How To Prepare For Your Next Gig As A Session Guitarist

Session playing is a great way to broaden your horizons as a guitarist, whether it's in the studio or onstage.

You can earn money, gain experience, add projects to your resume, and challenge your ability to adapt to different musical situations.

These benefits are tempered by the reality of having to practice and prepare for the next session, and busy people (like me), don't always have a lot of time to spend in intensive practice.

So what's one to do? How do you ensure that you don't come across as an amateur in a situation where you're trying to impress the people who hired you?

Here are several tips on how to prepare for your next gig as a session guitarist.

Work Out The Minimum Viable Parts

Oftentimes, it's better to have the "meat and potatoes" version of a song worked out than to try to figure out every intricate nuance, lick and embellishment in a song. Moreover, this should be the starting point for every song you learn.

Odds are you will have both original and cover gigs, but we'll say, for example, that one of the songs you're going to play is "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins (a song I've performed before).

Well, the riffs are way more intricate than they sound, there are several overdubs, and the timing for each riff and lick can be tricky if you aren't terribly familiar with the structure of the song. In a situation like that, you're going to be better off keeping things simple (particularly if you need to learn a couple dozen songs in a short period of time).

Learning the construction of the song is usually the hardest part. Sure, there is a certain "intuitive" element to playing with a band, and an experienced guitarist will instinctively know when to play a solo, switch to the chorus riff, or hammer home a finishing shot. But, initially, I would encourage you to spend more time on the song structure than on the exact riffs you need to play in each part.

Sometimes the minimum viable parts (MVP) are more than enough to pull off the gig - which might mean playing a lot of power chords - but you should always gauge expectations before you show up to the venue without having worked on that epic solo your band leader thought you had worked on.

Listen To The Songs - A LOT

Your intuition can be developed. The key thing is to listen to the songs you're going to be playing over and over again.

It might seem like playing along with your guitar is a more valuable exercise, and that's something you also need to be doing, but while you're driving around in your car or making dinner, you should constantly be listening to the songs so that your subconscious begins to absorb them. Having done this, you should be able to follow along with the song without much trouble.

But this approach requires that you trust your instincts. Think too much about what you're playing, and you might lose your place altogether. Let your fingers do the work, and you'll find that you're playing the right parts at the right time without even thinking.

Remember what I said earlier about learning the structure of a song? This is easily one of the best ways to do this. If you want to take it a step further, get out a notebook and write down the structure of the song in a way that you understand. The kinetic act of writing things down can really help with memory and the learning process.

For More Advanced Gigs, Learn To Sight Read Or Memorize Your Parts Completely

It's safe to say that there are slightly different expectations for a live gig than for a studio gig, though you can usually get a pretty good sense of how prepared you need to be by meeting with the band members or the leader and observing their attitude.

For sessions where you need to be note-perfect, you'll likely either need to be able to read sheet music and charts, or show up to the studio having memorized the parts you're going to be laying down.

Given the option, I would opt for the latter, as sight reading isn't one of my strongest suits. In fact, for the most part, sight reading is a bit of a commodity in the guitarist market.

But sometimes, when you show up to the studio, the producer drops a piece of paper in front of you an expects you to know what to do. In a situation like that, you're pretty much screwed if you can't figure out what to play - fast!

Bottom line - more opportunities can open up to you if you're able to read (or if you can somehow fake it), so if you see yourself building a long-term career, you'll definitely want to learn how to read.

Learn How To Apply What You Learn

A lot of what you learn on the guitar is movable and transferable.

Unfortunately, many guitarists fail to apply what they learn and don't know how to take a new chord, arpeggio or lick they learn into different musical situations. They just learn the part, and never actually assimilate it.

If you're serious about session playing, this is something you're going to want to get better at. Always look at how a smaller piece fits into the bigger picture.

A pentatonic lick, for instance, can easily be moved to different keys just by shifting position. This is a rather simplistic example, but the extra time it takes to think about how you can apply a technique to different musical situations is totally worth the effort, and will fast-track your progress as a session player.

Lesson Summary

I haven't said a whole lot about how much you need to practice. This largely depends on the individual, how comfortable they are with the music, and how much session playing experience they have.

I suggest setting aside a healthy amount of time for focused practice (with an emphasis on the word "focused"), but keep in mind that, depending on the gig, you may not have a lot of time to whip yourself into shape.

To summarize the points covered here:

  • Start with the minimum viable parts. Sometimes this is all you will need to pull of the gig satisfactorily. You should never show up to a gig underprepared, but there's also something to be said for over-preparing, especially if the gig is two days away and you were asked to fill in at the last minute.
  • Listen to the songs and chart out song structures. This will help you to absorb the songs quickly. Don't rely on a chart someone else has created - write out your own. This will help you to learn faster.
  • Learn to sight read or memorize your parts. This is all the more applicable with studio sessions. The further you intend to take your session playing career, the better you should be at reading and memorizing.
  • Learn to apply what you learn. It sounds very meta. The idea here is to take anything, like a lick or a chord, and be able to use it in another key or musical situation.

Hailing from Camrose, Alberta, Canada, David Andrew Wiebe is a multi-talented guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter.

One of his primary projects at this moment is The Music Entrepreneur web site, which features blog posts, podcast episodes, eBooks, audio courses, and other resources.

David Andrew Wiebe