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Guitarist

Last updated: Aug 11, 2021
Reads: 1,104

Career Overview

Guitarists are skilled performers who also frequently write and record their own music. In addition to practicing and performing, they teach, handle tasks such as booking shows, and collaborate with other musicians.

Alternate Titles

Guitar Player

Salary Range

$11 to $87+ an hour1

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Career Description

Guitarists play the acoustic, electric, and classical guitar. They perform live and play in studio for recording sessions. They practice regularly to learn new music, keep their skills sharp, and to keep them in top-notch shape for gigs. Many write and perform their own solo work. Still others prefer to focus on collaborating with their fellow musicians as part of a band.

Many Singer-Songwriters use the guitar to accompany themselves, and might even be multi-instrumentalists, switching to saxophone, piano, or another instrument effortlessly. A professional Guitarist needs to be prepared with a lot of knowledge about music and must develop impressive technical prowess on the fingerboard.

The most in-demand Guitarists cultivate a unique and instantly recognizable sound and approach to playing the guitar. They have massive skills and solid technical ability, developed through years of practice and playing experience. Some excel at one or two styles, while others specialize in playing many styles of music, both contemporary and classical.

Whether on tour, in the studio, or on the concert stage, they are easy to get along with, friendly, and have strong networking and people skills. Building up a strong reputation as a soloist or member of a band takes time and sustained effort.

All professional Guitarists are deeply in love with the guitar, playing the guitar, and guitar music. Simply put, they love what they do.

In addition to the performance aspect of their career, Guitarists also handle many music business-related tasks, such as booking gigs, marketing their music, creating social media content, and scheduling rehearsals. Many Guitarists also teach music to private students.

To get an in-depth look at what it’s like to be a professional Guitarist, we talked to:

  • Jim Campilongo (Solo Artist, Lead Guitarist in The Little Willies)
  • Daniel Donato (Cosmic Country Guitarist)
  • Sharon Isbin (GRAMMY-winning Classical Guitarist, Founding Director of the Guitar Dept at The Juilliard School)

What do professional Guitar Players do on a typical day?

Jim Campilongo (Solo Artist, Lead Guitarist in The Little Willies)

That’s a great question because it’s something I wonder about my peers. And I ask them constantly, “What are you practicing? When are you practicing? How do you practice?” My questions are usually practice-oriented.

I start my days really early. In my opinion, being a professional musician doesn’t mean waking up at 1 pm, smoking a joint, and practicing in front of the mirror. I don’t want to dissuade anybody, but it requires a lot of work and wearing a lot of hats.

I’m working on my Weebly website, my newsletter graphics; getting the links squared away and making sure they work. Booking gigs. Writing a bio for a group. Emailing fellow musicians for scheduling or calculating budgets for airlines and hotels is the tip of the iceberg.

The other thing is I do a Patreon and every week I make an instructional video. I’m giving lessons on Zoom, I write a monthly column for Guitar Player Magazine called “Vinyl Treasures.” In a way, I feel like a Cartoonist who has to come up with a new cartoon every day. I’m constantly thinking about what am I doing for next week’s Patreon? Who am I going to write about next month or when the queue runs out?

There are all these things that go along with being a “professional musician.”

I basically just use social media to promote myself. I usually find social media a multitude of opinions I didn’t want to know, but the alternative is not doing it–and that’s not an alternative I take. How else can I let folks know who I’m up to?

My days are typical and atypical at the same time. I do try to practice every day. I have constant lists of material I want to work on, what I need to work on. If I just go pick up a guitar and wait for inspiration, I might skip practicing. I need structure.

Truth be told, I don’t want to practice every day, just sitting in a room all alone with a guitar. I’ve been playing guitar for forty-nine years; it’s not like I wake up every morning clicking my heels saying, “Oh boy, I get to practice arpeggios today!” But if I have a goal to practice, reinforced with some structure, I’ll do it.

It’s kind of like doing sit-ups. I’ll lay down on the floor doing sit-ups and I’ve never been more comfortable in my life than before I did them. Then I do them and I’m like, “I’m really glad I did those sit-ups,” but twenty-three hours later I completely forget that feeling of gratification and I don’t want to do them again. Sometimes practice is a little bit like that.

Daniel Donato (Cosmic Country Guitarist)

There is no blanket statement that fits for everyone. When I am home, I wake up early, I exercise, I read, I do my non-creative work such as business, phone calls, etc, and then I move onto my creative work which can be writing, practicing, and content creation. When we tour with the #cosmiccountry band, I basically turn into a simple machine that sleeps a lot, and stays purely in creative mode, while my Tour Manager and management handle my non-creative tasks.

