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Session musicians are instrumental performers or vocalists who are available for hire for live performances or recording sessions, as opposed to musicians who are either permanent members of a musical ensemble or who have acquired fame in their own right as bandleaders. Although the term generally refers to musicians skilled in contemporary musical styles such as rock, jazz, country, and pop, etc., it can also be used to describe musicians from classical styles.

Although many session musicians play rhythm section instruments—bass, guitar, keyboards, or drums—session musicians also include horn sections, trumpet players, singers, and other musicians.

Terms and usage

Modern usage

Though the terms that are considered "session musician" and "studio musician" are often used interchangeably, the term "studio musician" is sometimes reserved for musicians who work exclusively in recording studios, sometimes for a single studio or record company. Versatility is one of the most important traits of the session musician, because a session musician hired to play on an album may have to perform in a range of different styles or using a variety of different instruments. For example, a bassist hired to play on an album may be asked to play both double bass and electric bass, and they may be asked to play songs from styles ranging from jazz and latin to funk and rock. Similarly, a guitarist may be asked to play acoustic guitar and electric guitar, and they may be asked to play a range of styles using each instrument, such as fingerstyle on the acoustic and rock soloing and jazz chording on the electric guitar.

Most session players must be able to form "teams" working on projects, and sometimes the musicians not only come from different backgrounds, but are completely unfamiliar with one another. Guitarist Greg Howe stated in an interview once, "If musicians are the athletes, the session cats are the Olympic hopefuls". Session musicians who play electric instruments are expected to have a high level of familiarity with obtaining different tones and effects with their equipment. For example, electric guitar players or synth players may be called on to use amplifiers, rack-mount effects, and other devices to create a variety of sound effects.

Session musicians are used in any situation where musical skills are needed on a short-term basis, ranging from a few hours to many months. Typical uses of session musicians are:

  • In a recording studio to provide backing for advertising, film and television music
  • To provide instrumental or vocal backing for established solo artists or groups, both in the studio and in concerts and appearances
  • To act as temporary replacements for permanent members of a band or ensemble
  • To provide additional instruments or vocals when needed by a band or ensemble
  • In ensembles for theatrical productions

The following are usually not regarded as session musicians:

Instead, session musicians perform with (and are hired by, or on behalf of) some other musical act or artistic production. Apart from being highly competent at their instruments, skilled session musicians are also expected to learn parts rapidly, and to play music by sight (reading directly from the musical score).

Earlier usage

The above definitions do not always apply to earlier times. For example, during the 1920s and 1930s most record companies had their own prolific "studio bands" turning out records of the latest pop hits. These were often made up by jazz and dance band musicians who were at the same time members of regular working bands and who divided their time between studio work (recordings as well as broadcasting) during the day and live performances in the evenings. Notable such "studio musicians" include Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, and Mike Mosiello.

Notable session musicians

Although session musicians have long and successful careers, and can achieve considerable fame within the musical industry, they do not usually achieve popular celebrity.

Notable exceptions include the members of the band Toto, formed by a group of regular studio musicians in Los Angelesmarker; John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, who were well known as session musicians before their later success with Led Zeppelin; keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who started his career as a session musician before becoming a member of popular progressive rock band Yes; R&B singer-songwriters Valerie Simpson (half of the Motown writing and singing duo, Ashford & Simpson), Lisa Fischer, and Luther Vandross who each spent many years as top session vocalists based in New York City. Carol Kaye is the most recorded bassist of all time with 10,000 sessions spanning four decades, according to the Berklee College of Music. The 1954 recording session for the song "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and his Comets featured several session musicians, including guitarist Danny Cedrone, who performed the song's guitar solo.

Artists once came to Nashville from all over the world to play with The Nashville A-Team. This group was made up of A-list studio musicians who recorded during the Nashville Sound era. Their contributions began in the 1950s, and a few are still recording today. Elvis Presley recorded with The A-Team. Some of these musicians include include bassist Bob Moore, guitarists Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Ray Edenton and Harold Bradley (brother of producer Owen), drummer Buddy Harman, pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, fiddler Tommy Jackson, steel guitarist Pete Drake, harmonicast Charlie McCoy, saxophonist Boots Randolph, pianist Floyd Cramer and vocal groups the Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr Singers.

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, also known as The Swampers, are a group of American soul, R&B, and country studio musicians based in the town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. These musicians,Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, one of the best-known groups of session musicians, crafted the "Muscle Shoals Sound."

Other notable session musicians include:

  • Drums:
Kenny Aronoff,Mike Baird,Eddie Bayers,Gregg Bissonette,Hal Blaine,Jan Axel Blomberg,Mike Botts,Brendan Buckley,Clem Cattini,Matt Chamberlain,Dennis Chambers,Gary Chester,Vinnie Colaiuta,Phil Collins,Mickey Curry,Josh Freese,Steve Gadd,James Gadson,Ed Greene,Winston Grennan,Willie Hall,Buddy Harman,Roger Hawkins,Ryan Hoyle,Tris Imboden,Al Jackson, Jr.,Steve Jordan,John Keane,Jim Keltner,Abraham Laboriel Jr.,Paul Leim,Larrie Londin,Ray Luzier,Harvey Mason,Pat Mastelotto,Dave Mattacks,Charlie Morgan,Nate Morton,Andy Newmark,Earl Palmer,Simon Phillips,Jeff Porcaro,Prairie Prince,Bernard Purdie,Tony Thompson,Joey Waronker,and Dave Weckl.

