How Do I Become a Studio Musician?

by Bobby Owsinski and Paul Ill on January 15, 2010 · 22 comments

in Business Forum,Fast Forward,Recording & Mastering

From The Studio Musician’s Handbook © 2009 by Bobby Owsinski and Paul Ill. Published by Hal Leonard Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

On the journey to becoming a successful studio musician, a lot of roads lead to the same place. But the way it usually works is that someone hears and likes your playing and either hires you or refers you as a result. Here are some of the many ways it could happen.

Five Ways to Become a Session Musician
1) Your band
2) By referral
3) By a contractor
4) By a recording
5) By association

Your Band
Your band is recording with a producer. The producer notices that you play really well and have a great feel, and he calls you to play on other records. Sometimes it might be the engineer on the session that remembers you (remember, many in-demand engineers become producers at some point). Either way, in the course of doing your own record, you show up on the radar of someone who can hire you later.

“If you’re in a band and working with a producer, really pay attention and work with him to help him make that record sound better. You’re more likely to be called for another project afterwards. He might have had so much fun working with you in your band that he’ll think of you for a solo artist he’s working with. That’s how I developed myself. I worked with Tim Palmer in London with my own band, and that’s how I got the job playing with Tears for Fears. So I’ve developed relationships with all the producers I’ve worked with over the years in my own band.” – Brian MacLeod

By Referral
If you have a friend who does a lot of session work who likes how you play, chances are that you’ll get a referral at some point. If a player can’t make a date or doesn’t get on with the client, a referral from someone established will get you in the door.

By a Contractor
A contractor is a person that hires musicians for a gig. Most times he or she is also a musician on the session, but that doesn’t always have to be. Many contractors hire musicians for a variety of gigs, not just for recording sessions. If you become a trusted insider for everyday live gigs, chances are that soon you’ll be hired on a studio date as well.

By a Recording
Many times an artist or a producer will hear you on a recording and want your style or sound. It’s more likely you’ll be called if the recording you played on was a hit, since everyone likes to use the same team or sound of something already successful. If that happens, be happy that you’ve been lucky twice.

By Association
The old adage “All boats rise and fall with the tide” is really true. If someone within your circle of players makes it “big,” they’ll most likely take you with them, at least on some level. Maybe you have something unique in your sound or your feel that your player friend will remember. Maybe he just wants to help you out because you’re such a cool person. Maybe it’s some payback for a good deed long in the past. Doesn’t matter as long as you’re remembered and get the call. Once you’re called for one session and do well, chances are you’ll be called for another as word gets
around and your résumé builds.

“I was playing on a little ‘jazzual’ [a jazz casual] with a piano player who was wired in to the TV show Knots Landing because he was the piano player for one of the main actors on the show, who was a singer. The piano player got us on a couple of episodes to be the backup band for the singer. The production people loved it, and that developed into the piano player being able to score a bunch of sessions. After that I met a few other guys and got called to play on their stuff , and finally, Jay [Chattaway] left New York and moved out here [Los Angeles]. I knew him on the East Coast, so when he started working, I started working.”– Gary Solt

”I kept going to these parties and bashes and kept going around saying hello to the same people over and over. It got to the point that when they saw me coming, I looked familiar to them and they’d think, ‘He’s always at these parties. He’s got to be in the music business.’ At some point months later I’d go, ‘Hey, you still at Sony?’ and they’d go ‘Yeah,’ and I’d pass him my card and he would pass me his and all of sudden I’m setting up meetings. That’s how I did it.” – Onree Gill

You’ve got your first session—but now how do you keep them coming? First of all, here are the traits that you find in all studio musicians.

Six Traits of a Studio Musician
1) Has great chops.
2) Has great gear.
3) Is easy to work with.
4) Has no ego.
5) Takes criticism well.
6) Has proper studio etiquette.

Let’s go over these one by one. A studio musician:

Has great chops
Studio musicians are expected to be creative, be extremely versatile, and have a formidable skill set. They are usually the best musicians in town in terms of plain physical dexterity, and are able to play numerous styles convincingly. Your ability to read music will determine the type of sessions you can play on. For record dates, it’s important to be able to read and transcribe lead sheets, and other types of sessions such as jingles and television and movie scores require exceptional sight-reading.

