This week I offer some lessons I've learned in the past 35 years to get you prepared for—or maybe even help you survive—the world of playing sessions for a living.
1. Don't slack on your skills. Like a Boy Scout, be prepared. Keep your playing and sight-reading skills well honed. There will be weeks when all you do is play chords. Then all of a sudden you have to solo, or sight read. Be ready for anything. Do not slack. Ever.
2. Keep your gear as ready as you are. No excuses. Be professional. Keep your best instruments in perfect shape. Have backups of everything, especially your recording system.
3. Stay healthy. Sickness has no place in any profession. Do the basics. Get sleep, eat right, exercise. Put yourself first each day. Then play till you drop. There's always someone ready to replace you. Like me. Speaking of which...
4. Be prepared to be replaced. This is not personal. It's personal for the person hiring you. But it is your job. And this job requires a person with a clear head. Do not allow the insanity or insecurities of clients to get to you. Some are nice. Some are cold and cruel. You will be replaced at times. You will be insulted at times. Much of this can easily be avoided by gathering information. Get as much as you can. Get examples of what someone is looking for. Then deliver exactly what they want. And still...you might be replaced!
5. Stay current. Keep up with current musical trends. Be aware of the charts. Know who is playing and what they're using. Be ready to duplicate their sounds and playing. I have various modelers, seven different distortion/overdrive pedals, six amps, 36 guitars, tons of effects and a studio that's dialed in. I'm ready. Always.
6. Don't make It personal. It's only a job. I've been asked to play on songs that deal with politics I disagree with. Racially motivated songs. Religious songs. I have at rare times said no. But mostly, I don't allow someone's views to affect my playing. Especially if they're coming from a good place. Be respectful. Find the good.
7. Get business out of the way early. And be seriously clear. Let the client know not only costs but your need to learn, work out parts, send back and forth, and backup your files. It is a business, and I get the business out of the way first. Then we can concentrate on the creativity.
8. Most of this job is psychological. Some might disagree. However, I find it to be at least equally important as how I play. The client is often vulnerable, opinionated or cold. But they all have at least one need that has nothing to do with music. Find that need and fill it. If they're all business, don't waste time, give them exactly what they want quickly and move on. If they're insecure, hold their hands, keep them involved, reassure and compliment. And mean it! Find the need and fill it.
9. Don't insult anyone else playing on the track. Or the sound. Ever! It might very well be the client playing. It might be someone who could potentially hire you. And bad reviews and criticism spread like wildfire. Don't talk bad about your fellow players. We're all in this together. Include engineers, studios and producers in this advice. Be complimentary and respectful.
10. Finally, find a hero and emulate him or her. I have many. Tommy Tedesco is my first. Tim Pierce is another and continues to inspire. Who's your hero? It could be anyone; it doesn't have to be a guitarist. But I found Tommy Tedesco to not only be talented but also brave. Fearless, almost. Tommy is gone now, but he lives on in all forms of media. Check out Tommy anywhere you can.
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.