Dan Graham Lives Out His Teenage Dreams With a Guitar and Determination

Words by Emily Malool • 09/13/2017

The professional musician shares his rewarding journey from the school jazz band to playing on top-selling records.

Dan Graham is just 25 years old, but he’s already made music alongside the likes of Skizzy Mars, Bryce Fox, Phoebe Ryan and LAYNE. After going to his first concert, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, he was inspired to become a professional guitarist. 

In his teenage years, Graham initially put his musical knowledge to work by starting a band with some friends; they were eventually scouted by Sony Australia. After recording a few songs, Graham moved on and now performs with various artists around the world.

Find Your Grind spoke with Graham about the importance of self-confidence, finding mentors and how his passion for music is infectious.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What does being a professional musician entail?

I work as a musician playing the guitar. My job can vary from creating music in a studio environment to traveling around the world playing guitar for live audiences. Sometimes it's music I've helped create, but other times I'm playing for artists to help their original music come to life in a live setting.

How old were you when you discovered the guitar?

I’ve always been interested in playing music from about eight years old, but it wasn't until I went to my first big live concert when I was 15 that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was going to see my favorite band of all time, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. That concert completely blew me away; I was speechless watching the guitar player do his thing. I even cried at one point in a guitar solo because I was just so stoked. 

What kind of training or experience lead to playing professionally?

As soon as I was old enough, about eight, I auditioned for the school jazz band. I played trumpet for the next five or six years, but once I hit high school, I listened to rock music and wanted to play the guitar. But all of the guitar spots were full, so the teacher gave me the bass guitar. After the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, I switched to guitar and taught myself how to play using everything I already knew. 

As soon as I had the basics down, I formed a band with a group of friends. We started writing music in the school music rooms for about a year and then booked our own local shows. We got scouted by Sony Music Australia when we were 16, where we signed a deal for a couple of years. This was a huge learning experience for me at such a young age, as I got a firsthand look at the inner workings of the industry. Although the band never eventuated into what I would have liked it to be, it was an invaluable learning experience.

What's the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

When I first moved out to LA, I knew nobody and it took me a while to meet some good people. Spending a lot of time by myself sleeping on couches, sleeping in hostel dorm rooms and not really knowing how I was going to make this whole music thing into a viable career got a little tricky; it got quite overwhelming at times. Self-doubt started getting to me, so I struggled a lot with the notion of "I'm not good enough; I'm absolutely crazy to think I can make a career out of this."

What advice would you give a high school student interested in pursuing a musical career?

Believe in yourself and your abilities. Anything is truly possible with hard work and persistence. You will be told "no" a lot; there will be a lot of times where self-doubt will rear its head. Always strive to be better. Never be afraid to surround yourself with people you believe are at a higher skill level than you. You need to learn from them, and always asks questions because there is no such thing as a "stupid question."

What was the most valuable class you’ve ever taken?

Music was the most important class I ever took. I had the most supportive teacher in the world, Mr. Bresnahan. He saw something in me and always encouraged me to keep playing. He taught me if I wanted to do it as a career, there’s no reason why I wouldn't be able to do just that. His passion for music shone through as a teacher. When someone shares a similar passion, it is always contagious, so the music class was always a valuable environment for me to be in.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your high school self?

Don’t be misled with self-doubt. Life isn't meant to be easy. Some of the most important learning curves and life lessons stem from tough times. Embrace them and come out on top with your head held high.

Who did you look up to most growing up?

I looked up to my dad. He played guitar, had tattoos and sang in a band. I had a cassette of his band that I played to death, so that was a pretty damn cool thing to have as a kid. But on a deeper level, he is a great man and role model who treats people with respect and makes people smile, which are two very important traits to possess no matter what field of work you are in.

What book should all high school students read?

The Power Of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

What does it mean to you to Find Your Grind? Why is it important?

To find your grind is to find something that you're passionate about, something that gets you excited and out of bed in the morning. It's important to me because I've now managed to make a living out of something that I love and am passionate about. Being able to do something you love with a smile every day is incredibly liberating. My biggest fear was getting to 50 years old and saying to myself, “Man, what if I had taken a shot at that?"

-photo by Juan Di Nella on Unsplash

About the Author

Emily Malool

Emily Malool is a senior at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. She hopes to attend college in the tri-state metro area and become a high school math teacher. She enjoys reading, traveling and playing with her dog.