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Session musicians, also called studio musicians, are highly skilled professionals who are hired to perform in recording sessions as well as live performances. Many session musicians specialize in playing rhythm section instruments such as guitar, piano, bass or drums. Other musicians specialize in brass and woodwinds as well as strings. Many session musicians "double" on multiple instruments, a valuable skill that enables them to play in a wider range of musical situations, genres and styles. Common doubling examples include double bass and electric bass; acoustic guitar and mandolin; piano and accordion; and saxophone and other woodwind instruments.
Usually such musicians are not permanent members of a musical ensemble or band and instead accompany a wide variety of singers and soloists. Session musicians work behind the scenes and rarely achieve individual fame in their own right as soloists or bandleaders. However, some backing bands of session musicians have become well known (e.g., The Wrecking Crew and Motown's The Funk Brothers), and top session musicians are well-known and widely respected within the music industry.
Session musicians are used in any situation where professional musical skills are needed on a short-term basis. Typically session musicians are used by recording studios to provide backing tracks for other musicians for recording sessions and live performances; recording music for advertising, film and television; or theatrical productions. Some session musicians have formed a rhythm section that was repeatedly used for recordings. In the 2000s, the terms "session musician" and "studio musician" are synonymous, though in past decades the latter term more typically described musicians who were associated with a particular record company, recording studio or entertainment agency.
The term session musician applies to performers working in all musical styles. Versatility and excellent technique are two of the most important skills for session musicians as they may have to perform in many different styles and musical settings, often with little or no rehearsal time. While there may be one read-through of a song before the recording, this is not so that the musicians can rehearse; rather, it is done so that the record producer and bandleader can spot and correct any errors in the arranger's parts.
Unlike band members from specific music genres, who may be experts in one particular genre, such as heavy metal music or jazz, session musicians need to be much more flexible and versatile. A session musician who is a rhythm guitar player will be expected to be able to comp on a jazz standard using jazz guitar chord voicings with ninth chords, 13th chords and altered dominant chords on electric guitar for one song; then play a rapid sequence of overdriven power chords and barre chords for a hard rock song; then play a tube amp-driven blues guitar style for a blues rock song; then lay down open chords on acoustic guitar for a folk rock tune. A session bassist may be asked to play a walking bassline on upright bass for a jazz song and a blues tune, then immediately afterwards play rock-style electric bass for a classic rock song.
Session musicians are familiar with playing with click tracks, a metronome-like system which enables the producer and audio engineer to ensure that the song is performed in the correct tempo throughout. Session players are also comfortable with the sound recording process, which typically involves playing in an isolated booth or "live room" while listening to the click track or backing tracks on headphones, and then overdubbing their parts, as requested by the producer and engineer. Due to the need for sound isolation in the studio, a session musician may have cloth-lined baffles, windows, or walls between her and the producer, audio engineer, and if recording live with another performer, the other performer. Even though musicians who mostly play live mainstage concerts use a number of visual cues (head nods, hand signals, etc.) during performances, it may be difficult or impossible to use these visual communication methods in the studio.
For example, a guitar player who is brought in to add country music-style fills in a pop country album may be instructed to add fills in many different points of a number of songs. Session players need endurance, both psychological focus and physical, to be able to keep playing solidly in time and in tune for lengthy recording sessions that may take place over days or even weeks. In some styles of music, such as jazz, the bassist and drummer need the physical endurance to play constantly for extended songs lasting 10 minutes or more.
As well, session musicians need to be able to take general instructions and guidance from the producer and translate it into the musical sounds, styles or techniques that the producer is looking for. A session guitar player will be expected to know the guitar playing styles of the top guitarists; for example, if a producer asks for "some Joe Pass-style playing" in a song, the guitarist will know how to do this. Session players need to be flexible and able to adapt to the requests made by the producer and engineer.
Session musicians are expected to learn parts rapidly and are usually skilled in both sight reading music notation and improvising a part from a lead sheet, chord sheet or, for country music players, a song chart in the Nashville number system. A skilled studio musician can play in a range of musical styles and can play accompaniment parts and solos that are either notated, learned "by ear" or improvised, as required. In some session work, a player may be required to do both reading and improvising, such as with a big band recording, which includes fully written-out lines composed by the arranger and chord charts where the player is expected to improvise comping and/or solos. Individuals aiming to become session musicians typically practice sight-reading music notation and chord charts during their individual practice time.
Session musicians usually own a wide variety of professional-quality instruments, and for guitarists and bassists, amplifiers and pedals, that enable them to produce the sound that is best for a particular recording. For example, a session guitarist going into the studio to record backing tracks for a country album will typically bring several expensive vintage guitars, such as a 1960s-era Fender Stratocaster and a Fender Telecaster. Guitarists may bring a guitar pedalboard with a selection of top-quality effects units, so that they will be able to produce a variety of different guitar tones and effects to suit different styles and songs, as requested by the record producer or lead audio engineer.
Recording time at the top recording studios is very expensive, given the quality of the sound engineering equipment and the costs of the audio engineers, record producer and the recording artists. As such, when session musicians are hired, the producer does not expect to have to deal with delays as finding the source of pickup hum or unwanted distortion occurring from a guitar amp or pedal (in a genre where a "clean" tone is sought out, such as traditional country music). As such, session musicians typically bring in gear that is at the higher end of the price and quality spectrum. A gigging guitarist playing in a nightclub for a blues band can bring pedals and a guitar amp that produce a small amount of switching noise, buzz, or hum, as this would not be a problem in a live show at a bar.
