The Most Important but Often Overlooked Trait in a Session Musician

October 24, 2013 by Paul Kinman

When I begin a studio session, I
always ask the client one question before I start. This question is, “What are
your goals for this song?”. This may seem like an obvious question to ask,
however, many musicians and engineers seem to forget it entirely. If the client
responds with “This is just something that I am doing for myself” or “We are
not concerned with any form of top40 radio, we are mainly a touring artist”
then you and your client may progress to your heart’s desire. However, more
often than not, you will find that you get a response more akin to “I am
planning to push this album/song to Top40 Pop Radio”. If you get a response
like this, then, as a session musician, you should immediately know what you are
likely to be playing, even before you hear the first song. One of the most
important traits of a strong session musician is to know exactly what role your
instrument plays in all the main popular genres in music at that moment; for
example, Rock, Country, Pop, EDM ect. This separates the boys from the men and,
consequently, many musicians find it difficult to comprehend because the rules of
popular music can change instantly based on what has hit it big recently. What
I outline in this article may even be different the day after I have posted it.
However, what I aim to show is the level of knowledge that a strong session
musician should maintain in respects to top 40 music styles.

A common argument that I hear to excuse
a lack of knowledge in this area is “That’s the producer’s job, not mine”. The
answer to this question is, unequivocally, yes, that is part of the producer’s
job.  However, artists/producers hire a
session musician to make everybody’s lives easier during the recording process;
this especially includes the producer. Therefore, the less time that the
producer or artist has to spend telling the session musician what type of sound
to get or what style of part to play, the better. If you walk into the studio,
plug in, and right after asking the golden question that I mentioned earlier
have the perfect sound and are playing the perfect part for that style of music
as dictated by the top 40 charts, then you are going to keep getting hired.
Your goal as a session player is to help your client achieve whatever their
goals may be, and, consequently, to arm yourself with the knowledge that it
takes to get them there.

Top 40 Pop Radio:

Let us look at an example. If
your client were to say that they were sending their song to Top 40 Pop Radio, then
it would be important for you to know what role your instrument plays in that
radio format. In my case, I am a session guitarist. So, I will use guitar as my
example for this article. The first thing that I will attack is tone. Right now
(September 2013), in Top-40 Pop Radio, guitars are very clean sounding.
However, they are not completely clean, more on the clean side of a mid-gain
sound. So, generally speaking, if a pop radio station like 95.3, 104.9 or 94.5
(The main pop stations in my area, Vancouver) were to receive a song with full
sounding distorted guitars, even if they 
didn't sound that heavy, they would
likely pass over the song. However, occasionally you will get an exception to
the current rule set by radio. So, obviously your client always gets the final
word on everything. An example of a song that breaks the current clean guitar
mold set by radio is
Berzek by
Eminem, which currently (Sept 19
th, 2013) sits at number 8 on the
Billboard Hot 100. This song is full of heavy, distorted, power chords.
However, it comes as no surprise that Eminem can do whatever he wants musically
and have his songs played; your client may or may not have that luxury. As far
as effects go, guitars in pop music can fit into one of two categories; either
completely dry, or so processed that they do not sound like guitars at all. An
example of a session guitarist who does the latter very well is LA’s
Tim Pierce. He is able to make
interesting tones that a producer would put low in the mix, only present to
build atmosphere and/or dynamics. These parts are not necessarily something
that he records for the listener to hear, but exist to subliminally build the
song. These parts are generally un-recognizable as guitars and often sound like
keyboards, or some form of string pad. However, being able to record, as well
as think up parts like this sets a strong session musician apart from the crowd.
There are many people who can play well, but there are significantly fewer
people who can think outside of the box enough to make these processed sounds
as well as the simple parts that they need.

As far as the actual playing in
Top 40 Pop radio goes, the main parts are always very simple. These rules tend
to be the same or similar for EDM as well. A part that you might track could
simply be downbeat chords, or a simple interval based melody. However, some
songs call for a more funky rhythmic approach. Great examples of this in
current music are Daft Punk’s new single Get
and Justin Timberlake’s recent single Mirrors. If you listen to the guitars in these songs, they are both
very simple as far as the chords go; however, they have a simple, but funky
rhythm to them. This is especially characteristic of Get Lucky. Other less recent songs that still illustrate this are
Miley Cyrus’s Party in the USA and Skrillex’s
Bangarang. Folk like acoustic guitar parts
are also currently “In” in top 40 radio thanks to Mumford and Sons. A perfect current
example of this is Avicii’s Wake Me Up, which
is number 5 on the Billboard Top 40 (Sept 19th, 2013). A Billboard
article quoted triple A KRVB Boise, Idaho, PD Tim Johnston as saying that "For
a triple A station that leans heavily female, this is just perfect for us, It's
a terrific bridge between Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and Of Monsters and
Men and the more pop- and alternative-flavored songs from OneRepublic, Capital
Cities and Atlas Genius.” (Billboard). This quote shows that the folk-pop feel
of the song mixed with the EDM feel is what many music directors find appealing
about the track – the guitar definitely upholds this feel.

Top 40 Country Radio:

Top 40 Country music, being the
other major selling genre, has changed a lot as far as guitars go in recent
years. Although the typical ‘Single Coil Tele plugged straight into an old
cranked Fender Twin’ is still semi-popular, current artists like Luke Bryan,
Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and Dirks Bently have popularized a much different
approach to guitars in modern Country Music. What they have changed is found
primarily in the rhythm guitars – they are generally fairly distorted and
heavy. Think a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall Superlead, boosted with a Tube
Screamer and you will get the idea. This is a very typical Rhythm Guitar sound
in Country Music at the moment and borrows heavily from Rock music. However,
the big thing is that although Country Radio likes distorted guitars, they need
to be very clear sounding, with exceptional string clarity; not very
compressed. An example of this is found in Eric Church’s singles Creepin and Homeboy as well as Jason Aldean’s Take a Little Ride, Night Train, Tattoos On This Town, and My
Kind of Party.
Luke Bryan frequently uses a tamer version of this tone (the
solos in I Don't Want This Night To End,
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, and Drunk on You). However, for Luke Bryan,
these distorted rhythm guitars are mixed down, but still present; his newest
album has an abundance of this sort of guitar sound/playing. The Vocals, Lead
Guitar and Steel Guitar are the elements that preserve Country’s recognizable
identity that it has created in its past. Although the lead guitar often has a
real rock feel in the tone and sustain, there is still a very twangy aspect to
it. In addition, the classic style of 90’s country lead guitar, as illustrated
through players like Brent Mason and Brad Paisley, is still very popular.

            Really, I have only performed a
partial analysis of two popular radio formats as they pertain to guitar. There
is much more depth to it all, and there just is not enough space to get into it
all in this article. The biggest thing is that although it is imperative to be
aware of the role of your instrument in Top 40 Radio, always listen to your
client. If they want another approach, even if you feel it would be detrimental
to their goals, do what they want. In the end, it is your sole job to make them
happy. It is also important to note that the role of your instrument can change
with the seasons. All of the information that I have given here could be
completely backwards tomorrow. So, that shows the importance of constantly
keeping up to date. If you do that, you will significantly improve your chances
of getting repeated callbacks.

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