Top10 Session Tips
Getting into sessions is not easy. But here are 10 important things to bear in mind if a studio or theatre show career sounds like it might be right for you.
HGet known locally
Turn up to watch other bands, go to jam nights and open mics, befriend all the local musicians and bands and let them know what you can do – even stand in for a number or two, if you can. These days there are small studios seemingly on every corner. Look them up and pop a resume and CD in, or email them a YouTube link to something you’ve done. Most session careers begin through word of mouth, but if no one knows you you’ll never get started.
Learn reading and theory
Most professional sessions today (and pretty much all ‘show’ gigs) require a high level of reading as speed is of the essence and the £££s are ticking away. Good theory is vital. Chord charts too, and the Nashville numbers system is also a boon to know (look it up!). But don’t forget a great ear and an inventive mind, as arrangements are often changed on the fly; if you’re known as the guy who can come up with an instant ‘hook’ you’ll do well.
If the session starts at 10am, be set up and ready to go on the dot (that’s not the time to arrive!), be sober, and a nice guy to be around. The great studio bands – The Funk Brothers, Muscle Shoals, The Wrecking Crew, The Section, Mitch Dalton’s Session Kings, etc - happen because a bunch of players ‘click’ both musically and personally. A sense of humour goes a long way, too – you’ll definitely need it!
Have top quality gear
There’s no need to arrive with a truckload, but a humbucking guitar (Gibson ES-335), Strat-type, Tele-type, good steel and nylon-string acoustics are the minimum. But a banjo, 12-string, mandolin and ukulele might be handy to have in the boot – just in case. The majority of our session heroes used Fender Deluxe Reverb amps and the obvious effects – overdrive-distortion, fuzz, wah-wah, chorus, delay, compression etc; but don’t forget the new breed of profilers that are proving very popular in studios – and of course strings, a capo, a slide – and a tuner!
Specialist or all-rounder?
This is a tricky one. If you’re known as the best country guitarist for 100 miles you’ll be first call on the list. But if all you can play is death metal – no matter how brilliantly - your options are limited. Some session players are all-rounders with a known speciality – you play classical guitar, too, or can double on piano, or harmonica - harmony vocals are a great second string to any musician’s bow. Once you become known on the scene you’re likely to be booked as ‘you’ and not just ‘guitar 2’.
Leave your ego at the door
You’re hired to do a job, not to show off how great you are. The producer and/or artist are the boss, and whatever they ask you to do it’s your job to come up with the goods. You can of course offer suggestions, but even then be careful – you don’t want to come across as arrogant or a know-it-all.
Play for the song
You’ll need to be aware of the stylistic traits in whatever kind of music you’re called to play distorted power chords won’t cut it on a funk session, so make sure you listen to the masters of any style in order to slot in and feel ‘right’
Timing and tuning
Perfect tuning, of course, goes without saying. But the session environment is stressful, and likely to cause nervous players to tense up and potentially rush their parts. Listen to the drummer’s kick and snare, and the bass player’s groove, and aim to lock in with them. Most people prefer to hear the guitar slightly ‘lazy’, rather than in front of the beat, which can sound twitchy and nervous. If in doubt, spend practice time with a metronome.
Be a good emulator
When it comes to an improvised solo a producer will often ask for something reminiscent of what an iconic guitarist might play. So make sure you can, at will, evoke the style of Gilmour, Knopfler, Clapton, Hendrix, Albert Lee, Santana, Nile Rodgers and other instantly recognisable players – this goes for licks, tones, effects et al. It doesn’t have to be 100%, (don’t lift copyright riffs or solos) but just enough to provide a recognisable flavour.
Be a generous musician
Steve Lukather has many tales of the great players that helped him out when he was starting out in the session game – studio stars like Lee Ritenour. If there’s more than one guitarist on the session, don’t hog all the good bits and leave them the dross. Talk about who might do what best, and share duties fairly. Be prepared to strum an acoustic if the other guy’s the better soloist for this particular job – and do it brilliantly, with good grace. Don’t be afraid of depping out a session that you can’t do. A pro won’t steal the gig, and karma is a wonderful thing.