Episode 25: Dave Cleveland – You Have To Play For The Song


This week I’m talking with my friend Dave Cleveland who is one of the top session and touring guitar players in Nashville. He’s played on over 30,000 songs throughout his career for artists like Little Big Town, Steven Curtis Chapman and Miley Cyrus. We are discussing the importance of learning parts correctly when playing for artists, ear training, being a “parts player” not an “everything player.” Plus, why you have to play for the song, not for yourself.

Show Notes:

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Talking Points:

*I started playing guitar when I was 12 or 13 and by 14 I knew that was all I wanted to do.

*I learned to read music when I was in the school jazz band in high school.

*I was diligent and self motivated in practicing because I knew that to get to the point I wanted to get to and play like the people I was listening to, it took a lot of work.

*I wanted to play with orchestras and symphonies so I had to learn to read notation.

*I went to Florida after high school and studied jazz guitar for about a year and learned more about theory and chord voicing, etc.

*I got a call from the owner and director of the band TRUTH to be their guitar player and that was my college degree. I got that gig because a guy from a church named Joe Hogue that I met and wrote music with had become the keyboard player and he recommended me.

*I was into rock music with the “more is more” attitude and walked into this situation was there was no room for that kind of playing. After the first couple of shows, I thought I was doing a great job until the drummer came to me and told me to listen to the parts again that are on the album because I was playing way too much.

*That was the best thing in my life for me to learn and affected my whole career.

*You have to play for the song.

*When you play on an artist’s record, you have to listen to everything around you. You have to know where your spots are to add and you have to know where to not play.

*Being in TRUTH for 3 years helped fine tune that idea of being a “parts player” as opposed to an “everything player.”

*Always have a good attitude and treat whatever you’re working as the most important thing you’ve ever done.

*Always do your best.

*After TRUTH I took a break from playing professionally.

*A friend of mine asked me to come check out Nashville, so we came down and hung out with him while he was tracking an album and asked me to overdub a guitar part.

*That was the moment that we realized that we should move to Nashville and start playing guitar again professionally.

*Within a year I got called by Twila Paris to play for her because a guy that did lights for TRUTH referred me and I got an audition for her and got the gig.

*When you have to take other work that is not music related, you are being prepared for something.

*When you have down time, don’t neglect your practice time because that is essential for when you show up the next time.

*Never waste your down time. If you have down time, there’s a reason and you should dig in and whatever you feel you’re weak in musically you should strengthen that.

*After Twila Paris, Steven Curtis Chapman called me to play for him on tour because he saw me play with Twila and liked what I did.

*When your touring with high level players, the caliber of musicianship is so amazing and you have to get up to that level.

*When you touring with big artists you’re expected to play the parts EXACTLY like the record, unless the artist gives you permission to take a little liberty.

*If you audition for a band or artist, you should know not only your guitar part but all the other guitar parts note for note. Be so aware of all the other instrument parts so when you go into the audition, you are over prepared and try to have the exact sound or as close as you can get.

*Don’t go into debt, so put money aside now so when you need certain gear for a gig you can get it.

*We would rehearse 3-4 weeks before a tour started so we could have the show down so the audience isn’t getting a rehearsal on the first show.

*I took what I learned from SCC and went back to Twila Paris’ band and worked it out with her management to rehearse the band for 2 weeks before we even saw Twila so when she walks in it’s like she’s playing along to her album.

*There’s nothing more frustrating for an artist than sitting there while players are mumbling through there parts if they don’t have them down.

*In today’s world, the band guys need to take it upon themselves to really rehearse before working with the artist because they don’t have the luxury to rehearse for 2 weeks all together before a tour.

*Some artists I’ve played with are Steven Curtis Chapman, Twila Paris, TRUTH, Susan Ashton, Amy Grant, Martina McBride, Avalon, Point of Grace and Phillips, Craig and Dean.

*I’ve also done studio work because my name started to get out after working with Twila.

*People say you can’t be a studio player and a touring player and be successful.

*The touring musician has to be the guy who re-creates the parts.

*The session musician has to be the creator of the parts.

*I’ve been able to do both so it’s allowed me to be successful in ways that others haven’t.

*I try to get myself in the mindset each day like I’m just picking up the guitar for the first time and it’s the first song I’ve ever played on so that gets me excited.

*Doing both is not as hard today because of technology. You can be on the road touring and track a part on your computer and email it where it needs to go.

*You have to know how to record yourself.

*You have to be skilled.

*If you’re lacking in some area, get better at that.

*If your ear is not well adapted to picking up lines in songs, get some ear training.

*I have an online guitar teaching course: www.davecleveland.com


Dave Cleveland is a first call session guitar player in Nashville, Tennessee. He has played on a multitude of Grammy and Dove Award winning projects with artists including Steven Curtis Chapman and The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Over his 26 years in Nashville, Dave has played on over 30,000 songs for artists like Miley Cyrus, Little Big Town, Stephen stills, Russ Taff and many more. His movie credits include The Apostle, Jimmy Neutron, and Courageous. He is a member of The Sam’s Place house band at the Ryman Auditorium which is hosted by Steven Cutis Chapman. On that stage, he has had the privilege of performing with Ronnie Milsap, Ray Stevens, Hillary Scott, Chris Tomlin, Amy Grant and many more. Just recently he was honored to play at two of the Presidential events at the White House: The Liberty Ball and the Candlelight Dinner. Dave was also invited to play at the White House for President George Bush by Michael Omartian during President Bush’s administration.
In a constant pursuit of creativity, Dave has amassed quite a large library of songs used consistently on TV shows, commercials, and movies worldwide. With over 1500 original compositions in rotation, he is constantly heard on shows like 20/20, The Chew, Undercover Boss and many more including the 2017 Pepsi Lemon Lemon commercial.
But above all of this, Dave is a follower of Jesus Christ and a dedicated father of Olivia, Catherine, and Joshua, and husband to his amazing wife, Tammy, of 32 years.