How to Become a Session Guitar Player
How to Become a Session Guitar Player
Playing an instrument for a while now? Ever thought you could actually make a living out of playing guitar? Well, it is definitely possible and in this article, we’ll break it all down.
We will first understand what is a session player and how does a session guitarist's day look like.
We will learn what skills you need to have as a musician and as a person, what kind of gear you need, and how to get a job!
Ok, let’s begin
We All Experience It! - The Mental Barrier
The first thing I want to discuss is actually believing in yourself, but not in the spiritual BS way... You can get to an astounding level of playing, YOU CAN play like all the crazy players you see on the web. they are all humans, just like you.
I wish that as a youngster, someone came up to me and just shout it at me.
Talent doesn't worth as much as they say... If you got talent, you have only a chance of making it, but if you are determined, you are ready to invest long hours of your life practicing, and you truly love music, you are going to make a living out of it. Period.
But wait, what is a session guitarist?
A session guitarist is a guitar player for hire! A session guitarist will be hired by another artist, a band, or a production company of any kind. A guitar player may be needed for recordings and live performances not only in the music industry but in many other fields of art as well (like music for films, dance performances, theatre shows, etc).
There are many types of session guitarists just like every artist is different from another, some are masters of Rock, some are Blues geniuses, some are Funkers, Fusion lovers, Jazz, or whatever! (many of them are trained in more than one field of expertise, but each one has his "forte").
Some session players have had such a distinctive musical signature that later on they developed an independent career path (Steve Vai, for example, was playing guitar for Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix used to play for James Brown).
How does a day of a working musician look like?
Indifference from what people may think about musicians, we start the day early! A lot of stuff happens during the day, radio performances, rehearsals, afternoon or morning shows (for kids, or festivals for example) and as a session player you can’t be a burden on the production manager, you can’t be late, you can’t come unprepared, or else you will be replaced.
Evenings and nights are definitely considered as work hours. Some shows start at 8:00 in the evening and some will start at 2:00 AM or even later, so work hours can get pretty crazy.
So... How to become a session guitarist?
Being a session player is certainly not for everyone, this is a job that requires specific skills, musical and mental alike, the type of skills that cannot be faked!
Gear is also an important component in this field of work, many players, of course, have different rigs but there is some kind of industry standard when it comes to quality and soundscape of certain genres as well.
Let’s start by understanding what musical skills you need to have in order to make it as a session guitarist:
A Trained Ear
Your musical hearing is probably the most important thing you need to develop if you want to keep up with the pace of production workings. It is placed right at the top of the skills you need to have in order to be a working musician because this is the only skill that can take you all by itself to the top.
I have come across amazing session players that don't know how to read music, that doesn't know a single thing in music theory but with a sharp ear, they could master their instruments and dominate every song.
I would be a liar if I said that not knowing music theory is not a drawback, learning and developing is always a virtue, and I have never come across a great player that relies only on knowledge and fast hands, a trained ear was always a part of the mix.
Knowing the workings of music will give you the ability to analyze, break down, and learn pieces faster, logically, and professionally. If you want to compose or write for different instruments, if you want to produce or if you want to explore new ways of approaching your practices, you need to know the rules of music.
Being versatile and learning new genres and playing styles might be a lot harder if you work only with your ears. Having musical knowledge is very helpful when trying to categorize genres and understand the actual harmonic features of each one of them.
You might be asked to play something “darker”, “smoky” or any other weird definition for a guitar part. Your job as a session player will be to interpret these abstract requests into actual music, and theoretical knowledge will definitely enrich your set of work tools.
Sight-reading is a sensitive issue among guitar players. We hate it. We absolutely hate it. It’s not meant for guitar, it’s not instinctive and we just have a hard time dealing with it. Yes, we know all that, but unfortunately, that’s definitely a requirement.
One thing we can say that might cheer you up is that you will usually handle only harmony musical charts (in mainstream music, in classical it’s a whole different story) and won’t be required to actually read lines written in notes but it certainly may happen!
In any case, being able to read on the spot will be a great advantage over many other guitar players. Our recommendation is to put time and effort into it. Be able to sight-read notes AND rhythm, not just chords, if you want to be professional, that’s what you need to do.
