How To Get Work As A Session Guitarist: Part One

Guest blog with advice from session guitarist Michael Elsner   08-Sep-13

After you've put in your time networking and getting your name out there, one day your phone is going to ring and opportunity will knock on your door... be available! It's as simple as that. I know plenty of incredible players who are dying to get into session work, but they are constantly out on tour with various artists and just not available to record.

On the flip side, I also know players who, at one time were busy with session work, but took a tour for a year or more, and had no recording work to come home to. As you're developing your reputation in the session world, it's imperative to be in town and available when you get the call.

Starting off will be a gradual climb, and initially it may be hard to financially sustain yourself on just sessions alone. Many musicians supplemented their income by teaching or playing casual gigs in the evenings and weekends.

Some even held down a part time job. It simply takes time to network, build up your clientele, and have steady work, but most importantly, if session work is your goal, make it a point to get off the road and stay in town. 

Finally, when you’re starting out, take any session you can no matter what the pay is. This is your training ground. The studio puts your playing under a microscope unlike any other situation you’ll ever be in. If you’re slightly out of tune, you’ll hear it. If you rush the beat, even by the slightest amount, you’ll hear it.

Mike writing the guitar part for a new song

If your bending and vibrato isn’t smooth and precise, you’ll hear it. A lot of things that go unnoticed in a live situation stick out like a sore thumb in the studio environment. You’ll also learn what you need to work on stylistically as well as how to get specific sounds. Ultimately, your success will be determined by how you respond to these different scenarios. 

I could tell you plenty of stories from my own career, but I’ll briefly give you one scenario and how I responded to it: When I first moved to LA, I was introduced to an R&B producer who called me in to play on a track. I had no prior experience playing R&B, so needless to say, my first session with him was no walk in the park.

I was very frustrated after that session, so I spent the next few days dissecting and learning virtually every guitar part on Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” and “Thriller” albums. I focused on my feel, note choice, experimented with tones and ultimately learned how to play in a genre that was previously foreign to me.  

When the producer called me in for a 2nd opportunity to work with him, I was familiar with the genre and was able to have a successful session. Shortly after, the two of us wrote and played on an R&B single for an international artist. This was my first international release by a well known artist and it all stemmed from my response to that initial session where I couldn’t play an R&B lick to save my life.

Now that you have an idea of how to get started in the session world, in part two I’m going to address what to do once the doors open and you get your ‘big break.’  Until then, happy networking!!

Did you find this article useful? Got any questions for Mike? Let him know in the comments section below...

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