What exactly is a “Session Musician?” Often we hear this term, and it makes us think of the recording studio. However, the truth is that the studio is just a small sliver of what a session musician encompasses. There was a time long ago when groups of studio players could earn a great living just working in the studio. From the 1920s until the 1980s, if you heard something on a record, it was played by a human being. We still study this period of time and cherish the musicians responsible for sonically carving their names in history. But from the 1980s on, music became increasingly more electronic and automated, which has dramatically changed the landscape for musicians. The legacy of those who played on records in the past continues as each song they played is heard and as each modern musician feels inspired to follow in their footsteps. In this article, I will highlight some of the most inspiring session musicians of all time.
Many of us have heard of the “The Wrecking Crew,” a massive community of musicians that ruled the Los Angeles studio scene throughout the 60s. These are the musicians responsible for countless recordings from artists like Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and so many others. Musicians such as Barney Kessel, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, Joe Porcaro, Hal Blaine, and as many as 100 more were considered members of this prestigious group. It is estimated that Carol Kaye’s bass playing has been heard on more than 10,000 recordings. Hal Blaine recently passed away, and it rocked the music world. His influence is heard every single day the world spins. Although most casual listeners don't even know his name, they certainly hear his work everyday. I highly encourage everyone check out the Documentary The Wrecking Crew to learn more.
Then, of course, there is the infamous “Funk Brothers” of Detroit that played on every single Motown cut during the Detroit era of the label. Some of the most notable Funk Brothers are James Jamerson, Bob Babbit, and Joe Messina. But, much like the Wrecking Crew, there is a long list of Funk Brothers. These musicians played on more number one singles that Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined. Yes, I said that correctly: combined. To learn more about their story, check out the amazing documentary, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.
Down south there was "The Swampers" in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The Swampers were the house band for Rick Hall’s FAME Studios. Unlike the Funk Brothers and The Wrecking Crew, the Swampers had only four core members. They included Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), and Jimmy Johnson (guitar). Their name is actually referenced in the 1974 Lynyrd Skynyrd classic "Sweet Home Alabama". Listen closely, and you'll hear them get a shout out. This group of session musicians played on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket, Etta James, Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones, and even Bob Seger. To learn more about the Muscle Shoals scene, check out the Muscle Shoals documentary available everywhere!
We could never forget “Booker T & The MG’s”, the group of musicians responsible for everything that came out of Staxx Records in Memphis. This group of session musicians is my personal favorite. Their guitarist, Steve Cropper, is an encyclopedia of “parts playing." For any student that wants to learn rhythm guitar playing, he’s the guy. Have you ever stopped and listened to the guitar on “(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay”? Well, that’s him. This band can be heard on recordings by Bill Withers, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, Sam and Dave, and the great Otis Reading. They also became a very successful instrumental band with their hit “Green Onions”, which is often featured in movies, commercials, and television shows. To date, there has not been a documentary on their story. If someone wants to put up the money to get that started, SoundLife will happily contribute to the cause! These musicians need to be known and studied for generations to come.
All of the musicians in these groups are considered some of the top session musicians of all time. They are remembered for the records they played on, but don’t think for a second that all they did was sit around in a studio. Many of these musicians had solo careers, toured behind major artists, played wedding and corporate events, worked at local churches, played in hotel lobbies, etc. They did it all. Making a living as a musician means wearing many hats, and though some might fit better than others, a session musician's true job is to be ready for any and everything. This means that session musicians are more than studio players. They are craftsmen able to fit any situation and make everyone in the room believe that they belong. Sometimes these musicians are referred to as “hired guns,” but I never liked that term and will do as much as I can to replace it. A “session musician” has a deep respect for the tradition, the history, the artist, the situation, and the craft.
Many of SoundLife's instructors are working session musicians in today’s world. They do it all. Recently I launched the LA Session Group, which is a place for artists, managers, labels, and agencies to find the best session musicians in Los Angeles. If you follow the link, you will find many of our instructors along with over 60 other musicians that exemplify everything a session musician represents. We hope to introduce our students who seriously consider becoming professional musicians to this world when they are ready. I hope students will study the greats and get inspired. We’re writing our own story every day, and who knows the impact we can all have on the future of music!