A session musician, studio musician, or backing musician is a musician hired to perform in recording sessions or live performances. The term sideman is also used in the case of live performances, such as accompanying a recording artist on a tour. Session musicians are usually not permanent or official members of a musical ensemble or band. 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, and some have become publicly recognized, such as the Wrecking Crew, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and the Motown Records backing band The Funk Brothers.
Session musicians are used when musical skills are needed on a short-term basis to bring a more soulful and/or energetic feel to a song. 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. Since the 2000s, the terms "session musician" and "studio musician" have become synonymous, though in past decades, "studio musician" meant a musician associated with a single record company, recording studio, or entertainment agency.
Session musicians can often enrich the sound of a song, such as in the case of the Let It Be album by the Beatles, on which the session musicians added an orchestral touch that the Beatles-only versions did not have. Session musicians are often underappreciated by the general public, dismissed as nothing more than side musicians, when in actuality, session musicians often have immense talent in their own right.
Session musicians may play in a wide range of genres or specialize in a specific genre (for example, country music or jazz). Some session musicians with a classical music background may focus on film score recordings or production music. Even within a specific genre specialization, there may be even more focused sub-specializations. For example, a sub-specialization within trumpet session players is "high note specialist."
The working schedule for session musicians often depends on the terms set out by musicians' unions or associations, as these organizations typically set out rules on performance schedules (regarding length of session, breaks, and so forth). The length of employment may be as short as a single day, in the case of a recording a brief demo song, or as long as several weeks, if an album or film score is being recorded.
The remuneration terms are often set by musicians' associations and unions. Some musicians may get the minimum scale rate set by the union. Heavily in-demand session musicians may earn much more. The union rates may vary based on whether it is a pop music recording versus a film/television recording. While the film/television rates may be lower, there may also be residual payments to compensate them for reruns, DVD sales, streaming usage, and so on.
Session musicians often have to bring their own instruments, such as in the case of guitar, bass, woodwinds, and brass. It is expected that studio musicians will have professional-tier instruments that are well-maintained. In some cases, larger or heavier instruments may be provided by the recording studio, such as a grand piano or Hammond organ and Leslie speaker. In certain cases, a session musician may bring some instruments or musical gear and use them with larger instruments that are provided by the studio, such as a synthesizer player, who might bring rack-mounted synth modules and connect them to the studio's MIDI controller stage piano. Similarly, if the studio has a selection of well-known bass amplifiers and speaker cabinets, a bass player may only have to bring basses and effect units.
The requirement to read different types of music notation, improvise and/or "play by ear" varies according to the type of recording session and the genres of music being performed. Classical musicians and many jazz and popular music musicians are expected to read music notation and do sight-reading. In jazz, rock, and many popular music genres, performers may be expected to read chord charts and improvise accompaniment and solos. In country music, performers may be expected to read Nashville Number System charts and improvise accompaniment and solos. In many traditional and folk music styles, performers are expected to be able to play by ear.
Many session musicians play multiple instruments, which lets them play in a wider range of musical situations, genres and styles. Some specialize in playing common rhythm section instruments such as guitar, piano, bass, or drums. Others are specialists, playing brass, woodwinds, or strings. Examples of "doubling" include double bass and electric bass, acoustic guitar and mandolin, piano, and accordion, and saxophone and other woodwind instruments.
Session musicians need a nuanced sense of the playing styles and idioms used in different genres. For example, a saxophone player who mainly plays jazz needs to know the R&B style if they are asked to improvise a solo in an R&B song. Similarly, a bass player asked to improvise a walking bassline in a rockabilly song needs to know the stock lines and cliches used in this genre.
Regardless of the styles of music session musicians play, some qualities are universal: punctuality in arriving at the session; rhythmic and intonation precision; ability to play with ensembles and excellent blending with the other performers; willingness to take direction from bandleaders, music directors, and music producers; and having good musical taste in regards to choices with musical ornaments and musical phrasing.
