Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the finest session musicians in the business. Above and beyond their jaw dropping musical talent, these studio thoroughbreds also bring a depth and breadth of experience to the recording process that shows up in ways both obvious and extremely subtle. It occurred to me to write this article because in the early days of my songwriting career, I made the mistake of assuming that professional session musicians approached the recording process the same way I did (i.e., playing a song dozens and dozens of times before getting anything close to right). Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are professional session musicians great players but they’re also accustomed to giving great take after great take starting at take one. I also mistakenly thought I had to spell out each musician’s part for them. I was wrong about that, too. I’ve put together a couple of reasons why your best bet will always be to hire the pros and let them do their thing.
The key to working with session musicians, in my opinion, is to recognize what your strengths are and then to rely on others in those areas where you’re not as strong. While many songwriters are also musicians, very few songwriters have the depth of studio experience it takes to deliver great instrumental performances in what amounts to an artificial musical environment. Session musicians are experts in giving accurate, dynamic and deeply musical performances while staying in time and in tune. This skill set will not only make your song sound great but will save you studio time as well.
If your hope is to create a version/demo of your song that you can pitch to a certain genre or genres in the music industry, bringing in the session musicians who are familiar with that genre can make all the difference. It’s one thing to write a song and know that it should fit in the contemporary country genre and another thing entirely to bring in the guitarist who also just played on the latest Kenny Chesney album. A session musician’s familiarity with a certain genre will color their playing and help your song sound and feel like it’s supposed to.
Never underestimate the value of showing respect for a player’s ability and experience. I’ve been a part of too many sessions where the client essentially handcuffs the session musicians into playing only a very specific thing. While the musicians are certainly willing and able to do this, I can tell that some of their enthusiasm is dampened in the process. On the other hand, when musicians are told to do the thing that they do best and given a chance to express themselves, my experience is that they’ll work twice as hard to give the client a great – and inspired – performance.
The reason I included the words “try it their way first” in the title is because I’m absolutely not suggesting you blindly accept anything and everything the studio musicians play. While I’ve observed that nine times out of ten, the musicians will nail the take if left to their own devices, I’ve also noticed that they are more than happy to refine their approach and take suggestions from the client as well. I understand it can be intimidating for some songwriters to make suggestions to the session musicians but you should know that studio musicians are genuinely interested in making sure that their clients are happy. Satisfied customers are a primary source of recommendations and more studio work and all session musicians are aware of it.
I’ve been working with world-class session musicians for over twenty years and it’s still a thrill for me to watch and listen to them do their thing. Not only can they bring songs to life with their performances but they’re almost without exception a genuine pleasure to work with. This goes hand in hand with one of my favorite expressions which is “the best ones have nothing to prove.” The next time you find yourself working with professional studio musicians, take a deep breath, let go and let them try it their way first. I think you’ll be thrilled with the results.