Sharon Isbin (Founding Director of the Guitar Dept at The Juilliard School )

Speaking for myself, I practice Transcendental Meditation twice a day, twenty minutes each session–it’s a great relaxation technique that can benefit anyone! I jog some twelve miles a week to stay fit, though not on performance, rehearsal, or travel days. I eat vegetarian, organic, and healthfully, practice the guitar, read, answer emails, do social media to promote new recordings, projects and shows. I go on tour to perform, and when in town, teach and direct guitar departments I created at The Juilliard School and the Aspen Music Festival.

Salary

Most professional Guitarists work as freelancers on a project basis, whether for live concerts or in the recording studio. They earn a flat fee for a session or gig, and sometimes they might be paid an hourly rate (see below). Playing in cover bands tends to pay the most, especially for high-profile gigs, private and corporate events, or weddings. Guitar Players who sing can earn extra pay for adding their vocals to a performance.

Starting out playing in bars, clubs, or community events, pay is usually low, maybe $100 a night or even less. It can only go up from there. A high-profile event might earn musicians a $300 to $500 performance fee, while famous Guitarists or those working with famous artists can earn thousands a night. Many tours pay by the week, and so do jobs on cruise ships or at amusement parks.

While there’s a lot of work out there for Guitarists, there’s also a lot of competition, which tends to suppress pay rates. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that on average, musicians make around $11 per hour on the low end of the spectrum and $87 or more on the higher end of the spectrum.

There is a wide range for Guitarists, with superstar, household-name musicians making even more than the stated $87 an hour. These individuals can make thousands of dollars per gig. The average working Session Guitarist can earn a living at it, but many hold down other “day jobs” to provide for a better income and living standard. This is common across all professions in the arts.

How do Guitar Players make money?

Jim Campilongo (Solo Artist, Lead Guitarist in The Little Willies)

Teaching is how I first started making some kind of consistent money. It wasn’t from sporadic gigs. I was really fortunate because I started playing when everybody played guitar. Guitars were like the computer. You’d go to somebody’s house and you’d go, “Oh you know Neil Young?”–show me that!

I was lucky enough to get a teaching gig at a shopping center and I really learned a lot about the guitar. In order for me to teach, I had to answer the questions. Sometimes I was on page ten and the student was on page seven. Sure, there were some things at that time I could do really well, but I did learn a lot. It’s a tough job and it’s very draining to give lessons. Out of the multitude of jobs I’ve had, I think the hardest job I’ve ever had was teaching.

Gigs don’t pay unless you’re in a top 40 band. If you’re in some rock band and people are playing originals, there’s no money in it. I mean, I pay my guys now no matter what. But I have multiple income sources, so it’s not like I can’t pay my band, get groceries, and my rent. It’s more like “I’m taking a loss at this gig, but I wanna do this gig because it’s important.”

People ask me for advice and I always say, do one thing for your career every day. Practicing doesn’t count. Reach out to a club. Call a Drummer. Hang up lesson posters. Post on Twitter. Organize a mailing list. Put up a Craigslist ad saying you’re available to teach. It doesn’t have to be huge. But at the end of the month, you’ve done thirty things for your career. And then the days where I feel like, what I call “feeling like raw hamburger”–like I just wanna pull the covers over my head–I do it anyway. Because I do my one thing for my career.

Daniel Donato (Cosmic Country Guitarist)

There are many avenues of revenue possible for the modern day musician. My earned income is through touring, ad revenue, royalties, private instruction, e-commerce. My portfolio income comes through dividends, interests, and gains on investments.

Sharon Isbin (Founding Director of the Guitar Dept at The Juilliard School )

On the music front, I am paid for concerts, teaching, recording, and publishing.

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Career Outlook

While it’s undeniable that music is a difficult career, the same can be said for just about every other career. To become a professional at anything takes a lot of preparation, dedication, persistence, and hard work. Still, there are careers that might offer more job security, autonomy, and higher incomes, at least starting out.

For most people who choose music for their career, the thought of being in a 9-5 office job might seem abhorrent. Becoming a musician isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart, but what other job will let you play music on stage in front of thousands of people and get paid for it? Music as a career has its ups and downs, but the professionals know how to take it all in stride and be thankful for the opportunities they have to be creative and have lots of fun while earning a decent living for themselves.

Like all professional musicians, the career-seeking Guitarist usually feels the choice was not theirs to make; it was made for them. There just isn’t anything else they could even see themselves doing in life. Staying true to the music, they find a way to support themselves, sometimes living in a closet at a friend’s apartment for a while, working a day job, living off very little income while they maneuver themselves for that “big break” that will finally put them out there.

It’s not an easy life, but as a young person, it’s a lot easier than for someone advanced in years. The big breaks tend to be a lot of little breaks strung together. Being in a well-regarded band; meeting a certain person in the industry; learning new techniques; getting accepted to a music school; getting a job inside a record company–these are all examples of little breaks that eventually turn into bigger and better breaks. The casual observer doesn’t see all this. They just see the musicians on stage and think it happened overnight. That’s not really how this all works.

