10 Tricks to Success as a Sideman

While I’m still getting started working as a studio sideman, I’ve been lucky enough to talk with musicians that have worked with Chris Tomlin, Stephen Curtis Chapman, Matt Redman, and Keith Urban. Here’s what I’ve learned from them: 


1. Be a great hang. Being fun to work with trumps raw talent any day, and is probably the most important thing you can bring to a session. Make sure that you are relaxed, have a sense of humor, and are no-hassle throughout the entire project.


2. Know your part. If you have charts beforehand, have them down flawlessly. If not, make sure that you’ve brushed up your chops in the style that you’ll be playing. If you can’t play the style, it’s better to refer someone else then to appear incompetent. 


3. Fit the song. Sometimes the simple melody works. Don’t ever overplay, unless the producer insists that you do. 


4. Make sure your gear works. Don’t waste the producer’s time by replacing batteries or strings during the session. You’re on the clock, and even if it’s a flat rate project, the producer has more important things to do than watch you tune. 


5. Get great gear. Make sure that the gear you bring to the session is going to sound great on the recording. Don’t make the engineer work too hard to try and fix low-quality sounds. 


6. Diversify. If you play another instrument, bring it to the session. Who knows? They might need a sitar on the recording when they see you’ve brought one. 


7. Take chances. I recently recorded a violinist for a country track. The first take she played conservatively, the 2nd time she pushed her abilities, and even though she made a few mistakes, it was a far better recording. Don’t be afraid to make a few mistakes. You can always overdub. 


8. Listen to the producer. You may have a wildly differing idea of where the song should go. That’s nice, but it doesn’t matter since you’re not sitting behind the recording console. Make sure to always respect the vision of the producer. 


9. Be punctual. Make sure you have plenty of time to get started recording at exactly when you’re scheduled. Don’t arrive at the time you’re booked to begin recording- show up early and make sure you’re set up.


10. Don’t be stupid. You’d think this would be easy, but so many musicians sabotage their careers by making dumb mistakes like constantly bugging producers about getting paid or getting more work, or by being over-the-top picky about their performances and taking criticism poorly.