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People & Arts: Music


Guitarist Mike Aquino. Photo by Ron Horne, Rockin' Nature Photography

REASON TO SMILE: Mike Aquino performs with Jim Peterik’s World Stage, before coronavirus turned the arts upside down. (Performance photos: Ron Horne, Rockin' Nature Photography)


As Coronavirus Shutdowns Devastate the Arts, Guitarist Mike Aquino Tells His Story

I look at my calendar for 2021 and can almost count all my gigs on two hands and have fingers left over,’ says the musician, who before the shutdowns was fully booked

Feb. 16, 2021

MIKE AQUINO IS AMONG THE BEST, most versatile and hardest-working guitarists in the country. As a session player and live performer, he has added magic and fire to rock, jazz and country music for artists such as Jim Peterik, Dennis DeYoung, Brian Wilson, John Waite, and many others. He also works as a solo and duet performer, and sings.

Aquino, 48, has been playing professionally since he was 16. The Chicago-area resident has earned a reputation as a “first call” guitar player, his name topping the list of guitarists in the region whose phones ring most often with offers and opportunities.

He is a full-time professional musician who keeps busy year-round—or at least he did, before coronavirus struck and music venues were forced to lock down. Like many artists, he finds his livelihood put on hold by the pandemic that no one saw coming. Aquino told his story to Moresby Press:

We lost everything. As a full-time musician, you have your acoustic-duo circuit; your bigger club-band circuit; your big-festival circuit; your corporate circuit; and your traveling, casino/event-center circuit, where you’re playing to three or four thousand people at a show. All the high-end stuff, the Eagles-tribute band “One of These Nights,” and the Cher-tribute band, which were national touring acts, went bye-bye.

For “The Beat Goes On,” the Cher-tribute band, we had 20-something shows on hold for the summer. And then they were all gone. That takes about one-third of your money away for the whole year. And that’s just one band.

I was also booked to do a whole bunch of stuff with The Ides of March, and those were all gone. Another higher-ticket thing is “The Cornerstones of Rock” [a concert series featuring Chicago-area rock groups of the 1960s and ’70s]. We had about four or five shows booked for the summer. Those were gone.

Shows I do down in Nashville were gone. Just here locally, in the northeast corner of Illinois, if you had a full festival season booked, and that’s the lucrative season here, you didn’t have it anymore. It was gone. Everything, gone. Anything that would have involved more than 50 people getting together, gone. All of it, gone.

Everything was wiped out except for the smaller, duo gigs, playing beer gardens. Thank God they were able to stay open, and some could afford to book live music. And thank God for the people who would go out and tip the bands. People have been extremely generous. We all thank them.

But it’s hard. I rely on almost every facet [of being a professional musician] to keep the lights on. I do a lot of recording sessions—or, I should say, I did a lot of recording sessions. I played upwards of 200 shows a year between all the bands I played in, and I teach. I’ve busted my butt trying to keep going in every avenue—the recording, the gigs and the lessons. The gigs right now are very few and far between. I look at my calendar for 2021 and I can almost count all my gigs on two hands and have fingers left over.

‘When everything shut down, man, I didn’t know what to do,’ guitarist Mike Aquino says. ‘It was tough.’

Around St. Patrick’s Day 2020, when everything shut down, man, I didn’t know what to do. No sessions were going to happen. Live gigs were put on hold.

It forced every musician down the same path: Those who weren’t teaching now had to start teaching. Those who were already teaching had to quickly become a master of Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Facebook video, whatever, and to convert as many of your students as you could to online lessons. I converted and kept only about one-third of my students. The other two-thirds only wanted in-person lessons. Almost a year later, we’re still in the same boat.

It was tough, man. Now, with online lessons, students will send a text ahead of time saying they want to learn a particular song. So you put an hour and a half into a half-hour lesson that’s coming up that day. And you do that for every lesson you have.