There is most certainly a career to be had as a professional Guitarist. For proof, just look at the people doing it. Studying the careers of other successful musicians is recommended, including reading any biographies, watching interviews, and sometimes even talking to them directly. Many people will share their “secrets” of success if asked. There are many examples of newcomers who eventually got to play with their heroes.

Always be curious and try to learn from the best how to chart a career course forward. There’s usually an oversupply of great musicians but there’s also a strong demand for people who can play really well. Meeting that demand is one of the keys to forging a career beyond your wildest dreams.

Career Path

Every professional Guitarist can recall the moment they fell in love with the guitar, and they knew at that moment that playing the instrument at the highest level would be their lifelong goal. Falling in love with playing guitar and dedicating oneself to playing music is where every professional Guitarist got their start. The next step is learning to play guitar well, which could take many months or even years of practicing, learning new music and techniques.

Learning the fingerboard inside and out, playing chords, melodies, and solos, studying the recordings of established musicians, and gaining understanding of the many styles of music is all par for the course. Most budding Guitarists find a good Teacher, get together with other musicians to jam, join, or form a band, and play gigs (or busk on the street) to get their playing experience, chops, and musical skills together. This prepares them for the competitive business that is music.

There are a lot of great Guitarists, so the competition is fierce. The most in-demand session players will have developed their own recognizable sound and have good people and business skills to back up their talent and ability. Learning new music quickly and being good at networking lead to more and more opportunities, and as reputation grows, more and better work comes along.

Some musicians spend most of their lives working with a specific band (think Jerry Garcia, Keith Richards), while some others specialize in developing a solo career (think Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter). Others might do a combination of these things, while working constantly as a Session Player for recordings and tours (think Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton).

As skill, ambition, and network increase, a great Guitarist can forge a meaningful and sustainable career in music. It invariably takes long-term dedication, strategy, talent, really hard work, plus some luck to turn the love of playing guitar into a career.

How do you become a Guitarist in a successful band?

Jim Campilongo (Solo Artist, Lead Guitarist in The Little Willies)

I would encourage people to be good at what they do independent of their band. If you have to rely on others, sometimes that’s a recipe for failure.

For the first probably ten years of my career (if you want to even call that a career), I felt that me and my band members should do something personal and unique to us. I had a garage band. We played our own music and worked on our own music, but eventually, it became kind of a wedding band where we did the hits of the day. I felt that we started competing with thousands of others as opposed to having something unique and personal where we weren’t competing with anyone.

My career started to become a career when I thought I was finished (ha ha). I think I was thirty-two or thirty-three. It took me a long time to get it together–to take practicing seriously. Once I was thirty, it took some pressure off. I loved the music of Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, Buddy Charleton and Leon Rhodes, and hot ’50s/early ‘60s instrumental country music. Couldn’t dance to it. It wasn’t country, it wasn’t rockabilly and I assumed there was no audience for it, but I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” And I did it. And because of that, I didn’t compete with anybody. And the audience can feel one commitment, passion and energy.

I believed in it and had a little knack for writing that led to releasing my first record. From that point on, I’ve put out fourteen records. Not all that specific genre, but that was my philosophy–BE YOURSELF. I think I benefited from it, instead of being a Singer-Songwriter who sounds like “fill in the blank” and looks like “fill in the blank.” And you’re competing with all that. If you completely believe in it and that’s your face and your voice and your soul: then do it. But if you’re compromising, somebody is going to do it better than you because that’s them. You can’t beat anybody at their own game.

Daniel Donato (Cosmic Country Guitarist)

A band is a whole different deal than being a solo artist, yet the way to success is different for everyone. I must stress that success is not a one size fits all term, especially in the music business. I define success by bringing my music to as many people as possible that genuinely find value in it.

I’ve been doing that, and am continuing to grow at this, by consistently communicating through content, releasing music, being active on my podcast The Lost Highway, and most importantly, making sure that anything I put my name on will make me proud five years from now.

Sharon Isbin (Founding Director of the Guitar Dept at The Juilliard School )

I’m mostly a soloist, but have formed partnerships with other Guitarists, Instrumentalists, and Singers that I admire, including a trio called Guitar Passions with Jazz Guitarists Stanley Jordan and Romero Lubambo. My most recent band, Strings for Peace, [and] the title of our new bestselling album, was created when invited to join India’s foremost family of sarod masters, Amjad Ali Khan, and his two sons.


How long does it take to become a good Guitar Player?

Jim Campilongo (Solo Artist, Lead Guitarist in The Little Willies)

It depends on your goals. Do you want to become Johnny Ramone? That’s gonna take six months not including Johnny’s brilliant laser-like focus. Creedence Clearwater? That doesn’t take that long. That’s the great thing about guitar. If you learn three chords, you could be a great artist. Johnny Ramone didn’t know a minor chord but he became, in a sense, a great artist with an important legacy.

