How Do I Become a Studio Musician?
by Bobby Owsinski and Paul Ill
Excerpt adapted from The Studio Musician’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski and Paul Ill, published by Hal Leonard Books.
On the journey to becoming a successful studio musician, a lot of roads lead to the same place. But the way it usually works is that someone hears and likes your playing and either hires you or refers you as a result. Here are some of the many ways it could happen.
Five Ways to Become a Session Musician
1) Your band
2) By referral
3) By a contractor
4) By a recording
5) By association
Your band is recording with a producer. The producer notices that you play really well and have a great feel, and he calls you to play on other records. Sometimes it might be the engineer on the session that remembers you (remember, many in-demand engineers become producers at some point). Either way, in the course of doing your own record, you show up on the radar of someone who can hire you later.
“If you’re in a band and working with a producer, really pay attention and work with him to help him make that record sound better. You’re more likely to be called for another project afterwards. He might have had so much fun working with you in your band that he’ll think of you for a solo artist he’s working with. That’s how I developed myself. I worked with Tim Palmer in London with my own band, and that’s how I got the job playing with Tears for Fears. So I’ve developed relationships with all the producers I’ve worked with over the years in my own band.” – Brian MacLeod
If you have a friend who does a lot of session work who likes how you play, chances are that you’ll get a referral at some point. If a player can’t make a date or doesn’t get on with the client, a referral from someone established will get you in the door.
By a Contractor
A contractor is a person that hires musicians for a gig. Most times he or she is also a musician on the session, but that doesn’t always have to be. Many contractors hire musicians for a variety of gigs, not just for recording sessions. If you become a trusted insider for everyday live gigs, chances are that soon you’ll be hired on a studio date as well.
By a Recording
Many times an artist or a producer will hear you on a recording and want your style or sound. It’s more likely you’ll be called if the recording you played on was a hit, since everyone likes to use the same team or sound of something already successful. If that happens, be happy that you’ve been lucky twice.
The old adage “All boats rise and fall with the tide” is really true. If someone within your circle of players makes it “big,” they’ll most likely take you with them, at least on some level. Maybe you have something unique in your sound or your feel that your player friend will remember. Maybe he just wants to help you out because you’re such a cool person. Maybe it’s some payback for a good deed long in the past. Doesn’t matter as long as you’re remembered and get the call. Once you’re called for one session and do well, chances are you’ll be called for another as word gets
around and your résumé builds.
“I was playing on a little ‘jazzual’ [a jazz casual] with a piano player who was wired in to the TV show Knots Landing because he was the piano player for one of the main actors on the show, who was a singer. The piano player got us on a couple of episodes to be the backup band for the singer. The production people loved it, and that developed into the piano player being able to score a bunch of sessions. After that I met a few other guys and got called to play on their stuff , and finally, Jay [Chattaway] left New York and moved out here [Los Angeles]. I knew him on the East Coast, so when he started working, I started working.”– Gary Solt
”I kept going to these parties and bashes and kept going around saying hello to the same people over and over. It got to the point that when they saw me coming, I looked familiar to them and they’d think, ‘He’s always at these parties. He’s got to be in the music business.’ At some point months later I’d go, ‘Hey, you still at Sony?’ and they’d go ‘Yeah,’ and I’d pass him my card and he would pass me his and all of sudden I’m setting up meetings. That’s how I did it.” – Onree Gill
You’ve got your first session—but now how do you keep them coming? First of all, here are the traits that you find in all studio musicians.
Six Traits of a Studio Musician
1) Has great chops.
2) Has great gear.
3) Is easy to work with.
4) Has no ego.
5) Takes criticism well.
6) Has proper studio etiquette.
Let’s go over these one by one. A studio musician:
Has great chops
Studio musicians are expected to be creative, be extremely versatile, and have a formidable skill set. They are usually the best musicians in town in terms of plain physical dexterity, and are able to play numerous styles convincingly. Your ability to read music will determine the type of sessions you can play on. For record dates, it’s important to be able to read and transcribe lead sheets, and other types of sessions such as jingles and television and movie scores require exceptional sight-reading.
