How to play gigs

This article contains advice which should be studied by any guitarist who intends to work professionally.

What is a Pops guitarist?

Don't know what a Pops guitarist is? - then read on.

Tim Berens - has been playing for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since 1983.
Tim Berens has been playing for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since 1983.

"Classical guitarists who also can read chord changes and play other styles of music are well suited to orchestral work.

Last year (1998) I did about 110 services (what orchestral musicians call a gig) with Cincinnati, and another 20 services with the Naples Philharmonic (that's Naples, Florida) and the Colorado Symphony in Denver. With the CPO, I've played on 26 CDs, performed 4 times at Carnegie Hall, toured Japan 3 times, appeared many times on national PBS specials, and done hundreds of concerts.

Barney Kessel is a good example of the extremely versatile guitarist described in this article.
Barney Kessel is a good example of the extremely versatile guitarist described in this article.

The repertoire of a pops orchestra is "pops" music. Pops is a sort of "classical light" which is designed to appeal to a broader audience than the traditional orchestral repertoire. It includes music from movies, broadway, composers such as Gershwin and Copeland, big band, and some recent popular music. The music is arranged for a standard orchestra with other instruments, such as guitar, added for spice.

The purpose of pops concerts is usually to bring in a steady source of income to the orchestra. In Cincinnati, the pops concerts and recordings pay a huge portion of the bills of the orchestra. It brings new people to the hall, and does create some cross over audience for the classical concerts.

Many of the musicians of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra dislike playing the Cincinnati Pops repertoire (It's the exact same group of musicians). Others enjoy it. All of them realize that their hefty salaries are heavily subsidized by the Pops concerts, so they just accept it as part of the gig.

The guitar parts for these concerts are a constant challenge. The music requires that the guitarist be able to play a variety of styles and a variety of instruments. I have played electric, classical, steel string acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin and bouzouki in styles ranging from a delicate classical guitar and oboe duet, to a screaming rock solo, to foot stomping dixieland banjo."

What skills do I require?

The skills required for the job are:

  • Ability to read music. This includes both standard guitar notation and chord changes.
  • Ability to play well in an ensemble.
  • Understanding of many styles.
  • Ability to follow a conductor. This is not as easy as it looks.
  • Professionalism in all aspects of playing and handling yourself on the gig.
  • Willingness to play what someone else wants you to play when they want you to play it how they want you to play it. Lots of people are uncomfortable with this. (That is a good definition of 'amateurs'! - Peter Inglis)

In return for all the above, you are paid well (as far as musician pay goes). You are paid for rehearsals as well as concerts.You are paid overtime if the concert or rehearsal runs longer than the union rules dictate.

Getting the gig

To get and keep an orchestral gig, there are two people you must keep happy: the conductor and the personnel manager. You keep the conductor happy by delivering the right notes at the right time at the right volume with the right sound. You keep the personnel manager happy by being a professional backstage -- showing up on time, wearing the right clothes, playing nicely with the other musicians, returning phone calls promptly, etc.

Wearing the approriate attire can make or break your career! If you're not sure what to wear ... ask!
Wearing the approriate attire can make or break your career! If you're not sure what to wear ... ask!

Most American professional orchestras are union, though there are some exceptions, which means you will need to be or become a member of the union, the American Federation of Musicians. I'm unfamiliar with the customs of unions in other countries.

You will get the gig through the personnel manager. The personnel manager's job is to ensure that there is a qualified musician's butt in every seat on the stage for rehearsals and performances.

An orchestra is one of the few musical organizations for which a resume may come in handy. I say "may" because you will mostly likely get the gig through a personal recommendation. Personnel managers will usually only hire people who are recommended to them by a musician whose opinion they trust. Lesson: get to know the orchestral musicians in your town.

If you get a call to play an orchestral gig, make sure you show up an hour early for your first rehearsal and for concerts. Do not be late, or even close to late. It's difficult to describe the pressure there is to be on time for services.

Bring spare everything -- strings, patch cords, batteries, bow ties, tuners.

