The Unwritten Rules Of Subbing

The Unwritten Rules Of Subbing

“Subbing” is the term used when substituting for another musician who can’t make his or her gig. Sometimes you need a sub, and sometimes you are subbing for someone else. It may seem like a simple process, but there are some unwritten rules and professional courtesies that every musician should know before taking a sub gig.

By: Travis Raab (Guitarist, Katharine McPhee)

Rule #1 – Learn The Material

This is pretty obvious. Don’t accept any sub gig unless you are prepared to learn all the material. Essentially, the first time you sub on a gig, it is a ‘paid audition’. Take it seriously. Do the best possible job, and you will find yourself as the first sub call for that gig (and the next gig that it leads to). P.S…  The first sub gig always feels like too much work and not enough pay. Just do your homework for the artist early on, and the subsequent sub gigs with that artist will be a breeze.

Rule #2 – When You Need A Sub, Be Willing To Throw In A Little Extra Cash Once In A While

You need the night off, so your sub is helping you out. And you are helping your sub out by providing a paid opportunity and a chance to network. However, sometimes you need a date covered which doesn’t pay very well. Throwing in a little gas money on these occasions may keep your sub happier and eager to be there for you when needed. Think about the ‘big picture’. A good and reliable sub is a valuable thing, and it can be worth it to pay a small tax for that!

Rule #3  – Don’t Only Take The Sub Gigs You Want To Take

Part of being a good sub means taking the work that is thrown at you, when you are available. If you are only willing to help a musician out for their high paying sub dates, someone else will soon take your place as the #1 sub for that particular band. Availability is a huge part of being a sub and a working musician in general! P.S…  Always say THANK YOU when someone calls you for a gig, regardless of your availability. There’s lots of great players with zero work.

Rule #4 – When Recommending A Sub, Make Sure He Or She Can Play

Are you sure your sub is up to the task of doing your particular gig? Just because your friend may be incredible at bebop, doesn’t mean he understands what to play in a country situation. Make sure your substitute can handle the gig, and has all the materials they need to do the job right (recordings, charts, correct keys, idiosyncrasies, etc.). If it doesn’t go well, YOU will be responsible!

Rule #5 – If Someone Calls You To Sub, Return The Favor

Personally, when someone calls me a couple times to cover a decent gig, they go to the top of my list when I need a sub for my own gigs. Of course there are politics in music. But in general, I believe in the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” policy. It’s common courtesy, and a great way to build lasting professional relationships. Many times I’ve heard musicians complain about their subs who don’t return the favor. What happens to those subs? They don’t get called again.

Rule #6 – Don’t Try To Steal Someone Else’s Gig

Sometimes you will prepare so well for a sub date, that you find you have outdone the musician for whom you are covering. The band members or the musical director might praise your playing and say, “Hey now those are some tasty licks, man! I wish you were the regular guy on this gig!”. Even in this instance, be respectful of the person that called you in and created an opportunity for you. Don’t go over anyone’s head. Unless it’s a retainer situation with Paul McCartney. Then go over their head.

Final Notes

The more you work, the more you will need a sub. As you get busier, you will need to prioritize certain gigs over others. By calling a quality sub to cover the gig you can’t make, you keep your guitar chair with that artist and simultaneously create work for another musician. Be courteous and prepared and it will always be a win-win situation!