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.
$11 to $87+ an hour1
How To Become a Guitarist
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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)
- Eliot Fisk (Classical Guitarist, Professor at the Universität Mozarteum & New England Conservatory)
- 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?
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 what 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.
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.
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.
It depends on which part of the guitar world you’re talking about. I’m a classical Guitar Player. That’s a very small subset of the big picture of guitar. I wouldn’t have any idea of a Rock Guitarist or an Electric Guitarist’s profile. I do not even really know all that much about the world of jazz guitar, although I was honored to go on tour with two of the all-time greats: Joe Pass and Bill Frisell (and to record and tour for many years with flamenco legend Paco Penya.) I know people in all parts of the guitar world but even after all these years, I’m still most interested in the classical guitar.
I was the last direct disciple of Andres Segovia, who is to this day like the Albert Einstein of the classical guitar. He reinvented the instrument starting about 100 years ago or so. He finally passed away in 1987 at the age of ninety-four, but he was playing practically right up to the end–really big halls, sold-out concerts. He was a great idol for anybody my age or a little older (and remains so for anyone who loves music and has some common sense among the younger set.) Anyway, I come from that tradition.
Being a Classical Guitarist is its own special thing. In the musical world of today, there is in one sense a lot of democratization: constant posting by anyone and of anything on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, etc. The advantages of democratization are great. The disadvantage is that an Andres Segovia post might have 50,000 hits, and some bozo, who in my estimation may not be good at all, might have two million hits, just because that person may know how to manipulate social media.
But for someone who’s young and starting out, the good thing is that you can invent yourself. More so than ever before, a musical career is about your own life story. I think that’s great. It’s all about the joys and sorrows of being alive and how music enables you to get through life in a wonderful, productive way, and be, hopefully, of benefit to society.
The guitar is a very interesting instrument because as far as I know, it’s still the most popular instrument on earth. And there are so many different forms of it. My teacher Segovia once said: ”Of all the creations of God, two have assumed every size and shape in order to accompany humankind: the dog… and the guitar!”
There are many, many kinds of guitars. Amplified, non-amplified, six strings, seven strings, eight strings, eleven strings, twelve strings, etc.–the ukulele is a derivative with four strings—the banjo (four and five-string versions) the sitar, the Japanese koto, the Turkish saz, the Chinese pi-pa, etc. are all related to the guitar.
And guitars have for centuries existed in every size, shape, and composition. Now we have solid-body electric guitars, at the other end of the continuum from acoustic guitars such as what I play. The acoustic classical guitar is itself an endless mystery. There is not time enough in one lifetime to explore its astonishing possibilities. There are all these incredible subtle things affecting the sound: the age and disposition of the wood, when the wood was glued, what the humidity is… There are thousands of tiny little details that make the difference between heaven and hell for us Classical Guitarists. It’s just a fascinating instrument.
The other thing that’s so intriguing is that the guitar is the world’s folk instrument par excellence, yet if you go back in history, the guitar or something like it existed way back into the 1500s and even before. The ancient Greeks spoke of the kithara. Our repertoire stretches across five centuries and is beginning its 6th century now.
In the pursuit of the essence of the classical guitar, you can literally experience time travel. That’s how I like to teach it. You can go back to the time when Columbus set out to explore America. Soon after that, the very first Spanish guitar books started to be published in Spain. You can time travel back to then. You can time travel to Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s England, where the lute, which is a sister instrument to the guitar, was so popular. The famous opening speech of Richard III speaks of the “lascivious tinkling of a lute.”
Music allows us to traverse the most intimate human emotions over centuries and still the language speaks to us and touches and enriches us in astonishing ways. If you’re involved in the classical guitar, you almost can’t avoid speaking and reading Spanish. But there’s also a very rich Italian tradition, a German tradition, a French tradition, and other legacies from all the different countries of Europe.
Nowadays, we have so many brilliant musicians from all parts of Asia, Eurasia, Africa, etc. so really, we have this possibility of unifying people through the art of music across the political barriers which are, for musicians, always an illusion. We musicians have always gotten together with people from all over the world. We’ve always lived the multiethnic, multiracial thing, which is, I hope, going to increasingly become the future of the planet despite all the hate that’s bandied about.
My wife, virtuoso Guitarist and arts entrepreneur, Zaira Meneses, and I started a guitar festival here called Boston Guitar Fest some years back. We are about to have our 17th straight year despite the pandemic. In 2020 and 2021 we were all online on our Zoom feed. This year we will do a hybrid festival (part live part online) which is twice the work. The movie part will take place at the New England Conservatory as usual but the entire festival will be available for online viewing well. Even during the worst time of the plague we were in action around the world: broadcasting back and forth to Latin America, up through America, over the west coast of America, then across into Europe, even to Australia and setting up parts of the festival for asynchronous viewing during to time zone differences.
In addition to our Boston Guitar Fest, we’ve also started the Eliot Fisk Guitar Academy (EFGA) which we’re doing on our own as an effort to offer something new and fresh. My whole approach has always been multidisciplinary; cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, cross-lingual and EFGA continues to reflect that. Most of the staff are former and present students. EFGA also commissions new works (such as the new 6 Preludios Elegiacos by Leo Brouwer dedicated to Zaira Meneses or organizes recordings such as my own double CD of my transcriptions of the 6 Bach Cello Suites currently in production for Musica Omnia Recordings.
My career was always a mix of many things. I’ve been teaching for a very long time, and teaching remains very important to me. First of all, I learn so much from the students. But also, I’m trying to take the instrument into the future, and in my case, pass on the great tradition of which I’m about.
