How to Replace a Musician In Your Band

Replacing a band member is as inevitable as the sunset. No matter how long a band has been together, someone will need to be replaced at some point. Whether the loss is because of poor health, a job transfer, bad attitude, or a change of interest, the main thing is that the band leader prepare now to deal with it when it happens.

Plan Ahead

The best way to plan for a musician leaving the band is to identify good substitute players, usually from other bands. This is just good business. Losing  any band member is naturally upsetting to those who remain, whether or not they cared for the departing musician. But their immediate focus will almost certainly be on getting paid for gigs that are already booked. The band leader should reassure the remaining members that the loss does not mean the end of the band, the show will go on, and that substitutes will fill the vacancy for now.

Organizations such as large symphony orchestras and major national tours have already planned for replacements, and usually a call to the American Federation of Musicians (the musicians’ union) will solve the problem. But for smaller, local bands, the absence of a good substitute roster creates a tougher situation. If such is the case, the band has only two options. The remaining members can try to stay the course and play the gigs, but if the former member was the drummer or the only guitar player, going forward may be neither possible nor wise. If a substitute cannot be found and brought up to speed in time, the band has no other option but to cancel the gigs.

Set Goals

If your band has a substitute that can step in for the time it takes to find a replacement, then you’re free to focus on the search. But remember: resist the temptation to rush, no matter how badly you need a new musician. Being in a hurry and settling too soon is never a good thing, as you could well wind up back in the search process again just six months down the road.

Before you take out that classified ad, take some time to consider what you are looking for. Get the band together and have a good discussion about goals. (The best place for this conversation is over a meal at a restaurant, so that everyone can relax and focus; never do it at a rehearsal.) Talk about the direction of the band, where it should be going, and how it should get there. You can only conduct an effective search if everyone is on board with these goals. If everyone has the same mindset when evaluating the candidates, it will be easier to select the best person to help the band reach those goals.

Know What You Want

After all of the band members have focused (or refocused) on the big picture, it’s time to figure out the sort of person you are looking for. This saves time for all concerned. You could put an ad on Craigslist that says “Guitar player wanted,” but be prepared to field a lot of calls from people who don’t even come close to what you need. Take some time to consider the musical qualities you’re really looking for. Below are some characteristics to think about while planning. (Note that these are not in a specific order.)

  • Ability to read music (notation and charts)
  • Good sense of rhythm and pitch
  • Ability to play by ear
  • Listens to other musicians
  • Owns and cares for professional gear
  • Plays well and in the pocket
  • Knows the gear (especially important for keyboard players)
  • Ability to sing (lead or harmony vocals)
  • Ability to transpose quickly
  • Ability to learn material quickly
  • Style fits in with the band

Other, more social characteristics to consider may include the following:

  • Team player
  • Sense of humor
  • Personality
  • Entertainment factor (can the person engage with the audience?)
  • Similar musical tastes
  • Looks the part
  • Age
  • Has reliable transportation
  • Willingness to help with business matters (bookings, etc.)

Bands should use the same song list for all who audition so that it’s easier to compare strengths and weaknesses, and I strongly encourage bands to make their replacement choice a unanimous one. This sidesteps the potential I-told-you-so issue.

What Goes Around

Note that much of what goes for replacing a musician also applies for musicians seeking bands, whether for a job as a regular player or as a substitute. You can learn a lot about a band from the help wanted ad it posts. If the ad has a picture, you’ll know quickly if you are a good visual fit, and any links to MP3s or videos will tell you if your styles are comparable. And if you want regular gigs, pass on by the ad that says “plays out once and awhile.”

Finally, if you have to leave a band, do so with grace. It will be much easier to get hired by another band if you haven’t burned any bridges. Likewise, band leaders should be professional when letting someone go. Tell the person exactly why he or she is being terminated, and do so without anger or getting into non-related issues. Keep in mind that this is a business with a very tight community, and the person you fire with a vengeance today may be the person you need to help you tomorrow.

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