You’re working for two hours and being paid for a half hour. I was really upset about that for a while. But at the same time, you’re going, “Well, thank God at least these students still want to take some lessons.” But it’s so hard when you’re doing it on the other end of a computer screen than when you’re right in front of them and there’s an immediate response.

There are people out there who know you’re hurtin’. They’ll say, “I’ll take some lessons from ya.” And the next thing, they’re gone.

Sometimes it’s because they’re getting shut down as well, because no one’s allowed to work. If they’re not gonna make any money, they can’t afford to take guitar lessons. And if parents aren’t able to work and make any money, they can’t spend any money on their kid’s guitar lessons, or any music lessons. We can’t blame them for that.

Guitarist Mike Aquino

HOMEBOUND: With live performances and in-person recording sessions put on hold, guitarist Mike Aquino now collaborates with other musicians remotely. (Photo courtesy of Mike Aquino)

We lost gigs and we lost lessons, a lot of them. It forced every guitar player, singer, piano player, artist, whatever, to go to live-streaming with a tip jar. It was really good for a month and a half. And then, as the next phase got locked down, you still saw the same amount of people tuning into your live-stream, but what you were making in tips was cut in half. And then two weeks later it would be cut in half again. I thank each and every one of those people that tipped on all those shows, because they kept the lights on. They kept the bills paid.

But it did get to the point where I stopped putting up the virtual tip jar, because I’m just like, “You know what? I’m really not makin’ any money. I’m gonna put it away and just do these shows and have fun.” Whatever gets paid gets paid, and what doesn’t get paid, doesn’t get paid.

Around the end of May 2020, spring was starting, and places were allowed to open for outdoor seating. As long as they were keeping up with the social-distancing practices, all of a sudden if you had a duo or a trio or you were a solo performer, you could find yourself getting booked again in the summer of 2020. You weren’t booked a ton, like you had been before, only about one-third the load.

A lot of places that were only allowed to hold 25 or 50 percent capacity couldn’t afford to book live music. So easily 75 percent of the places that you used to be able to play at, they wanted you to play there, but they couldn’t afford to, because they’re working at such a low margin that they couldn’t pay you anything.

Of the 25 percent of the places that you got to play at, probably 75 percent of those you lost when it started getting cold, because they couldn’t afford to heat an outdoor patio or an outdoor tent. You were down to maybe one show every two or three weeks, at the same place. And then once January first [2021] hit, it was like a switch went off. Nobody was booking anything anywhere. I don’t understand that one yet.

A lot of people are saying that the fest season here in Chicago—and God, I hope they’re wrong—possibly will not revert back to what it was till 2023 or 2024. If you’re a working musician and primarily make your money off of performing, you’re not gonna make any money until it’s safe to have festivals again. Especially here in the Midwest, in Illinois, from May through the first weekend of October, that’s when you make your money for the whole year. What hurt the most when COVID happened was that’s the time of year that it shut everything down.

You had to work twice as hard at everything you do, just to try to make 60 to 75 percent of what you had made before. The musicians who got hit the hardest were the gig workers. There’s no work. There’s nothing to be done. There’s nothing coming in.

Everyone was really pissed off and scared at first. As time went on, we kind of understood that this is just how it is and to be thankful for what we can get. We’re approaching a year now.

Luckily, a bunch of us have been able to push on. It goes in spurts; it goes in waves. You might have a week or two where it’s really good, where it’s almost like it’s back to normal. And then all of a sudden you get two or three weeks where you’re like, “Oh, man. How am I gonna pay my mortgage this month?”

I’m looking at my calendar going, “There’s nothing there.” I’ve got one or two shows now, tops, just little acoustic gigs, maybe one acoustic gig a month for the next two or three months. That’s it. But then again, you don’t even know if that’s gonna stick. If someone calls for a gig, you’re thinkin’, “Well, don’t do the gig, and stay home,” or “Do the gig, risk it, try to be as safe as possible, and pay your bills.” It’s tough.

