Session Guitar: Why You Should Always Be Ready, Willing and Able

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(Old-guy impersonation) Back in the day, when I'd walk 20 miles in 5 feet of snow to a session ...

Things have changed a bit. Not much. But that little bit can really get to you.

In the Seventies and Eighties, sessions were booked using a service. The service had access to musicians. The service called/beeped the musicians, who'd call back the service to find out when and where the session was to see if they were available. If not, it didn't always mean you couldn't do the session and would be replaced, but many times it did. That's how we were booked for sessions.

Move up 30 years. Here's how you get a call for a session: You check your email, phone and texts. Facebook Messenger. Even Twitter. And my website. Recordings come in most often from clients you've previously worked with. But new ones are always being referred.

How accessible are you? I check all the above-mentioned contact areas frequently throughout the day. Why? Why not limit your availability and check them all once in the morning and once at night? Competition, that's why! Allow me to explain.

I recently did a session for a Canadian client in India. He used musicians from many parts of the world. I somehow got called to play guitar. I know there were at least two other guitarists used on the project. He was just looking for something else for a few songs. I was contacted through my website; he sent a track and a chart, and off I went. He liked it enough to send another. And another. I ended up playing on six songs.

Then he asked about vocalists I might know who could add backing vocals to a song or two. I am called "the Ronettes" in a few circles. I'm not sure about my lead-vocal tone, but I'm a killer backing vocalist! I learned by listening to Todd Rundgren and knowing theory. Anyway, I sang on a few and even added keyboards to two songs. All done. Project and artist fly to Canada to mix with a Juno-winning mixer. (By the way, the Junos are pretty much the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys.)

Here's where things get interesting; it's the part about being ready for anything.

They start working, and the mix engineer isn't happy with some guitar tracks. They weren't laying in the pocket the way he would've liked, and the artist didn't hear it while he was tracking. The tracks belong to a different guitarist. He liked my tracks on other songs, so they called me to fix and replay the parts. But I'm in the middle of other recordings, totally swamped, with a vacation looming. But they have the big-money mixer and studio booked and working. What do you do when the text comes in and you can't even see straight? Say no to a four-time Juno-winning producer who never heard of you but likes your playing? He wants you to save the day, and the only answer is "sure"!

I ended up playing on an additional few songs and adding backing vocals to a few more. I also was asked my opinion on the mixes. Of course, by day three of sneaking in all this work (approximately 17 hours), I was pretty spent ... but happy. Saying no in this situation wasn't going to happen. I knew there were other guitarists available. Competition.

Here was someone new and established, and I was able to prove myself. I also had some technical problems half way through, but I had backups. You need your backups: amps, guitars, mics, entire recording setups. I have a laptop and a small converter all ready to go in case my studio goes down.

You need to be ready for anything and willing to put your life on hold ... and able to deliver the goods well played, well recorded and fast.

Got it?

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.