In a previous post Session work: what is required? I mentioned that the secret to being a good session player (in fact, any kind of player!) is to play the song, not your instrument. A few people have asked for clarification, so as it’s Christmas (well, nearly…) here it is.

Next time you are asked to play on a song, ask for a lyric sheet and put your instrument down. Listen to the song and read the lyrics. This will have two major benefits.

First, you are now the artist’s best friend. No artist I’ve ever worked with will ask the band to “go from the Bbm in bar 5 of the second verse” (for example:) they’ll ask the band to “go from the line about the tree…” You will be the only one in the band who will be able to say to the other musicians “that’s the Bbm in bar 5 of the second verse.” Prepare to become that artist’s right-hand person:-)

Second, you will play the song much better now that you understand what it’s about. If the lyric is a tender, nostalgic love song, are your power chords and 32nd-note sweep-picking arpeggios appropriate? Probably not. What would be more suited to the lyric, then? Some long swelled-in notes high up the fretboard to express the artist’s yearning through the gift of the guitar? Probably more so.

More Top Tips for Sessionistas:

Sing the song to yourself while you’re playing it. This will help you understand what the singer is experiencing and you’ll soon realise what fits with the vocal and what clashes with it.

In the words of the mighty Chuck Sabo, “Don’t play over the melody, and don’t talk over the producer.”

Don’t be afraid of the white space. Every musical event is defined partly by the silences either side of it. You’ll soon gain a reputation as a tasteful player if you don’t play on every beat of every bar. I discovered this by accident in my early career when I used to do a lot of gigs with singers I’d never met before. They would call a song, start playing it, and I would lay out for the first verse and chorus while I listened to the chords. The first thing they’d hear from me would be in verse 2, and they appreciated it a lot:-)

Don’t react defensively if you are asked to change what you are playing.

Remember: the work is more important than the people doing it.

Happy sessioning!