To illustrate the reading abilities of session players, here’s a story about the late Tommy Tedesco, one of the most recorded guitar players ever, and a charter member of the famed Los Angeles studio band The Wrecking Crew during the ’60s and ’70s. Tommy was playing on a Jan & Dean date when, as a joke, singer Jan Berry turned Tommy’s music upside down on the stand. The take started and Tommy proceeded to play the backwards score note for note. A frustrated Berry yanked the page off the stand and said, “You’re just showing off!”

Has great gear
Having a wide variety of gear in excellent working order is a must. Having only one sound makes for a boring recording, so the wider the variety of sounds you can get or the more you can double on other instruments, the more valuable you become.

“You’ve got to own the tools, or you can’t go build the house.” – Gary Solt

Is easy to work with
Your reputation among other musicians and those in our industry who make the recordings is what gets you hired and keeps you working. So if other session musicians, producers, and engineers like you as a person, like how you play, and like the feeling you bring to a session, then you’re more likely to get calls for work. If you were cooped up in a submarine for a while, you’d sure want to get along with the other people in there with you. Obviously studio conditions are different than that in most ways, but the fact that you are working very closely with other players, engineers, producers, artists, and label and agency people (and who knows who else) usually means that the easier you are to work with, the more likely you’ll get asked back.

Playing comes first, and it always will, but if you make the people who are paying your check uncomfortable in even the slightest way, it will come back to haunt you. Smiles and a pleasant, accommodating attitude, as well as superb personal hygiene and an appropriate sense of style go really far in the session business. There are a lot of great players out there, and unless you’re something unbelievably special, the people who pay the checks will always hire the easiest musicians to work with, all things being equal. No back talk, no sass, no snide remarks – nothing other than a wide smile and a “Tell me what you want” and “No Problem!” attitude.

Has no ego
Everyone has their own idea of how they should sound, how the song should be played, how others should be playing it, and a host of other musical items both large and small. That all goes out the window when you’re being hired to play on someone’s recording. Some won’t want your ideas at all, while others will listen with an open ear (yet reject every opinion). You’ve got to have a thick skin while recording, and realize that even if the artist-producer-songwriter listens to your idea, it might not carry much weight or be acted upon. If they listen to you and actually use one of your suggestions, consider it a good day.

“I would say an important thing for me is to serve the song at all times. Try to keep an open mind, and if someone has an idea in the room, then always let that idea be heard. If it involves you trying something different in the part that you’re playing, you can’t get defensive about it. You have to just let it happen, because that really goes a long way toward creating a good atmosphere in the room. When everybody drops their ego and just tries to serve the song, I find that the best idea will rise to the surface and everybody will recognize it. It’s human nature to want our ideas to be the best ones, but if you can be open to others’ suggestions, you can learn something and maybe do something that you wouldn’t have thought of doing.” – Peter Thorn

Takes criticism well
If you have a fragile ego, being a session musician is not for you. Except for the times when you’re playing a written part, you can bet that every take is going to be examined under a microscope and picked apart with a fine-tooth comb. As difficult as that might seem, you can’t take it personally, because the artist-producer-songwriter wants only what’s best for the song. You may play a part with a bitchin’ feel, but if the sound isn’t right and doesn’t mesh with the track, chances are you’ll do it again. Play the same track again with a better sound, and this time the part in the bridge might not be happening – so you’ll play it one more time. It’s possible you’ll keep playing it all day until the results meet the expectations of those in the control room that are in command (but if it takes you that long, you might not be asked to return). You can’t ever fall in love with what you just played, because eventually you’re going to get your heart broken.

Has proper studio etiquette
There’s a way to do things in the studio, and it differs from playing live. A studio musician’s protocol exists, and you’ll be expected to abide by it. Suffice it to say that if you like being the
center of attention, then studio work may not be for you.

“When the red light comes on, they’re all perfectionists. Everyone is there to play their part as perfectly as possible. When the red light is off, the personalities are as diverse as you would see anywhere, but when it’s time to make music, everyone’s focus is 100% locked on the music. That’s the one trait I see, always. Their focus is aligned specifically for what that moment demands.” – Gary Solt

This post was excerpted from The Studio Musician’s Handbook and reprinted with permission. Get 25% off and free shipping when you buy The Studio Musician’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski and Paul Ill at HalLeonardBooks.com. Just use the code DM9 when checking out!