It’s kind of like saying, “I want to exercise, how long will it take me to look like Baryshnikov?” or, “How long will it take me to lose 25 lbs?” It’s so relative. I would generally say it took me about six months before I wasn’t thinking “My fingers hurt!”

Aside from being driven, I was lucky to find a really encouraging Teacher. Her name was Bunnie Gregoire. She was a fascinating, generous person. I went to my first lesson concerned she’d say, “You’re not talented–get out!” but I went to it and she was supportive, not to mention she was a sixty-year-old beatnik. She kinda spoke beatnik: “When cats are grooving” and that sort of thing. I thought, “This is the most interesting person I’ve ever met and I want more!”

I was really surprised at how difficult playing the guitar was. It hurt my fingers. What I thought would be easy wasn’t easy. I thought it was all in the right hand, the picking hand. I didn’t have a clue. I’d be struggling and squeaking out crappy songs. Commit to dedicating six months to learning, and after six months, you will be creating something that resembles music.

Daniel Donato (Cosmic Country Guitarist)

I started busking on the street at twelve in Nashville. I then got into Nashville’s most famous house band at sixteen. We then played four shows a week, at four hours a night, sixty songs a night, for a total of 464 times. It is different for everyone.

Sharon Isbin (Founding Director of the Guitar Dept at The Juilliard School )

I began guitar studies age nine, and with good training, hard work, and long hours of practice, I began performing professionally at age sixteen.

Experience & Skills

Starting out with lessons and playing with other musicians or in a band, the aspiring professional Guitarist will spend long hours practicing. While this takes a certain amount of discipline, it isn’t as hard as it seems, because it’s great fun to practice as knowledge accumulates and learning surges ahead.

According to most pros, practicing gets harder later on, because it can be frustrating to have to relearn things you forgot, and you won’t be moving ahead as quickly day-to-day. Most Guitarists practice more when they’re starting out than later in their career, depending on time available and what they need to accomplish.

Knowing the fretboard “like the back of your hand” (really, really well), developing excellent fingerboard technique, being able to play chords, melodies, and improvised solos cleanly and with the appropriate musical feeling (e.g., using proper dynamics and rhythmic “feel”) regardless of style, are expected from professional Guitarists. Being able to read music, both single notes and chord symbols, is extremely helpful and even expected in many musical situations, but not all. There are some very successful Guitarists who are not great readers, though many Guitarists do read music very well.

Reading and other important skills can be learned in school, and there are many excellent guitar programs at famous schools, colleges, and universities around the US and the world.

Attending college and earning a music degree with guitar as principal instrument used to be less common than it is today. While not all aspiring professional Guitarists choose to study music in school, those that do will have the advantage of being musically prepared in other areas, such as arranging, music production, songwriting, and music business. College is also a great place to network with other musicians who will become the future leaders in the music industry.

Beyond fretboard skills, general music knowledge, the ability to play in ensembles and bands, and music business acumen, the professional Guitarist would do well to cultivate an appealing, easy-going personality, and be able to get along well with others in a group. Check your ego at the door, smile, be personable and friendly, and play only what’s best for the song. Having the right attitude will go very far in the world of professional music and being well-prepared and easy to work with are what ultimately get the callbacks for Session Guitarists.

How long do professional Guitarists practice each day?

Jim Campilongo (Solo Artist, Lead Guitarist in The Little Willies)

It changes but I shoot for an hour as a minimum. (That isn’t including playing while I’m watching a movie and stuff, which I do a lot of anyway.) I sit and focus for at least an hour every day. It’s distilled. It has goals. Sometimes there’s blood on the floor from struggle. It’s not easy some days. But I don’t go, “I’m gonna play the half a song I’ve been playing for twenty years that I don’t know the second half of.” It’s goal-oriented work for about an hour.

I usually enjoy it. Sometimes I don’t want to do it, but as soon as I’m in, it’s good. It’s a little like jumping in a pool. It can be uncomfortable at first. But settling in and feeling grateful for the moment usually sets in.

When I first started playing, it was more like two or three, if not six hours. I was totally obsessed.

It’s efficient now. A lot of it is relearning things I forgot, which is frustrating. That’s a big part of it. The six hours came really easily back then because I was in a new zone, like a new altered reality.

I suggest to students to try to practice five minutes a day. Ease into it. I’m not a real taskmaster because I think learning is a marathon and not a sprint. If I tell some guy who’s forty-years-old, has three kids, and a demanding day job that he has to practice an hour a day? That’s when “try five minutes” is reasonable. It’s like a relationship. You have to work and keep in touch with that relationship. Five minutes will generally turn into twenty once you’re in it. But if you say you have to practice an hour or not practice at all, people will choose not to.

Daniel Donato (Cosmic Country Guitarist)

I focus at least four hours of a day on music on a creative level. I might have non-creative tasks that add onto that. Four hours is quite the task.

