Charlie Drayton is a unique and special player in that he’s equally adept and in demand as a drummer and as a bass player, so his perspective is that of the total rhythm section. Charlie’s long and eclectic list of credits includes such names as Herbie Hancock, Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Michelle Branch, Seal, Iggy Pop, Neil Young, Janet Jackson, Courtney Love, among many others, and he laid down the beat for the B-52’s irresistible hit “Love Shack.” In this excerpt from my Studio Musician’s Handbook (written with Paul ILL), Charlie gives us a look behind the curtain of his session work.
“Give me some background on how you got into session work?
My father guided me toward the studio at an early age while watching him produce jingle sessions in NYC. He would occasionally have me sing on spots which featured a young voice, either in a group chorus, or solo performance.
Before a session would begin, I would usually find a seat between the drum booth (this was back in the 70’s) and the bass chair and B-15 amp (which was the standard bass amp in any NYC studio back then). It only took sitting through a few sessions to know that being in the studio was like being in the best classroom you’d ever walk into, and your dad is the principle. My father then took the band I was playing in into the studio to nurture ourselves and grow in the studio environment. What a trip it is to hear yourself played back in high quality audio for the first time! I can still remember the first time experience, vividly.
If I remember correctly, my first professional recording session was playing drums for John Sebastian. He was brilliant and a huge supporter. Walking into the studio was easy, but that first day of tracking was one hell of a ride in my life! The scary part was trying not to be to overwhelmed that the bass player was Anthony Jackson (a highly regarded New York session player) and the guitar player was Steve Khan (I think Steve recommended me for that session). Needless to say, I was hooked and still am.
What do you bring with you to a session?
It depends on what the music or the producer requires and what hat I’m wearing on the session, but I’ll just list some of the items at random. I come with a sense of humor, an open heart and mind, and great deal of patience. If I’m a principle player or producer on a session, a song is also a wonderful thing to bring with you.
I also bring a hot water kettle and assortment of herbal and black tea, an endless amount of sugarless mint candy, some incense, chop sticks, cayenne pepper, hot english mustard, crushed red pepper, and fresh ground cardamom.
Also, there’s nothing better then having your own gear on a session! For me that could consist of, drums, cymbals, rags, hockey tape, bullet mic, Line 6 Bass pod, iPod for drum mute, and a few of my favorite pieces of hand percussion. Also basses, guitars, pedal steel, amplifiers, stomp boxes, and a really good cable. I also bring my own headphones (Sony 7506 or Audio Technica TH-M50) along with an extension cable,
Sometimes I’ll bring my Black Pekingese,”Holiday” too. My introduction to her was during a session I was producing.
Do you tailor what you bring according to the session?
I try, because I’m lucky to have access to a large selection of gear which I would love to see as often as possible.
Is your stage rig different from your recording rig?
This depends on what will inspire me to execute a performance or what I have access to at the time. Sometimes I may reach for some piece of gear that does not belong to me, so basically anything that will guide me to feed the music.
What do you like in your headphone mix?
The freedom to dial it in myself. My first preference though is no headphones whenever possible. I like to sing with the speakers at low level. If playing live with a band, I’ll dial the entire group into the mix. If playing against prerecorded tracks, it’s possible that I may not play along with all of the elements on the track. I will try different combinations of elements in the mix until it feels good and I’m the most comfortable.
What do see that’s common with all good session musicians?
A good session player is not necessarily a better musician than a player with no session experience, but a good session player has the advantage of having more tools to choose from and is used to narrowing down the options. Dealing with adversity is key. If your talent is on loan and you’re having a shitty day but you’ve committed yourself to a session, guess what? You’ve got to show up and play the music! The more I do it, the better I get at it.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
That we would come to live in a time where you would not need to have much talent to be successful in the music business. The art of playing music and being commercially successful in the music business are now two entirely different things.
I don’t know why humans would bring computers into the recording environment for some of the wrong reasons and deconstruct the craft of creating and making music. I’m not against computers, but I thought music was doing just fine without them. Didn’t Milli Vanilli try to hip us to that?
Any advice for someone starting out doing session work?
Don’t lose the connection or spirit of playing in a live environment. Spirit is a key ingredient that enables you to shine and make the right decisions in session.
Embrace the music with your heart, even if it’s not your cup of tea. Be in the moment, and that does not mean play everything you know.
Do you have any session musician tips?
Be a musician first without any title before the word musician. I’ll enjoy hearing your playing more. Don’t limit yourself. Be in the moment, because In the studio, you’re making musical decisions that can last a lifetime on record.
What kind of sessions are the hardest for you?
When the producer’s dreams are unrealized. Sometimes they don’t have the ability to play your instrument so he or she endlessly suggest the worst musical ideas possible for you to play, or how you should be playing them. Or when the food is bad, which in reality is the same answer.
What kind of sessions are the most fun?
When it doesn’t feel like work and you don’t want the session to end.
What do you hate about recording?
You can read more from The Studio Musician’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.