7 Tips for Working with Substitute Musicians

7 Tips for Working with Substitute Musicians

by Rich Tozzoli

Back in school, a substitute teacher usually meant you had a do-nothing day ahead. But if you’re a musician who needs someone to substitute for a gig, well, you’ve got your work cut out. Sooner or later, actively gigging musicians either need subs to fill a spot or get the call to sit in as a sub themselves. Given the realities of busy schedules, scattered locations, and multiple commitments, it’s something everyone should prepare for. Here are 7 ideas to help you get those replacements firing on all cylinders. After all, if they play better, you play better.

1. Record Rehearsals

You don’t need anything fancy — just a listenable recording of each song in your band’s repertoire. Set up a simple lecture recorder or use a voice-recorder app on your phone to record the songs at rehearsal. Then import the songs into your computer so you can email them or burn them to CD for anyone who needs to learn the tunes.

2. Record a Mix Minus

While the band is recording the songs, take the time to do a version with no bass and drums (for example). This way, “mix-minus” versions can be given out as practice tapes for a sub.

3. Notate Key Changes on the Set List

If there’s a chance you will perform a song in a key other than what’s on the chart or the audio you’ve given to a sub, let everyone know! A bass player who learns a song in the key of G when you’re playing it in A is in for a shock when you hit. Not everyone is good at transposing on the fly. If you want flexibility with the key — say, to accommodate different vocalists — Tell everyone they’ll need to know the tune in several different keys.

4. Videotape your live shows

Even if you use a small camera or iPhone, a video clip will help the sub understand how the band performs and flows onstage. Like the audio recording, a clip can be useful for studying arrangements and song forms. Practicing to video is invaluable when there will be no time to rehearse a new player prior to a gig.

5. Back up your loops

If you use loops and the drummer who triggers them can’t make a show, you’ll need a backup plan. The sub may not be accustomed to playing loops live, either, so you may need to trigger them yourself. One option is to record the loops into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and then transfer stereo mixes to a playback device — a laptop or even an MP3 player could do the trick. If your hands are going to be busy playing guitar, that device could be routed through a simple volume pedal. Start the loops at the top of the song, then cut the volume off with a pedal, hands free, when the song is done. Not ideal but at least it’ll get you through the show.

6. Have the original songs on hand

If you play covers, make sure to have the original versions available for playback in rehearsal. Ideally you’ll also be able to circulate copies to the replacement players. This may sound like a no-brainer, but many players assume everyone else has the same repertoire at their fingertips. Not true. You can rig up a laptop or MP3 player at rehearsal to play through an amp or PA. Use a simple adaptor (available at any electronics store) that connects a mini-jack output to a ¼” input. With the original song playing loud and clear, everyone at rehearsal can listen and compare notes on the original. (True story: We played with a young jazz drummer recently who had never heard Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady.” He didn’t grasp how to play Bernard Purdie’s classic funky groove, so rolling back the original Aretha for him was essential.)

7. Do a pad rehearsal

Sometimes the subs are brought in at the last minute and there’s no time to book a full-blown rehearsal. But you can still get together in someone’s living room and do an “acoustic” rehearsal. Using pads and a small bass amp, you could play acoustic guitar to even the heaviest electric-guitar songs to get familiar with the feel and form. Don’t focus on the minutiae; review the beginnings, endings, and any unusual breaks. You and the sub will be more comfortable and confident when you hit the stage.

Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated engineer, mixer, producer and composer. He has worked with artists such as Ace Frehley, Al DiMeola and David Bowie, among many more, and is the author of Surround Sound Mixing for ProTools. Rich is also a lifelong guitarist and composer. His work can be heard regularly on FoxNFL, HBO, and Discovery Channel.