Session Guitarist: Tips For the Aspiring Musician

While most guitarists work in a band context, playing songs that they wrote or in cover bands playing other artists music, some guitar players work as a “session guitarist.”

Slash “Saul Hudson” former lead shredder of Guns N’Roses

Take Your Guitar Skills To The Next Level

A session guitarist is someone who is called in for a specific project to play guitar for the band and/or producer via their request. Often time these players have never heard the music that they are due to record, but are given lead sheets and chord charts so that they can gain an understanding of how to play the material just for the recording.

Some famous guitar players manage both session work and playing with their band. One example of this is Slash, who is best known for playing lead guitar with Guns N’ Roses, but did you know that he also played with other artists such as Michael Jackson? The point of this post is not to cover the details of what it means to be a session player. Not this week. Instead the point here is to show you how to prepare for a session job, encase you decide to go that route, or pursue session work as a way of getting more exposure for your playing and your career.

So you’ve made the contacts with producers, engineers, other artists and you’ve gotten a call from one of those said parties asking you to play on the new… let’s say Kelly Clarkson album. She is a former American Idol and is most likely not going to have a band of dedicated musicians for her, each and every step of the way throughout her career. So you’ve been asked to play on a couple tracks doing lead, rhythm, fills and anything else the producer can dream up. What do you do? Do you just show up? No way! That is the last thing that you’d want to do. You need to be prepared.

Kelly Clarkson is a popular singer-songwriter and winner of the first American Idol

Hope For The Best & Prepare With Good Gear

First think about the project that you will be playing on. What are the sounds that the artist is know for? What kind of music are they known to do? These crucial questions will help you decide what to bring, or what to possibly have the producer rent, and what to avoid and leave home. Most session guys have an array of guitars from Gibson Les Paul’s to Fender Strat’s. This is important, what guitar do you bring?

Next is how do you tune for the sessions? Most records are tuned to standard tuning, but some current records have lower dropped tunings, so you need do your homework and investigate. Bring extra strings and learn to intonate your guitar just encase you are asked to. If you have the luxury to do so, speak to the producer and ask these questions ahead of time. A good option is to bring a few different guitars so the producer can use them at a moments notice.

Next question, what amp do you bring? Luckily now with plug-in’s like Eleven and the Line 6 Pod “amp modeling,” technology you can assume that a good sound can be created in the studio pretty easily. On the other hand, nothing takes the place of a good tube amp. So if you bring your Marshall or Fender Twin, expect to use it and it would be a good idea to plan it out ahead of time with different sounds that you dial in quickly so the session can move forward quickly. My personal experience has shown me that you can get half of the tones from a real amp and the other half from an amp modeling rig, and the final product is amazing, with HUGE sound in a stereo mix!

Fender Twin Amp also known as “The Evil Twin”

Keep An Open Mind and a Good Attitude!

Obviously you will want to bring pedals with you. Having a good wah-wah pedal, overdrive pedal and modulating pedal like a phaser or flanger is great. A delay pedal isn’t usually needed since most studios run Pro tools and a lot of sounds like delay are created with plug-ins that can be tweaked in post production, so that the exact sound that is needed can be had. Remember when a sound is recorded, that sound can only be tweaked, rather than radically changed. So if delay is recorded with the guitar signal, that delay will be there no matter what.

Last but not least are some general ground rules for getting the most from the experience. Be open to any and all ideas. Often times the producer will ask you to do something very specific. Go for it! Do it as best you can and give them what they are asking for. If you have any of your own ideas, its best to mention them after a few takes so that they can be had in case the producer wants something else later on.

Next is knowing if you like to wear headphones or if you’d rather listen to the track through the monitors in the control room while sitting next to the producer. Also, and this is kind of random, but bring layers of clothes. Often times when you’re playing you are warm and when there is down time you will be cold, bored and anxious. I find that bringing a jacket and long sleeve T-shirt get’s me through sessions so I’m not stuck being too hot or too cold.

Last but not least, do a great job, work your contacts and get the call for the next session.

Thanks for reading!

  • HowieJohnson

    Very informative post, thanks for sharing the details. I’ve been thinking of getting myself out there. Any advise on how to score session gigs? Thanks again.

Subscribe to SMG Podcasts!
Download the latest show
from iTunes >>>