Sharon Isbin (Founding Director of the Guitar Dept at The Juilliard School )

In high school, I practiced five hours a day. As a pro, sometimes I do much more when learning demanding new works under deadline.

Education & Training

Starting out early in life with a good instrument and an effective Teacher will give an advantage, but it’s not a hard and fast requirement. There are plenty of examples of people who started playing much later in life. Playing in bands, learning to read music (not tablature), learning songs, understanding more than just the basics of music theory, attending concerts, and listening to a LOT of great music are all components of the education of the contemporary Guitarist.

To progress from a beginner to an intermediate student player usually takes 6-12 months of study and practice, to become an advanced player or a concert-level student performer should take 3-5 years for most people.

Keep in mind that while it’s easy to get started with learning some chords and playing accompaniment to easy songs on the guitar, most people never progress beyond this level. This means the future pro will need to apply themselves if they are serious about learning to play well. Practicing long hours isn’t always productive either; it’s possible to practice ineffectively without knowing what you should really be working on at each level.

Therefore, most Guitarists choose to find a Teacher to work with them. There are top pros who continue to take lessons! If a top pro is studying with a Teacher, why wouldn’t you? There’s only so much one can accomplish on their own, and the right Teacher can point out the things you should and shouldn’t be working on and show you how to attack them.

Compared to several decades ago, there are now many more college guitar programs. It’s common for students to earn a bachelor’s degree in guitar performance, and even master’s degrees are available. College can also be a great place to build the networks needed to succeed later in the music business, and to learn all about the different facets of music and the music industry.

College programs also offer unique performing experiences which might not be available elsewhere, such as performing with a jazz big band or guitar ensembles. While colleges and universities are an expensive way to learn, keep in mind that there are also many scholarships available. Studying with an array of experienced faculty at a college or university can be an immensely valuable life-changing experience.

Going to a top school in a major urban center (e.g., New York City or Los Angeles) can lead to many professional opportunities and is a great way to cram a lot of learning into a relatively short time. What you can learn in school in a few years might take a lot longer to learn otherwise.

So, attending a school can be a huge time-saver for some. Everything learned has some intrinsic value; learning is never wasted. Whether in school or by studying privately, dedication to lifelong learning should start early for the aspiring professional Guitarist.

Guitarist Jim Campilongo
Jim Campilongo

When TONEQUEST MAGAZINE wrote “…another stellar Campilongo record from the fertile mind of Jim Campilongo. How does he do it? Damned if we know…” they were looking at an overview of Campilongo’s fourteen solo releases and commenting on the music’s growth and diversity. The Jim Campilongo 4 Tet is another step in this evolution.

BILLBOARD MAGAZINE calls Jim Campilongo “an American treasure,” an accolade which this Guitarist’s artistry and influential career has richly earned him. TIMEOUTNYC describes Campilongo perfectly–”New York has no shortage of guitar heroes but few cover as many bases as Jim Campilongo; reveals a range that extends from seductive country-swing to atmospheric jazz and well beyond.” And the NEW YORKER says “There it was again: the stinging treble, the spooky overtones, the strings snapping and booming under his hands the sound of a Tele being played as skillfully and exuberantly as it can be played, it sounded like nothing and nobody else sounded like Jim Campilongo.”

With fourteen albums of original material and guest appearances on dozens of recordings–from the Bammie-winner’s contribution on Cake’s million-selling Prolonging the Magic to (most recently) doing lead guitar duties with The Little Willies, his band with Norah Jones–Campilongo has played with JJ Cale, Al Anderson, Gillian Welch/David Rawlings, Peter Rowan, Martha Wainwright, Bright Eyes, Teddy Thompson, and Burning Spear to name a few, has earned two Gold records, and has written music for national ads for National Grid, Volkswagen, SBC, Michelin and Jack Daniel’s.

Campilongo also had repeat appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Later . . . with Jools Holland (BBC), Abbey Road Sessions (BBC), and has been interviewed on many major radio shows.

THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Through the lean ropy sound of his Fender Telecaster, Mr. Campilongo connects American styles (Blues, Rock, Country, Jazz, R&B) in a sly knowing way.”

THE NEW YORKER
“Jim Campilongo holds court. American music is a melting pot of influences, but few guitarists capture the nuances as well as Campilongo does.”

NY POST
“Campilongo is one of those New York secrets. A master of the electric guitar, he weaves in spaghetti western picks, blues chords and jazz refs into his haunting tunes, a combo of originals and covers.”

NYC VILLAGE VOICE
“An engaging improviser whose interest in entertainment is equal to his interest in art. His supple moves can keep an audience enthralled– meaning their asses wiggle and their minds jiggle.”

JAZZTIMES
“You’ve got the makings of a very twisted guitar hero who deserves worshipping. Clever, crafty, quirky and cool.”

THE NEW YORKER
“There it was again: the stinging treble, the spooky overtones, the strings snapping and booming under his hands the sound of a Tele being played as skillfully and exuberantly as it can be played it sounded like nothing and nobody else sounded like Jim Campilongo.”

