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Session musicians, also called studio musicians, are musicians hired to perform in recording sessions as well as live performances. Session musicians are usually not permanent members of a musical ensemble or band. They may accompany many singers and soloists. They work behind the scenes and rarely achieve individual fame in their own right as soloists or bandleaders. However, top session musicians are well-known within the music industry. Some session musicians form rhythm sections who make recordings together. Some of these have become well-known generally, such as The Wrecking Crew and Motown's The Funk Brothers.
Many session musicians specialize in playing common instruments such as guitar, piano, bass, or drums. Others are specialists, and play brass, woodwinds, and strings. Many session musicians play multiple instruments, which lets them play in a wider range of musical situations, genres and styles. Examples of "doubling" include double bass and electric bass; acoustic guitar and mandolin; piano and accordion; and saxophone and other woodwind instruments.
Session musicians are used when musical skills are needed on a short-term basis. Typically session musicians are used by recording studios to provide backing tracks for other musicians for recording sessions and live performances; recording music for advertising, film, television, and theatre. In the 2000s, the terms "session musician" and "studio musician" are synonymous, though in past decades, "studio musician" meant a musician associated with a single record company, recording studio or entertainment agency.
While band musicians obtain steady employment playing the same or similar music with their bands, the session musician needs skills to land short-term employment in many situations. Even if permanently employed by a studio, the session musician encounters more variety than a typical band musician. As well as musical skill, this type of career requires versatility, adaptability, and the ability to learn quickly. In a band, a musician can be deficient in certain areas and other band members can compensate until the musician learns or overcomes the deficiency, but a session musician must not introduce deficiencies into a session.
A session musician maximizes employability by being able to perform in many different styles and musical settings. A musical band may play music in a single genre, such as heavy metal music or jazz, but a session musician should be flexible and versatile. For example, a rhythm guitar player should know unusual chords like ninth chords, 13th chords, and altered dominant chords; and also know the nuances of guitar work in blues rock, folk rock, and country music.
Band musicians are able to rehearse, but the session musician sometimes gets little or no rehearsal. Any read-through of a song before the recording is done to let the record producer and bandleader spot and correct any errors in the arranger's parts.
Session musicians must learn parts rapidly. This may involve any of the following:
In some session work, a player may need to both read and improvise, such as with a big band recording that includes fully written-out lines composed by the arranger and chord charts where the player improvises comping and/or solos.
The work of a session musician often is not integrated with that of other musicians until after the performance, being dubbed into other tracks to make a complete recording. The session musician may wear headphones while performing to hear a backing track or a click track with the desired playing tempo.
There may be soundproofing barriers between the session musician and other musicians and the producer and engineer. This means that the visual cues that musicians use in live performances, such as head nods and hand signals, might not be feasible in the studio.
Session players need endurance, both psychological focus and physical, to keep playing solidly in time and in tune for lengthy recording sessions. Both individual songs and the entire recording session may be longer in duration than band musicians face.
There is no time for a session musician to learn the personalities of his team, as band members can adapt to one another. Session players need to be flexible, adapt to the requests made by the producer and engineer, and be calm enough to accept correction without introducing discord. Hal Blaine, who as a session contractor was responsible for hiring session musicians, once famously said, "If you pout -- you out!"
Session musicians usually own a wide variety of fine instruments, and associated gear such as amplifiers and pedals, to produce the best sound for a particular recording. A studio may provide large instruments like a grand piano (or Hammond organ and Leslie speaker), but a keyboardist may bring specific electronic keyboards or synth modules. A session guitarist may bring several appropriate guitars. For instance, recording backing tracks for a country album may call for a Fender Stratocaster and a Fender Telecaster. Guitarists may bring a guitar pedalboard with many effects units, to produce tones and effects to suit different styles and songs. Saxophone players are usually expected to also play various flutes, clarinets and other woodwinds, as well as all the members of the saxophone family.
A session musician's gear must be of high quality. Lower-quality gear, even cables and pedals, may produce artifacts such as switching noise, buzz, hum, and distortion. These might not be a problem playing in a nightclub, but would become evident given the sensitive recording equipment in the studio. Recording time at the studio is expensive and the producer expects not to have to spend time to trace the source of sudden new audio artifacts and then correct them.
