It’s not such a simple question because so much more is involved besides just how well you play. There are so many styles around the world that are respected & influential that much must be considered on the subject. I’m going to speak from a rock perspective, which is somewhat limited, but necessary since there are so many rock guitar players as it’s the dominant modern style. Classical & flamenco styles are certainly just as valid.
As I written before, rock music needs more bass players. If you are enthusiastic, yet average at guitar, seriously consider a switch to bass. By becoming merely competent on bass, your bandmate options will increase exponentially– I can assure you. If you are more creatively inclined as a songwriter, yet have difficulty singing & playing guitar at the same time, then bass is the place.
With that said, if you are committed to the six-string guitar, then learn how to play your instrument well. There are different roles & expectations for pure guitar players, as compared to singer/guitar players. Since I’m the latter, I’ll be discussing from that perspective.
Pure guitar players like Tony Iommi, Angus Young, Alex Lifeson, Eddie Van Halen, Dave Murray, Brad Gillis, Joe Satraini, etc, can do EVERYTHING. They can play lightning fast & change tempos fluidly with overwhelming technique. If you’re in a serious rock band, THAT’S what you want on guitar. It REALLY helps if they are part of the songwriting process.
Pure players who lack songwriting creativity are severely limited because as a band you NEED great riff ideas from your guitar player. These impressive technical (yet creatively impoverished) guitar players often become session aces or tour replacements for major acts in need. They get a lot of corporate work.
For singer/guitar players such as myself, the expectations & responsibilities are different. You’re more of a rhythm player as a singer, so you have to be solid yet make it look easy because everyone is watching you, but most are concentrating on your vocals & overall stage presence. But every pure guitar player (and other serious musician) in the audience will also be rating your technical playing, showmanship & charisma, song content, stage awareness, equipment, set-up, etc. Every fan wants to see a star, and every musician wants to work with a star because they all believe THEY are stars.
Depending on whether there is a lead guitarist or not, a singer/guitarist may also have to be proficient at soloing. That’s the part which most singer/guitarists struggle, the point in the song where they aren’t singing and they have to perform at a higher level on guitar. They won’t be able to play like the guys I’ve listed above, so what can be done?
I started using a slide on my pinky finger when I realized that I was going to have to be a solo artist. That means you have to do everything well at all times, otherwise you will suck & the crowd will know it instantly. A slide gives your guitar playing an entirely different dimension and allows lots of creative uses without having to be fast & flashy. It’s not an overused crutch, like the capo (both pictured below).
I don’t try to play like Duane Allman or any of those other classic bluesmen. They’re too good. Mississippi Delta bottleneck blues is where slide guitar started, and if you listen to these early recordings from the early masters, they were very creative & free in their use of a slide. This slide style reverberated through post-war electric blues. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band’s used multiple slide guitars with all kinds of crazy patterns. George Thorogood is a great modern rock slide guitar player. If you absorb all that on record, you can figure out something new on slide. My approach is to use the slide as a scrape for punk effect, verses the glistening leads of Mick Taylor, etc.
Jimi Hendrix is the standard for the singer/guitar player style. NOBODY could play like that, while writing & singing such amazing songs. Jimi Hendrix could do it live, and in the studio. He could be a show all by himself or in a great band. He was a natural in an era that exploded him into popular consciousness, but of course, it was the excess of this era that killed him. Jimi Hendrix was a prodigy, perhaps the best ever while he lasted, but he’s not a model to follow because his excessive hippie lifestyle will kill you at a young age like it did him.
Same with Kurt Cobain, no matter how you feel about the circumstances around his death in 1994. If you can’t survive, then you don’t leave much of a blueprint for young fans to follow. Maybe that’s their idea, they DON’T want to be followed, but then why become a performer in the first place? These are the tough responsibilities that Frank Black, J Mascis, Thurston Moore, Billy Corgan take on as the LEADERS of their respective bands. You have to be be an effective & easy player, while singing the great songs you wrote. You have to be able to lead everyone during the formative creative process, in the studio, and then on stage.
This gets to the inexact science & sticky question of who is replaceable in a band? Example: everyone knows Aerosmith because of Steven Tyler & Joe Perry, so they are irreplaceable. The rest are integral, but replaceable in the band’s legacy stage which is about being able to get through lucrative tours, not making new music.
Devo, Cheap Trick, the Meat Puppets, etc, are serious bands who still tour successfully (young energetic capacity audiences) with replacement drummers. Their original drummers were essential band members during their prime, but replaceable as they evolved into legacy acts. It’s usually the lead singer and the songwriter(s) who are indispensable throughout a band’s existence. Rush couldn’t continue after drummer/songwriter Neil Peart retired from music & subsequently passed away. The Rolling Stones probably won’t tour again after the death of Charlie Watts. They were indispensable.
I’m making broad generalities for illustrative purposes. The original band member is ALWAYS better than replacements, as they were part of the original creative process & cool vibe that fans identify with. Unfortunately, industry machinery takes its toll on musicians… As mentioned above, replacements are mostly session musicians by trade, industry veterans who never had much creativity in their prime.
Replacements are sometimes now a son (or other family member) of the band leader, etc. It takes a lot of chops & dedication to fill in for any major act, on any instrument. You’re expected to be solid, while in the background, unassumingly carrying the headliners everyone paid to see. That’s a tough gig for little bread, and only a limited number of musicians are good enough (and have their head on straight enough) to do it. There is some audience respect due for that, but the bigger point is too many replacements will diminish any band into an empty shell of itself.
How much would a young kid pay to see Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Poison & KISS at a festival? No more than $10-20 in 2023, and that’s being generous. Too many replacement members, etc. How much would a young kid pay to see Jane’s Addiction, the Pixies, the Smashing Pumpkins & Dinosaur Jr at a festival? Anywhere from $200-300+. Why is that?
It’s because hair metal was all about good times & partying, which never last. That’s why hair metal acts fare so poorly in this 21-century era of climate change, COVID & fascist politics. Alternative bands of the 1980’s & 1990’s brought real energy & taught kids about life, and that’s what holds up with every generation of kids. That’s why the Pixies shows sell out, with parents taking their EXCITED teenage kids, while hair metal draws only old folks.
The grunge movement happened when I was in dental school and as a fan of the music who had a year-and-a-half of guitar lessons I would think about these things in between my academic schedule and wonder what I was going to do with my life…
You get through difficult life situations with hard word & intelligent thinking. You have to stick to the process especially when difficulties & failures arise. That’s the ‘hard part’ many people don’t want to face. But if you have a good plan that is adaptable as needed, and you stick with the process, your situation will improve and then you can turn your ambitions into reality. That’s how grunge guitar broke through and why it remains relevant.