As you can imagine, session musicians need to be able to play many styles of music and need to be proficient in all of them. But what does it take to be a session musician?
Session musicians must be solid players. Yes, crazy skilled technique is important but 99% of your jobs will require you to “hold it down”. There is nothing nicer for a band leader than to know the guy he just pulled in to play in his band won't let them down. If you want to be a session player, you must be the guy who other can depend on to not screw up … ever!
Know when (and when not) to charge
All talented and experienced musicians should be paid for their work. However, sometimes the odd free session can pay back ten fold. If, for example a busy music producer has just paid you for a recording session and asks you to lay a quick idea down as a favour, you might want to do that.
I remember asking a guitarist to do just that for me about five years ago and he openly agreed, no talk of publishing or lawyers getting involved, just two musicians “on a level”. I was grateful for his time and was able to provide him with about 60 paid record studio sessions over the next three years!
Of course, he was a great player, solid and easy to work with which made it easy for me to take him on as my main session player, but the fact that he was open to doing a free session went a long way.
I am not suggesting you work for free all the time, but if you are already at a session or nearby and it's not too much hassle, then be open to the idea. Amateur musicians work for free all the time, they have to, but experience musicians tend to close off completely which (sometimes) doesn't pay off.
Speak producer language
I was a session drummer for 10 years and it wasn't until the last 4 years that I really made an effort to learn to communicate with producers. Man, I wish I have learned this sooner because producers (like musical directors) have a lot of connections and can provide a lot of work. Producers will (naturally) prefer to work with session musicians that can quickly communicate ideas that make sense to them. Even very simple stuff like asking to overdub on a new channel or “drop in” will show the producer that you know your stuff.
Never, ever be late!
I don't need to say anything here. Just be on time all the time for every gig, recording or rehearsal.
Get familiar with the unfamiliar
As a session musician you will be asked to perform all over the place. During my career as a session drummer I played in prisons, church’s, Glastonbury and other huge festivals, clubs, pubs … you name it.
It is worth getting know how it feel and sounds playing in as many different venues. Can you handle the echo when playing in a big hall? What about when you can't hear the monitors on a big festival stage? If there is anyway available to you to experience these different scenarios then grab the opportunity because as a session musician you have to be solid no matter where you end up performing!
If you are recording or rehearsing a song it is well worth voicing those ideas. Putting good ideas forward is appreciated greatly by most band/project leaders. However, try and avoid a “debate” over musical issues. Even if you KNOW your ideas are better than the existing ideas, it's almostg always best to sit back a little and not get too worked up about them.
Too many times, session musicians come over as arrogant or aggressive when in fact they are simply more experienced and passionate. Remember, you are there to make the band leaders vision a reality and if you do that he will book you again and he'll gain trust in your ideas as time goes on.