Echoes readers get 25% off and free shipping for selected titles purchased at HalLeonardBooks.com. Click here to see a list of all eligible titles, and use code DM9 at check out.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

jPaul January 21, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Regarding the copyright for the article, How Do I Become a Studio Musician? by Disc Makers on January 15, 2010.

Do you need to request permission from the publisher to use their book language in your article? If so, I do not see where you have stated, “used by permission of the …”.

Please indicate how this process works.

Regards, jPaul

Reply

JJ Gross November 29, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Nice info & invaluable stuff. A couple other points I’d like to add having been on both sides of the studio (hiring & being hired):
1. Make sure your instruments are not only in tune, but can stay in tune no matter how much you beat them up. If your B strong on your favorite guitar slips flat regularly, get it setup so that doesn’t happen any more. If you’re out of tune the engineers aren’t going to blame your guitar, they’ll blame you & rightfully so. You brought it, it better work right.
2. No Noodling! You’re not paying the bills here & every second you spend screwing around because ‘this sounds so awesome’ is another nail in the coffin of your career. Warm up when you get there EARLY, not on the clock. Practice your own stuff & your favorite licks at home, not in the studio when you’re paid to play someone else’s music.

Just being known for these 2 things can put you miles ahead of the out of tune noodlers out there – and there are plenty. You’d think these 2 things wouldn’t need to be said out loud but … uhhhh … ;)

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Nanci Milam January 21, 2010 at 1:48 pm

A great article, especially when discussing in detail the six traits of a studio musician. At our studio, with lots of orchestra work, being a swift sight-reader is very important, but there are other studio gigs where sight reading isn’t that urgent; however, attitude, dependability and being on time are HUGE. It is taken for granted that you can play or sing, but it’s everything else you bring to the dance that will determine your success.

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Ron B. January 21, 2010 at 2:34 pm

This article is one to take very serious, if your goal is to be a recording studio, musician. To the point. Nobody wants to work with a know it all. Having the ability to let the music breath is also a key factor. One must remember it’s not about you in the studio. It’s about the music only and perferably, getting it right the first time around. One must remember if your in the studio the clock is ticking ($$$$). So to be able to nail that verse,chop,or hook. Will get you noticed quickly and nine times out of ten get you a call back for another session.

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Aaron Pratt January 21, 2010 at 3:04 pm

This article is excellent – I’ve worked with a lot of personalities in music and this hits the nail on the head. But the ideas here can be applied in a more general sense too – they hold true in virtually any working environment.

Reply

Steve Sensenig January 21, 2010 at 5:37 pm

I enjoyed this article, and it certainly matches all of my studio musician experience. However, I felt like the author just gave up on the last point. There is a studio musician’s etiquette? Then give us some examples. Spell it out. It feels like at that point, the author just decided he was tired of writing. The other points all were treated fairly well and gave good illustrations of their application. We got cheated on the last point!

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Don January 23, 2010 at 10:20 am

Very informative article. but I too felt that the last point should have been developed. is it too late for the author to do so?.

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Reg E. January 21, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Very,Very good info I`ve done some studio work and the lick or line may not be on it to you but if the producer says yes keep yo mouth shut and smile it will get you more work!!!!

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arlo January 21, 2010 at 9:24 pm

How do you become a studio musician ? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall
Practice .
If you have spent 10,000 hours in the past few years playing , that a start .
an after that , if you don’t play on stage or studio 50 times a year , you will be covered with rust

Being able to do something on the first try is great , like tying your shoe , you don’t even think about it
you don’t tie it exzactly the same each time , but close
how long have you been tying your shoes ?
Did you have your fingers around your guitar neck even 2 hours a day last week ?
And that is the same with every thing in life

I guess what im trying to say is tie your shoes in stage .

and I will try to get better at spelling

arlo

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Doug Deatherage January 22, 2010 at 10:49 pm

this article is very helpful.going into the studio with an open mind will get the creative juices going.

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Egbert O'Foo May 5, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Nice story about Tommy T. You should add the Vinnie Colaiuta legend, where he plays a page full of notes in a totally wacked-out time signature for Frank Zappa, and manages to pop a bite of sushi in during a page turn and push his glasses back up his nose in the same measure…. again, chops rule.

