Nikki’s Notes: Compatibility is Key

Photo by Deb Morrison-Littell

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 18 Winter 2021 – Women in the Music Industry

There are so many musicians with great talent and potential who shoot themselves in the foot with self-sabotaging behaviors. 

I recently moved to Chicago from Los Angeles with my husband, who is a drummer. After a few months of settling into a completely new city and part of the country, we were itching to make new music, new friends, and get familiar with Chicago’s music scenes—especially the Americana scene. A Craigslist ad was posted, and a flood of email responses came in. Some people reveal their weirdness or lack of compatible experience right away, and can be dismissed painlessly. Others don’t show their hand as quickly, and now it’s up to you to figure them out with the least amount of wasted time. 

We decided to meet one guy at a cafe after listening to his audio clips and watching his live performance videos. In these clips, he clearly showed that he can play, play the right stuff for our genre, and that he’d played with happening artists at the better venues in town. During our cafe meeting, there was one subtle red flag. Still, we decided to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and schedule a meeting at our rehearsal space… however, my intuition is usually accurate. 

He had two weeks to learn five songs and clearly didn’t when we met him with instruments in hand. Three songs in, he said: “I’m shaky because my bass is in drop tuning.” When I asked why he had tuned it down, he replied that he’d been playing in a metal band recently and really liked drop tuning. As we play soul-influenced Americana, my husband and I just looked at each other. Counting the time of playing and emailing him charts prior to our meeting, we realized we won’t get those hours of our life back.

We let him play the last two songs with us to not cause potential drama (the rehearsal was in our home). The guy messed up several chord changes, including the most common one around, and he fumbled his landing on the main chord of the songs. This time, he said: “I’m shaky because I’m not used to playing without being stoned.” Needless to say, we wrapped things up after that. About two weeks later, he texted to see if we’d be up for meeting again—clueless about the impression he had made. 

When you audition musicians, you’re not only checking for talent and “hang factor,” but also if they have their personal act and reliability together. Their lack of these things will affect your life during rehearsals, at shows, and in the studio. They might also affect other people’s impressions of you. Why would you want to put up with that when there are other great musicians who don’t have these problems, or at least have enough self-insight to face and transcend their blocks regularly?

Nikki O’Neill is an Americana and Soul artist on Blackbird Record Label. Based in Chicago, she also performs, writes for Guitar Player, and is a teaching artist at the Old Town School of Folk Music.