Looking at a musical landscape in which fans don’t buy records and musicians don’t get paid for gigs might lead an aspiring professional guitarist to despair. Nevertheless, there is hope in the story of R. J. Ronquillo, who epitomizes one path taken by many of today’s players trying to making a living from their craft. That route often includes some combination of live and session work, product demos, teaching, a vlog or, in Ronquillo’s case, all five. Take heed — this guitarist’s story might well serve as a template for your own.
Having started on piano and guitar, Ronquillo soon became serious about the latter. “At 13, I asked my parents for jazz guitar lessons,” he says, “I studied for a couple of years, but didn’t go into jazz. I wanted to learn the concepts and incorporate them into rock, metal, fusion and jam-band stuff. I just wanted to be a good, well-rounded guitar player.” Continuing his studies at the University of Miami, Ronquillo initially pursued audio engineering. “I thought it would be playing with the faders,” he says. “But they were actually teaching electrical engineering and acoustic design. I saw my friends in the performance program playing every day and getting better. I wanted to do that instead, so I switched to a degree in studio music and jazz.”
A music degree can qualify you to work as a player or to teach. After graduation, Ronquillo opted for gigs with cover bands, which in south Florida is a very lucrative job. “I have friends who bought houses in their early 20s just from playing in wedding bands,” he says. “But after doing that for a long time, I was about to quit music.”
Fortunately, some friends he made on the circuit came through with better gigs. One invited Ronquillo to tour with the successful reggae band Inner Circle, who did the theme song to the TV show Cops. Another friend was the musical director for Ricky Martin and called him to perform on Martin’s MTV Unplugged appearance and subsequent world tour.
Shortly after the tour, Ronquillo left Miami for Los Angeles. “I was high on the hog, with a great touring gig and a great résumé, thinking my L.A. friends would hook me up,” he says. “But it rarely happens like that. I was getting little gigs here and there, but ended up having to get day jobs.” Eventually he was called to do a short-lived TV show featuring R&B singer Brian McKnight. The first episode’s guests were Stevie Wonder and an R&B singer named Judith Hill, with whom Ronquillo tours to this day.
Finding L.A. too dangerous, expensive and crowded, he and his wife moved to Chicago, but not before the versatile guitarist landed a gig with Thompson Square, a modern country band touring out of Nashville. “For about a year and half I was going back and forth between Chicago and Nashville,” he says. “In 2015, we decided to move to Nashville and buy a place,”
Two facts of modern guitar life are expediency and adapting to circumstances. While Thompson Square tour the U.S. with a trailer, Judith Hill largely performs in Europe, which calls for a compact rig. “I have to carry my gear,” Ronquillo explains of working with the singer. “The first tour I brought my LsL Tele-style guitar. I changed the bridge pickup to a Seymour Duncan Little ’59, because on certain stages the power is dirty and single-coils are noisy. It is fairly light but felt heavy after hours of carrying it through airports, hotels and train stations. Eventually I found the headless Kiesel Allan Holdsworth model, which was only 5.7 pounds and 36 inches long. I switched out the stock pickups for DiMarzio Transitions.” To slim down his pedalboard, he uses the Mooer Red Truck Combined Multi Effects pedal. “It has overdrive and distortion, a section for modulation, delay, reverb and a tuner,” Ronquillo says. “I add a Dunlop Mini Wah, for the funky stuff. The whole thing weighs nothing.”
On the other hand, he can take more and bigger gear on the road with Thompson Square, including his Morgan RCA 35 head and a 1x12 cabinet. Even so, he keeps his pedalboard simple. “I have a TC Electronic Polytune Mini tuner, the Exotic XP mini compressor and the JHS Double Barrel dual overdrive pedal, which essentially gives me three drive sounds: each channel of the Double Barrel and both combined,” Ronquillo explains. “When I click on the compressor it adds another level of gain and sustain. From there I go into a Source Audio Nemesis Delay. I don’t usually use reverb. If I do, it’s the Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11. I typically take one guitar on the road. With Thompson Square, it’s the LsL.”
Ronquillo’s career making gear demos began when he asked Eastwood Guitars for an artist’s discount on the company’s Tuxedo model and offered to make demo videos for them. “I did one playing over a blues backing track,” he explains. “I then did a solo guitar version of ‘Sleep Walk,’ which started gaining momentum.” Eastwood was pleased and contracted with him for more. It wasn’t long before Ronquillo had amp and pedal companies sending him gear. “At the time, I didn’t feel comfortable talking on camera,” he reveals. “But Mike [Robinson] from Eastwood made the point that it was okay because a lot of people watching these videos don’t speak English. They just want to see and hear the gear.”
At present, monetizing videos by partnering with YouTube requires that a channel reach 4,000 watched hours in the previous 12 months and have 1,000 subscribers. “YouTube is constantly changing their rules on how creators can make money,” Ronquillo says. “I got lucky. I signed up for my channel in 2006, and the level you needed to reach before you could monetize your videos was a lot lower than it is today, though I was only making pocket change.”
To move from change to paper money, Ronquillo expanded his content to include lessons and, more recently, a vlog. His first video focused on the life of a Nashville touring musician. “The Nashville schedule is weekend warrior style,” he says. “We leave Thursday and come back Sunday. You’re home Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and repeat. On pop tours we would be out for up to a month and a half, come home for two weeks, and go out for another month and a half.” The video was a hit. “For some reason, that skyrocketed my channel last year,” he says.
Touring takes a toll, especially when you have a family, so Ronquillo was excited about his new career in video. Even so, the work does become routine. “I get up, have breakfast and start setting up for videos,” he says. “I usually limit myself to two a day. The fastest way to work is in batches. I’ll set up the cameras and lights just for pedals. That way I can plop down one pedal, press record, do my thing, put down another pedal, and repeat. When I move on to a guitar demo, I’ll reset all the cameras and lighting. I have a set of audio monitors facing up from the ground and a small computer monitor out of frame, along with my mouse, keyboard and a remote switch for my cameras. I’m a one-man operation, so everything is at my feet.”
Ronquillo is staring at a future as uncertain as anyone else’s in this day and age. “I would love to do YouTube full time, but any industry having to do with technology is constantly changing,” he says. “Five years ago, I didn’t think YouTube would be an avenue for guitar players, and look where it is now. Who knows what it’s going to be like in another five years. We just have to see where the business is going. Hopefully, it’ll work out in everybody’s favor.”