The Lessons of session musicians

In the cover band world, a group starts to transcend hobby status when sidemen enter the picture.  Sidemen, aka freelancers, aka “guns for hire” or session musicians are contracted on a temporary basis for their chops, and their ability to fill a hole quickly.  Of course, an original band can obtain the same benefits when this flexible mindset is embraced.  And all you need is money…

Jazz is known for some of the greatest (and famous) sidemen.

The session musician can sit in for a recording, stand in for a gig, and even join a tour.  Imagine what that could do for your original tunes.  Your needs and (again) your billfold are all that stand between you and quality musicians.


Making the best use of session musicians

You may have noticed that when you take the time to record your songs, it becomes faster for a new band member to learn his/her part.  That’s because they are now learning to “cover” a song.  A session musician will expedite that process ten-fold, because this is their bailiwick.   Record early and often (and copyright, of course).

Ask your session musician to dress the part when being compensated to perform on stage.  This goes with the territory of solid, live performers and you should receive little argument from a pro.

Back to recording – hiring a session musician for your initial recordings will not only add quality to these tracks but also set a high bar for future session musicians.

Check their references.  Any session musician worth their weight should have a reasonable list of projects to cite.  Verify those projects with a few quick calls or emails.  Particular to Denver, there once were many bassists roaming the front range, claiming to be the first string for Katrina and the Waves (of “Walking on Sunshine” fame), back when her band was called Mama’s Cookin’, back when they served in the military, before the internet, when it was a little harder to vet the BS.

Many session musicians are also multi-instrumentalists.  This will give you more flavors and may inspire you to add that violinist or xylophonist permanently.

Multi-instrumentalist: Richard Tyler Epperson
Multi-instrumentalist: Richard Tyler Epperson


Where to find the pros

Recording studios are a great place to start your search – the more professional the studio, the better.  If a studio owner can’t give you a good lead, they can probably at least connect you with pro bands that have a stable of decent performers.

Other networking includes: The Denver Musicians Association (local musicians’ union), Denver Performing Arts, and any professional music venue in town.  Anywhere that teaches music will also fit the bill: think Swallow Hill for your acoustic players.  Set your sights high.  And if you go on Craig’s List, you’d better remember that you’re rolling the dice…


Vet your sidemen carefully - ultimately, there's no one to blame but yourself. [Shown here, V. Putin on sax]
Vet your sidemen carefully – ultimately, there’s no one to blame but yourself. [Shown here, V. Putin on sax]
Some last words…

Your session musician should come with no baggage or drama of any form.  If you notice any sharp edges, blunt (or defective) instruments, lollygagging, dictator-esque language, chaffing, punctuality issues, or non-work-related behaviors, box them back up and send them on their way.  Zero time should be spent drawn into their likes, dislikes, political or religious leanings.

If hired properly, session musicians should provide quality, flexibility and reliability.  They’ll help you grow as a musician and maybe even lead to a few songs sold.  And isn’t that worth it?  It’s what the pros do…

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