Anything that might break will break, and if you don't have a spare, you will have a problem. I had a volume pedal go bad at a rehearsal when we were playing at Carnegie Hall (of course it worked fine for years in Cincinnati!), and had to run out and buy one for the concert that night. The rule is, anything that may break will wait until the most important gig to do so. Murphy likes guitarists.

Cello and violin players generally discourage this sort of behaviour around their instruments!
Cello and violin players generally discourage this sort of behaviour around their instruments!

Professional Etiquette

Orchestras have their own set of etiquette rules. Here are some of the basics:

  • Never, ever touch anyone else's instrument or equipment without their permission. You should only ever touch your own gear, your own music stand, and your own chair.
  • Do not warm up or practice except in designated warm up areas or in your seat on the stage. Warm up as quietly as you can. Nobody will be impressed by how fast you can play.
  • Do not stare at other musicians while they play.
  • Do not acknowledge (make faces, turn your head, etc) other musicians' mistakes in any way.
  • Treat the stage hands with great respect. These fellows are as highly skilled at their craft as you are at yours.

Gear you will need

For equipment, you will need whatever the score calls for. The following are the basics that will get you through most gigs:

  • A versatile electric guitar, such as a Gibson 335 (my first choice if I'm unsure of the styles to be played). Electric guitars actually come in many flavors, and there will be times when you'll need more than one. Depending on the repertoire, you may want an archtop or a Strat'esque guitar. You'll want to use a volume pedal at all times, and may also need some sort of effects such as distortion or chorus.
  • Classical Guitar.
  • Banjo -- a "tenor" or plectrum style banjo is what you want. Tune it like the top 4 strings of a guitar to ease the transition to a new instrument.
  • Steel String Acoustic

Napoleon Coste knew that it's always better to be over-prepared!
Napoleon Coste knew that it's always better to be over-prepared!

These instruments will get you through most of what you will be asked to play. When you are playing the acoustic instruments, the orchestra will almost always provide a microphone for you to play into. You may also need a mandolin at times.

Be sure to use as high a quality instruments as you can afford. Pay careful attention to the quality of things like patch cords, which you can be guaranteed will break at the least convenient time.

Following the Conductor

This rule is paramount in an orchestra. The conductor has the final say in everything regarding the music that is performed. The conductor sets the tempo, the dynamics, decides how long fermatas are held, etc.

If the conductor decides to change any aspect of the music during a performance, that is what happens. I made an embarrassing mistake early on in my career before I fully understood Rule #1. We were playing the theme from the Twilight Zone ( remember? doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo). I played the doo doo doo doo part, then had a couple measures of rest before my next entrance. I foolishly kept my eyes in my part and counted instead of watching the conductor, who slowed things down a bit during the rest. I came in early, during what should have been total silence. I was embarrassed. It was then that I really grasped Rule #1.

The Conductor is ALWAYS RIGHT! (Hector Berlioz conducting)
The Conductor is ALWAYS RIGHT! (Hector Berlioz conducting)

If you have no idea what the conductor is doing as his arms move about while the orchestra plays, I suggest you go to your local college music school and take the introduction to conducting course. There you will learn all the beat patterns. It's fairly simple to get the basics down, but takes some practice to deal with all the subtleties.

Following the conductor - Toscanini in action
Following the conductor - Toscanini in action

The proper way to address a conductor named John Smith is "Maestro Smith". Maestro (pronounced my-stroh) is the formal title given to a conductor, and to use it indicates your respect for the conductor. "Maestro" is used to address both male and female conductors.

It is also acceptable to call the conductor "Maestro", without his or her last name. You will never go wrong calling any conductor "Maestro".

How loud do I play?

This is a difficult question. The not particularly helpful answer is: just loud enough and no louder. The difficulty occurs because for all other orchestral instruments, a dynamic marking (ppp to fff) is associated with a physical action. For example, for a trumpet player fff means as loud as you can possibly play. For a guitarist, the dynamic markings are associated with a volume knob -- and fff does not mean 10 on your amp.

Jimi Hendrix playing loud, possibly too loud for an orchestral gig!
Jimi Hendrix playing loud, possibly too loud for an orchestral gig, possibly too loud for most gigs!

