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In-demand session player Ari O‘Neal on how she landed some of the biggest gigs in music

Ari O'Neal
(Image credit: Devyn Glista)

“The secret behind getting so many gigs as a session player?” ponders American guitarist Ari O’Neal, who – in her years of playing for Beyoncé, Jay Z, Lizzo, Alicia Keys and more – would know a thing or two about finding work as a musician. 

“Post, post and post,” she continues, stressing the importance of making it as easy as possible for people to find you. “I’m always active on my social media pages, it’s really important... As is being different! I want to play like I’m an old black man, and still look like a Barbie [laughs].” 

As for her main influences, the young session ace lists George Benson (“the first guitarist I ever studied”), Joe Pass (“because his music always tells a story) and Isaiah Sharkey from John Mayer’s band, alongside soul/RnB talents like Agape Jerry, Jairus ‘JMO’ Mozee and Jubu Smith (“because he’s my favourite guitarist’s favourite guitarist”). 

She also describes herself as a “Fender girl all the way”, having been chosen by the guitar giants to demo their Acoustasonic Telecaster hybrid and was also asked to perform alongside Mark Lettieri [Snarky Puppy] and Ayla Tesler-Mabe at the Fender Ultra JammJam for 2020’s Winter NAMM, promoting the American Ultra series. 

She points out her obsession with all things Fender began long, long ago... “I loved them well before I got endorsed,” O’Neal tells TG. “Not mentioning any names, but I nearly endorsed by another big guitar company and they tried to make me jump through so many hoops.

“And the sound I was getting wasn’t even that versatile anyway. Which is why I switched to Fender, whose instruments can give me the sound I need for any situation. I like them with a maple neck – always a maple neck – and Mexican-made!”

I can really dig in on the Boss GT-100 and make any sound I want. It’s an all-in-one kind of pedal

From there, O’Neal trusts in a Boss multi-effects unit to handle her tones, praising the Japanese innovators for their dependably rugged build quality and tonal expertise. Right now she cites the GT-100 as her favourite, with no shortage of amps and effects by her feet at any given time...

“I can really dig in on that thing and make any sound I want,” she grins. “It’s an all-in-one kind of pedal, which is what I typically use. And the Boss stuff always works great for what I need! You can definitely say I won’t be building any 'boards anytime soon!”