TIMEOUT NEW YORK
“New York has no shortage of guitar heroes but few cover as many bases as Jim Campilongo; reveals a range that extends from seductive country-swing to atmospheric jazz and well beyond.”

Guitarist Daniel Donato
Daniel Donato

When people first meet Daniel Donato, they’re not fully braced for this walking tornado of creative energy. “They think there’s something that tips the scale in ways they don’t understand,” says Donato about his over-the-top, slightly manic vibe. “But what actually tips the scale is the amount of thought and analysis I put into my work and art, all of which is taken from the lessons of my life.”

Donato, a 25-year-old Nashville native, has distilled those life lessons into his debut album, A Young Man’s Country, his proper introduction to the general musical audience. Recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium in a mere two days and produced by guitar-ace Robben Ford, the record weaves outlaw country, Grateful Dead-style Americana, and first-rate songwriting into a singular form Donato calls “21st-century cosmic country.”

It might surprise some that the Telecaster-wielding wunderkind, who at 16 became the youngest musician to regularly play the iconic honky-tonk Robert’s Western World while gigging with the Don Kelley Band, began his musical journey in a purely millennial fashion. Before he ever picked up a guitar, he discovered he had an aptitude for music via the video game Guitar Hero. At the time, he didn’t feel compelled to try his hand at the real thing until one day, about the age of 12, he heard the electric perfection of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” blast from a set of speakers and his world was changed forever.

“It was the first time I ever had a vision for my life,” says Donato, who was partly drawn to music because he sucked royally at skateboarding. “I then took one of my dad’s old guitars . . . and I literally fell in love with it.” From then on, Donato lived and breathed music, practicing his chops around the clock. He’d play before school, during his lunch break, and in the evenings at home, sometimes falling asleep with the six-string in his hands.

It wasn’t long before he was busking on lower Broadway in Nashville, playing eight hours a day on weekends for tips. It was after one of those day’s sessions that he got a wild hair and snuck into Robert’s on a night when house act the Don Kelley Band was playing and his wig-dome was blown. “It was the first time I ever saw a band that was that good up close,” Donato said. “So I’m literally watching them play and I’m crying. I decided right then that I wanted to be the best Guitar Player in the world.”

Donato continued busking outside arenas before John Mayer and Phish concerts and on the streets of Nashville and it was then, while playing on Broadway, that he’d give Don Kelley his business card every Saturday night, hoping for a chance to audition. One day, while still a junior in high school, he got the call to come play. Donato was more than ready, and he delivered the goods in spades. He was so good, in fact, that he became a regular member of the band, performing four nights a week for more than 450 shows with the group.

Playing nightly with the Don Kelley Band was a formidable education for the young musician. Jamming regularly with Nashville’s most seasoned players, stalwart pickers who may have played in Buck Owens’ band, or Dolly Parton’s, or Alan Jackson’s, expanded his musical vocabulary while honing his stage presence. Along the way, he was soaking up stories of adventures on the road and learning about the ups and downs of the music business. In short, he was gaining priceless life lessons and a musical education from wells that run deep into the musical history of Nashville.

Around the time he turned 18, one of Donato’s high-school Teachers, a serious music lover who had seen his student play at Robert’s, gave him a Grateful Dead box set. It was another eureka moment for the Guitarist. His love for the Dead may have been ignited much earlier by virtue of the fact that his mother was a bona fide Deadhead who followed the group on tour when she was pregnant with the future Guitarist, but it was that collection that changed the way he looked at music. “It gave me a tie to all of the classic country gold I’d been working down at the honky-tonks each weekend,” he said. “Grateful Dead and Merle Haggard had always lived in my heart, but now, the link was made, and I had a vision on how to keep it alive for this generation that I am coming from.”

During the days of his Robert’s residency, Donato continued to busk at various locales, even playing the Grand Ole Opry, and it is the sum of all these gigs, experiences any teenage musician would kill for, that inform the sounds on A Young Man’s Country.

“Ain’t Living Long Like This,” one of three covers on the album, is a song by Waylon Jennings, who was recording at the Sound Emporium the day Donato was born. “Angel From Montgomery,” a song Donato learned on the fly while busking for tourists, pays tribute to the late John Prine. Donato recorded his unique take on the tune before Prine’s death. The Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” is tacked on to “Meet Me In Dallas,” a tune Donato wrote while on the road with Paul Cauthen. The other seven songs, all originals, showcase the promise of a young Songwriter coming into his own, one of the highlights being “Luck of the Draw.”

