Utility musicians in Country Bands (Modern/Contemporary/Classic)

Discussion in 'Band Management [BG]' started by Ground Pounder, Apr 19, 2013.

  1. (Sorry for the essay, it's a 6-pack Friday and I'm brainstorming a bit).

    I'm curious if any of you folks work as, or have experience with, "utility" musicians for country music bands in your area.

    I've just recently started to explore the option of joining the "working man" crew of local country musicians, and I'm in a bit of a conundrum. While I'm sure that I could go out and market myself tomorrow as another servicable guitar or bass player, I wonder if it would be worth going in another direction.

    I've been doing a bit of research lately on our local country music scene in the Detroit area. Like most metropolitan areas, there are a lot of really good bands who have great foundational "staples" in their lineups - lead vocalists, guitars, bass, and drums. But there seems to be an absence of what I would consider "traditional" country instrumentation - pedal/lap steel players, fiddles, pianos and keyboards, banjo, mandolin, dobro, harp, etc. In fact, I've found that the bands I enjoy the most, performance-wise, are the bands who have incorporated these instruments into their lineups.

    My background, as far as performance, has always been centered around rock, blues, alternative, and metal. As such, of course, I've spent the last 20 years playing guitar and bass. But I do have basic keyboarding and piano skills, and some "late beginner" banjo and lap steel/slide guitar skills, and can sing a bit.

    On top of the meager skillset, though, I'd consider myself a very strong performing musician. Not to toot my own horn, but I have a very strong theoretical background, great ears, a good understanding of structure, rhythm, melody and harmony, and I know how to function within a band and in a live setting. I know what makes musicians tick, what makes audiences tick, and have been pretty damn good in the last two decades of finding ways to draw those parallels. My bands and projects have been very successful more times than not.

    So I'm at a bit of a crossroads. The easy path is to pick up my tele or my P-bass, join a band, and work our 4-piece tails off to entertain the 40-60 people who come to see those type of bands. It's an easy $100 a night gig with the right quartet.

    The alternative is to spend the next few months building my piano, keyboarding, banjo, and steel/slide chops. I'd have to convince the common quartets to take on a 5th, but my gut tells me that the extra dimension that I could add, musically, may be enought to push an otherwise good-but-not-great 40-60 seat club band to the next level. On top of that, it could probably provide more personal opportunities for work in the area.

    I'd be interested to hear anyone's opinions or thoughts on the subject.



    (FYI, I also cross-posted this to the TRPRI forum, of which I'm also a member.)
  2. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    If that's a direction you are interested and can do well in, you can get a lot of gigs and make a lot of money. I have known several utility men, and they were always in high demand. Most of them were offered (and some took) gigs with national touring acts.

    I know when I played in country bands in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, we always wanted to add a multi-instrumentalist, but they are hard to find. One time we had a utility man play a gig with us for a New Year's show, and we made a whole lot of money we otherwise would not have made (admittedly, the guy brought a lot to the table). If you can seriously play, and keep it within a band context, I imagine you'll do very well.
  3. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    I think it's probably optimistic to think that you can go from a rock, blues, alternative, and metal musical background and beginner skills on lap steel and slide to making a solid contribution in a country band in a few months. Becoming proficient on an instrument and a genre usually takes a lot of work.
  4. Thanks Lee, appreciate the wise words. Your second paragraph is kind of what led me to this. The Detroit area, it seems, is not like Nashville or New York where there's a sense of freedom to collaborate with anyone you want. I very rarely see any guitar or bass players "mix it up" and take the stage with multiple bands. The exception are two bands who seem very close to each other and regularly sub members in and out, and coincidentally, seem to work quite often in the area.

    While my focus is to do this locally, because my 9-to-5 is solid and my young family is rooted here, I feel that branching out into different instruments may lead to better opportunities for everyone - myself and the band(s).
  5. Keithwah


    Jan 7, 2011
    Milwaukee WI
    I do agree with that thought for sure, but as to not discourage anyone, I'd say if you are inclined you should do that. I highly recommend Mandolin as a great first step, and really suggest you work in some lap steel as a precursor to pedal steel. Fiddle is going to take you a long time to develop on. Mandolin and Lap will be the easiest to pick up for a guitarist. And of course the flexibility of being able to switch from bass to guitar to mandolin to lap/steel sounds like a great recipe for a lot more on your dance card.
  6. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    I agree that you should never discourage anyone from trying something, I just think people need to set reasonable goals. I don't know the OP so I'm not specifically referring to him, but I see a lot of people who don't understand the difference between playing the correct notes and playing the notes correctly. Country music sounds simple, but it's not easy to play it correctly.
  7. Thanks, I appreciate the response. I certainly get where you're coming from - a few months is pretty optimistic. The good thing is I really don't have anything but time on my hands anyway. I have a solid day job that pays the bills, so this is more of a long-term vision anyway. Even if it takes a couple years to get up and running, it's no skin off my back in the short term.
  8. Thanks, appreciate the insight. My plan primarily is to focus on Piano/Keys, Banjo, and Lap/Pedal steel, as those seem to be primary instruments that have an audible context within country music that you can't fake. I've seen fiddle and mando parts tastefully recreated by keyboardists a few times now in ways that were pretty impressive (of which I absolutely plan on learning the secrets on how to do!)
  9. Up the dose

