The Unbeaten Path



Hello fellow guitarristas.

Thanks for checking out my column. I am honoured to be welcomed into the LOUD family!

The title of this column will give you some idea of what’s in store.

First, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tristan Avakian. I am a professional guitarist and instructor. I’ve played on gold and platinum albums and toured all over the world. I’ve had a major label deal as a singer/songwriter, and opened for nationals in arenas.

My private students have included Grammy winning artists and Oscar winning actors. One of my own teachers was Steve Vai.

There’s a resume here (

That’s all well and good, but I’m not trying to tell you how cool I am…. just to show you that music is a vehicle – and it can take you to places you’d only imagined, or even never dreamed were possible.

I’m basically a rock player, but my tenacity and love of the instrument have taken me pretty far out of my comfort zone at times. I don’t want to do anything but music for a living. And at this point in my life, I’m no good at anything else. So if someone asks me if I can do something, I say, “sure”. Then I quietly panic, and figure it out, before they find out I’m a fraud. Try it sometime: it’s nerve-racking, but if you survive, you’ll end up with skills you’d never have possessed otherwise. And never known you’d have a use for – but suddenly, you do.

So my career has taken some twists and turns. Musical theater is a good example. 

I was the lead guitarist of the Canadian productions of both “We Will Rock You” (the West End smash musical based on the music of Queen) and “Rock of Ages” ( the Tony award winning musical based on some of the biggest drive-time radio, arena rock hits of the ’70-‘s and ’80’s). I am a native New Yorker, so I got my start Off-Broadway, with the original production of “Hedwig” at the Jane Theater, and went on to play Broadway as the lead guitarist of Billy Joel’s musical “Movin’ Out”. 

I was in a touring Cirque du Soleil show for years, which technically isn’t theater, but for the purposes of our discussion, we will consider it to be.  And since I was raised in an artistic environment (my mother was a theater actress), none of it feels alien to me. 

When I started, I was the pretty much the only one crossing over. No-one else had even thought of it as a viable career. I didn’t make a deliberate “career choice” – it just kind of happened, organically. 

Rock players used to snicker and roll their eyes at me. But now, all of the sudden, they are very interested. I have new students coming to me with one purpose in mind – they are looking to break in.  I have guys on the Internet swarming all over me, trying to hijack my personal contacts – people that I’ve worked for years to establish viable relationships with. Producers, contractors, musical directors, etc….

It’s starting to dawn on the average rock guy: having a steady check and benefits (that may include being surrounded by scantily clad, extremely fit and friendly women) might be better than driving 1000 miles to get ripped off by a shady promoter at a dive sports bar.

And with the advent of catalog shows and “jukebox musicals”, it’s almost like doing a top 40 gig… you probably know all the songs anyway, right? Easy money.

Well, money, anyway. It’s gotten me into a house. And I’ve consistently earned more than I did when I had a major label deal. (Well… I keep more, anyway. That’s another story.)

But easy? Not so much.

Not everyone is cut out for this deal. Dear lord, no. It takes a lot more than you might think.

Rock and musical theater are strange bedfellows. In some superficial respects they resemble, and complement one another. The grandiosity, the emphasis on spectacle. Visually, rock got kind of “meh” in the 90’s, and theater (to some extent) has stepped up to take its place. The audience has moved with it.

But in some respects they are diametrically opposed. Maybe even mortal enemies.

Let me explain. Rock is still basically the Wild West – individual self expression is the acme, the be-all and end all (at least, ideally). If it works, REALLY works, you call the shots, you make the rules, and break them as you see fit. The guy with the most money and the biggest lawyer always wins, no matter who’s right and who’s wrong.

In theater, this is not the case. There are rules a-plenty. They have been set up between the union and the producers. For everyone’s protection. They are ironclad, with consequences if they are broken, for both sides. (If you’ve been f*cked around as much as I have in this business, you will view this as an asset, not a liability.)

You have to be on time. In fact, you are expected to be in your spot, in tune, warmed up and ready to go, before your “call time”. There’s no wandering in whenever you feel like it. And you have to behave professionally: courteous, attentive, and co-operative at all times. Nobody works stoned.

