list of things that you should do even if you can’t do them all that well.
I’ve been into recording (home and otherwise) for about ten years. In that time I’ve recorded some pretty good stuff, but I’ve recorded a lot of crap, too. You know what that crap is called? A DEMO. A demo that sucks real bad is 3458349587345% better than no demo. A song with no demo is a song forgotten. You can’t hand a no demo to a producer you meet.
You don’t have to be Andy Sneap, but there’s absolutely NO excuse for not having SOME recording skills. You can record more tracks on your phone than the Beatles could for most of their career, with built in effects and far more convenience. Garage Band is a DAW that is so easy to use you should be ashamed of yourself if you can’t figure it out. If you can’t afford some kind of software or a computer or tablet, getting your hands on a 4 track tape recorder or similar device is pretty easy. Find something that fits your needs and go to town.
2. Playing Drums
I’m a guitarist by trade, but I might enjoy playing drums more. Partially because I don’t get to do it all that often, and partially because I know I suck and I know people will say “Well, he’s pretty good for a guitar player” instead of “Man, this drummer blows.”
I taught myself to play the drums because it’s REALLY fun and intuitive, but the benefits I discovered went far beyond that. Having a sense of what drums make what sound, what drives the rhythm, and just plain multitasking is incredibly useful in understanding and making music. It gives you a totally different perspective on a song, and you can see how easily you can manipulate a track by just altering the dynamics and orchestration of the drums.
Plus, if you’re going to be taking heed of #1 above, the ability to create drum tracks for demos (whether recording them live or programming) is dependent on knowing at least something about beats. I’ve heard some really sad drum programming in demos that displayed an absolute ignorance of what drums are for that could have been easily remedied by a little time behind the kit.
Plus, if Sammy Davis Jr. (a singer) can rip this hard on drums, what’s your excuse?
3. Playing Piano
So much of music is digital these days that I have come to view a MIDI keyboard as a gateway to music production in many ways. Once again, I’m a total slouch on the keys despite having taken classes at a prestigious college of music and a year of private lessons, but for general purposes, I can get around. You don’t have to be Chopin or Jordan Rudess to have fun and get some serious mileage out of a piano/keyboard.
The piano might not be the easiest instrument to play well, but it’s easily the most intuitive. It’s literally a bunch of buttons – you press and they make sound. Every 2 year old I’ve seen approach a piano immediately knows what to do with it. Getting it to really sing is another matter, but the most powerful uses of it are A.) seeing the music visually laid out from high to low (left to right) and B.) entering parts into MIDI on your DAW. Being able to poke out melodies and basic chords makes entering parts a great deal easier and less time consuming.
I generally combine bullet points 2 and 3 by playing the drum parts into my DAW for demos using my MIDI keyboard controller. Then I use the Quantize feature in Pro Tools to snap the notes to the grid so nobody knows I biffed it. However, the closer it is to right, the less fixing you’ll have to do, because quantize doesn’t always do what you think it’s going to.
I’m gonna catch some flack for this one. I taught guitar full time for 5 years, and I enjoyed it quite a bit (for the most part). Teaching, like any job, has its ups and downs, but let me tell you something – teaching beginner private lessons is the easiest thing you will ever do for money. And it’s usually fun, to boot! I find that in teaching I also benefit a great deal because it forces me to break any given topic down and present it maybe in a way I hadn’t thought of it before. So even if your student leaves confused and somewhat poorer (probably their fault), you may emerge with a revelation you thought of while saying it out loud.
It’s a little known fact that patience is a virtue that can be manufactured in situations where you have no other choice. You’re not going to lose your patience with a beginner or a child, who need the most, so it grows every time you teach. Patience is extremely important as a musician, especially when growing your career.
Being in a band involves a fair amount of teaching too. If you have a part you need to communicate to another member of the band, you’ll most likely end up teaching it to them. Even if you write it out for them in some form, it’s probable that you’ll have to teach them how you want it played. So getting a little bit of teaching experience will help in a great many ways.
5. Reading Music
I have a confession to make: I have a music degree, and I SUCK at reading music. You know that gray area between full fluent literacy and needing a picture menu at McDonalds? Yah, that’s me reading music. I can read, but I do it so seldom that it’s reeeeeaaallll slow. I actually (speaking of teaching) got a LOT better at it while teaching, because nothing makes you improve more than pointing at the note the student is supposed to be playing, staring at it for long minutes while they struggle, knowing its name, knowing where to play it, wanting to grab the guitar out of their hands and do it for them, wishing you’d listened to your mother and become a dentist.
Reading music will for sure make you a better all-around musician. You don’t have to. I can’t make you, and you can probably get by without it just fine. But you’ll be cutting yourself off from so many musical opportunities, and it’s another facet of music that will open your mind to a new way of visualizing and hearing music. Even if you’re worse at it than Floyd Mayweather.
Ignorance is easily forgiven, as we are all far more ignorant than we are wise (for example, I don’t know dick about rocket science, and you wouldn’t judge me for that I hope) but WILLFULL ignorance is the bane of progress. If you want to step up your music game, then explore outside your comfort zone. It certainly won’t make you any worse.