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Tips for become a recording studio session musician

A session musician typically plays for multiple bands and artists. Many musicians dream of becoming a session musician, sitting in on cool gigs, travelling with different outfits and generally being respected by their peers.

As you can imagine, session musicians need to be able to play many styles of music and need to be proficient in all of them. But what does it take to be a session musician?

Be solid

Session musicians must be solid players. Yes, crazy skilled technique is important but 99% of your jobs will require you to “hold it down”. There is nothing nicer for a band leader than to know the guy he just pulled in to play in his band won’t let them down. If you want to be a session player, you must be the guy who other can depend on to not screw up … ever!

Know when (and when not) to charge

All talented and experienced musicians should be paid for their work. However, sometimes the odd free session can pay back ten fold. If, for example a busy music producer has just paid you for a recording session and asks you to lay a quick idea down as a favour, you might want to do that.

I remember asking a guitarist to do just that for me about five years ago and he openly agreed, no talk of publishing or lawyers getting involved, just two musicians “on a level”. I was grateful for his time and was able to provide him with about 60 paid record studio sessions over the next three years at the recording studio I work at!

Of course, he was a great player, solid and easy to work with which made it easy for me to take him on as my main session player, but the fact that he was open to doing a free session went a long way.

I am not suggesting you work for free all the time, but if you are already at a session or nearby and it’s not too much hassle, then be open to the idea. Amateur musicians work for free all the time, they have to, but experience musicians tend to close off completely which (sometimes) doesn’t pay off.

Speak producer language

I was a session drummer for 10 years and it wasn’t until the last 4 years that I really made an effort to learn to communicate with producers. Man, I wish I have learned this sooner because producers (like musical directors) have a lot of connections and can provide a lot of work. Producers will (naturally) prefer to work with session musicians that can quickly communicate ideas that make sense to them. Even very simple stuff like asking to overdub on a new channel or “drop in” will show the producer that you know your stuff.

Never, ever be late!

I don’t need to say anything here. Just be on time all the time for every gig, recording or rehearsal.

Get familiar with the unfamiliar

As a session musician you will be asked to perform all over the place. During my career as a session drummer I played in prisons, church’s, Glastonbury and other huge festivals, clubs, pubs … you name it.

It is worth getting know how it feel and sounds playing in as many different venues. Can you handle the echo when playing in a big hall? What about when you can’t hear the monitors on a big festival stage? If there is anyway available to you to experience these different scenarios then grab the opportunity because as a session musician you have to be solid no matter where you end up performing!

Don’t debate! 

If you are recording or rehearsing a song it is well worth voicing those ideas. Putting good ideas forward is appreciated greatly by most band/project leaders. However, try and avoid a “debate” over musical issues. Even if you KNOW your ideas are better than the existing ideas, it’s almostg always best to sit back a little and not get too worked up about them.

Too many times, session musicians come over as arrogant or aggressive when in fact they are simply more experienced and passionate. Remember, you are there to make the band leader’s vision a reality and if you do that he will book you again and he’ll gain trust in your ideas as time goes on.

Reader Comments (12)

Great tips! Breaking into session musician work can take time and patience. Just like everything in the music industry, it is competitive and requires a lot of self promotion and a little bit of luck.

These are great.

Here's a few more...

1. Know Your Limitations. f you're not 100% on a specific need for a session, you're probably better off not taking it. You run the risk of destroying your reputation and costing the client money.

2. Understand where your strength/value lies: If you have a strong groove but don't read well, you might not be the best fit for certain situations. Focus on what you're good at, seek out those jobs first, and work on your weaknesses in the meantime. It doesn't always pay to just take it where you can get it.

3. Let the market speak and understand negotiation: If a client is ready to pay you $1k for your services and you come out of the gate quoting $500, you just lost. This is subjective and an acquired skill that has a lot of do with your body of work, resume and reputation. Try to be sensitive to how you approach each gig, and what their individual needs and budgets are. Sometimes a low fee will be augmented by getting your foot in the door for more future work, where you'll have more leverage fee wise.

October 18 | Unregistered Commentergaetano

Nice article, but isn't it sad? Basically session musicians have to be like soldiers: be solid, know when (and when not) to discharge, speak staff sergeants language, never ever be late, get familiar with the unfamiliar, and don't ever ever ever debate... nevermind, keep on rockin!

October 18 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Thanks for this article, Darren!

Unless you are well-established, geography could also play a part in one's session career. The internet has made it easy for anyone to collaborate, however, new session players will likely want to find a busy music city where they will be in demand.

October 29 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Wiebe

@Daniel Yes you're right, us musicians are like soldiers. But, consider the pay off. To say you want to be a full time musicians is to say that you want one of the best jobs in the world.

So, it follows that competitions for work is fierce. When I was "coming up" I used people like Mike Tyson as motivation. The way I see it, musicians and athletes must think and behave in similar ways to succeed.

November 12 | Registered CommenterDarren

Good advice @gaetano

November 12 | Registered CommenterDarren

@Andrew Wiebe

Good point, location is very important. You can find local musicians on our sister website here As many of you know, this site is designed to show you the latest industry opportunities

Thanks for the feedback on the article guys.

November 12 | Registered CommenterDarren

Awesome tips! Thanks for sharing! This article is so informative and can be a good reference for struggling musicians. Nice!

November 21 | Unregistered Commenterdaisy liddell

When and when not to charge is an interesting dilemma. For session work, I'd say almost always charge as long as you're worth your hourly rate. I can see how working for free could be beneficial though.

November 14 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Kittleberger

Thanks for the article! I'm a session bass player in Dublin and I found that if you keep these rules, you can get good session jobs.

January 16 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian

I am a 19 year old entering college, but I really want to become a session musician. My parents are skeptical of the job market and salary, but I just feel it's what I should do. I've studied music my entire life, and play piano, guitar, and drums, along with other random instruments. I have a lot of experience performing. As an accomplished session musician yourself, do you think I could make it, and would you recommend it? I appreciate your advice.
God bless, Caleb

June 18 | Unregistered CommenterCaleb Liechty

Very good post and great tips!

To know when to charge and when not to charge has and always will be a one of the trickiest parts of being a session musician. I'm a session drummer myself and I do a lot of sessions from my own studio where I work remotely with people. I've found out that if I'm doing free work for someone as favor and to hopefully get some "marketing" it's more likely than not that that project just doesn't get finished. I know it sonds strange but the past year I've helped some old friends with some free stiff just to be nice and to get my name out there. To be precise I've done 4 free projects, it's not a lot but, the past year and now a year after I started the first it still isn't finished and released. So it has just been a waste of my time. On the other hand where people have paid me to do work all but one of those projects have been finished and released.

I think the tip shared in this post can act as a good rule of thumb! If I've already done some work for them and they want me to do a quick thing at the end of the session it no problem. But to do sessions for free completely I don't to anymore because of the fact that it has lead to nothing when I've done it.

August 14 | Unregistered CommenterNiklas J. Blixt

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