Guitarist David Steele on stage with country star Gary Allan.
Being a marketable musician means broadening your skill set—and your mindset
BY CRAIG DALTON
IT’S OFTEN said that variety is the spice of life. In pursuing a musical career, it can be the difference between earning a big paycheck hitting the road with a major act and sitting in your home studio on Saturday night recording another demo. If you’re really excellent at one instrument or style of music, congratulations—but say hello to all of those other fish in the sea that are flashing the same colors as you. One thing that can really make you stand out and get that phone call from that elusive music star’s manager is the ability to be fluent at a number of different instruments or genres. However, being good enough to get in through the stage door is not enough to keep you out there on the boards; it also takes having a great attitude and applying style and panache to your role.
Do the math: There are only so many musicians who are ever going to be at that center stage position. We’ve talked to two pros who you’ve certainly heard or seen if you are a fan of John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Neko Case, Jakob Dylan, Gary Allan, Billy Bob Thornton, or Lucinda Williams, to name a few. Both of these professionals have years of playing behind them and in front of them, having countless gigs under their belts with a variety of well-known artists in all types of venues and sessions. They share valuable insights on ways to take your career to the next level by breaking out of your musical mold, no matter what instrument or genre of music you play.
Jon Rauhouse is in demand for his unique and pure steel-guitar style, but also plays guitar and banjo with his own act and is currently playing up to five different instruments in Neko Case’s touring band. David Steele is well-known out of Nashville as a great all-around lead guitar player in many styles, and he also plays mandolin and bass at times. Steele has played in styles ranging from the introspective, intimate sound of John Prine, to the country rock of Steve Earle, to his current gig with country star Gary Allan, playing venues as large as stadiums when Allen opens for chart-topping acts such as Kenny Chesney.
Jon Rauhouse on lap steel.
“In this day and age, it’s kind of hard to make a living being just Poison’s bass player,” says Rauhouse. “You can’t tour constantly just being the same band; you’ve just got to do a ton of different things.” Rauhouse has found his unique approach to steel guitar to be much in demand. “I’ve been playing steel for 33 years; when I started, there were no learning materials, and it wasn’t a cool thing to play,” he says. “I’ve always loved the way it sounds, but I try not to sound like everybody else with it.” Although he started out playing banjo, he later learned guitar, mandolin, and other instruments; he currently plays 6-string and 12-string guitars and Hawaiian guitar with the Neko Case band.
Steele’s gig with Allan is in its sixth year. His discography includes the albums John Prine Live and Steve Earle’s El Corazón. To stay versatile, Steele has had to learn a variety of performance styles over time, as playing in Prine’s band is much different than, say, Allan’s rocked-up stadium-country approach. Steele has unique experience in making the transitions between musical acts, crediting the writings of early Method acting originator Constantin Stanislavski as providing guidance in “filling the role.” (Renowned Actor Lee Strasberg developed this famed acting school, teaching such stars as Al Pacino, Uma Thurman, and many others how create the persona and “thought” of a character within themselves. Heady stuff for sure, but remember, the concert stage is show business too.) Although Steele and Rauhouse play different genres of music, a common goal is to enhance the music of their bandleader, not inhibit or overpower. “If you’ve got somebody singing like (Neko) Case, there is no need to fill up the space with noise,” says Rauhouse. “Sometimes I’ll go to a session and they’ll want me to play insane amounts of stuff ; I try to listen to the song and see what it needs.” Steele credits former John Mellencamp guitarist Larry Crane in helping him understand the transition between an intimate Prine gig and a stadium-rocking concert event like Allan’s. “Your job in that kind of band is to reach the farthest guy away from you at the show; you have to sound and act big,” he explains. As an example, he’s even studied Frampton Comes Alive to cop some of Peter F rampton’s trademark approach to larger-than-life guitar: “There’s a lot of emotion that comes from those big rock moments.”
As any experienced musician knows, equipment choice plays a large part of your sound—not only in what you use, but what you don’t use. “I don’t use effects pedals between my steel and the amp,” explains Rauhouse. He doesn’t want a digitally enhanced sound, preferring to use technique to manipulate the tonality. He states the two particular instruments he can’t live without on tour are the older of his two MSA Pedal Steels, and a 1930s Slingerland archtop guitar. Musicians performing with a wide range of acts usually tailor their rigs to the style and scope of their gigs; up until becoming part of Gary Allan’s band, Steele’s standard rig was a Stratocaster and old Fender Blackface amp. “I didn’t ever even own a Les Paul,” he says. “It’s a very different approach, gearwise, between playing “Angel From Montgomery” with John Prine and playing a big venue with Allan; I had to get into the Les Paul, the Marshall and all the pedals. If you need to sound like Slash, you need to have his hammer.” This sentiment applies to all musicians: If you need a particular microphone to help you perfectly pair your backing vocal colorations to your lead singer’s voice, get one. If you’re replacing a keyboard player who uses a Fender Rhodes, then by all means be ready to have that instrument or synth patch onstage.
Every one of us as musicians has a comfort zone; you won’t evolve beyond that if you don’t try to learn something new or experiment with a different approach or instrument. You may even consider adapting your fundamental performance technique to a new musical style. “Playing behind the beat has served me well in the Americana kind of act, but in that bombastic, ’80s metal style that country acts have acquired, you have to play out in front of it,” says Steele. “You have to embrace the character, become the point guard.” Steele says it took a while to get used to playing in the new style, when making the move from the Americana/folk sound to country, stressing that you really have to pay attention to these kinds of style differences, or “the audience will immediately let you know if you’re blowing it.”
Besides working with Neko Case on tour, Rauhouse’s musical endeavors range from Billy Bob Thornton’s Boxmasters rockabilly band to his unique steel-guitarinfused covers of older vocal acts like the Mills Brothers with Seattle singer Rachel Flotard. “Jon is truly a gem, a great talent,” states Flotard. He’s also been an integral part of Neko Case’s development of new songs. “We’ve been working the songs, and then taking them out on the road in short stints, it’s really a genius way to do it to see how the crowd reacts,” says Rauhouse.
David Steele poses in his “machine shop.”
Both Rauhouse and Steele credit keeping an open mind, paying attention, and studying hard as key to their success as sidemen with a variety of acts—advice that should resonate with any musician, no matter your instrument or genre. Think about all the great players and singers you admire, and you’ll most likely find a great amount of versatility in all of them. Robert Plant crooning “Sea Of Love” has a very different sound than him belting out “Whole Lotta Love.” John Mayer’s transition from teenangst ballads to deep blues within the same concert set is truly an exercise in applying a broad swath of musical knowledge. Get inspired by artists like these; branch out, try something new: If you play keys, absorb Dave Brubeck and Deep Purple. If you’re playing sax, study Clarence Clemons and Charlie Parker. If guitar is your main instrument, spend some time with a mandolin, a piano, or a harmonica. Whether or not you’re a singer, study harmony theory and learn to sing some backing vocals. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to adapt a broader approach to your trick bag of musical abilities and the farther you’ll be able to go. This philosophy has worked well for both Jon Rauhouse and David Steele. Only a select few are ever going to be that star at the front of the stage under the brightest spotlights; there’s a much better opportunity out there to be a successful musician if you can embrace and master versatility at a number of musical skills. It could make you a part of something really great.