To be honest, after a while it gets fun to do, it is very satisfying to be able to play anything on the spot.
If you need to strengthen chart reading abilities, be sure to check out THIS ARTICLE!
When working in a professional environment, things move fast, there’s always too many songs and not enough time. You, my friend, will just have to manage.
You need to be fast, you might be asked to transpose a complex song on the spot, or to generate multiple guitar parts instantly. A style of playing or even a whole composition could be changed in a rehearsal and you just need to keep up!
How to do that?
The best way to break that speed barrier and burst into a new level of playing is learning Jazz, especially Bebop. This genre was always known as the musician’s music. It is complex, it is fast and was always, in a way, some kind of competition between musicians.
To be honest, that genre really doesn’t appeal to many guitar players, and I didn’t like it either at the beginning. I forced myself to study this genre, no matter what, and when I was actually able to play it for the first time, I remember experiencing a new level of brain-power.
My mind was racing at a whole new pace, holding so much information simultaneously, in a single second. After handling this type of music, any other genre became a lot easier to handle.
Here are a few of the subjects revolve around Jazz music. We recommend everyone who aspire to be a more educated musician to check these articles!
As good as it may do to you, it is certainly not for everyone and you can get to this level of speed in other ways!
Another great way to do that is to train your ear and hands as much as you can by breaking down songs by ear and getting familiar with as many guitar lines, parts, and styles as possible.
The more you’ll enrich your repertoire, the faster you’ll be able to learn new songs, on the spot. You’ll recognize the chord progressions, you’ll recognize certain styles of playing, and if you’ll do covers, most chances that you’ll be one of those players that already know most of the setlist before rehearsals even began.
If you are a band member, you probably have your own sound, you know your bandmates for years and you’ve been playing countless hours together developing your sound.
Session guitar players, on the other hand, will often be asked to play different genres. Think about it... popular music today is already a mix of many genres like Hip-Hop, Funk, Dance, Rock and more, so if you are working with only a few people, there's a good chance you’ll be jumping from one genre to another in many occasions.
So, how to be a versatile guitarist?
Explore music and different genres. Search for new music and you’ll find out that you might just like not only one genre. There are amazing guitar players in every genre, you just have to find them and learn what they are doing.
Ok, being a good musician is obviously important but that’s definitely not all, some will even argue that it’s not as important as being an easy person to work with…
The Mental Skills
When working in productions, you always want to be there ahead of time. It just looks so unprofessional seeing a grown-ass person running with his equipment mumbling apologies around. Plus, it is terrible to be that person (from experience…) and it could ruin your whole evening. Remember you're just a part of the production and the producers don't have time for this nonsense. DON’T BE LATE. EVER.
Show Up Ready ☝️
Learn the songs upside down. You need to know the scale, the harmonies, the form, the chords, and the actual parts you are going to play. Don’t just learn your part, the recording or rehearsal room is a dynamic place and much can change in real-time, you better be ready.
Bring Some Good vibe ☯️
At the end of the day, when working together in a production, you are going to spend more time hanging out than actually playing together. You are going to travel together, spend rehearsal time, and backstage together. That’s a good chunk of time and people would rather spend it with a cool, calm and nice person.
If someone needs a helping hand, help him, if you're having any technical issues, it's okay, relax, and solve them in a calm manner. Treat everyone the nicely, from the star you are working with down to the van driver!!!
No Place for Your Ego ❌
You have to remember that you are a part of a production and you have been hired to do a certain job. Don’t get angry if a producer cuts a guitar solo out, don’t get mad if you don’t get your moment in the spotlight, it is not your name on the tickets.
A true professional knows how to enjoy a good and simple guitar part, and sees no shame in playing in the back accompanying singers and songwriters. These are the players that will be asked to return for more sessions and gigs, the ones that are easy and fun to work with.
OK, Let's discuss gear!
You will definitely need class-A guitars, electric and acoustic! The most common electric models in “production playing” are the (American) Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul, these guitars considered to be more versatile and can fit every genre.