Those gigs are either in private clubs, where you can play behind Plexiglas, or some establishments will put together a show, but with a limited amount of tables. Everything is spaced out. It might be under a roof, but all the doors will be open and the heaters cranked. You are 20 feet away from anyone.

You weren’t going to get many calls for a session. If you did, you masked up, you took it. A friend has set me up with a basic version of Pro Tools [recording software], so now I can do sessions from home. I would much rather go out and record in a studio, with the person who wants to hire me, so that we can be on the same page from the start. But the times the way they are, now you strike the deal over the phone, have the tracks sent over, record your tracks, and then send the tracks back.

I know a bunch of full-time musicians have taken real, day jobs. And I don’t know if they are coming back, even after it’s safe. After almost a year, some people will go, “You know what? I think I’m done. It’s time to do something else.”

Their passion could pull them back, but the thing that scares a lot of people is, “Pull you back to what? What’s gonna be there?” Venues are closing. How much will be left? What is going to be there for us to step back into?

But for audiences, I think the appetite has already returned. They are chompin’ at the bit to get out and see live music. People want to get back to normal. It’s gonna happen gradually at first, and then that door is gonna blow wide open. And once that happens, there’s gonna be no stopping it, no turning back.


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Visit Mike Aquino’s website.

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Mike Aquino and Jim Peterik, photo by Ron Horne Rockin' Nature Photography

Guitarist Mike Aquino, photo by Ron Horne, Rockin' Nature Photography


Jimmy’s awesome. Jimmy’s great. He’s one of my best buddies. It’s cool to know that there are guys out there like that—these big, giant rock stars from the ’70s and ’80s that are just the coolest dudes. Jim is like that.

Jim is one of those stellar examples of how to be, especially in this business—not only as a person in general, but how to be in this business even after you’ve had success. He’s a great dude.

I’ve always likened him to be my musical father. A lot of us wouldn’t have the career that we’re having if it wasn’t for that guy. He gave us a chance. Me and [drummer] Ed Breckenfeld, [bassist] Klem Hayes, and [keyboardist] Christian Matthew Cullen, we’ve been Jim’s guys since we were recording the first World Stage album in ’98. Almost 23 years I’ve been with Jim.

I credit him with giving me the chance to have a real, professional career. Especially in the Chicago area, if you’re up there on the Jim Peterik shelf, people are gonna know who you are. Your phone is gonna ring more often. Other artists and other producers who own studios, they know who you are. Next thing you know, easily 50 percent of my income since I was 28 has been through being a session rat, because being on Jim’s stuff has snowballed for me.

You might not be famous on the grand scale, but you’re known enough to sustain a career. I can thank Jim for putting me in the position where I can sustain a career or decide to not sustain a career. I owe Jim a ton. I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t have played with seven-eighths of the names I’ve played with, if it wasn’t for Jim.


Lots of times when I’m cuttin’ leads with Jim, it might be on a song that I played rhythm on—but a month and a half has gone by, and I don’t remember the song. It’s just, “Okay, go!” You have nothing planned. It’s your first instinct. You’re going for it.

I might think, “What key is the song in? Here’s my scale.” But what I’m more interested in is, What are the chords going by? Because within that scale, there are notes to hit at certain times that correlate to the chords going by.

I was always taught that you should be able to sit in a studio, turn down the band and listen to the guitar solo and hear the chord changes going by in what you’re playing. If you can do that, you can write yourself a really great solo.

Let’s say the chord you’re starting off of has notes number one, three and five in the scale. I’m gonna play my scale but I’m gonna hover around note one, three or five of the scale. That’s my jumping-off point. My idea’s gonna revolve around one of those three notes.

Then let’s say the next chord, which might only be one or two measures later, might have notes two, four and six in it. Now I’m still in the same scale, but I have to shift my thinking because my target notes are now the two, the four or the six. It’s a question of which notes are more important at the time. After you’ve been doing it for a long time your ear will tell you where to go.

I like lead parts that have phrasing to them. It sounds like someone’s talking and then they take a breath. And then they continue talking.

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