During the 1950s and 1960s, session players were usually active in local recording scenes concentrated in places such as Los Angeles, New York City, Nashville, Memphis, Detroit, and Muscle Shoals.  Each local scene had its circle of "A-list" session musicians, such as The Nashville A-Team that played on numerous country and rock hits of the era, the two groups of musicians in Memphis, both the Memphis Boys and the musicians who backed Stax/Volt recordings, and the Funk Brothers in Detroit, who played on many Motown recordings.
At the time, multi-tracking equipment, though common, was less elaborate, and instrumental backing tracks were often recorded "hot" with an ensemble playing live in the studio. Musicians had to be available "on call" when producers needed a part to fill a last-minute time slot. In the 1960s, Los Angeles was considered the top recording destination in the United States — consequently studios were constantly booked around the clock, and session time was highly sought after and expensive. Songs had to be recorded quickly in the fewest possible takes. In this environment, Los Angeles producers and record executives had little patience for needless expense or wasted time and depended on the service of reliable standby musicians who could be counted on to record in a variety of styles with minimal practice or takes, and deliver hits on short order.<re>Joanne Laurier, The Wrecking Crew: The "Secret Star-Making Machine" of 1960s Pop Music, World Socialist Website (November 14, 2015). Retrieved September 19, 2023.</ref>
In some ways, the 1970s were the golden age of the session musician. In a lot of disco, session musicians were the entire backing track, with session string players being rather common.The epic progressive rock sound of the era had a great deal of orchestral instruments, which were often played by session players. The age of pop music incorporating mighty orchestral sounds was in full swing, and although many people did not know it at the time, session musicians were starting to take the lead by playing on production music (also known as stock music or library music).While none of these records ever became hits, they would often be licensed for use in film, television, advertising, and other media. Though production music had been around for as long as sound in film, and session players were always a part of this, this era was when the session musicians became the pop stars of a little corner of the industry.
In the 1980s, session musicians were in decline, as more musicians started doing their own multitrack recording and using synthesizers to make the sounds of various instruments. Bands were thought to stand on their own instead of needing session players, and lower-budget recording sessions became more common. Session singer Isabel Campelo, for example, once heard a former record company manager refer to some studio musicians as "only sessions," as if session artists of this era were being treated as if they were not as important as lead musicians. However, due to the vibe of film score and production music, session musicians played a little-known role in this side of the industry. Some well-known session players, especially in London, began to focus on composing for production music, as well as playing on production music tracks. So as the pop music space used session musicians less, the orchestral music space began to accept them even more, with classical orchestra musicians being considered session musicians in a studio context.
A studio band is a musical ensemble employed by a recording studio for the purpose of accompanying recording artists who are customers of the studio. The use of studio bands was more common during the 1960s with groups such as Booker T. & the M.G.'s. The benefit of having a regular group, an approach which typified Southern soul, is that the group has much more experience playing together, which enables them to have a better sense of ensemble. The studio band gives off a harmonious vibe, with musicians, often from different backgrounds, playing together to make a well-blended sound.
- The Nashville A-Team (Nashville, 1950s–1960s)
- 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. Cramer, McCoy and Randolph, along with later A-Teamer and producer Chet Atkins, would later emerge as part of Hee Haw's Million Dollar Band in the 1980s.
- Booker T. & the M.G.'s (Memphis, 1960s–1970s)
- In the 1960s, as members of the Mar-Keys, the rotating slate of musicians that served as the house band of Stax records in Memphis, they played 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. They also released instrumental records under their own name, including the 1962 hit single "Green Onions." As originators of the unique Stax sound, the group was one of the most prolific, respected, and imitated of its era.
- The Wrecking Crew (Los Angeles, 1960s–1970s)
- Prolific, established studio musicians based in Los Angeles, among which bassist Carol Kaye stands out as one of the rare female instrumentalists. They have recorded many songs and albums since the 1960s. The Ron Hicklin Singers (also billed as the Charles Fox Singers) was a vocal session group closely associated with the Wrecking Crew and appeared as backing vocalists on many of the Crew's recordings.