    Up the dose

    Mar 10, 2013
    The pedal steel guy who plays with us when we can afford to pay him does not need to work a day job. He plays with several other acts in the area and makes a good living. It seems like there is quite a demand for it and few who do it well.
  10. RustyAxe


    Jul 8, 2008
    Our five piece country band has a very competent keys player (also sings great) and we sound quite different (but still good) without him. Around here we pay a premium for pedal steel, fiddle, dobro, mandolin ... they're hard to find (a good player, that is), and harder to keep as there's always a better offer.
  11. craig.p


    Sep 28, 2008
    New Hampshire
    Same thing in SNH: pedal and fiddle are tough to find if you're looking for someone who's competent, which means much more than a few years' experience, because I personally know pedal and fiddle players who've been playing for many years and still don't really have their acts together. Next are drummers; they're around, but most are barely serviceable. Last are guitar and bass players -- dime a dozen. I've found most bands have no clue how much a proper guitarist or bass player can help a band's sound, so they (the bands) will generally settle for anybody they can be buds with or drinks the same brand of beer or conducts himself like a fool on stage or whatever. So, for guitar and bass players, the market is already saturated.

    If I were you, I'd study the crap out of pedal steel and do my best to become the best pedal player in the county. I don't see how you'd ever lack for work.
  12. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    Good luck. As long as you are having fun it's not time wasted!
  13. two fingers

    two fingers Opinionated blowhard. But not mad about it. Gold Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2005
    Eastern NC USA
    Well, let me put it to you like this. A friend of mine lives in Nashville. He goes out on weekends and plays in town during the week. He is the band leader/guitar player and has a female singer. They can find bass players and drummers without even trying. But finding that "5th player" you are talking about is the hardest slot to fill. If they are having that problem in Nashville, it's a pretty safe bet that utility players are hard to find.

    I would argue that if you can sing backups as well, you would be worth your weight in gold, and probably have more work than you wanted.
  14. Stone Soup

    Stone Soup

    Dec 3, 2012
    I wouldn't bother with Country, at all. It's not popular enough, and it doesn't look like it's gaining popularity. Country, in general, BLOWS anymore (as does most pop music). It sounds like over processed, garbage, formula songs and isn't worth the time or the energy to even bother with. There aren't even enough local venues (in the Detroit area) to play in. What are you going to do, try and convince the rock/pop clubs to hire you? Unless you are doing it for the love of it, you're completely wasting your time. I rode the wave in the late '80's through the mid '90's. There's NOTHING like that going on anymore.
  15. Bunk McNulty

    Bunk McNulty It is not easy to do simple things correctly Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2012
    Northampton, MA
    Slide, lap steel, mandolin, fiddle...sure thing. Pedal steel, no way! You actually do have to be a rocket scientist to be competent on the damn things. Sit down at a double-neck and check out all the pedals that go up and down, then the ones you push side to side with your knee...maybe I'm just easily intimidated by all those strings and pedals, but I ran away screaming.:eek:
  16. Appreciate the update. I've spoken with a few family friends here as well who've been playing for 30+ years, and they all said the same thing - good piano and steel players, once the word is spread around, get offered more work than they can handle.
  17. Thanks for the comments. The desire to get involved with country music is a personal choice, nothing more. I want to play country music because I love country music, and it's a road as a musician that I've never been down before.
  18. Stone Soup

    Stone Soup

    Dec 3, 2012
    I completely appreciate that.
  19. jonas_24112


    Jul 11, 2011
    Pedal Steel and Fiddle players get top dollar hands down. I'd give anything to be a good pedal steel player. I've been contemplating getting one and trying to begin learning, but from what I've heard, you pretty much have to quit any other instrument and concentrate on it to learn in a reasonable amount of time. I'm talking about it taking probably 3-5 years to become competent. A good friend of mine has a top notch country band with pedal steel and fiddle. Both players are pro quality and travel at least 2 hrs to the gigs cause they live so far from the bands home base. You can guarantee they average making $200-250 per gig. The band makes top dollar and the venues pay it, cause the musicians and band are worth it.
  20. Jeremy Darrow

    Jeremy Darrow

    Apr 6, 2007
    Nashville, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Fishman Transducers, Aguilar Amplifiers, Ear Trumpet Labs
    If you can get good at pedal steel, you will get work almost anywhere. But it takes a lot of time to get there. I was talking about P/S with a friend here who plays it, along with a few other barred instruments. He told me it takes him three hours a day just to not get worse.