Being a session musician can be a lot of fun.
You get to perform a lot of genres with different artists. You get to be in different studios and on different stages. You get to learn new songs, spend a lot of time with your instrument, and get paid for your passion work.
But session playing can also be hard work. And, if you want to get to the point where you are recognized as a professional, you’ll need to put in your time.
Here are several steps you can take to build a positive reputation and land more gigs as a session player.
Professional Session Musicians Should Show Up Prepared
So, you want to be a professional. Then you better be prepared for every gig or recording session you are booked for.
For better or for worse, you will likely find yourself tossed into situations you aren’t adequately prepared for. This happened to me several times.
I was asked to substitute for the guitarist of a country band. Keep in mind, I had never played any country up to that point. It was a low-pressure gig, but I barely had any time to prepare. I charted out and learned as much as I possibly could, but I didn’t have any one song memorized. I had to bring a music stand and binder to the gig and did my best to flip pages as we went through the set.
Again, fortunately it was a low-pressure situation, and if the band needed to call on me for another gig, they probably would have, but there was a logical limit to how prepared I could be for that weekend.
I followed that up with another country gig only a year later. There were a few songs on the set list I knew, which was helpful, but again, I was in a situation where I was starting almost entirely from scratch. Again, I had to bring a music stand and a binder and ended up spending time practicing in the hotel room in between sets.
Ideally, this is not the situation you want to find yourself in. Over the years, I’ve learned to “fake it” relatively well. And, with a genre like country, the chord changes tend to be predictable, and your ear becomes accustomed to them.
So, do your best when you don’t have adequate time to prepare. But if you do have time, you better get woodshedding. It will be obvious if you show up to the studio or stage not knowing your parts. And, trust me – replacements aren’t that hard to find. Someone can take your place.
Show up prepared. Not just for your sake, but also for the sake of everyone involved – artist, producer, engineer, organizer, manager, agent, and so on. If you do everything in your power to prepare and you still get replaced, don’t be down on yourself. There’s always next time.
Be Open To Suggestion
Being a session player can sometimes be frustrating. You may end up spending hours and days practicing, sometimes just for one song, never mind an entire set list worth of songs!
Then, as you arrive at the studio or rehearsal session, confident that you know your parts, the artist tells you they want you to “try something different”, or “change the part”, or “play it more gnarly”.
Avoid the temptation to snap back at them or get defensive, because you could end up losing your job faster than you can recite the major scale.
Don’t take feedback personally. It could just be that the producer wants to hear the part played differently. Or, maybe they’re just trying to draw the best out of you, because they can see you’re holding back.
Metallica’s The Black Album stands as a classic, and is an influential album, far beyond the realm of metal. While recording the solos, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett was said to have been pushed to the point of anger. And most of the time, it was the raw, aggressive, passionate takes they chose for the tracks, instead of the intricately worked-out parts Hammett had practiced for the songs.
When I was auditioning for a certain band, I tried to work out the parts as I heard them on the album. But the singer kept encouraging me to try something different. “The guitarist’s parts on the album are brilliant”, he would say. “I don’t want you to try and duplicate that.”
Ultimately, I did not get into that band, but I was able to refer someone to them who made the cut – a very different player with less technical ability, but apparently had more of the “feel” the singer was looking for.
It’s easy to take a situation like that personally. But if someone is telling you to “try something different”, just go with it. I know it’s painful to think about the hours you spent trying to copy someone else’s playing (as you would be with any cover band or band that plays covers), but if you want the job, you can’t be too precious about your parts.
Session Players Need To Make New Friends
Don’t limit yourself. If you’re serious about being a professional session musician, I believe you should spend at least some of your time working on your people skills. Read a book like How to Win Friends and Influence People. I don’t believe in manipulating people to get what you want out of every situation, but I do believe in being empathetic, caring, and supportive.
If you’re shy, don’t worry – 80% of the world is shy. You can still extend your hand and introduce yourself to others. No big deal. Let others do the talking. Just learn to ask questions. Then latch onto something they say and ask follow-up questions. That’s how conversations work. In fact, if you do what I just said to do, you’ll probably come across as someone with serious charisma. Who knew it was so simple?
So, don’t close yourself off from any interaction. I know, it’s hard, because we tend to judge everyone by their cover. But you never know where a conversation might lead. It might go nowhere, but you may also end up meeting a new best friend, an investor, your spouse, a lead – and who wants to miss out on opportunities like that?
