Music & Entertainment

Learn How To Start a Band and Manage Band Dynamics With Tips From Tom Morello and Carlos Santana

Written by MasterClass

Jun 6, 2019 • 8 min read

How do bands come together, and how do they stay together? This question has run through the mind of countless bedroom guitarists and singer-songwriters with a handful of great tunes but no one to play them.

If having a successful band was as simple as writing some great songs and picking a good band name, every band could be the next big thing in the music industry. But in today’s world, a band needs more than that. And no, this doesn’t just refer to a press kit, business cards, a band manager, a booking agent, and t-shirts for sale. It starts with finding the right people to play with.

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How Do Great Bands Form?

There is no one formula for forming a great band and keeping it together. Keeping yourself open to opportunities is perhaps the most practical strategy in the quest to find bandmates who are compatible in terms of music and personality. Here are some methods that have worked for successful bands… perhaps even some of your own favorite bands.

  • Posting an ad. In the peak era of print journalism, many bands formed via classified ads in alternative weeklies. Local musicians would scan these ads to find like minded individuals on the hunt for band members. The legendary Los Angeles weekly The Recycler hosted ads that led to the formation of Metallica, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, and Hole. A young Bruce Springsteen once posted a Village Voice ad seeking a drummer but “no junior Ginger Bakers.” Perhaps the most amusing classified was the one posted by the Pixies’ Black Francis in The Boston Phoenix: “Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary. Please—no chops.” Paper ads in music stores were also popular. Today, Craigslist is a commonly used meeting tool for local bands.
  • Meeting as students. Sometimes musicians gel when there’s less pressure to be great at music. The members of Talking Heads met at Rhode Island School of Design. Several Radiohead members also met in art school. The Arcade Fire began on the campus of McGill University in Montreal. Genesis started among friends at a rural English boarding school. Many times bands that originate from peer relationships are the longest lasting.
  • Poaching members of other bands. Some musicians discover their long-term creative partners by seeing them perform in someone else’s band. That’s how Iron Maiden found lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson, how Fleetwood Mac found Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and how Heart found sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson.
  • Jam sessions. Forming a band can be a big level of commitment. A lot of players prefer to ease into it with a low-key jam session. Sometimes a music community revolves around a good rehearsal space—ideally one with a recording equipment setup to document spontaneous ideas. Players gather in these spaces to jam, and if the chemistry is right… bands can form.
  • Start as a cover band. Another low-pressure way to build chemistry is to start by playing other people’s songs. No matter what genre of music you play, it can be easier to launch a music career playing covers, and you can build your repertoire a lot faster than you can if you’re only playing originals. Once you’ve built up your chops playing covers, move on to your own music. Hey, it worked for The Beatles!

3 Tips To Start A Band The Right Way

You want your band to last, and to be an ever-positive presence in your life. Here are a few tips to help you toward such a goal.

  1. Work with people you like. A lot of people can get better at their instruments. On the other hand, personalities tend to be more fixed. Make sure you team up with the right people who will make you look forward to practices and shows. Remember if you’re successful, you could be spending a lot of time touring in a van with these people!
  2. When scouting for talent, prioritize rhythm. Some musical skills are relatively easy to improve upon. Speed is a good example: if you commit to regular practice with a metronome, you can start playing faster in relatively short order. Pitch is very important if you’re a singer, or if you play a fretless instrument like a violin. But other players can get away with so-so pitch. But one musical skill that everyone needs, and can be hard to learn, is rhythm. Some players can effortlessly stay on the beat, and some can with a good deal of practice. But some people, no matter how hard they try, can’t keep a consistent beat. Be very careful before joining a band with these people. Rhythm is a bit of a skill where “you either have it or you don’t.”
  3. Make good, clear demos. If you’re a songwriter who wants to teach songs to a band, put in the time to make precise recorded demos that represent the elements you want in the song. If you want players to write their own parts, that’s fine, but make sure everything you have a strong opinion about is represented in your demo.
Carlos Santana with blue electric guitar in studio

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Tips on Managing Band Dynamics from Carlos Santana

Grammy-winning guitarist Carlos Santana has plenty of good advice to offer on what has made his eponymous band tick over the years.

  • Carlos likes to use soundchecks to establish this collective group presence. Both the players on the stage and the sound engineers in the wings partake in this syncing process so that the actual show later that evening is as optimal as possible.
  • Carlos does not micromanage. He simply employs the best people and trusts them to make the right decisions. As a bandleader, Carlos adheres to this principle by surrounding himself with players whose instincts naturally resonate with him.
  • By staffing the Santana band with players he intrinsically trusts, Carlos also engenders natural collaboration. As each player embraces the others’ choices, a unified band “sound” emerges and players achieve new levels of connection through listening and anticipation.
  • Carlos expects “present listening” from his band: the band must play precisely and know where one another will be at all times during a performance. They need to be engaged, connecting with others, and always bringing maximum energy to the group effort.
  • Carlos makes a point to call out players for their work, letting them know that he hears all the excellence in their performances and encouraging them to strive to be even better. He observes that people can grow into the descriptions and expectations that you set for them. If you treat them as talented and valuable, chances are they will shine through as talented and valuable.
  • In the early days of Santana, the group focused on long-form jams idiomatic to the San Francisco music scene of the 1960s. But under the mentorship of Bill Graham, Carlos came to appreciate the value of distinct song structures, and his career exploded as a result. The reality is that in the world of rock and blues, long extended jams can sometimes be more fun for the players onstage than for the fans in the audience. Those fans have probably come to the show to hear recognizable songs. Striking the right balance can help keep the audience happy.
Tom Morello with electric guitar in studio

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Tips on Managing Band Dynamics from Tom Morello

Tom Morello, whose guitar playing has been heard via Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, The Nightwatchman, Bruce Springsteen, and more, shares these insights on band dynamics:

  • When you start playing music with other people, it’s important to be open and honest about what sort of dynamic works for you. If you think of yourself as a songwriter with a singular vision that you don’t want to compromise, then you should make your fellow musicians aware of that up front. Let them know that whatever contributions they make to the music, the overall direction and final decisions will be up to you. If you’re on the other side of that equation, where you’re playing in a band as more of a hired gun, you’ll need a certain amount of humility and a willingness to listen and follow someone else’s lead.
  • A true band is a collaborative effort. Everyone involved gets a voice. That means there will be times when you and your bandmates butt heads and have disagreements about all kinds of things. If there’s a specific idea you feel strongly about, by all means, stand up for yourself, but always listen to your bandmates and consider their perspective.
  • Communication, both in the traditional and the musical sense, is key. Each member of your band is going to have their own point of view and their own individual style, but when you come together and the chemistry is right you’ll be able to create music far more powerful than anything you could create on your own.
  • Every band, even the biggest bands in the world, had a first show. More than likely it was in a small venue in front of a small audience and Tom would guarantee you the band was nervous. Nerves are only natural when you’re doing something you’ve never done before. Even if you’ve played thousands of shows, if you put yourself in a situation that’s entirely new and foreign to you, like headlining a massive outdoor festival like Coachella, then you’re going to feel nervous. Don’t let that stop you. The only way to get past it is to keep getting up onstage.
  • Once you find your audience, don’t take it for granted. Show the audience respect and hold up your end of the bargain. Playing shows and touring offers you the chance to see places, meet people, and have experiences you never would otherwise. But things that happen offstage can easily become a distraction or even turn self-destructive. Never forget that it’s the music that matters most.

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