What does it take to be a session musician?

On the face of it, being a session musician sounds great. You get to keep your anonymity and have all the fun of playing regularly to packed crowds alongside famous stars and amazing musicians. But what’s it really like in the modern day, and what do you need in your locker to be a successful session player?

Posted: 26 May 2020

There are a lot of people who have very successful careers as session players, but the dream and the reality can often be two very different beasts. While you’re visualising playing sold out shows to thousands of screaming fans, the reality today is often long periods in a home studio with little opportunity for you to get creative. But if you’re determined to forge a career as a session player, what skills do you need to be a professional ‘gun for hire’?

Ability

You’re not going to become a professional session musician if you don’t have the ability to add a killer sound to a track. No matter what else you bring to the table, if your playing’s not up to scratch then you’re not going to get the gig. Make sure to bring great tone, a clear melodic sense, and plenty of respect for the other elements that make up a track. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing live or in a studio, no one wants a player noodling all over their perfectly crafted track.

More specifically you need to be able to learn quickly. The ability to read sight music is key. If you’re lucky you will get one or two sessions before you’re into the studio or a live performance, but this is often a luxury that you won’t get. There’s usually few opportunities to hone your skills and playing, so you need to hit the ground running.

Professionalism

We’re not just talking about making sure you’re in tune and set up properly, with plenty of spare equipment so you don’t hold up a session. All the talent and gear is no use if you can’t put them to good use. Often you have multiple employers, each expecting a high standard from you every single day. This means you can expect to work long hours without your standards ever dropping. This also means no rock and roll behaviour for you. That TV will have to stay in the hotel room for now.

Adaptability

Nowadays lots of session work will require you working from home, which means recording parts yourself and sending them over. This not only requires a decent home studio but also the ability to keep motivated at home whilst locked away in your basement/shed.

Your studio setup can be simple, but it must be effective. You need to be able to download, upload and monitor and playback whatever is thrown at you. Then when it comes to recording your part needs to fit seamlessly into the existing track.