How to become a musical adventurist
It’s a long journey to becoming a musical adventurist. Well, is for some anyway. I guess some come to it a little more quickly. All I can do is give you the step-by-step procedure that I know. So here we go.
Step 1: Be born into music and hard work
Find a mother who loves music. One who sings all the time, whether working around the house, digging stones out of the field, or lined up in the front row of the church choir. Even if everyone else leaves the room when your mother and her sister break out the old piano accordions, stay and listen. Then love those old-time polkas and waltzes like you were born wearing them. For good measure, find a father who understands hard work, isn’t afraid to do something he’s never done before and doesn’t know how to do, and expects the same traits from you.
Step 2: Hear the music and soak it up
Make sure the mother you’ve chosen loves all kinds of music, and raid her old record collection. Listen to all of it. Listen to the Everly Brothers, the Burl Ives, those Sons of the Pioneers sides, and especially the Gunfighter Ballads of Marty Robbins. At the same time, develop an appreciation for classical music. A good way to to do this is to watch the old “Lone Ranger” show religiously and in between episodes, run around the house with a stick horse between your legs screaming out the ta-da-dum, ta-da-dum of the William Tell Overture at the top of your lungs. Finally, take full advantage of the collection of old, scratchy 45 rpm records your older brother and sisters have been amassing. Most importantly, sing along to all of it. Even the Gilbert O’Sullivan lps.
Step 3: Find at least one musical friend and stick with him
Hang out in the bedroom with this guy (alternate between yours and his for musical variety) and listen to all the Elvis and Beatles records you can get your hands on. No matter if these artists are no longer “relevant” to the kids of the day, drench yourself in their lasting relevance and listen until the 12-bar blues chord progression is as much a part of you as your blood.
Step 4: Start making your own music
Begin by putting on an air-guitar show or two for the neighborhood kids and parents. Pot lids make great mock cymbals. Then start plunking around on mom’s piano and seeing what you can do there. When it’s time to get serious, have mom teach you an E major chord on her old Silvertone acoustic guitar and set you loose with a Mel Bay book of guitar chords arranged in groups of three. Practice switching between those chords until your fingers bleed and you start recognizing the I-IV-V progression that you studied so hard in those bedrooms.
Step 5: Expand your repertoire
While the other guys in school are listening to the band of the moment, continue listening to Elvis and the Beatles, and then start digging deeper into what influenced them and what they influenced. Listen to those 8-track cassettes in all their quadraphonic glory so often that you not only know exactly where each drum beat falls, but you can also anticipate each mid-song program change precisely. Keep listening to everything that comes your way. You don’t have to like it all, but try to appreciate it all.
Step 6: Embarrass yourself
Get your first guitar--preferably a second-hand Tiesco electric and start pretending you know how to play it. Attend your first band tryout in the basement of a college apartment and realize how absolutely little you actually know about playing. And a lot of guys go wrong here: now is not the time to give up! Keep playing. Keep getting better. Get past wanting to quit when you see how good other guys are, and keep working. Tell Bob Caldwell that you can’t write songs, and internalize it when he says, “Of course you can; you’ve got a great imagination.” Then write your first songs and embarrass yourself further by playing them for friends who are too nice to tell you how bad these first songs really are.
Step 7: Force yourself into situations
Wait until your buddy--the one you can’t play as well as and who can’t find a bass player for his band--goes on vacation to Texas for a week. Convince him to let you in the band he’s forming if you can play a collection of five songs on bass by the time he gets back. Pay no mind to the fact that you can’t play bass--after all, he’s desperate. Then spend every minute while he’s gone figuring out what the hell those bass players are doing. When he gets back, make him live up to his promise after you prove you can play those songs. Spend the next decade or more playing rockabilly together and become local heroes. Tell a successful, high-powered businessman uncle that you plan to go on tour and make maybe $15,000 a year, then register the absolute look of confounded confusion as he looks at you like (as your mother loved to say) you’ve grown another head. Finally realize that going on tour isn’t really for you. You’re more of a family guy, so get married and start having babies. But never stop harboring a little piece of the dream, and keep on playing and writing.
Step 8: Develop love for audio engineering and leverage it
Start recording your own songs, start recording songs for friends, start mixing it all, and dream some more. Since you long ago decided not to be a touring musician (see Step 7), leverage the skills you learn into landing a job that uses them. Make a career where you can use these audio skills even if it’s not the focus of what you’re doing. Have some more babies. Set up a home recording studio, keep writing, playing, recording, engineering, and mixing. Once you realize a lot of your friends are asking you how they can set up their own studio, find a publisher who’ll let you write a book all about it.
Step 9: Collaborate with people more talented than you are
Through the course of your career, find other people who share your passion for making music, and--this is important--are better at it than you are. Make sure they are supportive and honest. Give each other truthful feedback as you share music back and forth. Realize that negative feedback doesn’t exist between friends and collaborators. Only constructive feedback exists, so don’t get your feelings hurt, no matter how fragile they really are. Get these talented guys to play on your recordings. At the same time, keep practicing your guitar, bass, and piano chops. Pick up any instrument you see and try to play it. Even get your lovely wife to buy you a surprise banjo for Christmas and then learn to play that. Explore different genres and playing styles that lead you through rock and roll, roots rock, Americana, acoustic blues, folk, mountain music, rockabilly, classic country, doo-wop, cinematic, guitar instrumental, and any other genre that strikes your fancy. Now you’re nearly there!
Step 10: Realize the dream has never died...it’s only been refined
Look back at your life and see that throughout all of it--all the happiness, all the sad times--music has always been there. You’ve listened to and enjoyed a crazy quilt of musical fabric that has been the common thread of your life. Be humbled by the great music you’ve heard and the great musicians you’ve met. Thank the universe for the lessons you’ve learned along the way. And finally, realize that the world has caught up to you and has supplied a huge array of musical opportunities for any musician, whether touring or not. Whether after profit or after joy. Do things musically that you aren’t supposed to do. Stuff that no one who knows you believes you are capable of doing. And maybe stuff you're not actually capable of doing. If you can’t do them well, do them as well as you can, and keep getting better. Even if what you do is not earth shattering to the whole world. You don't have to invent a new genre. Just do what you do and do it the best that you can until you can do it better. And finally, thank everyone who has helped you on your journey to becoming a musical adventurist!