What is a Session Musician?

wiseGEEK Writer

People who want to play music a lot, but don’t aspire to fame and fortune might consider the role of being a session musician or a studio musician. These terms are slightly different. The former refers to an on-call musician who performs live or records in studio with a variety of musical groups in many different musical settings. The latter is also on call but might be under the employ of a specific studio and used with artists contracting with that studio who need an extra musician for either recording or performances.

A session musician performs live in studio.
A session musician performs live in studio.

The studio or session musician has to be an extremely gifted musical performer. He or she typically hasn’t practiced the music in advance, so one of the gifts required is sight-reading ability. Another skill that is highly useful is adaptability. It’s quite possible for a session musician to be performing with a country band as a percussionist one day, and then recording a timpani part with a symphony the next. Some musicians specialize in one genre, but many are skilled at several, giving them far more opportunities to work.

Apart from requiring musical skill on one or more instruments, the session musician also needs diplomacy. Recording and performing artists don’t have time for the ego trips that have famously accompanied some better-known musical stars. Instead, the session musician is best appreciated by playing skillfully and getting along with others. There’s significant need to abandon ego at the door and only contribute something extra to a performance as requested by the performers. This can vary a little bit, especially in jazz groups, where a certain amount of improvisation might be expected.

On occasion, a session musician is not a single individual but might be a group of people. There are both instrumental and vocal groups that play with artists or record with them. In addition to working as fill-in, these groups might play independently.

Getting started as a session musician usually means taking talent and making it into acumen. The next part can be a little harder; in small communities, people may approach other bands with a tape and offer their services if an additional musician is ever needed for recording and performance.

When people want to tackle larger, music-oriented communities, they’ll usually need an agent. This means recording a professional tape, possibly performing live for an agent, and hoping that someone offers representation. Before this happens, it’s a good idea to get known for filling in, being professional and have excellent performance skills. Sometimes people find session work before finding an agent in this manner, but when they have recorded or performed enough, agents may begin to offer their services.

Discussion Comments


Some of these session musicians clock in and out like they were working in a factory or office. I think it would a great job if I could just learn more styles of drumming.


When I lived in Nashville, I had a neighbor who was a session musician, mostly for young country artists the studios were grooming. He told me he never knew what the producers would want him to play until he got to the recording studio. Someone would simply say "country blues shuffle in A" and the band would just start going. They all knew what was required to lay down a basic track in that style. Later on, my neighbor would go back and add a guitar solo during the breaks. He rarely even met the vocalists, since they would be called in later to sing over the track.


Sometimes session musicians like the Funk Brothers of Motown and the Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles eventually become famous in their own way. Some of their members, such as Glen Campbell of the Wrecking Crew, decide to pursue their own professional careers as soloists. Others, like James Jamerson of the Funk Brothers, are considered to be the best instrumentalists ever recorded.

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