The M/S Norwegian Majesty
The "Boat Gig" is one of the most desired or dreaded jobs in the business, depending on who you talk to. Actually, you can make it a great experience with just a little discipline and a good attitude. It's certainly the most unique gig I can think of.
At this writing I am currently the showband guitarist aboard NCL's Norwegian Majesty. This is the newest ship in NCL's fleet, just purchased from another line last fall. And I have the distinction of being the first showband guitarist ever hired by the company.
There are two main issues in a cruise ship job. One is musical, the other is ship life. The musical issue is that you must be an excellent sightreader and able to play many styles authoritatively. Think of it as being on a wedding band at sea. You will play jazz, latin, bossa, country, pop/rock and more Broadway 2-beat than you can shake a stick at. The main duties of the showband fall into these categories:
- The production shows - These are usually Broadway revues complete with singers and dancers. They run 30 to 45 minutes and are solid music. Since the band is only 6 or 7 pieces, there will be a tape with extra vocals, strings and horns. You play along with the click track in your headphones. If you have a solid drummer, you can skip the phones and just play normally. You really have to have your reading hat on for these.
- Dance sets/Captain's Cocktail Parties - You need some extra No-Doz for these. Just 45 minutes or so of wedding band dance music. If you're lucky and the seas are rough, no one will dance and you can play a little jazz...
- Cabaret acts - These will be either singers or comedy/magic acts. If the former, you might have some fun if the charts are good. I tend to enjoy the singing acts because they let the band blow a little bit. If it's a comedy or magic act, you just play them on and off. Depending on the layout of the stage, you can sneak off for a nap. (Not that I've ever done that, of course!)
- Other duties - There are a variety of other things you might wind up doing. Jazz sets, embarkation sets, late night, you name it. I even did a few embarkation sets on solo jazz guitar. You never know until you get on board so be prepared.
Bear in mind that the passengers are served dinner in two seatings so you will play a show twice in a night. On Formal night, you will play two cocktail parties, two production shows and a late night show. That's about 7 hours on duty. On 3/4 day runs you get to do that twice a week. Be sure to get plenty of sleep!
As far as what gear to bring, I would suggest that less is more. A versatile Strat-style guitar, small amp and a few pedals should cover it. If you absolutely have to, bring your jazz box. I brought my archtop, my Strat, a little Polytone amp and a Boss chorus pedal and I'm covered. Bring a Real Book along as well.
The other issue is that of living on a ship at sea. I could write a book on this subject. Basically, if you have a good roomate, things will be cool. If not, well...
Showband musicians are usually billetted two to a cabin. The cabins are small but comfortable. Newer ships include phones and TVs in crew cabins (They get CNN, ESPN and movies on satellite). You will usually be near the dancers singers and other members of the "cruise staff".
After spending some time on the ship, you begin to notice the social layers. You have the officers, cruise staff, casino dealers, musicians, and crew. Notice the order I put those in. Most crew don't like musicians all that much because we work less hours than anyone on board. I just respond to that by pointing to my guitar and saying, "Okay. You do it."
There are other crew amenities on the ship, such as a laundry, a crew bar, safe deposit boxes, etc. If your ship is based in Miami, you have access to the excellent Seamans' Center where you can wire money, get on the Internet, rent movies, or grab lunch. Some ports (like Key West) are convenient when you have to get to a K-mart or Eckerd's quickly. Be prepared, however, for cab fares.
I would have to say the biggest downside of ship life is being caught in a storm at sea. It's not fun. These things do move, you know, and when it's crappy out they move a lot. Musicians cabins tend to be in the forward part of the lower decks, where the pitching is most severe. We were caught in 100 knot winds and 30 foot seas a month ago off Miami and, well, you can imagine. Despite all that, you get used to it after a while. Now I don't even notice the seas unless they are at least 15 feet. Hint: To ward off seasickness, drink lots of water and keep food in your stomach. It lessens the discomfort. And avoid passenger bathrooms....do I even have to tell you why?
Still the bad parts of this gig don't compare to the good parts. You're in the most beautiful locations in the world in near perfect weather (most of the time). All you have to do to earn your keep is play the guitar once in a while. How bad can that be? If you're interested, call the cruise line and ask for the entertainment division. You'll need to send a demo tape or CD and a resume. Good luck!