The Telecaster is also very popular among session players but it’s a little less versatile and tilts toward Blues and Country. Less common guitars that can also work for you are the Gibson ES-335 and the Fender Jazzmaster though these two are a little less versatile when it comes to playing many genres and producing various sounds from a single instrument.
Truth is that session guitarists will usually have more than a single electric guitar. The key to understanding how to build your guitar collection to be versatile is to focus it around different models of pickups.
Guitar pickups determine most of our sound so I would recommend you to first start with a Humbucker guitar (like the Les Paul, ES-335 or SG) and a Single Coil pickup guitar (Stratocaster) and only then proceed to the Telecaster model (which has a specific type of single-coil) and a P-90 guitar (like the Jazzmaster).
The Pro Trick
Guitars are expensive, especially if you desire more than one guitar. It is not the only problem with these high-end guitars. An expensive instrument is harder to travel with, live shows, rehearsals, or tours can turn into a hassle when you worry all the time about your 72’ Stratocaster rolling in the trunk.
There is a simple fix to that problem, modded guitars!
Just get a cheap Squier, or an Epiphone that feels good in your hands, invest in a good set of boutique pickups, take it to a luthier that knows what he’s doing, and BAM! You got a class-A guitar for around $400-$700. This way you can have a nice collection of guitars with a broader soundscape.
Check out this calculation form and see how cheap this guitar can get!
Epiphone Les Paul
* adding locking tuners is highly recommended, especially on an Epiphone or Gibson!
Stratocaster Boutique Pickups
Acoustic GuitarThere is a HUGE difference in live vs studio settings!
In the studio, an acoustic guitar will be recorded "organically" with microphones. This is the only way to capture the real sound of an acoustic guitar, ask any recording engineer and he will tell you the exact same thing.
While performing live, the acoustic guitar will be amplified through a DI (or an amp) straight to the sound console. That means that none of the actual acoustic properties of an acoustic guitar are captured.
An acoustic guitar pickup is an electro-magnetic pickup, therefore it will never be able to capture the true sound of an acoustic guitar!!!
The conclusion is that in live settings you can manage with a relatively cheap acoustic guitar (around $1000) and just make sure the pickup is of high quality. For recordings, you'll have to invest good money in a guitar, nothing can imitate the organic true sound of an acoustic.
How to nail live shows with an acoustic guitar!
Acoustic guitars are problematic on stage, much more feedback-sensitive, and their EQ range is less balanced.
The secret for good acoustic guitar sound when performing live is a good DI box! Some DI boxes have very cool features like phase flip, EQ, and ground lift that can help tremendously when performing live on stage.
Here are a few of our recommended DI boxes:
Radial Engineering ProDI - relatively cheap!
L.R. Baggs Session DI Acoustic Preamp
Radial Engineering PZ-DI
When it comes to an amp, the requirements are less strict, no one expects you to come to rehearsals with an amp and in some venues, there already is an amp.
Every self-respecting recording studio will surely have a collection of amps for you to choose from so the only time you will need an amp is on gigs or in a situation where the club doesn’t have an in-house guitar amp.
Combo or Head amplifier, which is better for gigs?
Just to clarify, a combo amp is a combination of speaker and "head" in one box. A "head" is only the amp without the speakers.
Obviously, the combo amp is the one you take with you on gigs. I'll recommend buying a "head" only if you really want to invest in your own personal sound and you are willing to pay for it. Heads are more expensive and need to be connected to speakers (which can also get pretty pricy).
You definitely can't get around with a head and speakers so you need to have a good amp for you to work with. Here are a few of my favourite and relatively cheap amps that are definitely good enough for live performances:
||Marshall DSL40R 40W|
When it comes to guitar pedals, we are going to talk about the “basic package” which is what you will need in order to play gigs and recordings!
The sound design world is endless, there is much to explore, and we can't really go over every guitar pedal and which genre it fits, you'll have to do this research by yourself!
So the "basic" effects you MUST have on your pedalboard are:
You must have a Tuner, no doubt about it. You will have to tune your guitar all the time, between songs when you can’t make any noise, during songs… long story short, get one.
