Session Guitar: How Much Theory Do I Really Need to Know to Be a Session Player?

Hi, gang! Been busy these past few weeks. One session after another.

This week I'd thought you'd like to hear about what I've been doing because it may help answer a question I often get asked. The question is: How much theory do I really need to know to be a session player?

To answer that I'd like to say, these past few weeks, not much! Most of the songs that are required of most session guys do not require more than what I am going to outline. Of course, this has nothing to do with movie soundtrack work and difficult sight reading.

And as an added note, even though 95 percent of my work may be relatively weak in use of theory, I have studied and continue to study as hard as I can. You can never learn too much, and you NEVER know when you'll need it!

Now what have I been doing? Adding guitar tracks to pop songs, rock songs, country songs (even played slide, which is usually once a year) and oldies. The clients ran the gamut from a solo country artist to Internet commercials to actual groups where the guitar player couldn't cut it in the studio!

This happens more often than you can imagine. Or a solo artist has a touring or live band but uses professional studio musicians in the studio. Sometimes it is the choice of the artist and sometimes it is the choice of the producer. No matter to me, as long as I keep getting called! (The most fun is when the guy in the band is watching you replace him ... not good.)

Because you never know what you will be playing on, it is always a great idea to be prepared for anything. So, of course, that would include being able to play in any style. Now it's one thing to know a few songs in many styles, and it is another to be able to improvise or create quality, hook-laden, succulent, beefsteak tomatoey guitar parts on the fly!

This is where theory comes into play. I needed to know how to play in many keys and in many styles to get through the previous workload. Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes there was a challenge. But it was always fun and interesting!

Here's what I need to know to do my job most of the time.

01. Major scales and all related Diatonic Modes and how to use them. This would include the Circle of 5ths and Circle of 4ths.

02. Pentatonic scales and related blues scales and know how to use them ... creatively.

03. A decent sense of the Melodic Minor Scale and all related modes and how to use them. This scale and related modes is primarily used in jazz.

04. A knowledge of the Harmonic Minor scale. I am limiting how much I say about this one. It is used in many forms of music but primarily has a classical tone.

05. All basic chords and inversions and extensions. By basic I am talking about major, minor, dominant, diminished, half diminished and augmented.

06. Speaking of chords, all related arpeggios to those chords.

07. Finally, a great sense of rhythm and all basic rhythmic variations.

Sounds pretty basic, right? Well, in reality, it is! However, those basics can take quite a while to learn in every key. And then apply all of it to many styles. But the sooner you start, the sooner you'll get it. No work. No play. If you don't work hard at it, you won't get called to play on the recordings. Period.

Let's notice I did not stress sight reading. I have a deep understanding of it and am called on to use it. But just not that often. I also believe that a motivated student can be trained to learn all this within a year. Of course you would be practicing at least 12 hours a day and have a real calling. The successful student would also have an internal sense of musicality. I love teaching and am working hard to find the time to train those willing.

Let me tell you why I love to teach. It keeps the basics under my fingers and in the forefront of my mind. The basics are the meat and potatoes of everything you'll be doing. Lessons are a necessity. Find a good instructor. Then work hard.

A special ending note to those reading who are in a band and think they do not need to know any of this. Well, you are correct. There is beauty and creativity in limitations. However, think of theory as a box of crayons with unlimited colors. I'd like to think, as a composer, I'd want to know all my possibilities....or as many as I can learn.

Till next time …

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.

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