Let’s look at how to become a session musician.
I’ve been a session musician for many, many years, thanks to my facility on the guitar.
Opportunities have been many and varied, and I’ve enjoyed being a part of a variety of projects.
While what follows might not be a comprehensive guide, I think you’ll find more than a few gems. 😉
Let’s book some sessions!
Tip #1 – Commit to Your Instrument(s)
Personally, I’m known as a versatile guitarist, great backing vocalist, solid bassist, and beginner drummer and keyboardist. I do quite a bit of programming/beat making too.
No one has ever called upon me to play drums or keyboards on their projects, though, which is probably in everyone’s best interest.
Almost invariably, I’m called upon to play guitar and sing backups, but I do get the occasional requests for bass too.
The key thing to understand here is the more skills you gain, the more opportunities there will be waiting for you as a session musician.The more skills you gain, the more opportunities there will be waiting for you as a session musician. Click To Tweet
If you’re serious about becoming a session musician, then I would say the baseline requirement is learning to play your instrument incredibly well and being able to sing backups competently.
That alone can be a major project (trust me – I used to practice guitar for three hours per day, and I repeatedly wanted to bang my head against the wall while working on my voice). But it’s worth it!
Here are some other things you can do to elevate your perceived value as a session player:
- Learn other instruments
- Learn to sight-read (not a skill many guitarists or bassists have)
- Figure out your gear and tone(s)
- Be prepared to make arrangement suggestions (but only if the band leader/producer asks and is open)
- Develop your improvisational skills (you never know when you might be called upon to solo or even come up with something on the spot in live situations!)
In my experience, learning the notes is just the beginning. Learning to put the right feel into them is the next step many musicians struggle with.
If you’re looking to develop your inner skills, then there’s a great community called Musical U, which we highly recommend.
They’ve got great training programs and facilitate discussions with developing musicians just like you.
You can click on the banner to learn more:
Tip #2 – Make a Great Impression & Follow Through
I’ve attended enough open mics to know there’s a lot of politicking that can go on among musicians.
Here’s the thing. All things being equal, you’re going to get more calls if you’re a good hang, make a good impression, and follow through on your commitments.
If you’re serious about building your career as a session musician, there’s no room for tardiness, flakiness, showing up unprepared, or otherwise. You’ve got to be a consummate professional.There’s no room for tardiness, flakiness, showing up unprepared, or otherwise. You’ve got to be a consummate professional. Click To Tweet
Many opportunities begin with a chance to jam with another musician. It might be an informal or casual invitation, but if you don’t take it seriously, you could end up leaving money on the table.
This doesn’t mean every opportunity will be a good fit. But if you’re not easy to get along with, then you’re probably not going to get many calls to begin with.
Also, you should be proactive about making your own connections. I used to introduce myself to people that piqued my interest at open mics and workshops. Many times, I ended up vibing with these people and got invited to play on their project, had them on my podcast, and even ended up forming long-term friendships.
There’s so much that could be said about this topic, because it’s an important one, but here’s a good summary:
- Always be a good hang
- Be easy to work with – don’t be a jerk
- Be punctual and show up on time
- Prepare and show up ready, with a good attitude
- Look for opportunities to add value
- Proactively build your own network
Tip #3 – Create a Presence & a Brand
Early on, I didn’t have anyone knocking down my door looking to work with me.
I had developed my skills as a guitarist relatively quickly, so I was good at what I did, but no one knew who I was.
As I look back, virtually all opportunities came through networking, whether it was the barista at a coffeehouse (turned out to be a great singer), jammers at an open mic, contacts in my extended network, or otherwise.
In time, though, I created a bit of a name for myself through my blog, guest posts, podcast, videos, books, interviews, and so on.
Basically, I created enough momentum in my session playing to where I barely had to book my own gigs anymore. If someone wanted to work with David Andrew Wiebe, they knew where to find me.
Building your portfolio and catalog of testimonials can certainly help. But more than that, seek to build a local and online brand and presence with utility.
As you can imagine, guitarists are a dime a dozen (or a dime a hundred). So, finding work as a guitarist can be an uphill battle.
I found a lot of traction in my city by playing lead guitar for various singer-songwriters, and even got invited to play in their bands as result.
There’s something to be said for finding your niche. And my niche ended up being playing lead guitar for singer-songwriters (though I did play in bands too).
Off the top of my head, I’ve worked with at a dozen or more singer-songwriters (and even ended up on a live DVD).
Where you fit in as a session player isn’t always where you want to fit in, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t where the opportunity is!
Here’s a quick summary:
- Building connections is the best way to grow your session playing career early on
- Build your portfolio and catalog of testimonials
- Create a presence online and off
- Embrace your niche once you find it (it might not be what you first thought it would be!)
Tip #4 – Go the Extra Mile
Your profit per gig can quickly jump from the typical $50 to $150 range to the $400 to $800 range if you’re just willing to go the extra mile.
This might mean attending extra rehearsals, preparing Spotify playlists for pre-show and intermission music, traveling 10 hours out of town to play at a remote venue, and so on.
Trust me when I say many artists aren’t willing to do any of those things, which is why they’ll probably stay at the same earning level for a long time to come if not indefinitely.
If you can’t raise your perceived value as a session musician (and trust me, it’s always about the perceived value), you can’t expect to command higher rates.If you can’t raise your perceived value as a session musician, you can't expect to command higher rates. Click To Tweet
It can also be helpful to think from the perspective of the band or project leader and anticipate their needs. What do they need done? How could you add value to them?
If you do this, you will certainly get the call back, and earn more as result.
Here’s the summary:
- Be willing to go the extra mile, even if you aren’t asked to
- Increase your perceived value
- Look for ways to add value to your band or project leader
More Tips on How to Become a Session Musician
So, becoming a session musician is all about:
- Learning to playing your instrument(s) well
- Networking and building connections
- Building your personal brand
- Going the extra mile
- Having the right structures in place to make sure you do what you need to do when you need to do it
Would you agree?
Then there’s no doubt in my mind you’ll enjoy my latest book, The Music Entrepreneur Code, which will help you see the exact steps you need to take to ensure you get more gigs:
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How to Become a Session Musician, Final Thoughts
In my experience, the longest and most difficult part to becoming a session musician was learning my instruments.
I loved playing the guitar, so it didn’t take me too long to figure out what I was doing on the instrument.
Singing, on the other hand, was like banging my head against the wall. I’m glad I stuck with the process, though!
Once you’re good on your instrument, it’s mostly a matter of building connections. This is something you can absolutely do yourself, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re shy or nervous. Get in the habit of saying “hi”, smiling, and shaking people’s hands.
Is there something else we should have covered here?
Let us know in the comments below!