- The Funk Brothers (Detroit, 1960s–1970s)
- 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".
- The Andantes (Detroit, 1960s)
- Another session group from Motown. While the Funk Brothers were a backing instrumental band, the Andantes were a backing vocal group that sang on many of Motown's most famous recordings.
- The Memphis Boys (Memphis, 1960s)
- The backing band for the American Sound Studio, a major studio in Memphis. They helped develop the sound that came to be associated with Memphis music.
- The Section (Los Angeles, 1960s–1970s)
- A 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 Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (Memphis, 1960s)
- A group 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 (Philadelphia, 1970s)
- MFSB ("Mother Father Sister Brother") 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.
- The Hillside Singers (1970s)
- A vocal group commissioned to provide vocals for Mayoham Music, formed by husband and wife Al Ham and Mary Mayo (the latter of whom was also a member of the group). The group is best known for their jingles and television news themes. "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)", originally composed as a jingle for Coca-Cola, became a surprise hit and the source of the group's recording name, as the Coca-Cola commercial featured singers on a hillside. The New Seekers would have an even larger hit with the same song. Their best-known news theme was "Move Closer to Your World", associated with Capital Cities Communications' Action News local news format.
- Salsoul Orchestra (New York, 1970s–1980s)
- The backing band for the Salsoul label in New York City. Several musicians from Philadelphia's MFSB moved to this label, which mixed the Philadelphia soul sound with disco, Latin, and other styles. This was a significantly large backing band, with over 50 musicians having played as part of the group.
- Compass Point All Stars (Bahamas, 1970s–1980s)
- The backing band for Compass Point Studios, a major recording studio created by Chris Blackwell, the owner of Island Records. Musicians and bands from all over the world, including AC/DC, recorded in this Bahamian studio, and the work of the session musicians made many of their finest recordings into hits.
- SM Rookies (Seoul, 2010s)
- A project group composed of trainees selected by entertainment company SM Entertainment, active from 2013 to 2018. The trainees selected for the group promoted by project activities, recorded and covered songs of the label's artists from 2013 to 2017, and has occasionally performed in SM Town concerts in the period of 2013-2015. Most members of the group eventually debuted and became members of the K-pop groups Red Velvet, NCT and its subunits, and Aespa.
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hal Blaine. Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Heather McDonald, What Is a Session Musician?, Balance Careers (2019). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Anthony Savona, Console Confessions: The Great Music Producers in Their Own Words (San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2005, ISBN 978-0879308605), 36–38.
- The Nashville "A" Team Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum (2007). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Mick Brown, Inside Muscle Shoals, the legendary studio that gave Aretha Franklin her breakthrough hit, The Telegraph (August 17, 2018). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Kent Hartman, The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012, ISBN 978-0312619749).
- Evan Andrews, Top 10 Session Musicians and Studio Bands, Toptenz.net (July 1, 2011). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Marc Myers, The Byrds: Who Played What? JazzWax (September 4, 2012). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Jim Farber, The Wrecking Crew Documentary Profiles the Secret Players Behind Many 1960s and '70s Rock Hits, The New York Daily News (March 9, 2015). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- K. C. Boyle, Without Strings, There Is No Disco, American Federation of Musicians Local 802 Alegro (July 2005). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Nate Patrin, The Strange World of Library Music Pitchfork (May 20, 2014). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Isabel Campelo, "That Extra Thing" - The Role Of Session Musicians In The Recording Industry Journal on the Art of Record Production 10 (July, 2015). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Campelo, Isabel. "That Extra Thing"- The Role Of Session Musicians In The Recording Industry Journal on the Art of Record Production 10 (July, 2015). Retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Hartman, Kent. The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret. Thomas Dunne Books, 2012. ISBN 978-0312619749
- Savona, Anthony. Console Confessions: The Great Music Producers in Their Own Words. San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0879308605
All links retrieved September 19, 2023.
- Session Musician Berklee
- How To Become a Session Musician Careers in Music
- What Is a Session Musician? LiveAbout
- What is a Studio Musician Recording Connection
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