If you are a rock player in a theater production, chances are you will be there because you look the part. They already have plenty of guys that are better than you – they can sight-read fly shit, upside down, across the room, with feel, for instance – but don’t fit the skinny jeans, and don’t want to. Your duties may entail wearing, and caring for, a costume. You may have to wear makeup. You may have stage direction, or even lines, as I did in Rock of Ages. You may have to work with a choreographer… If you have a problem with that, stay home.

You may look like a star, but make no mistake, you are not. The show is the star, and everyone else is replaceable…. a cog in a very big machine. The good news is that it’s not dependent on one charismatic individual, the way it so often is in the rock world. If a rock star flames out, a lot of people are out of work. If it happens in theater, the broken component is replaced, and the show goes on. Fine. Just make sure it’s not you.

If you cost the producer money for any reason: lateness, willful destruction of equipment, personal conflict…. you are outta there.

Speaking of personal conflict, stay out of people’s faces. If the show works, you are going to see them almost every day, twice a day on Wednesday and Saturday, for YEARS. It is a high pressure environment with very little personal space – a small pit, loft or bandstand, and a small dressing room for all the musicians. Maybe none at all. It’s like being in a submarine. Be respectful and quiet, if you know what’s good for you.

Outside of the band, you will be working with theater people. They may not share your background, your values, or very often, your sexual orientation. If you are bigoted about this, STAY HOME.

On the topic of sex: the aforementioned scantily clad dancers are working, too. Just like you. They are not there for your amusement. Be respectful and keep your hands to yourself. It’s a workplace, and laws regarding sexual harassment apply. Check your head before you say anything, or make any move that might be construed as more than friendly. If there is real chemistry, have yourself a merry little Christmas. Dancers are fun, big-hearted, beautiful, and often outrageously libidinous. But keep in mind that if goes badly, you will still be seeing each other every day (see above: PERSONAL CONFLICT).

The average theater patron, God bless their little hearts, is a little crazy. Theater groupies: exponentially more so. Before you select one from the throng of admirers at the stage door, reflect that they KNOW WHERE YOU WORK. It’s not like a rock gig, where you’re across the state line, or in another country the next day… or even later that night. You are a stationary target. And you don’t really know them. No telling if one will wake you up in the middle of the night by carving her initials in your chest.

It is assumed that you can read charts and follow a conductor. You will have a minimum of rehearsal. If you are “subbing in”, which is how I got my start, you will have NONE.

The “book” is law. No jamming allowed. If there is a section says “solo freely”, go ahead. The rest of the time, stick to the ink.

You will often be dealing with a sound department that has no concept of what is usually desirable in what you know as music, i.e.: levels, gain structure, tone. Learn to grin and bear it. On most shows, I’m not even allowed to turn a knob on my amp, once it’s “set”.

Speaking of your amp, unless you are part of the show creation, you have nothing to say about what kind it is, how it is set, or anything about any of your equipment for that matter. It belongs to the producer. You walk in, pick it up and make the best of it. On “We Will Rock You” I was basically playing Brian May’s rig, and it was fantastic. On other shows, less so. Remember, only a bad artist blames his tools.

There is no noodling or noisemaking of any kind between numbers. Use a volume pedal to kill your signal during silences. A buzzing, broken jack or a dirty pot during a bit of quiet dialogue can murder the show. You will hear about it. Take care of your equipment, have a few simple tools and spares of everything handy, and be calm, collected and conscientious: if you have a problem, the best thing to do is to SOLVE IT BEFORE ANYONE NOTICES and DO NOT MENTION IT TO ANYONE. And don’t panic, at least not visibly.

Velcro or duct tape everything down so it can’t move, and clean pots and jacks regularly. Wipe it all down once a week. Take care of your gear, and it’ll take care of you.

Speaking of the volume pedal, it’s your friend. The soundman has up to 25 channels of wireless vocals to worry about. You have to mix yourself. This is a real art. Someone like Jim Tait is beautiful to watch, in this regard. He works it with unparalleled sensitivity and skill.

All this may sound daunting, and now that I look at it, I gotta say… it is. But I’ve had a blast. I’ve worked side by side with some of my heroes, like Brian May. My skills have taken a quantum leap. And I’ve worked with the best singers and musicians in the world. If there is a downside, it’s only that they’ve  raised the bar of what I consider to be acceptable quality so high, that it’s become difficult to settle for anything less. And that however long a show runs, it always closes too soon.

To read more about Tristan click HERE

Tristan's Column

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