When I was a senior in high school, I got a solo gig playing two nights a week in a piano bar. That gig made me realize that I could actually make a living playing and singing music. (Making $150 a night in high school seemed like a fortune at the time!) Oftentimes, people would walk by and say, “You sound like Billy Joel,” so I started focusing on playing his music, and music and by other artists that were within my musical and emotional range. I formed my Billy Joel tribute band Big Shot back in 2000, partially to help bankroll my own solo career. In 2013, after years of hard work building a buzz and a loyal following for Big Shot, Billy asked me to join his band. Here are five things I’ve learned about playing in a tribute band.
1. Musicianship Matters I went through a lot of players in my quest to make my band Big Shot sound great. Whether it was a drummer that didn’t have just the right feel, or a bass player that played too “choppy” for the kind of bass parts in Billy Joel’s music, I fired a lot of musicians until I found guys that could play just what the music needed. You have to be willing to lose friends in this business if you are really committed to sounding authentic. Find musicians who can instinctively adapt to the multitude of styles you are covering.
2. Listen to the Live Records I realized early on that some of Billy Joel’s most creative musical moments came out in his live recordings—things like intros, hits, and song “tags” that didn’t appear on the studio recordings. If you want your cover band to sound like the real thing, listen to the real band’s live performances. That’s where the magic happens, and where the true spirit of the artist comes out.
3. Run It Like a Business Even when I was just starting out with Big Shot, I routinely asked for more money than other competing bands because I believed in the music we were making. If you want to have longevity as a cover act, make sure to pick an artist that has mass appeal and longevity themselves (i.e., Billy Joel). Remember that the more you really sound like the artist you are covering, the more people you will draw to your shows and the more leverage you will have financially. Get good, and you’ll get paid!
4. Passion Beats Imitation I’ve always hated “look-alike” acts that wear wigs and try to imitate the physical qualities of the bands they are covering. Since the beginning, Big Shot has been 100 percent dedicated to making our music capture the true spirit of Billy Joel. Rather than study the dance moves and wardrobe stylings of a particular artist, engulf yourself so much in their music that it eventually comes out of your pores.
5. Learn Another Instrument I got hired to play rhythm guitar and sing in Billy Joel’s band, even though my work in Big Shot is primarily on the piano. I actually started playing guitar first, so the acoustic, fingerpicking guitar style that Billy’s music has is a perfect fit for me. Remember that the more you can do, the more options you have.
New York-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Mike DelGuidice started his Billy Joel tribute band Big Shot back in 2000. Thirteen years and countless sold-out Big Shot shows later, Joel himself recruited DelGuidice to join his band. Find out more at bigshottributeband.com.