3 things every session musician needs to know

There are many things that make a great session musician: a great attitude, quality gear, great tone, musicality, creative ideas and being reliable and early to sessions. For this post, however, I want to focus on three really important concepts related to music theory and composition. A deep understanding and appreciation of these concepts can make a huge difference when you are creating parts for a producer in a session.


Every great song has a great groove, no matter the style. Groove is a difficult concept to explore sometimes but it is a result of a few really important elements. I have already focused on the first element (subdivision) in previous posts (read them here and here), so I would like to address two others: space and rhythmic motifs.

One of the biggest reasons any groove really hits you is the amount of space created by the parts. This can be a really hard thing to learn at first because when we first start building our technique on whatever instrument we play, it can be very exciting to play faster and with greater intensity. But often, it is the musicians who know how to play the fewest notes really well that create the most exciting parts. Take songs like “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. The drum part is simple, the bassline is very open and has lots of space, and the hook played by the horns has two and a half beats of silence every two bars. All of this space in the parts makes them feel much stronger.

The second reason a groove often hits you is that it is built out of simple motifs (musical ideas or phrases) that repeat. Looking at “Sledgehammer” again, the vast majority of the drum part is built out of two simple beats, the bass line for each section is made out of two bar phrases that repeat over and over with only subtle changes, the guitar parts for each section are made up of only two to three notes, and the melody is made up of short phrases with lots of silence in between.

If you want your parts to groove in a session, space and strong motifs are king.

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Reading Changes

This is a big deal for all session musicians. In almost every professional session, there will be a chart with chord changes (or Nashville numbers in many country sessions) and sometimes standard notation. If you can’t read, it will be really difficult to get (or keep) any session gigs.

Once the chart or notation is in front of you, you will often need to come up with additional parts that complement whatever is written. The producer may ask you to play in a particular style, create a part in a certain register, imitate a famous player, or any number of other requests. One of the most helpful skills to develop is your understanding of the theory behind the chords in the chart and how various players use that theory. Chords or “changes” really are just a way to give the harmonic context that is supposed to happen at any particular part of a song. There are many ways that the harmony can be expressed: a riff built out of the notes in the chord, various voicings, arpeggios, playing the chord in different inversions, registers, and much more. The first step to creating parts that use these concepts is knowing the theory behind what makes chords and how to approach creating parts that use them.

Creating the Right Part

Once you are clear on the theory and can play notes that fit with the right chords, there is still a lot more to creating the right part. Starting with the points I mentioned on groove is really important, but there are a couple other things to keep in mind too.

First, remember that melody always comes first. If your part gets in the way of the melody, it’s almost never worth using. Make sure that it is not in the same register (how high or low the pitches you are using are) and leaves the right amount of space around the melody. If you find your ear gravitating to a part you create before the melody, you should almost always rewrite the part.

Second, always be aware of how busy the arrangement is becoming. The tendency for all musicians when they start becoming technically proficient on their instrument is always to come up with lots of parts and start adding them to the arrangement – especially if you are looking for a big, powerful sound. However, the more parts you add, and the more complex and busy you make them, the harder it will be for any one part to stand out and have its own space in the mix. Pretty soon, you will find yourself with a muddy mess of an arrangement and mix with no power. So be aware of how busy the arrangement is and create your parts with that in mind. Simpler is almost always better.

Final Thoughts

A strong foundation in theory is enormously important for becoming a session musician who can deliver in the studio. If you are looking for a good place to start, consider checking out the course I made with Dave Kusek called HIT Music Theory at www.hitmusictheory.com. In it, I go into much greater detail about theory and how it is applied in major hit songs from a wide variety of genres that today’s musician can use.

By Daniel Roberts