To illustrate the reading abilities of session players, here’s a story about the late Tommy Tedesco, one of the most recorded guitar players ever, and a charter member of the famed Los Angeles studio band The Wrecking Crew during the ’60s and ’70s. Tommy was playing on a Jan & Dean date when, as a joke, singer Jan Berry turned Tommy’s music upside down on the stand. The take started and Tommy proceeded to play the backwards score note for note. A frustrated Berry yanked the page off the stand and said, “You’re just showing off!”
Has great gear
Having a wide variety of gear in excellent working order is a must. Having only one sound makes for a boring recording, so the wider the variety of sounds you can get or the more you can double on other instruments, the more valuable you become.
“You’ve got to own the tools, or you can’t go build the house.” – Gary Solt
Is easy to work with
Your reputation among other musicians and those in our industry who make the recordings is what gets you hired and keeps you working. So if other session musicians, producers, and engineers like you as a person, like how you play, and like the feeling you bring to a session, then you’re more likely to get calls for work. If you were cooped up in a submarine for a while, you’d sure want to get along with the other people in there with you. Obviously studio conditions are different than that in most ways, but the fact that you are working very closely with other players, engineers, producers, artists, and label and agency people (and who knows who else) usually means that the easier you are to work with, the more likely you’ll get asked back.
Playing comes first, and it always will, but if you make the people who are paying your check uncomfortable in even the slightest way, it will come back to haunt you. Smiles and a pleasant, accommodating attitude, as well as superb personal hygiene and an appropriate sense of style go really far in the session business. There are a lot of great players out there, and unless you’re something unbelievably special, the people who pay the checks will always hire the easiest musicians to work with, all things being equal. No back talk, no sass, no snide remarks – nothing other than a wide smile and a “Tell me what you want” and “No Problem!” attitude.
Has no ego
Everyone has their own idea of how they should sound, how the song should be played, how others should be playing it, and a host of other musical items both large and small. That all goes out the window when you’re being hired to play on someone’s recording. Some won’t want your ideas at all, while others will listen with an open ear (yet reject every opinion). You’ve got to have a thick skin while recording, and realize that even if the artist-producer-songwriter listens to your idea, it might not carry much weight or be acted upon. If they listen to you and actually use one of your suggestions, consider it a good day.
“I would say an important thing for me is to serve the song at all times. Try to keep an open mind, and if someone has an idea in the room, then always let that idea be heard. If it involves you trying something different in the part that you’re playing, you can’t get defensive about it. You have to just let it happen, because that really goes a long way toward creating a good atmosphere in the room. When everybody drops their ego and just tries to serve the song, I find that the best idea will rise to the surface and everybody will recognize it. It’s human nature to want our ideas to be the best ones, but if you can be open to others’ suggestions, you can learn something and maybe do something that you wouldn’t have thought of doing.” – Peter Thorn
Takes criticism well
If you have a fragile ego, being a session musician is not for you. Except for the times when you’re playing a written part, you can bet that every take is going to be examined under a microscope and picked apart with a fine-tooth comb. As difficult as that might seem, you can’t take it personally, because the artist-producer-songwriter wants only what’s best for the song. You may play a part with a bitchin’ feel, but if the sound isn’t right and doesn’t mesh with the track, chances are you’ll do it again. Play the same track again with a better sound, and this time the part in the bridge might not be happening – so you’ll play it one more time. It’s possible you’ll keep playing it all day until the results meet the expectations of those in the control room that are in command (but if it takes you that long, you might not be asked to return). You can’t ever fall in love with what you just played, because eventually you’re going to get your heart broken.
Has proper studio etiquette
There’s a way to do things in the studio, and it differs from playing live. A studio musician’s protocol exists, and you’ll be expected to abide by it. Suffice it to say that if you like being the
center of attention, then studio work may not be for you.
“When the red light comes on, they’re all perfectionists. Everyone is there to play their part as perfectly as possible. When the red light is off, the personalities are as diverse as you would see anywhere, but when it’s time to make music, everyone’s focus is 100% locked on the music. That’s the one trait I see, always. Their focus is aligned specifically for what that moment demands.” – Gary Solt
Fluffy Cat Records, Paul Waltz, Jozua Kleopa, Back40Forums, Record Labels