I’m the youngest guy still actively performing who has a direct personal link to the Segovia tradition. Many others have already passed on, so I feel a real responsibility to try to maintain the chain that connects through Segovia and others back hundreds of years into the past.
I do my best to give the young people that I mentor a complete humanistic, cross-disciplinary education. We try to understand history from the inside in a way that is not anachronistic and that brings the past before us as if it were contemporary. The old instruments differed in many ways from their modern equivalents. If you want to interpret music that was written in the 1500s, you have to know about those instruments because they don’t sound exactly like their modern counterparts.
In a similar way, when you read a Shakespeare play in a modern edition there are numerous notes to help to explain many subtleties in old English. Things don’t mean exactly the same thing as they once did, and there are all kinds of references that we couldn’t possibly know now because they were unique to the past. In a similar way, when you interpret the music of the past, you need to try to get inside the cultures in which that music was conceived, to enter the mind and experiences of people who are long gone.
A lot of us musicians probably end up spending more of our lives in the company of the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach than we do with most members of our families! These Composers who have been dead for so long obsess us. They’re always with us. We’re always trying to get in touch with them and keep this little thread of what we call civilization alive.
Can anyone become a guitarist?
With the right knowledge and consistent practice, anyone can become a professional guitarist. The first and most important step is to develop your guitar-playing skills to the point where people want to hire you. Then you need to always be learning and improving your skills. Another aspect to focus on is the business side of being a professional musician, which involves marketing your services, networking, and understanding performance royalties and session musician royalties.
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?
What I teach my students is always to have as many income streams as you possibly can. It’s the same principle as when you buy a mutual fund when you’re investing money. You have some bonds. Bonds are like a teaching job. You’re not going to have explosive growth, but something’s going to be there for you.
I tell students to try and get a teaching job, to either create their own private teaching studio or find an institution that can offer employment and (hopefully) health insurance. I tell students to just be able to eat and pay the rent.
I encourage people to play–especially to explore chamber music possibilities. Smaller groups have fewer touring expenses. Even if you just have one duo partner, that’s a great start. If you have a group of three, already you’re splitting fees three ways and your expenses go up.
It’s important to play with a lot of different people. If you’re a Guitarist and you play with a Flutist, then you attract all the flute people to your concert. You play with cello, you get the cello enthusiasts. That kind of thing. Straddling the genres is very helpful. I’ve done jazz projects and flamenco projects etc. Cross-disciplinary stuff is great. That’s just another way of reaching out and broadening your audience and broadening your appeal.
Nowadays, you also have to be posting stuff for free online all the time. You just have to be posting, posting, posting. I don’t enjoy doing that very much, so I don’t do as much of it as I probably should. At a certain point, I can’t be just thinking about business. But the first thing a young player starting out has to do is to solve that fundamental enigma of how to pay the rent and have food to eat. Still, you want to be creative in a way that is not too cheap and obvious, to do art that matters in a good way. So that’s the real challenge.
My students go many different routes in piecing together a multi-income stream economic solution.
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.
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.
How much money do guitarists make?
Being a professional guitarist looks different for each person, so it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact salary. Guitar teachers can make anywhere from $15 an hour to $150 an hour. A session guitarist can charge between $25 an hour to $200 an hour, or between $50 per song to more than $500 per song. And a performing guitarist typically makes between $50 per performance and $200 or more per performance. Again, these numbers vary widely with each guitarist in their specific situation.
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 luthier 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.
What jobs can I get as a guitarist?
The three main jobs you can get as a skilled guitarist are 1) a session guitarist, 2) a performer, and 3) a guitar teacher. A session guitarist gets hired to play guitar on someone else’s recorded track, so they would spend a lot of time in recording studios or working from their home studio. A performing guitarist could be the main act on stage, or they could sit in with other bands when they need a guitarist. And a guitar teacher teaches other people how to play guitar. As a professional guitarist, you can do a combination of these three things (or all of them).
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 start a career in guitar?
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.
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.
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.
I guess I didn’t think about my career so much as I thought about the fact that I wanted to spend my life thinking about music and working in music. My father was a very respected and unusual University Professor, very ahead of his time. (He wrote a book about the ecological imperative in marketing back in the year 1975, for example.) My mother was of that generation where it was more difficult for women to make careers, but she had a pretty distinguished career as a Social Worker working with elderly people. In my case, my father said, “Look. I’m not going to pay for a music conservatory so you’re going to have to go to a liberal arts school.”
I ended up going to Yale. I was at Yale as an undergraduate, and then I did a master’s degree in an additional year. After that, I fled academia…almost. In September of the year I got my master’s degree from the Yale School of Music I ended up founding the Guitar Department there at the age of 22. The guitar still flourishes there under the leadership of my great friend and colleague, Ben Verdery. I wanted to escape academia, but I ended up being part of it on two continents starting in 1977 up to the present.
After a few years at Yale, starting at age 28 I left Yale to go to Koeln, Germany, because I had an incredible offer at the Hochschule fuer Musik there which also allowed me a lot of time to travel. Starting in 1989 I was recruited from there to Austria, to the Salzburg “Mozarteum” University. I’ve been on the faculty there for like thirty-five years although I started at first part-time, now [I’m] full-time as well at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
In those days there were more chances to perform than exist today (especially post-pandemic!) You were more “based” someplace than actually living there full-time. So it wasn’t all that difficult for me to be based in Cologne or be based in Salzburg, or be based somewhere else in Europe. I still came to America qui