For a guitarist, the dynamic marking is a measure of volume relative to everyone else, which is affected by how many other musicians are playing and whether your part is a solo part.

It's fairly simple when you are playing an acoustic or classical guitar, which has a minimal dynamic range compared to other instruments on the stage. You have to simply play so as to get a good sound on your instrument, then let the sound man set your volume.

Aaron Copland checking the volume of the guitarist.
Aaron Copland checking the volume of the guitarist.

At your first gig, you can be assured that the conductor will be listening to your volume and will indicate exactly how loud you should be. See Rule #1.


Buy and use a tuner for these gigs. Tune up just before the oboist blows the A to tune everyone else. If you are tuning an acoustic guitar, find a quiet place backstage. It will be too noisy on stage.

Yes, they can tell the difference!
Yes, they can tell the difference!

Don't just tune to A=440 on your own. Many orchestras play sharp -- some deliberately -- some just because that's what happens. For example, in Cincinnati, the official pitch is A=441, and in truth it is at least 442. I always tune to A=442 in Cincinnati.

And yes, they can tell the difference between 440 and 442. Orchestral musicians live and breathe pitch -- it's one of the most common areas of dissention between musicians.

Ask the harpist where she tunes. She will be the best source of non-biased information on tuning you will find. If she tunes to 441 or 443, you should tune there too.

Master your electronics

Orchestral musicians in general have a fear and loathing of amplified instruments. Don't contribute to their loathing with your own mistakes. Make sure you know what every button and knob on your gear does before you press it and some horrendous squeal comes out your amp.

The worst on-stage mistake of my career happened on a tour of Japan. We had just played the Theme from Rocky. For the last 32 bars of the song, I stood up and screamed a loud distorted solo over the top of the orchestra. I had done it many times before. But this particular night I forgot to immediately cut the volume on my volume pedal to zero after I was done (always a good preventive measure).

The song ended on a big chord, and just a second later, I unconsciously turned my body toward the amp, and it fed back -- it excited a high harmonic on one of the strings that sounded like a loud note. The audience thought the song was continuing on and didn't applaud. There was this several second awkward silence and then the conductor turned to the audience and yelled "That's all folks!" He turned and glared at me. I was embarrased for several days afterwards.

A note about power: Do not plug into just any power outlet you find on the stage. The stage hands usually run separate power lines for sound (often called "sound power") that are not used stand lights and such. If you plug into the stand lights outlets, you may find the power to your amp dropping if the lights are ever dimmed during the performance. Ask the stage hands what outlets you should use for sound power.

Counting rests

One of the trickier though apparently simple things to master is counting bars of rest. There will often be times when you won't play for extended periods of time. During that time, the time signature and tempo may both change. You have to count those rests with the same sort of concentration you use to play.

If you are having trouble coming in, or are consistently getting lost, do not be embarrassed to ask for help from one of the musicians sitting next to you. You may find it embarrassing to ask for help, but that will be far less embarrassing than having the conductor stop the orchestra and ask you why you didn't come in.

Count on your fingers if it helps!
Count on your fingers if it helps!

Count on your fingers if it helps. I count the bars, letting one finger go up for each bar that goes by and counting in my head. Every time I get to a multiple of 4, or all four fingers are up, I see if the count in my head is a multiple of 4 (4,8,12,16, etc). If not, I try to figure out which is wrong. You will be amazed at how easy it is to miscount bars.

It takes a player with the ability to crossover to other styles to handle the gig with a pops orchestra, but the classical training also seems invaluable to being able to handle the gig too.

There are a handful of pieces in the standard repertoire (Mahler 7, some Italian opera music, some modern music) that requires a classical guitar playing classical music, but by and large you must be able to play many styles to cut the gig.

The work is challenging and rewarding. The rewards come from the challenge of having to play with great precision in a group of musicians who are all better at playing orchestral music than you will be. Being around so many other good players will inspire you to continue practicing and improving. Oh, and the money is nice too.

I would be happy to answer any questions privately, or to correspond with anyone else who does orchestral guitar work.

Tim Berens - has been playing for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since 1983.
Tim Berens - has been playing for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since 1983.

Tim Berens - website - has been playing for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since 1983.