Ever wondered how you actually go about becoming a session guitarist? SonicState columnist and session guitarist Michael Elsner is here to reveal all, and give you his tips and advice.
In Part I of this series on how to become a session guitarist, we discussed the general aspects of breaking into the world of becoming a session musician. These include the importance of location, networking, and being ready when the opportunity presents itself. In Part II we're going to cover a number of things to focus on for when you start getting those calls.
It should go without saying that first and foremost you need to have developed strong musical abilities. This not only includes your technical facilities, knowledge of theory, chords, scales, genres, current musical trends and sounds. etc., but also your melodic and creative sensibilities. This is a very subjective topic, and is much too broad for this article, so I'm just going to focus on the more concrete aspects of what you need to get your foot in the door.
It's vitally important to build your arsenal of gear. Having a variety of guitars, amps and pedals/effects is essential. This is your sonic palette from which to combine each of those elements into the ideal sound for the specific track. The more varied your collection, the more options you have.
At the very least, starting off you'll want to have the basics covered. In the guitar department, this includes a Les Paul, Strat, and Tele, or any other 'classic' style guitars for that matter. Having one or two great sounding acoustics is also imperative. Once you covered these basics, then you can branch out into instruments that are unique to you.
I've gotten sessions simply because I own a certain type of guitar, such as a 12-string acoustic, 6-string banjo, bowl-back mandolin or baritone guitar. I've been called to play on a variety of films simply because of the sound of my McPherson acoustic.
Mike's pedal collection:
Recently I was asked to play on a national commercial spot where the sound they needed was that of a child just learning how to play guitar. Enter a $75 Hannah Montana guitar that I bought at a local toy store on the way to the session! Variety is key and ultimately you'll want to have as many options at your disposal as possible, even if that means showing up with something purple with glitter on it.
The same is true with amps, although you really only need two or three to get the ball rolling. At the very least, be familiar with classic setups such as Les Paul/Marshall, Strat/Vox, Tele/Fender, etc., and be able to replicate those tones. The wonderful thing is that amplifier technology has come a long way in the last few years.
With units from Line 6, Fractal, and most recently, my personal favorite, the Kemper Profiling Amplifier, guitarists are able to reproduce the sound of well-known vintage and modern amplifiers with one very portable device. The beauty of these units is that the variety of tones you can generate is literally infinite.
Compared to guitars and amps, effect pedals are relatively inexpensive to obtain and absolutely essential to a working guitarist's rig. It's simple and quick to change out a pedal or two on a board, and even swap their arrangement in the signal chain. Again, variety is key and even the worst sounding broken fuzz pedal from the 70s can find a home in a track at some point.