Session Guitar: Evolve or Die — Some Thoughts on Minimalism

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Hi, kids.

"You know that guy who was in that movie? You know him! He was in that other movie too with that other guy. He played a cop, I think. With the long hair. Or was it short and blonde? Anyway, you know him."

These days, more than ever, this is what it feels like to be a session player. The big, creative, soaring, melodic solos of yesteryear are not happening anymore. Why? Trends. Fashion. Hipsters. I can not say I am feeling artistically fulfilled in this musical climate.

We adapt. Today is a world of minimalism. Sure, three notes can be just as musical and creative as 100. But that is not where I come from. "It Ain't Me, Babe" should be my theme song.

Sure, the essentials will always be necessary. Rhythm, tone, etc. But the music business being overrun with indie everything has caused the actual music we hear to evolve. Or devolve, if I may. MP3's are the norm. Who cares about a digital promise of us hearing music at 24bit/192 Hz? We got us some cheap-ass (free) MP3's, and that's good enough!

"Good enough." The death knell. Good enough. Two words I hate. "Just cut and paste the few chords and I'll sing over it and you can tune it for me. Or I'll take it home and do the vocals myself on my laptop. I got this USB mic that sounds awesome!" What kind of pre and compressor do you use at home? "What are those?" I deal with this daily. All the beat stealing instead of creating has caused a mentality of depreciation. Music of no value. Not all of it, mind you. But A LOT of it.

Another observation: I get more calls these days from indie artists than labels. No surprises there. But get ready for this one. When I tell them my rates, and believe me I do not charge a high rate, they usually never call back or have actually expected me to do it for free because they have 50,000 views on YouTube. Yeah. I used to laugh. They can get their friend to play it. And they can! Luckily I still have a ton of clients. And apparently attracting new ones. But it is an interesting world.

What does this have to do with minimalism? Everything. After the typical song is played on an acoustic guitar or two and a few electrics today, the "real" creative part begins. We used to call it the ear candy. Time to get creative, right? Well, it used to be. But what people call creative today is akin to "noodling." Searching around till you hear a "phrase" you can loop. Add some effects. Done. Then the original chords and stuff are often discarded.

It is the process today. I've witnessed this very process done by a day one future guitarist (or even a 3-year-old in front of a keyboard) searching for something that resembles music. They fall on a phrase that resembles a glimmer of what can only "minimillistically" be called music, and they feel joy! Look what I've created. And that is great! But it isn't a song. Or music. It is musical.

What is so important about this? It is what I am asked to do most of the time today. Find a few cool notes. Create a phrase. Effect it. And loop it. Now that effect part and tone part is not always necessary anyway because I can just send a direct guitar sound and have them add the tone they choose and the effects. And cut it up and edit it the way they want. Rewarding? Not for me. "It Ain't Me, Babe."

Am I busy? Busier than ever, amazingly. But I'm not happy. I'm smart. I evolve. But I don't have to like it. But this a job. And a competitive one. Evolve or get left behind.

Some quick advice to end this "observation."

The Line 6 JTV-89 Variax is the reason I am busy. I hate capos. Everyone who knows me knows why. I always felt they were a crutch. However, the Virtual Capo feature in this instrument is by far the most-used tool in my arsenal today. I can add odd drones to any song in Ab with a 12-string guitar sound in seconds. Or a Tele, Strat, banjo, sitar, 335 or an acoustic. And then add a one-note Les Paul feedback note in another second.

So I get creative with my sounds and few choice notes. Yup. Minimalist — but fast and creative, thanks to this fine instrument. If you hope to be a session player today and make money, buy one of these. The creative options for new sounds are infinite and life saving. Next, get a great compressor. I used to use the UA 1176 ($2,400). Then I bought a Wampler Ego Compressor ($200). Both sound equally good. I never thought any pedal would be as useful to me as the UA, or sound as good on guitar. The Wampler Ego is killer. Just get one.

This column was about my observing the session guitar scene from the inside. You'll notice I haven't been writing many columns lately. I am being a minimalist. Not much interesting to write about.

Till next time …

Ron Zabrocki is a session guitarist from New York, now living in Connecticut. Says Ron: "I started playing at age 6, sight reading right off the bat. That’s how I was taught, so I just thought everyone started that way. I could sight read anything within a few years, and that helped me become a session guy later in life. I took lessons from anyone I could find and had some wonderful instructors, including John Scofield, Joe Pass and Alan DeMausse. I’ve played several jingle sessions (and have written a few along the way). I’ve “ghosted” for a few people who shall remain nameless, but they get the credit and I get the money! I’ve played sessions in every style, from pop to jazz.