Tricks, Tips, and Unorthodox Advice For Not Sucking

A Guide to Better Rock 'n Roll

By Stevil, October 23rd, 2016

Pictured: Brian Baker of Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Doggy Style, Junkyard, and Bad Religion fame with a Gibson Les Paul. Photographer unknown (unfortunately).


Everyone who thinks they're a musician, thinks they're doing things right. From their gear, to their lyrics, all they need is that one lucky break.

In reality, they need many lucky breaks, and that's secondary to a lot of hard work, which in itself must be accompanied by talent and creativity, if producing anything worth a shit and memorable is the ultimate goal. 

Regardless of intentions, you can help yourself enormously with a little advice:

  1. Sound like a professional. This means using quality gear that suits your style, while focusing on tone and clarity (worth noting, quality isn't always the most expensive). Gibson Les Pauls are among the most versatile guitars out there, and few kits sound better than old Ludwigs, but any decent instrument strung, tuned, and maintained well should deliver. That means biasing amplifiers and pushing speakers with the correct ohms, adjusting truss rods; intonation, and hitting/handling cymbals correctly as well. Take care of your gear as you would your children, or most prized possessions, and they'll help take care of you.
  2. Know your strengths and how to use them. There's nothing more annoying than hearing a guitar player attempt to solo or fill every single space in a song, or a drummer trying to pound or over-play in a standard verse. Bands like AC/DC have incredible talent and ability, but the way they manage it makes all the difference. Weaknesses and shortcomings can often be covered by simply playing what you can play, strong. Down-stroking solid chords will usually sound better than a scale-based filler anyway, as will a straight forward rock beat, rather than consistent tom-molesting and overpowering crashes. When in doubt, play tight and simplify. When overconfident, play tight and simplify. Leaving the vibrato off your voice can do wonders if you're a singer as well.
  3. Be creative and original. Most people don't think they sound like someone else, and everyone has their icons and influences. But you can avoid sounding like a second-rate version of something original by not allowing single songs, albums, leads, etc. to dominate your thoughts at the time of construction and arrangement, and if there's doubt, find out if you're ripping someone off. Just because bands like Creed have gotten away with it, doesn't mean they're respected, and originality always goes much further. 
  4. Behave like a professional. Going to punk rock shows and seeing an 18 year old kid arrogantly blasting bands that have had some success he (and it's usually a he) hasn't achieved himself, isn't my idea of a good time. Focus on yourself and lead the way. This isn't 1982, and acting like a dick was never cool (says me). Need an example of how to do that? Take a hard look at The Clash. Need an example of what not to do? Take a hard look at the loudmouths in your scene who never went anywhere.
  5. Practice. This may sound dumb, as every band needs to practice, but many settle for the bare minimum, and it shows. Practices are where some of the best ideas emerge, and playing tight shouldn't be undervalued. As blisters turn into calluses, stamina also appears, and the results can only help. Sometimes it's easier said than done, but there should be no mistake that getting anywhere in music--regardless of your goals--won't be easy. I'm still striving myself, and I have many friends who have committed their lives to music and struggled plenty, though those who've stayed the course have been at least somewhat rewarded, and they got to that point only after a ton of...wait for it...hard work. Practice every day if possible, alone, or otherwise. Professionals in all walks of life live a life of passion for their area of expertise. Music is no different.
  6. Study. As noted above, everyone has their influences. But many of those who have made something for themselves, have done so by listening to (and appreciating) the work by artists from various genres. You don't have to like a specific performer to recognize their talent, and this can lead to clever ways of composition that you might otherwise not have thought of. Maybe cutting a verse short, or not repeating a chorus, proves to make for a better song? Sometimes you get advice indirectly from external sources, and that comes with diverse experience and knowledge.
  7. Keep healthy; stay in shape. Many people will likely criticize me for saying this, but it's a simple concept with direct results. If you eat poorly, you will often perform poorly, because you'll feel like shit. Being able to breathe and go the distance is part of your goal, right? So don't take shortcuts. It should go without saying that getting drunk, baked, fried, whatever, before a show or practice is counter-productive. Respect your body, respect music.
  8. Show authentic stage presence. You don't like seeing your favorite film stars over-act their parts and ruining an otherwise great movie, do you? Showing feeling and passion for your work is perfectly fine, but if you're trying to put on a fake act, consider taking a drama class, rather than playing in a band. Forced presence sticks out like a sore thumb. A friend of mine once referred to over-singing in pop music as vocal gymnastics. That wasn't a compliment to the subject, and I couldn't agree more.
  9. Help. Nobody gets through life alone, and no band gets anywhere without a lot of help along the way. This is why manners are so important, and your willingness to do something for someone else can prove to be rewarding. That doesn't mean allowing yourself to be taken advantage of, but it shouldn't be hard to determine where that line is. Use your best discretion.  
  10. Advertise and play. Once again, I'm stating the obvious, but live experience in front of actual human beings should get better each time you do so. Taking steps forward means taking actual steps. Let everyone know you're playing and give them reason to check it out again and again.
Who am I to say such things you might ask? I'm the guy who's made all the mistakes and watched others advance because of the above mentioned suggestions. I've learned both what to do, and not to do, thanks to my own stubbornness, and the brilliance of friends (some of whom have become professionals), peers, and many, many experienced professionals (think Descendents). There are no guarantees, regardless of how good you are, which applies to everything in life. But when we maximize what's in our control, the odds improve. 

I could talk for hours about good examples and various gear, but I'll save that for future posts. As always, questions are welcomed, but unflattering answers may follow. 

With that said, go get those tubes fired up and cymbals ringing. If you feel that what I've said will have a significant impact on your band, great. Feel free to tip me with a financial reward. A copy of your work would be be appreciated as well.




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