How good must a performer be to play solo gigs? This is a question most solo performers asked themselves years ago. However, with the challenging economy, many band musicians are taking a long, hard look at playing solo or duo gigs. The $64,000 question is…

How good must you be to “go it alone?”

In order to size up your musical attributes, you must ask yourself some frank questions. First, what instrument do you play? If you are a guitarist, keyboards, or even horn player, you may continue reading. Drummer and bass players, you may not read any further! Seriously, I think it’s essential you play a melodic instrument in a solo act whether or not you sing. Remember that most solo gigs are played at lower volumes in more intimate settings and that while you may be playing background music, “the audience is listening,” to paraphrase Steve Vai.

It’s important that you can play that instrument solidly. You don’t have to be a virtuoso guitarist or keyboardist, but you must be able to play with adequate timing, acceptable tone and be at least passably listenable. If you are an excellent player, that’s great. I don’t think you must be a barn burning technique whiz to have an excellent solo act. However, you must be adequate and feel competent about your musical skills. If you are a horn player, I think you need to be excellent, unless you also play another instrument, like guitar, keys, etc. In short, you need to be able to carry an important portion of the song on your chosen axe.

How about singing? If you can sing well, that’s the best part of a solo performer’s career. You don’t have to be “American Idol” quality, but you should be able to sing in tune, with good tone and be able to phrase well. I have taught singers as well as guitar and bass players for over 20 years and being able to phrase means being able to cover a tune by an artist and sing all the notes, the bends, the vibrato and nuances fairly close to the record. I believe every solo performer should take voice lessons, if only to better train and develop what you have. I studied with Elizabeth Sabine in 1985 while living in Los Angeles and it helped me very much. I was able to strengthen and tone my voice, so that a dozen years later, I could sing solo gigs of four, five or even six hours straight!

I think an excellent barometer of singing ability is this- have you sung in public and received strong applause? if so, you can probably plan on developing a solo act. If not, you have your work cut out for you. Unfortunately, that’s not all. You must be a personable individual, comfortable speaking over a microphone. Being able to handle crowds is a plus, especially for shows that become exuberant and rowdy.

In fact, the final quality I look for in a solo performer is charisma. Are you comfortable in front of crowds of people? Can you project that familiarity and make an audience feel like you’re talking with them individually? This is a skill that can be developed and should be honed until you’ve got “it.”

Now if you’re feeling unqualified, let me reassure you. I saw a solo performer in North Carolina about 15 years ago that wasn’t any of these things. He played guitar like a hacksaw and his voice would probably cut glass. His nickname was “Bullhorn” or “Air Raid Siren.” It didn’t matter. He had a tip jar filled to bursting and everyone in this bar felt like this guy was their long lost fraternity brother. He broke every rule except one- he had charisma and everyone wanted this guy to play their song next. He tore through requests with little concern about dynamics, pitch and in some cases, the lyrics themselves. He had a ball and so did his audience.

Working solo is less about talent than it is gumption and intestinal fortitude. If you want it bad enough, no one is going to stop you- least of all me!

Originally posted 2009-08-22 19:13:36.