  • Electric bass:
Neil Stubenhaus,James Alexander,Bob Babbitt,Wilbur Bascomb,Tommy Cogbill,Donald "Duck" Dunn,Nathan East,Herbie Flowers,David Hood,David Hungate,Anthony Jackson,Randy Jackson,James Jamerson,Jerry Jemmott,John Paul Jones,Carol Kaye,Abraham Laboriel,Will Lee,Tony Levin,Joe Long,Marcus Miller,Bob Moore,Joe Osborn,Pino Palladino,Dave Peacock,John Pierce,Wojciech Pilichowski,Guy Pratt,Chuck Rainey,Michael RhodesPatrick Scales,Tommy Sims, and Leland Sklar.

  • Guitar:
Duane Allman,Pete Anderson,Harold Bradley,James Burton,Larry Carlton,Bernie Chiaravalle,Ry Cooder,Steve Cropper,Bobby Tench,Richard Fortus,Bruce Gaitsch,Hank Garland,Andrew Gold,Jay Graydon,Jimi Hendrix,Mabon "Teenie" Hodges,Dann Huff,Paul Jackson Jr.,Michael Landau,Sonny Landreth,David Lindley,Steve "Luke" Lukather,Eddie Martinez,Grady Martin,Brent MasonJim McGorman,Scotty Moore,Rafael Moreira,Matt "Guitar" Murphy,Jimmy Page,Luke Schindler'Dean Parks,Tim Pierce,Lee Ritenour,Nile Rodgers,Janne Schaffer,Slash,Earl "Chinna" Smith,Daryl Stuermer,Big Jim Sullivan,Hubert Sumlin,Tommy Tedesco,Michael Thompson,and Reggie Young.

  • Steel Guitar:
Buddy EmmonsPaul Franklin

  • Keyboards:
Walter Afanasieff,Don Airey,John Barnes,Jeff Bova,David Briggs,Robbie Buchanan,Kim Bullard,Reginald "Sonny" Burke,Ray Chew,Floyd Cramer,David Foster,Steve George,Don Grolnick, Charles Hodges,Nicky Hopkins,Johnnie Johnson,Booker T. Jones,John Paul Jones,Bradley Joseph,Larry Knechtel,Chuck Leavell,Patrick Leonard,Jim McGorman,Ian McLagan,Michael McDonald,Paul Mirkovich,Rob Mounsey,Steve Nathan,Bobby Ogdin,Spooner Oldham,Michael Omartian,David Paich,Charlie Peacock,Greg Phillinganes,Steve Porcaro,Billy Preston,Hargus "Pig" Robbins,Ike Turner,Carson Whitsettand Peter Wolf .

  • Percussion:
Alex Acuna,Ralph MacDonald,Paulinho Da Costa,Luis Conte,Michael G. Fisher,Steve Schaeffer,Frank Ricotti,Danny Cummings,Jimmy Maelen,Luis Jardim, andRay Cooper.

  • Trumpet:
Frank Beach,Wayne Bergeron,Johnny Best,Chris Botti,Randy Brecker,Cecil Bridgewater,Bud Brisbois,Jon Faddis,Chuck Findley,Bernie Glow,Conrad Gozzo,Jerry Hey,Roger Ingram,Mark Isham,Manny Klein,Kye Palmer,Al Porcino,Shorty Rogers,Ernie Royal,Alan Rubin,Carl Saunders,Shorty Sherock,Bobby Shew,Lew Soloff,Marvin Stamm,Bill Stapleton,Allen Vizzutti, andDerek Watkins

  • Vocals:
Patti Austin,Tony Burrows,Bill Champlin,Kacey Cisyk,Bobby Tench,Jeanette Clinger,Tommy Funderburk,Siedah Garrett,Carl Hall,Cissy Houston,Michael McDonald,Richard Page,Chris Rodriguez,Frank Simms,Warren Wiebe,Jan Johnston,Kirsty Hawkshaw,Justine Suissa,Tiff Lacey,Andrea Britton,Kate Ryan,Miriam Stockley,The Blossoms,The Andantes,The Sweet Inspirations,The Originals,and The Waters (Julia, Luther, Maxine and Oren Waters).

  • Groups:
Booker T and the MGs;The Bar-Kays;The Funk Brothers;The Wrecking Crew;Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra;The Memphis Horns;The Nashville A-TeamThe Horny Horns;The Kick Horns;Atlanta Rhythm Section;Sly and Robbie;The Hodges Brothers;The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section;and Toto.


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