Guitar amplifiers may have ground lift switches, which can be toggled to remove ground loop hum. Any pedals should have heavy-gauge metal chassis, to keep nearby magnetic fields from affecting the sound. True bypass switching and opto-couplers ensure noiseless switching. Studio-grade preamps, discrete Class-A signal paths, and isolated transformers prevent buzz and hum.
Amplifiers for the studio can be smaller than for a large-venue concert. For example, a player of the electric bass may bring an amp head in the 1,000-plus watt range to a live show at an arena, but only needs a bass amplifier in the 100-watt range for the studio.
During the 1920s and 1930s most record companies had their own prolific "studio bands" turning out records of the latest pop hits. These were often made up by jazz and dance band musicians who were at the same time members of regular working bands and who divided their time between studio work (recordings as well as broadcasting) during the day and live performances in the evenings. Notable such "studio musicians" include Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Andy Sannella, and Mike Mosiello.
Although some session musicians become famous within the music industry, few achieve fame outside it. Notable exceptions include the members of the band Toto, who met in various recording sessions; John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, who were well-known as session musicians and arrangers before their later success with Led Zeppelin; keyboardist Rick Wakeman; and renowned vocalists Valerie Simpson, Lisa Fischer, and Luther Vandross. The song "A Little Green Rosetta" from the Frank Zappa album Joe's Garage lampoons Steve Gadd's status as one of the highest-paid session drummers in popular music.
Booker T & The MGs were the house band at Stax records in Memphis during the 1960s and 1970s, playing behind Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, and others. MGs guitarist Steve Cropper co-wrote many of Redding's hits and the MGs produced albums and hit singles such as "Green Onions" in their own right while being the house band at Stax.
The Wrecking Crew comprises prolific, established studio musicians based in Los Angeles. They have recorded many songs and albums since the 1960s. The Funk Brothers were session musicians who backed many Motown Records recordings from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, as well as a few non-Motown recordings, notably on Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." Billy Preston was a session musician who played with Mahalia Jackson and was known as the 'fifth' Beatle for his work with the Beatles.
The Los Angeles singer/songwriter scene associated with the Troubadour nightclub and Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s to mid-1970s was supported by musicians Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar and Craig Doerge. This session combo, nicknamed The Section or The Mafia, backed many musicians, among others: Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Kris Kristofferson and David Crosby.
The Nashville A-Team were A-list studio musicians who recorded during the Nashville sound era. Their contributions began in the 1950s with artists such as Elvis Presley. The original A-Team includes bassist Bob Moore; guitarists Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Ray Edenton, and Harold Bradley; drummer Buddy Harman; pianists Floyd Cramer and Hargus "Pig" Robbins; fiddler Tommy Jackson; steel guitarist Pete Drake; harmonicist Charlie McCoy; saxophonist Boots Randolph; and vocal groups The Jordanaires and The Anita Kerr Singers.
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section comprising Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson, also known as the Swampers, became known for the "Muscle Shoals Sound." Many of the recordings done in the Memphis area, which included Muscle Shoals, Alabama, used The Memphis Horns in their arrangements. MFSB was a group of soul music studio musicians based in Philadelphia at the Sigma Sound Studios; they later went on to become a name-brand instrumental group, and their best known hit was "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," better known as the theme from Soul Train.
A few session musicians have become notorious. English session singer Tony Burrows fronted various one-hit wonder studio groups (such as Edison Lighthouse, The Flower Pot Men, The Pipkins, The Brotherhood of Man, White Plains, and The First Class) in a short period of time during the early 1970s. American singer Lynn Davis has written songs and contributed background vocals for over 100 different singers and musical groups including Patrice Rushen, Anita Baker, George Duke, and Toshinobu Kubota. She is also recognized as one of the most successful and musically recorded session vocalists of the era.
In reverse, John Wesley Ryles was a headline artist in country music from his debut at age 17 in 1968 through the 1980s, but has since become a prolific session singer. Dennis Locorriere, the lead singer of the band Dr. Hook, went on to serve as a backing vocalist throughout the 1980s and 1990s.