Chops and Reality: 5 Things to Remember About Working as a Pro Musician

With the internet these days, it’s easy to find a player (regardless of the instrument) who has a massive pile of chops that they have honed over countless hours of practice. Most tend to lean towards one style or another but there is a handful who are pretty well rounded in their abilities. It never ceases to amaze me how often someone says “Person X is amazing, you should hire them/work with them.” While they may very well be, and I have had good experience with this at times, I’ve also seen it go the opposite direction more often than not. What puts the nail in the coffin rarely has to do with a lack of chops/sheer ability though. One of the biggest things I see, is a lack of work ethic. A player might be amazing from a chops perspective but everything unravels when they can’t/won’t put in the time to do what is necessary for the gig. With that being said, here are 5 things to remember:


  1. You have to put in the time – It doesn’t matter if it’s a basic country tune or a 10-minute Dream Theater extravaganza, time has to be put in on your own to learn the parts and be able to execute them in whatever way you have been asked to do so.
  2. “Fills bring the thrills, but grooves pay the bills” – Steve Gadd – This can apply to any instrument and it boils down to playing the part and fulfilling what has been asked of you. If the artist or band wants you to lay in/play out/fill more, then by all means give them what they want. If they want you to stick to script, then that is your focus. The key here is utilizing/harnessing the chops you’ve built to accomplish whatever task for which you have been hired. Not using the job for which you’ve been hired to showcase all the chops you’ve built on it. There is a big difference. If you are filling with the “cool” stuff because you didn’t really learn the music in the hopes that whoever hired you will be wowed and keep you because of your chops, then you will most likely be disappointed.
  3. One-time effort, does not a career make – Just because you put in effort once and everyone liked it and you were hired, does not give you an excuse to then resort to coasting for the rest of the time. I’ve seen people coast on their credits and then when they are hired for something, completely phone it in. Word will get around and this behavior will eventually kill your career.
  4. Focus on getting better and better – This might come off as a needless statement but a continual effort put towards playing/understanding/performing better will always help you in your career. Something I’ve been doing for myself (and it’s actually quite fun) is going back to revisit certain songs from your past. You might find something you missed or that could be improved upon. Don’t ever settle.
  5. Things aren’t always what they seem – This is specifically targeted at younger, up-and-coming players. There are 2 parts to this statement:
    • Just because someone looks like they put in the time, doesn’t mean that they actually do or will. Sometimes those that will actually do the work, come from an unassuming source.
    • Don’t be fooled by those that have “made it.” It takes an unreal amount of work and dedication to get where they are. There isn’t an easy street to take. One example is Nita Strauss (she is with Alice Cooper at the moment). On the surface, it may look like chops = big gig. It doesn’t necessarily work that way and while I don’t know Nita personally, I can almost guarantee that she will tell you she worked her butt off to get there. Yes, she has some amazing chops but the amount of work ethic that goes on behind the scenes to not only land the gig, but keep the gig is unreal. If you follow her, you might know that she has transcribed/practiced songs in the airport (guitar and all) for an upcoming gig while traveling for another. This is one example of what it takes.


The reward can be immense for all of this work but it takes exactly that: work. Lots of continuous work. And when you think you’ve worked enough . . . you should probably get back to work. And on that note . . . I’ve got work to do.

Aaron Kusterer is a musician, tour manager, and composer based out of Long Beach, CA. He has performed with artists such as Eddie Money, Juanes, and Jennifer Batten (Michael Jackson) to name a few. He has also performed across the globe during a 10-year stint with the United States Air Force Band, 6 years of which was spent as a music director and tour manager. In addition, he owns and operates Advantage Tour Management. For more information on him, check out:




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