Here are our recommendations:
|Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner||Korg Tuner (PBAD)||TC Electronic PolyTune 3|
Overdrive & Distortion
Your “drive” sound is very important!
First, let’s understand the concept of building your “drive” sound - you need to have a few levels of gain (I usually combine a booster as well), in a song, especially in live performances.
You need to have these steps of power to go through as a song progresses. Besides that, sometimes you need big blocks of sound and sometimes just a nice crunch. You want your “drive” sound to be a large spectrum that you can tweak to fit what you’re playing.
The overdrive is your most hard-working pedal! It is crucial in designing your soundscape and this is my A-list!
|Klon KTR Centaur Overdrive||Ibanez Tube Screamer 808||Strymon Sunset Overdrive||Strymon Riverside Overdrive|
As I already mentioned before, we want a broad spectrum of drive sound and with these top 4 distortion pedals, you will be able to shape your sound however you want!
Fender MTG Tube
|TC Electronic Dark Matter||Fender Pugilist||MXR M75 Super Badass|
Reverb & Delay
The Reverb and Delay pedals are very “basic” components in the mainstream guitar sound and you’ll find yourself using them very often, most times in a very subtle way. You can get very creative with both of them but it is less common in production workings.
These 4 reverb pedals are among the most versatile reverb pedals you can find out there, which is crucial for recordings! They sound AMAZING and worth every dollar.
|Strymon BlueSky||Walrus Audio slö||Source Audio Ventris Dual Reverb||Matthews Effects Astronomer V2 Celestial|
The Delay is also crucial in your pedalboard and you'll be expected to have one! These 3 Delay pedals offer more than just a digital delay and will help you be creative when designing your sound.
|Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Boy||Strymon TimeLine||Electro Harmonix Canyon Delay|
When we say accessories, we mean cables, power supply, and jumper-cables. Don’t save money on these things, really, don’t. When you buy cables, get the best ones you can afford.
Your signal is already going through a long chain from the first effect through all the others, and into your amp. In a chain with many components, each one can make problems, and investing in good cables and power supply can save you a lot of headaches.
How to get a job as a session player?
Make a portfolio
Maybe a portfolio is a big word… Basically, you need to have VIDEOS of you playing awesome guitar. Video quality doesn’t really matter (though it would definitely help), even Steve Vai puts out videos that were taken on a smartphone.
The most important thing is that people will be able to see and hear you play. The more videos you’ll make, the more sides of your musicality will be shown to those who will potentially hire you.
Bottom line, go make a few awesome videos of you playing rhythm, solos, multiple genres, and especially the things that you do best, whatever they may be. After you’ll have this content in your hands you could do quite a lot with it.
Musicians bring work to one another. Busy session guitarists will often have a sub (or more!) and bassists, drummers, piano players they all play with guitarists... Hey! you are a guitar player!! They will often recommend one another when an artist or a production is in need of a hired gun.
Long story short, be sure you got many musician friends (musicians are a good company don’t worry…), make sure you know people, be outgoing, be cool, don’t overdo it. You’re awesome without them as well.
Social media is a powerful tool and whoever realizes it, benefits. With one video you can get to thousands of people and if you will start to upload videos once in a while (or more), all of your friends and their friends will know that you play.
More importantly, this knowledge will stay fresh in their minds because you upload enough therefore you’ll get a lot more job offers, guaranteed!
Try to be on more than one platform - think about it, if you already made a video for YouTube why not uploading it to Instagram and Facebook as well? Some people have only a Facebook account or Only Instagram or Snapchat or whatever!
The more places you'll be, the more people will see and get to know you. I recommend operating in at least 3-4 platforms (the video has already been done so it's just a matter of uploading it, don't be lazy).
Be a “Yes Man”
If you wish to be a working session guitar player, you better start saying yes to ANYONE who wishes to hire you, no matter the genre.
When you’re on stage people see you, hear you, know about you, when you’re visiting rehearsal rooms, concert venues, or whatever, you are getting to know more people from the music industry.
Producers, sound engineers, other session players, each one of these people may recommend you on your next work, especially after you already hung out and they know how awesome you are!