Session Guitar: Shredding is Great, But Know How to Play Melodies
I'd like to preface this post with a statement:
This is being written from a studio player's point of view. I love shred. I love metal in every form. Some of my favorite guitarists are Greg Howe, Steve Vai, Guthrie Govan and Brent Mason.
However, I've been noticing a trend amongst younger guitarists on YouTube and elsewhere; it's a distinct lack of melody. Speed, blazing technique, sweeps and taps are all fine and incredible and have my deepest respect. I know the hours of practice and dedication it takes to acquire these techniques. But in the studio world, the place where people hire you to play the way THEY want, these styles are rarely used.
I've asked many of my students to play "Happy Birthday" on guitar. Most could not. It was a struggle from note to note. Here's something else I used to do in order to check how I was doing: (And this was wrong, I know, because I had no intention of joining, but I did it anyway; I was young and foolish and had an attitude.) I would audition for bands.
At these auditions, there would be 20 guitarists in the outside room warming up. And these guys were killing. But when they got in the room to audition and play with the band, they wouldn't be able to play in time, or they would simply overplay.
Professional studio guitar playing has many aspects: sight reading, playing in the pocket, playing nice with the other children and being flexible in style. But here's something no one really wants when they hire you: THEY DO NOT WANT YOU TO OUTSHINE THE SINGER.
A cool lick is great. But ask anyone in Nashville right now how satisfied they are with what they are allowed to play on a session, and I bet most would be frustrated as hell. And as fine as some of the solos I'm hearing in country music are, most are uninspired. And these guys are capable of just killing on guitar!
Want to make a session go well when it's time to solo? Play something simple and melodic. Play it with style. Play it with authority. Play it with a tone that came from the heights of heaven. Take that little melody and build on it. Reiterate it. Make it sound like it's part of the song; use part of the melody of the song in it! But never make it inappropriate!
Part of the training I recommend if you desire to be a pro session guitarist is to get a melodic sense. This is acquired simply by playing melodies. The best way to learn how to do this is by sight reading! Sight read every melody you can find. From old violin books, fake books, Beatles song books. Immerse yourself in melody. Then play those melodies with feeling. With your own twists and turns. With slides and slurs and bends.
Then take the chord progression from behind these melodies and record them. Now play a new melody, simple, but tasteful. I personally do not hate making people happy by playing licks I could do 30 years ago. Because after you make them happy, they gain confidence in you and you can then, and only then, suggest something a bit flashier. Just by being nice. And maybe we'll hear more flash in popular music coming out of our speakers.
I am starting to record my own albums now. My music. My playing. No one is telling me what to do. I still try to be appropriate, but I try to combine melody with some fun.
Here's an example of an old video of me playing a song I wrote in my studio. It's edited, but it starts melodically and then it edits into the fun part:
I'm the boss. But when someone else is the boss, give them what they want. And what they usually want is what has been done before. If it worked once, it will work again! This, I believe, is the mantra they live by. And that's fine with me. I just make sure I listen to my heroes, try and learn all the time, keep inspired, and listen to those coming up because they are killers. And it makes me want to work that much harder!
So next time you start your practice session, play a simple melody first. It goes a long way. Because after all, we are supposed to be playing music, not be stunt pilots! (At least not all the time!) And especially not in the studio—unless that's what they ask for. Then go for it!
Ron Zabrocki on Ron Zabrocki: I’m a session guitarist from New York, now living in Connecticut. I started playing at age 6, sight reading right off the bat. That’s how I was taught, so I just believed everyone started that way! I could pretty much sight read anything within a few years, and that aided me in becoming a session guy later in life. I took lessons from anyone I could and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful instructors, including John Scofield, Joe Pass and Alan DeMausse. I’ve played many jingle sessions, and even now I not only play them but have written a few. I’ve “ghosted” for a few people that shall remain nameless, but they get the credit and I got the money! I’ve played sessions in every style, from pop to jazz.