The skills of session guitarists are highly discussed but rarely given an appropriate description. That is because it’s a very relative subject and a vast topic to cover in one answer.
To become a session guitar player, you need to develop an advanced level of skill in
- Ear accuracy
- Music memorization and reproduction skills
- Proficiency in the Instrument
- Vast repertoire of genres
- Understanding of gear and tone
- Understanding of (at least) basic music theory and how to apply it
- Good communication skills
- Entrepreneurial & Self-management skills
How to become a session guitarist?
It takes time to learn the skills of a session guitarist and gradually develop through experience and practice.
In simple terms, you must be an excellent guitar player, a musician, and a cool dude known by many producers/artists/engineers as a guy who can quickly come up and record great guitar parts. Being funny helps a bit too!
For a study purpose, I will divide the skill into 3 main categories.
- Music Skills
- Instrument Skill
- Business Skills
Music Skills – how much music knowledge do you need to become a session guitar player?
Musical skills include all the skills related to musical understanding, ear training, and theory needed to work on a recording session with other professional musicians.
The main point here is not to be a theory freak or to be a sight-reader – the point is to be able to figure out the chords of a song by ear, know that note to hit, know what scale you are on when you are told the scale and know-how to communicate with other musicians on time signatures and chord tones/intervals.
1- If for example, you are told to play I IV VI II in the key G, you should know what the chords are. If you are told to play a solo on an A major scale but use a minor 7th then you should know what this is. If there is a tricky time signature, you should know how to count it.
2- Playing on time is also essential. On the highest level of the job, there are times when session players are asked to play a bit behind and ahead of the beat.
That skill takes A LOT of effort to master but then takes the performance further than perfect! The best lesson I can think of to help you out with these skills is from the funky duck Cory Wong in this video.
3- Ear accuracy also is critical. Practicing regularly to improve relative pitch is essential if you (like me) are not lucky to have been born with a perfect pitch. There are many ways to do that – I suggest checking out Rick Beato and his many valuable tutorials on this.
4- Music memory refers to the fact that you can memorize tracks and reproduce them on the spot. This is VERY Important for you to be able to play along any song. Typically guitar players jam on songs and then forget what they played.
In a studio situation, the producer might say “hey, I liked what you did there; can you do it again?” – and you should be able to memorize and play it again.
5- Music theory is always a controversial topic – in my opinion, the more you know about it, the better you can apply it and help other musicians in the session or figure out faster your guitar lines. Other than that, I have seen top session players like Tom Bukovac and Tim Pierce. They suggest knowing a lot of practical Guitar Music Theory built through a mixture of experience and formal musical training.
Check out this video from Rick Beato for some basic music theory every session guitar player should know.
I would personally say that the minimal skills of a session guitarist are:
Your basic scales and the “color” of the modes (not memorizing all!) – chord structure and inversions – circle of 5th and chord on different scales – time signature understanding and Intervals are enough music theory knowledge to get you through most of the sessions.
Instrument skills – Essential guitar skills of a session player
Talking about guitar skills now, I want to list out some must-know and Apply skills every session guitar player needs. The topic is mainly directed to intermediate and advanced players who are usually somehow self-aware of their skill level.
- Playing clean
By playing clean I mean no finger noise (if not asked!), no hand sliding on strings noise, no sloppy chords changes, and no missed string hits. These are must-know skills to become a session guitar player.
The secret to achieving this Is applying a routine of exercises and train a lot on muting with both left and right hand,
Check out the incredibly helpful mister Tomo Fujita lesson giving you some awesome exercises:
- Excellent fretboard knowledge
You must know all the notes on the neck in the back of your mind. Fretboard mastery is related to a different way of approaching chords and solos. The caged system is a good way to learn different chords shapers, and beyond that, chord inversions and spread triads help out a lot
This lesson from Tom Quale on Intervals and learning the fretboard is a very cool way to approach your session playing.
