7 TIPS TO BECOMING A BETTER SESSION GUITAR PLAYER
Asaf Rodeh, January 1st 2018
In recent years, technology has made a massive impact on the recording industry. While many traditional recording studios are struggling to stay relevant, experienced session players are still sought after for their skill and creativity. Although there are plenty of virtual digital instruments that simulate electric and acoustic guitars, the sound and feel of an experienced guitarist are still unmatched.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve been fortunate to make a living as a session guitar player.
During that time, I learned many valuable lessons that I believe every musician can benefit from.
Here are my 7 best tips to becoming a better session guitar player -
1 UNDERSTAND THE MUSICAL CONTEXT
Whether you are producing your own music or being hired for a session, understanding the musical context would give you a great starting point. Don’t be shy! Ask to listen to references and previously recorded tracks, some artists and producers have a pretty solid vision and would be happy to play them for you to make sure you are on the same page before you start recording. Remember, listening to references does not necessarily mean you’ll be copying exact parts, but they could be used as a source of inspiration.
Listen to parts, tone, how many guitars are playing, development throughout the track, etc. Having as much information as possible before you start recording can make the difference between a successful session to a frustrating one.
AS MUCH AS THE WORLD'S BEEN DYING TO HEAR THE LAST 8 FINGER TAPPING LICK YOU'VE BEEN WORKING ON, YOU'D BE BETTER OFF STRUMMING CHORDS AND PICKING SIMPLE ARPEGGIOS THAT OUTLINE THE PROGRESSION
2 LEARN THE SONG
The amount of time you'll have to learn a song varies in different situations. In a perfect scenario, you have already received the song before the session and had the time to get familiarized with it, even memorized it. In a more common situation, you’ll have to listen to the song in the studio and write your own chart on the spot. Although the chords and structure are the most obvious, try to listen to other details that would give you a better understanding of the song, such as rhythmic patterns, dynamics, what the other instruments are playing and most importantly (and too often overlooked) - lyrics and melody.
A prior understanding of the meaning of the song would help you create parts that convey the emotion the song is trying to convey. Knowing the melody and its rhythm would help support it by either staying out of the way, doubling certain parts or harmonizing them.
One of the challenges of session guitarists is to find the perfect place within everything else that is happening and play parts that compliment the song, the singer and other instruments.
3 MAKE A PLAN
Now that you`ve understood the style and listened to the song, you'll have an easier time coming up with a strategy. Regardless of the musical/technical approach you choose to follow, and the actual parts you would eventually end up playing, take a minute to make a plan. Decide where to introduce certain elements in order to create a buildup, what parts you'd want to double, what tones you'd want to use. By making a plan, you'll get a clearer vision of what you are going for. That would both save you time once you start recording and make the song sound more consistent rather than just a collection of randomly jammed parts.
NOT PLAYING AT ALL
CAN HAVE A GREATER EFFECT THAN PLAYING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PART - IT MAKES THE IMPACT OF WHEN YOU PLAY MUCH BIGGER
4 THINK SIMPLE
When I hear a brilliant guitar part, my first thought is "How come I didn't COME UP with that!?" meaning, it would usually be not technically difficult to play, but would still be original, well performed and most importantly serve the song perfectly and instantly become a signature part of the song.
As much as the world's been dying to hear the last 8 finger tapping lick you've been working on, chances are (unless the session specifically calls for that) you'd be better off strumming chords, picking simple arpeggios that outline the progression, playing repetitive riffs to compliment certain parts and adding tasty fills and a sensitive lead part. The style of music and what the rest of the instruments are doing would dictate a lot of how much or how little you should be playing and put you on the right track.
Another thing to consider is your technical ability. Regardless of how experienced you are as a player, playing something that is well within your comfort zone is very important. Recording sessions can be stressful due to different factors, you might be working with people you've never met before and expected to deliver a great result quickly, your performance is being examined very closely - how clean you play, how well you lock in with the click, Etc. Creating simple parts that you can play very well would help make the session a successful one.
James Calvin Wilsey's simple yet brilliant guitar part on Chris Isaak's Wicked Game is a signature part of the mega hit
5 USE SPACE
Ridiculously simple fact: Not playing at all can have a greater effect than playing the most beautiful part - It makes the impact of when you play much bigger, it helps differentiate sections of the song, improve the overall dynamics and create more room for the vocals and other instruments. Although some artists/producers might feel like they're not "getting their money's worth" since you are not playing throughout the whole song, deciding where and where not to play is a powerful tool.
6 TUNE, TUNE, TUNE
Before a take, between takes, even in the middle of a take if you can pull that off! If you hear that anything you already recorded is out of tune, ask to go back and fix it, some out of tune guitars might sound fine at an early stage of a production but after other instruments are added could turn out to be unusable.
The guitar is an instrument notorious for having intonation issues. Frequently maintaining your guitar and changing your strings can help.
A good trick is to tune to the part you're about to play, while the open strings might be in tune, some areas higher on the neck might not be. Check the tuning while you play notes in the position where you'll be playing.
7 LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR
Whether you are collaborating with band members, getting paid in tacos by a friend or being hired by a producer for a session, your job is to help make the song great while making everyone involved happy. As much as your creative input is important, you must understand your role in the situation and be as flexible as possible. This might mean being directed to play parts that you really dislike, maybe even contributing to making what in your opinion would end up being terrible! The best session players have an amazing talent of not getting attached to what they come up with, that way when they play something that the producer doesn't like, they can easily come up with an alternative, which they might even end up liking better.