The message of these songs contains the central tenet of Donato’s “Cosmic Country” ethos, which is about finding the courage to blaze your own path. As such, it is an ethos the artist extends beyond music into the channels of social media, where he’s built up a huge following of devoted “DD Heads,” as his fans call themselves. His podcast, Daniel Donato’s Lost Highway, brings together like-minded creatives to get at the heart of what makes artists tick, for which he’s interviewed Brothers Osborne, Brent Cobb, Orville Peck, and Garry Talent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Incubated to the sounds of the Dead, educated by some of Nashville’s finest players, and having more than 2,000 shows under his belt and a social media presence, Daniel Donato is indeed a millennial whirligig of creative fire. He’s been dabbling in professional music since the age of 14 and yet he’s just getting started. A Young Man’s Country is the portrait of a restless artist as a young man, one whose story is singular and is still in its exciting, early chapters–and as this effort shows, the future is indeed cosmic.

Classical Guitarist Sharon Isbin
Sharon Isbin

Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique and versatility, multiple GRAMMY Award winner Sharon Isbin was named the 2020 Musical America Worldwide Instrumentalist of the Year, the first guitarist ever to receive the coveted honor in its 59 year award history. Hailed as “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time,” she is the winner of Guitar Player magazine’s Best Classical Guitarist award, Germany’s Echo Klassik, Concert Artists Guild’s Virtuoso Award, and the Toronto and Madrid Queen Sofia competitions, and was the first guitarist ever to win the Munich ARD Competition. Isbin has appeared as soloist with over 200 orchestras and has given sold-out performances in many of the world’s finest halls, including New York’s Carnegie and Geffen Halls, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, London’s Barbican and Wigmore Halls, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Paris’ Châtelet, Vienna’s Musikverein, Munich’s Herkulessaal, and Madrid’s Teatro Real. She has served as Artistic Director and soloist of festivals she created for Carnegie Hall and the Ordway Music Theatre (St. Paul), New York’s 92Y, and the national radio series Guitarjam.

American Public Television’s presentation of the acclaimed one-hour documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour has been seen by millions on over 200 PBS stations across the U.S., and abroad including Europe, Japan and Mexico. Winner of the ASCAP Television Broadcast Award, the film is available with bonus performances on DVD and Blu-ray. Watch the trailer at: www.sharonisbintroubadour.com Other recent national television performances on PBS include the Billy Joel Gershwin Prize with Josh Groban, and Tavis Smiley. A frequent guest on NPR’s All Things Considered and A Prairie Home Companion, Isbin has been featured on television throughout the world, including CBS Sunday Morning, Showtime’s The L Word, and as soloist on the GRAMMY nominated soundtrack of Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed. She performed at Ground Zero for the first internationally televised 9/11 memorial, in concert at the White House by invitation of President Obama, and as the only classical artist to perform in the 2010 GRAMMY Awards. She has been profiled in periodicals from People to Elle, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, as well as appearing on the covers of 50 magazines.

Isbin’s catalogue of over 30 albums from Baroque, Spanish/Latin and 20th Century to crossover and jazz-fusion, has sold nearly a million copies and reflects her remarkable versatility. Her two latest releases in May 2020 of world premiere recordings of music composed for her are Affinity featuring Chris Brubeck’s acclaimed concerto for guitar and orchestra, and Strings for Peace, with India’s legendary Amjad Ali Khan in a program of ragas for guitar, sarod and tabla. Her 2019 Souvenirs of Spain & Italy with the Pacifica Quartet showcases beautiful and rarely heard guitar quintets from the Baroque to mid-20th century, including works by Vivaldi, Boccherini and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and debuted at #1 on Amazon and #2 on Billboard. Her Alma Española with Argentinian-American opera star Isabel Leonard has also been a #1 bestseller, and is the first Spanish art song album with guitar of its kind in 40 years. It includes twelve world premiere arrangements by Isbin, and was honored with a 2018 GRAMMY Award for Producer of the Year, Classical in recordings by David Frost. Other recent #1 bestselling titles include Sharon Isbin: 5 Classic Albums and Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions with rock and jazz guests Steve Vai, Steve Morse, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Stanley Jordan and Romero Lubambo. Her 2010 GRAMMY-winning Journey to the New World with guests Joan Baez and Mark O’Connor spent 63 consecutive weeks on top Billboard charts. Her Dreams of a World soared onto top classical Billboard charts, edging out The Three Tenors, and earned her a GRAMMY for Best Instrumental Soloist, making her the first classical guitarist to receive a GRAMMY in 28 years. Her world premiere recording of concerti written for her by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun received a GRAMMY and Germany’s prestigious Echo Klassik Award. She received a Latin GRAMMY nomination and GLAAD Media Award nomination for Outstanding Music Artist (alongside Melissa Etheridge) for her Billboard Top 10 Classical disc with the New York Philharmonic of Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez/Ponce/Villa-Lobos concertos, the Philharmonic’s only recording with guitar, which followed their Lincoln Center performances with Ms. Isbin as their first guitar soloist in 26 years. Other bestselling titles include Baroque Favorites for Guitar with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, and her GRAMMY nominated Journey to the Amazon with Brazilian percussionist Thiago de Mello and saxophonist Paul Winter. Her recordings have received many other honors, including Recording of the Year in Gramophone and CD Review, Recording of the Month in Stereo Review, and Album of the Year in Guitar Player.