Be open-minded. Reserve judgment of others. If they have done you no wrong, they’re at least worthy of a try.
Keep making new friends. This is where most of your work is going to come from – people. It will not come from screaming into the void.
Find Your Sound
You need to know how to dial in your tones. How will other artists, producers, and engineers know if they can trust you if you can’t be counted on to deliver the sound they need?
Let’s say you’re a rock guitarist. Just because rock is your primary genre doesn’t mean you’re going to be hired on to play rock all the time. If you want to make a living, you may need to adapt to the situation, and play country, blues, or even jazz. So, can you dial in the right sounds for your clients?
If you play an acoustic instrument, such as a violin, there isn’t always a lot of room for adjustment. In that situation, it comes down to how well you know your instrument, as well as the quality of instrument you’re using. Also, whether in the studio or performing live, you should know which mic or pickup to use and which give you the best tones possible.
Additionally, it can help to develop a “signature” sound early on. That way, you’ll stand out from the crowd and create a reputation for yourself as a session player. When people come looking for that sound, they’ll come to you, because they know you can give them what they want.
Bottom line – you should have a solid understanding of your gear, know how to adapt to a variety of situations, gain clarity on how to bring out the best sounds from your instrument, and work on your signature sound.
Develop Your Versatility As A Session Musician
Okay, so this kind of flies in the face of what I just said.
As good as it is to have a signature sound, if that’s all you have, you’ll eventually be called a one trick pony. As new clients stop coming your way, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board to reinvent yourself. And, that could take months if not years. Plus, you have no guarantee that your “new sound” will be as in demand. Sure, it’s good to be known for something, but if you’re only known for that one thing, it could reach a saturation point.
If you’re an acoustic guitarist, try learning other stringed and fretted instruments – dobro, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, lap steel, and the like.
If you’re an electric guitarist, try pulling a variety of tones out of your instrument for different genres.
If you’re a pianist, try experimenting with organ, synth, mellotron, and so on.
So long as you do one thing well, your clients will begin to trust you with other things too. They might come by your home studio and see your rack of instruments and go, “oh, you play that too?” That can open doors.
Look at Pete Lesperance of Harem Scarem fame. He now has a website called myremoteproducer.com where he promotes his production services. Yes, Pete is known as an exceptional guitarist above all else, but he also plays bass, banjo, mandolin, dobro, lap steel, and can also program drums and keyboard parts too.
Being known as a versatile player can help you broaden your reach as a session player and connect you with more clients.
Be Willing To Take On Extra Session Work
Last March, I was asked to sing backup and play guitar at a friend’s CD release concert.
When you’re under the leadership of a Type A personality, you know you’re going to be spending a lot of time practicing and perfecting your parts. Until they are satisfied, it doesn’t matter how well you think you know your parts. Type A’s need to feel 100% at home performing with you.
Fortunately, I was no stranger to this type of personality, and had even worked with people like him, so I knew what to expect. I spent a lot of time practicing at home, and I also attended several long rehearsal sessions.
But our leader was always good about providing refreshments at every rehearsal. Plus, he ended up paying me what I would consider to be more than a fair rate – more money than I had ever made for a single gig!
This is partly because I was willing to take on a bit of extra work. I was asked to prepare a playlist for pre-show. Since several of the session musicians (including me) had music of their own published and out in the world, he wanted me to compile a playlist comprised of those musicians, so their music could be played while attendees were finding their seats.
That may not sound like a lot of extra work, and to be honest it’s not as though I was crunched for time preparing that playlist, but I was still rewarded handsomely for my efforts.
So, don’t begrudge the extra things you are asked to do. You never know how it might pay off, and you’ll also create a more positive reputation for yourself if you’re willing to go the extra mile.
How To Become A Session Musician Final Thoughts
One last thought – conduct yourself as a professional. Do not sell yourself short. Take care of your personal hygiene and dress the part. Say “please” and “thank you” when appropriate. Introduce yourself to those who do not introduce themselves. Show up early, and stay late (except in the studio).
If you’re recording tracks in the studio, nail the parts as quickly as possible – get in and get out.
If you’re hired to perform on stage, be open to suggestion. You may be asked to change your parts. You may be asked to wear a ridiculous costume. You may need to learn a bit of choreography. Sometimes, you’ll need to pick up a few things outside of your job description.
Count it all a blessing, especially if you’re getting paid well.