- Style dependent techniques
In this category falls all skills that are required by different styles; for example, you have to be a great alternate and sweep picker if you want to shred on a metal session. If you are an acoustic player, perfect strumming is a must etc.
I’m more of a Chameleon spread out in many styles – Check out my playing here.
You can be a specialized guitar player if that’s your way to do it!
- Improvisation skills
When the click hits, you don’t think anymore – You just play! That is the level of improvisation required that is achieved by practice and getting “in the zone” while performing.
The best way to approach improvising as a session player is to be a storyteller who builds up melodies in his ear and transmits them on guitar.
This lesson from David Wallimann is fantastic in finding out what type of lead player you are and how to improve your lead and improvising skills.
- Knowledge of tone and gear
” A song is a spectrum of frequencies – the job of a session player Is to fill that spectrum.” – Tim Pierce
You have to have an idea that goes beyond your cool lead or rhythm tone – you should know what sound and frequencies fit on the mix. The Edge from U2 Is the best example of a guitarist being a sonic architect – the phrase Jimi Page used to describe him in the documentary “It gets louder.”
You should know how a guitar rig works, what to bring in a session and how to use all your pedals and amps instantly. By that, I mean that ear training is not only on figuring out notes but also on figuring out tones that fit the song. It’s good to have your own almost signature tones that you can later adapt to what the song needs.
Check out my article on HOW TO LAYER GUITAR TRACKS
Business Skills- Be a musician that thinks like an Entrepreneur
This is probably the most underrated aspect of musicianship and probably the one that separates the greats and what could have been greats.
Beading a business-minded musician doesn’t mean becoming a commercial musician or selling out – being an entrepreneur musician means knowing what value you bring to your listener, who they are, and to approach them,|
I will be writing a whole article on this topic – but for now, I will give some tips on how to be a session musician that thinks like an entrepreneur.
- Treat producers and artists like clients and friends
The goal is to make them happy with the value you bring!
- Offer also a bit more than asked
Give out an extra dry track or an alternate solo if you are doing a remote session and suggest what you think the mix should be.
- Reviews are gold, both online and word of mouth
You will know the value of this from the first moment you set up your DAW and hit record!
- Brand yourself online
Build your YouTube online and your social media presence – more on this in another article
- Create high-value content
It’s important to create/publish frequently and allow yourself to make mistakes.
- Write your own music
That shows a lot in your commitment and keeps the fun going
- Create an outstanding website
I can help you with that since I’m both a session man & own my small digital agency. Check out my guide to preparing a working musicians’ website.
- Social media is your day-to-day presentation – keep it constant and daily!
- Learn marketing skills and bits of design and video editing.
Copywriting helps a lot, and also some basic WordPress can help too.
- Keep all your content and regularly contact them
- Learn how the music industry words
How a song is made who decides who to hire is the most important.
- Expand your session work services
Start offering up paramagnet or, for example, acoustic song production & arrangement as I do!
- Learn the whole music production process bit by bit
- Being a nice guy helps a lot!
This is a lot to take in – But once you get your hand on the process, it’s just an everyday thing that happens spontaneously, like replying to an email.
Check out my website content and structure to learn how I do my marketing.
In the case of a session guitar player being a Been a musician that thinks like an Entrepreneur means branding yourself as an authority in your field by approaching session work as if you are running a session business – and not just another gig from studio to studio
I am sharing with you also a fascinating interview of Tim Pierce and Rick Beato talking about this subject intensively.
Final Words on the skills needed to become a session guitar player.
The main ingredient in becoming a session guitar player is enjoying the process of becoming a session guitarist!
I can’t stress this enough. The most important of all is to have fun while playing and learning to become a session player; if you are not having fun – then what’s the point? You could be a great architect or engineer or anything else.
So as the great Tom Bukovac Says in this mighty video of Homeskoolin, “Shut up and play your guitar.”
Check out my story if you wish to learn HOW I DID IT – that might help you. For all of the above-written tips, you can find a form of them being applied on my Instagram account below and also on My Work & Music
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