However, in the quiet of a studio, with sensitive recording equipment, this same buzz or hum would be unacceptable. As such, studio musicians use pro-grade guitar amplifiers that have ground lift switches, which can be toggled to remove ground loop hum. Similarly, whereas a working guitarist can use standard quality plastic case effect pedals and preamplifiers, session musicians typically use expensive boutique pedals which have heavy-gauge metal chassis (which prevent noise from nearby magnetic fields from affecting the sound), true bypass switching, studio-grade preamps, discrete Class-A signal paths, opto-couplers for noiseless switching, and isolated transformers to prevent buzz and hum.
Guitarists and bassists typically bring smaller guitar amps to the studio than they would use in a large venue concert. For example, a session bassist who brings a large 8×10" speaker enclosure and a large, powerful bass amp head in the 1,000-plus watt range to a live show at an arena may only bring a 1×10" combo bass amplifier in the 100 watt range to the studio. As indicated above though, this relatively small bass combo would be from a manufacturer that supplies equipment at the highest spectrum of the price/quality point. Pianists usually play the studio's grand piano or Hammond organ and Leslie speaker, although a keyboardist may need to bring specific electronic keyboards or synth modules. Saxophone players may be expected to also bring and play other members of the saxophone family (typically tenor, alto and soprano, and possibly baritone). Some sax players who are "doublers" may be asked to bring and play various flutes, clarinets and other woodwinds.
History and associations
During the 1920s and 1930s most record companies had their own prolific "studio bands" turning out records of the latest pop hits. These were often made up by jazz and dance band musicians who were at the same time members of regular working bands and who divided their time between studio work (recordings as well as broadcasting) during the day and live performances in the evenings. Notable such "studio musicians" include Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Andy Sannella, and Mike Mosiello.
Perhaps the best-known session band are Booker T & The MGs who were the house band at Stax records in Memphis during the 1960s and 1970s playing behind Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers amongst many others. MGs guitarist Steve Cropper co-wrote many of Redding's hits and the MGs produced albums and hit singles such as "Green Onions" in their own right while being the house band at Stax.
Although session musicians have long and successful careers and can achieve considerable fame within the music industry, they rarely achieve popular celebrity. Notable exceptions include the members of the band Toto who met in various recording sessions; John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, who were well known as session musicians and arrangers before their later success with Led Zeppelin; keyboardist Rick Wakeman; and renowned vocalists Valerie Simpson, Lisa Fischer and Luther Vandross. The song "A Little Green Rosetta" from the Frank Zappa album Joe's Garage lampoons Steve Gadd's status as one of the highest-paid session drummers in popular music.
Among the most prolific established studio musicians are The Wrecking Crew. Based in Los Angeles, the Wrecking Crew has recorded innumerable songs and albums since the 1960s. The Funk Brothers were session musicians who performed the backing to many Motown Records recordings from the late 1950s to the early 1970s as well as a few non-Motown recordings, notably on Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." Billy Preston was a session musician who played with Mahalia Jackson and was known as the 'fifth' Beatle for his work with the Beatles.
The Los Angeles singer/songwriter scene associated with the Troubadour nightclub and Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s to mid-1970s was supported by musicians Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar and Craig Doerge. This session combo, nicknamed The Section or The Mafia, backed many musicians, among others: Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Kris Kristofferson and David Crosby.
A few session musicians have even built reputations of notoriety: English session singer Tony Burrows appeared so often as a frontman for various one-hit wonder studio groups (such as Edison Lighthouse, The Flower Pot Men, The Pipkins, The Brotherhood of Man, White Plains, and The First Class), in a short period of time during the early 1970s, that his attempts at a solo career under his own name were hampered, due in part to burnout. American singer Lynn Davis has written songs and contributed background vocals for over 100 different singers and musical groups including Patrice Rushen, Anita Baker, George Duke, and Toshinobu Kubota. She is also recognized as one of the most successful and musically recorded session vocalists of the era.
Another well-known group of session musicians is called The Nashville A-Team and is made up of A-list studio musicians who recorded during the Nashville sound era. Their contributions began in the 1950s with artists such as Elvis Presley. Some of these musicians are still alive today. The original A-Team includes bassist Bob Moore; guitarists Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Ray Edenton, and Harold Bradley; drummer Buddy Harman; pianists Floyd Cramer and Hargus "Pig" Robbins; fiddler Tommy Jackson; steel guitarist Pete Drake; harmonicist Charlie McCoy; saxophonist Boots Randolph; and vocal groups The Jordanaires and The Anita Kerr Singers.
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section comprising Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson, also known as the Swampers, is another well-established group of session musicians. They have become known for the "Muscle Shoals Sound." Many of the recordings done in the Memphis area, which included Muscle Shoals, Alabama, used The Memphis Horns in their arrangements. MFSB was a group of soul music studio musicians based in Philadelphia at the Sigma Sound Studios; they later went on to become a name-brand instrumental group, and their best known hit was "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," better known as the theme from Soul Train. In reverse, John Wesley Ryles was a headline artist in country music from his debut at age 17 in 1968 through the 1980s; he has since become a prolific session singer, as has Dennis Locorriere, who has served as a backing vocalist throughout the 1980s and 1990s after the breakup of the band Dr. Hook.
- The Andantes
- The Bar-Kays
- The Blossoms
- Booker T & the MGs
- Compass Point All Stars
- The Funk Brothers
- The Jordanaires
- Lynn Davis
- Mike Garson
- The Memphis Boys
- Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section
- The Originals
- The Ray Charles Singers
- Sly and Robbie
- The Sweet Inspirations
- The Wrecking Crew
- Lyrics and annotations to "A Little Green Rosetta".
- Lynn Davis | Credits | All Music Guide. All Music. Retrieved on December 9, 2016