Errol Cooney

It’s one of the ironies of being a great side musician: Millions of people see you perform, yet hardly anybody knows your name. Such is the case for R&B guitar ace Errol Cooney, whose current gig is playing arenas with Christina Aguilera.

“Once I change out of my stage clothes, I could walk through the crowd right after the show, and no one would recognize me,” says Cooney.

Luckily for the 30-year-old Los Angeles guitarist, one group of people who do know his name are the intimate network of musical directors who handle most of the big tours heading out of Southern California. Their appreciation for Cooney’s deep sense of groove, explosive solos, and all-around chill vibe has helped put him on stage—as well as on every television show from The Today Show to The Tonight Show to the 2007 Grammy Awards broadcast—with Beyoncé Knowles, En Vogue, Fantasia Barrino, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Fred Hammond, and other star singers. Before heading off on a summer stadium tour of South America as guitarist for the concert version of Disney’s High School Musical, Cooney checked in with GP to share some audition tips and tour survival strategies that just might help you land a gravy gig of your own.

What shouldn’t a guitarist do at a big audition?
Act too excited about getting the gig! I hate to say it, but the biggest part of these auditions is not how well you play. It’s if the rest of the band thinks they’ll be comfortable with you on a bus for three months straight, and if they feel you can handle yourself on the road. You don’t get to be a rock star on these gigs. Of course, I still manage to fit in a little of the rock-star stuff [laughs].

How’d you land the Aguilera gig?
It was an open audition. At first, there were 50 other players. On the final day, it was down to three. It helped me that a couple of the guys in the band had worked with me before and could vouch for me.

What was the hardest part of the audition?
The dance moves. They had us doing these standard left, right, move-with-the-group steps, but I wasn’t very good at them at first. Nobody was. The whole scene was pretty funny, actually. It was like watching 50 guitar players falling off a cliff. It would have been less awkward without all the other guitarists in the same room staring at you like, “I’m gonna get this gig,” but some musical directors like to see you in a high-pressure situation.

What was Aguilera’s MD looking for in a guitarist?
Versatility. For instance, there’s one song that features classical guitar, while others have big-band swing arrangements or reggae grooves. Plus, they told me, “You gotta be able to play the rock, too, man.” Although it wasn’t a real rock feel they were after so much as what I’d call a pseudo R&B-rock feel.

What would a guitarist who has only played clubs be surprised by his or her first night performing with Aguilera?
All the staging can be pretty distracting—the huge number of lights, the three LED wall screens, the eight dancers, the 12 band members, the mobilators, and the big “toaster” they use for special props and surprise entrances. If you don’t pay attention, you might end up falling off of a riser or into a mysterious hole in the middle of the stage.

Do you get any big solos?
There are a couple of feature spots for me—usually in the reprise sections of songs.

During Christina’s costume changes?
Exactly [laughs].

What’s the most fun part of the gig for you?
That would probably be playing the role of sound effects guy on certain songs—making crazy noises, dive bombs, false harmonics, big distorted sounds, and other stuff you wouldn’t expect to hear at a Christina Aguilera show. Plus, I really like the clever ways [musical director] Rob Lewis has rearranged some of the older songs. There are a lot of interesting new things happening in the music.

What’s the most challenging aspect of the job?
The song where I play classical guitar, because I’ve never been much of a fingerpicker. Figuring that out, and learning 21 songs in five days was tough.

Does playing big arena and stadium shows ever feel at all impersonal?
Sometimes. You are very far from the audience, and the in-ear monitors can make you feel like you’re in a bubble. But one thing that helps us all build a connection with the crowd on the Aguilera show is that there are small pits of audience members directly in front of the band. While I love the intimacy and sound of the smaller club and theater gigs I do with singers like Ledisi, Laylah Hathaway, and Goapele—as well as how their music leaves so much space for improvisation—I couldn’t say which performance situation I like better. Honestly, I’m just happy to be working. There aren’t a whole lot of guys who get gigs like these year round, so I am very lucky.

Errol’s Arsenal

Amp Mesa/Boogie F-100 combo. (“It’s kind of like a Fender Twin with a lead channel. It’s nice having it right behind me onstage in case our in-ear monitors go out.”)
Guitars 2006 Gibson Les Paul Standard and ES-335 (“I got this guitar specifically for the big band tunes on the Aguilera tour”), 1986 Fender Stratocaster, Taylor steel- and nylon-string acoustic-electrics.
FX Maxon OD808 and Crowther Hot Cake overdrive pedals, Line 6 DL4 delay modeler, Dunlop Crybaby wah, Ernie Ball volume pedal
Accessories Voodoo Lab Pedal Power
Strings Dean Markley