Session Guitar: Learning Lessons From a Total Nightmare Session

So a question I'd like to respond to this week: "Was there ever a session that went wrong...a bad experience?"

Here's my story ... I remember no names. The studio was in Long Island, NY, in the 1980s. It was a day I wished I never had ... but it ended up OK ... and a big lesson was learned.

I received a call to do a Latin/American/pop song. Add guitar. Chord chart will be provided. Some soloing.

No sweat. These sessions were usually simple, three chords, basic Latin groove ... no problem. Why worry? Went out the night before, had some fun, a few drinks, some laughs. Woke up the next day a bit worse for wear, but no problem ... an easy session and back to bed.

Packed my car with guitars, amp, extras and off I go. The traffic on the LIE was worse than expected. Pre-cellphone days. Never good to show up late for a session. Of course, this was going to be an easy day, remember, so what's a few minutes late between strangers?

Oh yeah, this was my first session for this producer ... not a good way to start a relationship by showing up about 20 minutes late. But I got there. Apologized. And began to unload gear in the NOW POURING RAIN. I wear glasses. It was hot. Hot rain. Foggy glasses.

I setup as quick as possible and go into the control room to talk over the song and see the chart and what was expected of me. In the control room were three people. The engineer. The producer. And the producer's trophy girlfriend. No one was smiling.

The chart was handed to me to look over. Remember the three-chord easy statement I made earlier? Forget it. This chart was in the key of Bb ... there is a special horror for the key of Bb in the '80s ... will explain in a minute. All the chords were what I call slash chords. Bb with a C in the bass, Eb with an F in the bass, etc. ALL OF THEM. And the exact rhythm to be played for each chord was written out. I was starting to sweat. This wasn't going to be good, and I had not even heard the track yet.

They play the track down and I figure I'll just get in the room and go for it. I get a sound, chorus, clean Strat, out-of-phase position 2. As I am playing to the track I notice out of the corner of my eye that, in the control room, everyone is shaking there heads in a BAD way. No smiles.

They know I am blowing it. I know I am blowing it. Not good. I keep going ... remember, this is the first time I've played on the track. I stop and ask for another run through. They start playing it again. This time I'm listening more than playing. And I am noticing something. (Besides the future moment of the door hitting me in the ass on the way out.)

This song doesn't even need a guitar because every inch of sonic real estate is filled with keyboards! I yell stop ... I know I've blown it so I figure ... WTF! I go storming into the control room and ask, as politely as I can, who the hell laid down all these effing keyboards!!! Of course, it was ... the producer. Of course.

Still on my rant, I ask if I can try something. (I think they were afraid of this wet, sweating man with a weapon in his hands.) I look at the board and start muting faders on all the keyboard tracks and only left two. Now there was actual room for me to play! I go back in, they start the track again and this time I see smiles ... I'm nailing the rhythm!

But the song is in the key of Bb, remember. It was common in the '80s to modulate a minor 3rd up for the solo ... that would put the solo in the dreaded key of C#!!! All sharps. The polar opposite of C. I shut my eyes and pretended I was in the key of C, never once looking at the guitar for the solo. Nailed. One take. All smiles now.

I ask if they want the solo harmonized. They seem stunned I can do it. Took a minute to figure it out, and harmonized it. They were beyond happy. I was relieved. They asked if I could play on three more songs. I said I had to get to another session at that time, but would come back another day. My hands were shaking too hard to even think about playing another song.

All ended up OK. But I never took another session for granted. Ever. Nor was I ever late again. I have no idea what happened to those tracks. And I really don't want to know.

Till next week…

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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