In my experience as a new guitar player, as well as my previous experience as a trombone player, I've learned that work leads to more work. Momentum is everything. Simply being out in public is a signal that you have something to offer. You can be the greatest guitar player in the world, but that won't build you a career if you keep it to yourself. Nobody's going to knock on your door and say, "Hey, I heard you practicing. Would you like a six-figure contract?"
Even if you're not an elite level musician, if you get outside your practice room and perform, you're going to meet people and find more playing opportunities. The owner of the coffee shop you just played may love your music and want to schedule you again. Maybe you'll meet a more experienced musician who is willing to offer you some guidance. Maybe a customer in the coffee shop thinks you'd be perfect for their wedding (this has happened to me), or maybe another customer is an event planner. You just don't know who you'll meet until you get out there.
About three years ago, I started playing at an assisted living center. This was great practice for me. It was gratis, but it gave me a place to play my solo guitar arrangements in public. This gave me the confidence to start playing at the open mic at REV Coffee in Smyrna, where I played my solo arrangements and sometimes sat in with other musicians, learning songs on the fly. I also began searching for opportunities to play in a jazz group. I played in a few. None were the right fit, but I learned something in each group, and I eventually developed the confidence to start my own jazz group, On the Cool Side. I've also stayed busy by subbing with two big bands: the Atlanta Swing Orchestra and the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. Aside from having a blast playing big band rhythm guitar, my involvement with both of these groups has led to paying jobs. I've played in a pick-up combo from the ASO, as well as a recent big band job. The SJO has led to some background music gigs, where I've played dinner music prior to an SJO dance. Also, Dan Turner, the piano player from the SJO, has been kind enough to point me to some small restaurant gigs and offer general advice and guidance.
In the meantime, I've stayed busy playing coffee shops and restaurants as a soloist, with On the Cool Side, and with Allen, Vinton, and Godfrey. This is good practice. A coffee shop is a great place to try out new material or just become accustomed to playing in front of an audience, and you never know who's in the room. I always make sure to have business cards, and even though I'm shy by nature, I'll make myself go out and talk to people between sets, thank them for listening, and chat with them for a while.
I stay busy with my publicity work as well. You have to get out of the house and play, and you also need to have an online presence so people can find you. By maintaining a website and constantly letting people know it's there, you're putting out a virtual billboard. (Earlier this week, I was happy to discover that when I Googled myself, I was on the first page, and no longer on the fifth page after another Tom Godfrey who was deceased.) I recently took my publicity efforts a step further and exhibited at the Georgia Bridal Show. It was expensive, but I think it was a good investment. Today I played a wedding as a result of being involved with the Georgia Bridal Show. On top of that, I met some event planners at the show. I'm working on developing relationships with those planners, which should result in some more payed gigs in another 6-12 months.
My online work and public performing is gradually starting to pay off. At this point in my new career, I'm playing mostly free gigs with a few paid jobs here and there. This month I'm playing five low or non-paying jobs and three jobs with pretty decent pay. Three paid jobs isn't much, but it's three more paid jobs than I had a year ago around this time. If I maintain a busy performance schedule and consistently work on publicity, then next April maybe I'll have six paid jobs instead of three, and the year after that, maybe I'll be turning down jobs or acting as a contractor.
It all comes down to staying busy. Here I am now. Three years after playing at that retirement community, I'm playing more paid gigs and meeting new people all the time. Three years from now, who knows where I'll be?