Doing session work as a guitarist is rewarding. Getting paid to play guitar? Yes please.
However getting session work and keeping clients happy requires having certain skills that are particularly appreciated by producers, and may be different than the skills you practice when playing guitar for yourself or your band.
How to play in tune
Many producers and engineers will say that their favorite session guitarists can play in tune. However they aren’t necessarily referring to the guitarist’s ability to simply tune his or her guitar. They are often referring to a combination of two different things:
Instrument intonation. This is often a matter of the guitar being well set up, and having been re-strung recently.
The guitar player’s nuance with regards to how hard or light to press down on certain parts of the fretboard in order to make chords play more in tune. For example, unless you’re using a guitar with an Evertune Bridge, or a compensated nut, then there will always be notes around the fretboard that will be a little sharp, or a little flat, even if the guitar is really well set-up. An experienced session guitarist should know his or her instruments well enough to be able to know where these areas are, and how hard or light he or she needs to press certain notes in order to get those notes to play in tune, as well as having a good enough ear to quickly tell how to adjust their finger strength on guitars that are not their own to create in tune chords.
If you master these two things, producers and engineers will love you, and you will sometimes get sessions just to re-play what other guitarists just could not play in tune.
How to play simple melodies
At the end of the day, simple, catchy melodies are often the ones that most artists and producers want. Every once in a while you might get a session where you’re asked to just shred, and those are always really fun sessions, but often we’re asked to play catchy, singable melodies. This can be more difficult then it seems.
Sometimes a good place to start is just by doing a simple triad arpeggio of one of the chords in the chord progression, to see if inspiration strikes. If so, add in one or two scale tones to see if that spices things up a bit.
Another great tip is to put your guitar down and hum to the track and see if you can sing a catchy melody. An old saying that a producer I worked with a lot used to always say in regards to guitar solos and melodies was “If you can’t sing it, don’t play it”.
How to layer guitars well
Some guitar players get a mushy sound when layering. There are numerous layering tricks that can help make your guitar tracks sound huge. Here are a few basic ones:
Use as little gain as possible. Even if you are tracking a really heavy rock song with an old 5150, if you would have the gain on five in a live setting, try and get it down to three in the studio if possible. Obviously you need to make sure that you have enough gain to get the right feel, but when you have two or three tracks going at once in a song, if there’s too much gain, the guitars tend to actually sound smaller, and it’s surprising how heavy a few tracks with lower gain can sound in a track.
Learn numerous different chord inversions and voicings. Tracking some high chord voicings, to be kept low in the mix in the chorus, can go a long way to making the chorus sound big.
Finally, be mindful of what else is going on in the track that you’re playing on. Is there some pretty heavy bass in it? If so, be mindful of the bass knob on the amp, what guitar you’re playing, and the chord voicing’s that you’re using. Apart from being funky-sounding instruments in general, this is a big reason why Strats and Teles work so well in pop/funk songs. When the bass is really heavy, a Tele or a Strat tends to stay out of the way of the low end in a track, whereas a Les Paul that on average might have a much more pronounced low end, could muddy up the low end of the track without subtractive EQ.
How to get 'that tone'
A lot of guitar players have ‘their’ tone, whether that be an American Fender clean, a high gain Rectifier, a British Marshall tone, a Dumble-like tone, or some combination of the above. However, as session guitarists, a large part of our job is to be able to get every tone, not just ‘our’ tone. If the producer wants an American Fender sound, then it is our job to get them the best American Fender sound that they have ever heard, and get it yesterday. Therefore, it is important to be familiar with, and know how to work many different amps and effects, so that you can get the different tones that you will need quickly.
Paul Kinman is a Session Guitarist out of Vancouver Canada.
You can hire him to play on your tracks here