A common question from young musicians: “I want to be a session musician: any advice you can give me?”
OK, here are a few tips and tricks. Fellow sessioneers, please feel free to add to the list!
Don’t be late. Ever. Not even a bit. At all. Studios are expensive places. It’s bad enough if you are only keeping the engineer and producer waiting, but if you are also keeping a 70-piece orchestra hanging around… Mind you, the orchestral players will love you because your tardiness will push them into overtime. The producer, on the other hand, will never ever call you again. Ever. At all. And Producers talk… so other producers will hear about your inability to get to the studio on time.
Have all your gear in perfect working order (and vocalists that includes your voice). No crackly leads, no guitars with faulty intonation, amps with ground loop hums, creaky wah-wah pedals, dead/damaged drum heads, squeaky pedals. It’s no use telling the producer that your top E string is out of tune because your brother sat on the guitar last night after he’d been to the pub, but you’ll have it fixed for next time… there won’t be a next time! Have spare strings/sticks/heads in your bag, spare capos, spare picks, spare guitar(s) in the car, pencil/manuscript paper, spare batteries, gaffa tape…you get the idea.
Don’t be afraid to ask. If there’s something in the part you don’t understand, ask, but pick your moment!
Don’t be afraid to make suggestions. But again, pick your moment and don’t take it personally if it is rejected. An ideal time to make a suggestion is if there is a problem to which you think you have a solution. Take the time at the start of the session to make a judgement on whether the producer is open to input.
Sit quietly if in the control room. Don’t chat while the team is working; watch, listen and learn. If someone talks to you, answer quietly and don’t prolong the conversation. Make sure that when the producer turns round to ask for silence, it’s the other guy he’s looking at, not you. You will learn as much by observing quietly as you will by playing.
Do what the producer asks. Always, no matter how barking it may seem. He has the big picture, the master plan. And even if he doesn’t and is an incompetent fool, he is still the producer and controls the budget. The producer is God. Do what he asks and don’t make him have to tell you twice.
Don’t tell the engineer what you think you should sound like. He has his own very good reasons for rolling all the low frequencies off your acoustic guitar. If you ever learn about engineering yourself (which you should try to do!) you will understand.
It’s not your record!!! Just play what’s required and keep your head down. One day, a producer might ask you to play some of your hot licks; that’s your chance to show what you can do, but if all she wants is power chords in the chorus and 8′s in the verses, just play power chords in the chorus and 8′s in the verses. Similarly, aim to get the job done and don’t overcomplicate.
Police yourself. If you made a mistake in the song, remember where it was and tell the producer/engineer at the end of the take. He’ll thank you for it. He has so many things to concentrate on he may well not have noticed your error until he starts mixing 3 months later and on another continent, by which time it is too late to correct it.
If you get lost, stop playing. It’s better to leave a gap that you can repair later than to play the wrong thing which may spill onto other instruments’ mics and oblige everybody to redo the take. Again, inform the producer at the end of the take.
Perform everything as though you love it, mean it, and feel it from the very depths of your soul. (Even if it’s unmitigated rubbish!) You are there to contribute your emotional energy to the recording.
Have a pencil with you at all times. Take time to annotate your part and amend it according to any suggestions or changes that the producer makes. Don’t rely on your memory; in the heat of the moment it’s easy to get confused. After the artist has changed the key 3 times, changed tempo twice, popped out for a 3-hour lunch break, cut and then re-instated the double chorus after the solo, and gone back to the original key but using the 2nd of the 3 tempos you tried, your memory will be an unreliable guide. Make sure the pencil has a rubber on one end. Make sure the rubber is not on the end you write with. Have a sharpener in your gig bag. (I mean a pencil sharpener, not a miniature Jack Daniels.)
When reading, figure out the basic structure first. If you can’t get all the semi-demi-quavers, figure out the basic structure and at least play that. If there’s something you can’t read, ask someone else (the piano player is usually the best reader in the band, and they love to show off.) Ask him to play it for you. Nine times out of ten you’ll recognise it as soon as you hear it. Last resort is to pretend you have a problem with your gear (broken string, faulty lead, etc.,) and lay out during the first run-through (or, if you’re unlucky, take!) while you have a listen. Again, usually you’ll recognise it immediately.
Develop your ear. Learn to play things after hearing them once. Become familiar with the sounds players of your instrument use in different styles, and become familiar with the styles themselves. Sometimes you can enhance the recording (and get yourself out of having to play something that was written by a piano-playing producer and is therefore unplayable on the guitar) by saying “Well, this would be more authentic…” and giving an example.
Devise strategies for counting large numbers of bars. 64 bars rest may seem like an eternity if you count them singly, but if you miss your entry don’t expect any sympathy… 64 bars breaks down into 8 8-bar phrases, or 4 16-bar phrases, or maybe one verse , a bridge, and a chorus. Learn to count in phrases as well as bars. Listen to the music; there’ll usually be a cue for your re-entry. Pop music uses familiar structures; 10-to-1 there’ll be a drum fill to bring you back in. Note it and write it in the part.
Be adaptable. If someone calls you and asks if you play the Mongolian Zither, having first established that they themselves are not Mongolian Zither experts (ask them if they mean the southern or northern variant,) say “Yes, of course,” hire a Mongolian Zither, spend 10 minutes on YouTube to get a handle on the style, tune it to guitar tuning, do the session and take the money.
Learn to play quietly. By which I mean play without making grunts, heavy breathing or loud tapping of the foot, critical when recording quiet acoustic instruments. Also, check the chair doesn’t squeak.
“Don’t talk over the producer and don’t play over the melody.” These are words of wisdom from Chuck Sabo that need little qualification.
Dave Garibaldi once said: “The trick is to play the right thing, at the right time, in time, all the time”!
Learn to play the song, not the chart. The best way to do this is to sing it to yourself while playing it. (If you sing it aloud and have a half-decent voice you may well pick up a backing vocal fee as well!)
If you are in a rhythm section session with a singer/songwriter, ask for lyric sheets. This will impress the artist more than anything else you could possibly do. Artists never ask the band to play “from bar 9 of the 2nd verse”; they ask the band to play from the “line about the forest.” A well-judged remark or question about the subject matter of the song will stack up the brownie points too, but beware making comparisons with other artists: all singer/songwriters like to think that they are totally unique and bear no resemblance to anyone else.
Finally, and without being too mystical about it, “Feel the force.” Learn to trust yourself and play with confidence. Learn to overcome “red-light-fever” (the phenomenon where you play it great in rehearsal and then fall apart as soon as the record button is pressed.) Buy/beg/steal/borrow a recording system to have at home and always have it in record whenever you pick up your instrument.
Session work is often considered to be the pinnacle of the working musicians’ career. It takes massive talent, concentration, and ability to be able to do it well. Every time you go into the studio you throw yourself off a cliff; what style of music am I going to do today? What unfamiliar chords/harmonies/rhythms am I going to have to play? What challenges am I going to face in terms of social/interpersonal skills? (Code for “what kind of raving insecure egomaniac artist am I going to have to tiptoe around?”).
If you can walk into a studio, sit down in front of a piece of music you’ve never seen before in a style you’ve never played before with an artist you’ve never met before in a key that is not one of the natural keys on your instrument, and from the first note sound as though you meant every note and had been playing that piece since you were a teenager, you have joined an elite club.
Enjoy it. “OK Guys, from the top please… a 1,2,3…”