Other CDs include J.S.Bach Complete Lute Suites, Aaron Jay Kernis’ Double Concerto with violinist Cho-Liang Lin and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Wayfaring Stranger with mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, and concerti by Joaquin Rodrigo which the composer praised as “magnificent.” She is also featured on the GRAMMY Foundation’s Smart Symphonies CD distributed to over five million families.

Sharon Isbin has been acclaimed for expanding the guitar repertoire with some of the finest new works of our time and has commissioned and premiered over 80 works by world-renowned composers, including more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Works written for her by John Corigliano, Joseph Schwantner and Lukas Foss are featured on her American Landscapes, the first-ever recording of American guitar concerti. (In November 1995, it was launched in the space shuttle Atlantis and presented to Russian cosmonauts during a rendezvous with Mir.) She premiered Concert de Gaudí by Christopher Rouse with Christoph Eschenbach and the NDR Symphony, followed by the U.S. premiere with the Dallas Symphony. Among many other composers who have written for her are Joan Tower, David Diamond, Aaron Jay Kernis, Leo Brouwer, Howard Shore, Ned Rorem and Ami Maayani, with highlights including John Duarte’s Joan Baez Suite, and a duo by rock guitarist Steve Vai which they performed in Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. Recent premieres of compositions written for her include a work by Richard Danielpour co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall for its 125th anniversary and by Chicago’s Harris Theater, and the dazzling Affinity: Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra by Chris Brubeck which honors his father Dave Brubeck in his 2020-21 centennial.

Highlights include tours with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Austria’s Tonkünstler Orchestra and Belgium’s Philharmonique de Liege, a week of performances at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Filarmonica Toscanini in Milan, MIDEM Classical Awards in Cannes, and most recently, a 21-city Guitar Passions tour with jazz greats Stanley Jordan and Romero Lubambo, as well as collaborations with Sting, tours with the Pacifica Quartet, performances with the Detroit, National and Montreal Symphonies, and sold-out recitals in Carnegie Hall, Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center and the Kennedy Center. Her latest partnership, Strings for Peace, with sarod master Amjad Ali Khan in an extraordinary program of ragas for guitar and sarod, is an eloquent and impassioned call for harmony—in music, religion, and culture throughout the world. Strings for Peace debuted on a multi-city tour of India and will appear throughout North America in 2020 along with an album release.

Isbin has toured Europe annually since she was seventeen, and appears as soloist with orchestras throughout the world, including the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Montreal, St. Louis, Nashville, New Jersey, Louisville, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Buffalo and Utah Symphonies; the London Symphony, Orchestre National de France; and BBC Scottish, Lisbon Gulbenkian, Prague, Milan Verdi, Belgrade, Mexico City, Jerusalem and Tokyo Symphonies; and chamber orchestras including Saint Paul, Los Angeles, Zurich, Scottish and Lausanne. Her festival appearances include Mostly Mozart, Aspen, Ravinia, Grant Park, Interlochen, Santa Fe, Mexico City, Bermuda, Hong Kong, Montreux, Strasbourg, Paris, Athens, Istanbul, Ravenna, Prague and Budapest International Festivals.

As a chamber musician, Ms. Isbin has also performed with the Emerson String Quartet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a Guitar Summit tour with jazz greats Herb Ellis, Stanley Jordan and Michael Hedges, trio recordings with Larry Coryell and Laurindo Almeida, and duo recordings with Carlos Barbosa-Lima. She collaborated with Antonio Carlos Jobim, and has shared the stage with luminaries from Aretha Franklin to Muhammad Ali.

Born in Minneapolis, Sharon Isbin began her guitar studies at age nine in Italy, and later studied with Andrès Segovia, Oscar Ghiglia, and for ten years with noted Bach scholar and keyboardist Rosalyn Tureck with whom she collaborated on landmark editions/recordings of the Bach lute suites for guitar (Warner Classics/G. Schirmer). She received a B.A. cum laude from Yale University and a Master of Music from the Yale School of Music. She authored the Classical Guitar Answer Book, and is Director of guitar departments at the Aspen Music Festival and The Juilliard School (which she created in l989 becoming the first and only guitar instructor in the institution’s 100-year history).

Sharon Isbin has been practicing Transcendental Meditation since age 17 and donates her time to perform benefits for the David Lynch Foundation, along with Katy Perry, Sting, Hugh Jackman, Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, to bring TM to at-risk communities. In her spare time, she enjoys trekking in the jungles of Latin America, cross-country skiing, snorkeling and mountain hiking.

  1. 1US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Musicians and Singers". US Bureau of Labor Statistics. published: 9 April 2021. retrieved on: 6 August 2021
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