Over the last few months I’ve had the honor to work with some amazing sidemen in Nashville. There’s something incredible about working with musicians that have dedicated their life to their craft, and there’s so much I’ve learned from watching them. Here are 10 things top session players do that sets them apart from the rest of the pack:
1. They’re positive.
I’ve yet to meet a session musician that has a negative attitude. Most of the guys (and girls) that are really good at what they do have a relentlessly positive attitude about whatever they’re working on. They never talk down about other people or music, and they find a way to be kind to everyone around them.
2. They’re laid back.
Because of the high pressure nature of session work, the best sidemen have mastered the subtle art of being high intensity with their music, while being laid back and relaxed with their personality. It amazes me to see how little stress the top sidemen show when they’re under pressure.
3. They love gear, but they cautious about changing out equipment.
Great sidemen know that being familiar and fast with your tools is essential to speed, and will often keep the same rig for years. What they lack occasionally in the latest gadget they make up for with stability and raw muscle memory and musicianship from years of practice.
4. Their rhythm is always metronomically perfect.
Session musicians working in the modern music industry know that perfect timing is the key to a good song. David Zaffiro, producer of Amy Grant and Little Big Town, explained it to me in a session last year. “Unless it’s exactly on the beat, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your idea is. It’s not going to be useful to a producer”.
5. They always know when to play, and when not to play.
Great session musicians have mastered the art of playing confident, beautiful parts that fit perfectly into the song. They’ve also mastered not playing and leaving out notes to give space. It’s amazing to me how a great session player can jump from a howling solo in one section of a song to a subtle comp part within a few seconds.
6. They know every single part in a song, not just the ones they’re playing.
About 6 months ago I was playing at church with Matt Melton, bassist for Chris Tomlin, and he was able to perfectly explain a small guitar part to the guitarist (he also did it with so much kindness that the guitarist didn’t mind the help at all). Great session musicians know the flow of the entire song, not just the parts that they play on.
7. They listen.
Great musicians learn to pick up on the tiniest subtleties of the music they’re making. I was playing with touring bassist Caleb Mundy, and he was able to pick out the subtle tambourine technique on a track that he really liked. He showed me the difference in the technique, and it literally made the track work. The ability to hear details make all the difference in sessions and live.
8. They take notes.
And more notes. And notes on top of those notes. I’ve never seen a session musician without a trusty pad and pencil. Great session musicians know that it’s hard to remember all the details in a track without detailed notes, and they fill up their chord charts with little details about the song.
9. They have their sounds dialed in and gear ready before the gig.
You’ll never see a pro musician fumbling around trying to get the sound “just right” in a session. Top level session musicians know that producers are on the clock, and every minute spent tweaking is a minute not cutting a track. They do their homework before going to the session, and then show up ready to play with their gear and patches in order.
10. They’re flexible.
Great session musicians can quickly shift gears, depending on what the producer wants. I was working with session guitarist Tim Galloway last year, and when I made a suggestion that we go in a different direction on a track, he was able to pivot within a few minutes and nail the direction I suggested. Not only are great musicians flexible in the studio, but they’ve learned to roll with the punches when it comes to changes from travel to venues.