How to get sessions, or at least lie awake at night worrying about them.
QUITE A FEW of you have asked how you can become session musicians. Drummers often ask me that, and I usually answer, "I wish I knew." Still, from my experience and the greater experience of others the following remarks may help.
First, the obvious: you need reliable transport and good sounding gear in perfect working order. You must turn up early with a positive and helpful attitude. And you must come up with what's required and play it immaculately. If you read music it increases your range of work, but reading is rarely necessary for rock sessions.
Session musicians seem to me to fall into one of two categories. First, those who are such good players that they attract attention and gradually get better and better work. Second, those who as members of successful groups are invited to do outside sessions. These latter are usually excellent players too.
The point is that someone in a successful group will have proved (s)he can perform on a successful recording and will also have impressed a top producer. Producers are responsible for making records — a very expensive process — and will only risk using musicians they are confident will play something appropriate, accurate and, preferably, in a short space of time and with maximum good vibes!
Tony Beard is one of London's busiest session drummers. I asked him how he got there. First of all he volunteered that even as a good player you need a bit of luck. But meantime you need great perseverance and must be prepared to put yourself out a lot. Have a go at anything and everything and make the most of it. You may have to do every bum gig imaginable and every cheap or free session you can get in order to gain studio experience. You never know who you might meet or who might be watching you. And as in every walk of life it's meeting the right people and convincing them that counts.
I've noticed also that any skilful players gravitate towards the jazz/rock/fusion circuit around London where the more technical players communicate and have a chance to practice their fancier licks. This way a reputation among musicians is made — and sometimes leads to useful contacts.
Whilst doing all this, Tony Beard had a few lucky breaks and some lean periods, but with persistence the hard work has gradually paid off. Nowadays Tony's "cheerful cockney charm" (I think that's the phrase) is obviously an asset on sessions. And he recommends you take trouble with your appearance and dress too; it's all part of creating a together impression.
So, a brutal summing up so far. You either make it in a group, or you come down to London, practice like hell, play everywhere, until by force of your excellence and general grooviness, you're in! No-one said it was easy to reach the top.
And yet the term 'session musician' often carries a hint of derogation. I often sense in the drummer asking about sessions the innuendo: "I can't make it in a group, so I'll settle for sessions." Session players are depicted as 'musos' with little imagination, just doing a job.
This is naive.
Session musicians usually have great skill, and their creativity is tested every day. Even accepting ability, their typical British [Public's] bloody-mindedness often brands them as lacking in 'soul' or 'feel'. This in turn infers that struggling to master your instrument is synonymous with losing your creativity — an infantile and spiteful view.
We've all witnessed musicians with loads of technique who don't know what to do with it musically; instead they spray it all over you like a cold shower. But there are a hell of a lot more with little technique who also don't know what to do with it. If session players have no feel, how come a large part of the Top 40 is performed, indeed created, by sessioneers? What's that? You don't like the Top 40? All right, how about the Stax or Motown classics, churned out by a handful of session musicians. You like those, don't you?
The almost opposite cause of bewilderment is the fact that although you may accept sessioneers as skilful, they often don't seem to play much. "That's nothing, I could do that," you think. You might be right, but bear in mind that playing sparingly isn't necessarily easy. Otherwise we'd all be Status Quo and millionaires!
Much of pop recording requires extreme accuracy and consistency of playing under pressure, rather than ego-tripping flash. The irony is that you have to develop your technique to cope with anything, but you're most often called upon to play with care and subtlety. Richard Bailey told me that after the Jeff Beck sessions on which he wowed everybody he got loads of calls. But on most of these he was required to play very simple parts. As a young musician it took him several years to come to terms with this. Steve Gadd says he often approaches a song by first playing the simplest part that works. This way if the producer/artist wants more he can add to it. This is not being lazy — the man's no slouch — but plain good sense. It helps the song/session to progress smoothly by starting with a clear and uncluttered idea and building on it.
I was pondering this subject of sessions as I watched Dave Mattacks play at the recent British Music Fair. It's always a treat to see Dave in action: he plays everything as if the red light were on. He has an economy of movement which is almost nonchalant; he means every beat and his time is impeccable. Yet you never know when he'll throw in a little surprise to make you smile. Not everyone's cup of tea, but if you want an insight into studio craft, check out DM whenever you get the chance.
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
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