Reply

Andrewjustice1177 November 11, 2011 at 7:26 am

my name is andrew justice..im a musician thats stuck not knowing what to do!! im ready to sit down and record my demo..but i need some guidance..can anyone help me!!??

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JMCD November 29, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I can’t believe that this article missed the number one thing:  BE ON TIME!  Really. Know the call time and the time of the first downbeat. If you need more time than the others to set up and be ready for the downbeat, then get there that much earlier. I know players that can’t get there without being an hour late even if you lie to them about the session time. The don’t get the call.

Reply

Wferguson89 November 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm

AWSOME AND WISE ADVICE. Bill(drummer)—’FALLEN’

Reply

JJ Gross November 29, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Nice info & invaluable stuff. A couple other points I’d like to add
having been on both sides of the studio (hiring & being hired):
1.
Make sure your instruments are not only in tune, but can stay in tune
no matter how much you beat them up. If your B strong on your favorite
guitar slips flat regularly, get it setup so that doesn’t happen any
more. If you’re out of tune the engineers aren’t going to blame your
guitar, they’ll blame you & rightfully so. You brought it, it better
work right.
2. No Noodling! You’re not paying the bills here &
every second you spend screwing around because ‘this sounds so awesome’
is another nail in the coffin of your career. Warm up when you get there
EARLY, not on the clock. Practice your own stuff & your favorite
licks at home, not in the studio when you’re paid to play someone else’s
music.

Just being known for these 2 things can put you miles
ahead of the out of tune noodlers out there – and there are plenty.
You’d think these 2 things wouldn’t need to be said out loud but …
uhhhh … ;) Read more: How Do I Become a Studio Musician? | Echoes – Insight for Independent Artists http://blog.discmakers.com/2010/01/how-do-i-become-a-studio-musician/#ixzz1f9SbeGBP

Reply

Winston Gay November 30, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Excellent article! It all needs to be heard by all. Regarding studio ‘etiquette’, I believe that it is a universal term that can certainly be applied in all of life’s circumstances and situations. For the most part, the key idea is respect and consideration for your fellow man/woman. For example, if upon entering the session
you discover that they don’t allow: Smoking in the session room/eating or drinking of alchoholic beverages/ loud or lewd behavior/consumption of food/pets/children not performing on the session/ your personal cheering section/unessassary remarks /jesting/sleeping or lounging outside of the lounge area, or anything else that might disrupt the session. You would be expected to comply. This is part of etiquette in or out of a recording session. If you want to look futher, read my chapter on ‘microphone etiquette’ in my first book, ‘The Monster Musician’s Manual’ by Winston Gay on Amazon.com.

Winston Gay

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CharlesRayBatchelor December 1, 2011 at 9:15 am

Please say, “Thank You” from all us readers to  Bobby Owsinski and Paul Ill for sharing from their book to  help us who are learning.  Thank You.

Charles R. Batchelor
c/o A “Higher Call” To Artists

Reply

Art December 1, 2011 at 10:21 am

This is a good article and it’s clearly stating how to work as a successful studio musician.  Here’s the problem with the article.   But here I am, a very good musician, I’ve been playing for 30 years, can read, studied music theory, played in all types of bands.  I would like to become a studio musician.  WHAT ARE THE FIRST FEW STEPS?  Who do I call, who do I write, and what do I say when I do these things?  Can we please break it down to that level?  I want to know how to break into the business, I get how it works, but where do you really start as far as getting the first few gigs.  Does anyone know or is it just a gift from god or something.  To me, the hardest part is breaking into the industry, not what you do once you’re in,  Can someone please comment on that?   Thanks!  Art

Reply

Tim Smith December 14, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Great info for all musicians looking to make money as a session musician.  Our studio near Detroit is always on the lookout for talented players.  In fact we have a sign up form available on our website.  Unfortunately, not everybody has the chops to get on the list.  Horn players seem to the most difficult to track down for us.  Never the less, great article! 

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Dave. July 9, 2012 at 12:31 am

I’m 15 and started playing at 6. I practice at least 5 hours a day, and play at least 2 live shows a week. I’ve been told I’ve got chops by some good pros. But I don’t know anybody in the business so how do I get my shot?

Reply

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Robert Kittleberger November 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Solid write up. The wide variety of gear is a crucial point — I’d agree with the ego and criticism comments as well.

Reply

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