Studio Musician 101: Your Ears, Chops, And Feel

Studio Musician 101 image on Bobby Owsinski's Production BlogStudio musicians are known for their musicality, which consists of their ears, chops, and feel, as well as their judgment. Session players have enough experience to know what to play and when to play it.  They know how to best interact with the artist, other musicians, the engineer, and the producer to make the session the running efficiently and still be fun. They have an innate feel for how to make you and your song sound great. Let’s take a look at some of the musicality attributes that you’ll need.

Your Chops

Studio musicians are expected to be creative, extremely versatile, and have a formidable skill set. They’re usually the best players in town. Overall, the session musician is playing to a recording medium where there is little or no entertaining involved. Playing live is all about entertainment and finesse gives way to the crowd and the heat of the moment. The same musician will come from a different place in the studio and will need to utilize finesse and restraint to create a different “feel” than when playing live. 

And there is a completely different set of challenges on a session. Live music terminates in the air and is a series of “snapshot” moments. Sessions can be seen as opportunities to create musical building blocks that terminate on recorded media and are meant to be frozen in time forever.

That’s why session musicians fare just as well in the live idiom as everyone else. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the majority of musicians who cull most of their experience from playing live.

Your Technique – Purity, Not Perfection

Successful session musicians all have an innate feel for their instrument(s). Their actual technique may not be textbook perfect, but they all have a way of sounding great when they play.

Studio musicians know how to make their instruments sound “right” for the song, cue or jingle. They know just what axe to use and are capable of responding to direction in a way that yields audible results that are more than pleasing to producers’, engineers’ and artists’ ears.

Session players are also remarkably consistent in that they can play a part many times over without losing the fire or feel. There’s a zone all session players strive for, where they’re hitting the note and the groove just right and are capable of sustaining that moment and repeating a performance as many times as it takes until that voice from the control says “We got it!! Excellent!”

Your Reading

Your ability to read music will determine the type of sessions you can play on.  For record dates, the ability to read and transcribe lead sheets is important, but many other sessions like jingles and television and movie scores require expert sight reading.

To illustrate the reading abilities of session players, here’s a story about the late Tommy Tedesco, one of the most recorded guitar players ever and charter member of the famed Los Angeles studio band The Wrecking Crew during the 60’s and 70’s. Tommy was playing on a Jan & Dean date when, as a joke, singer Jan Berry turned Tommy’s music upside down on the stand. The take started and Tommy proceeded to play the backwards score note for note. A frustrated Berry yanked the page off the stand and said, “You’re just showing off!”

Your Ears

Among the most important qualities one needs to be a successful studio musician is what’s know as “big ears”. Big ears is another phrase for ear-training and means the ability to listen deep into the track to dissect parts, rhythms and harmonies. Just like your sight-reading, you have to work on your ear-training and transcription skills every day. When there is no written part, players are expected to quickly learn a part by ear. You don’t want to be caught out on a limb unable to manifest a part on your instrument because you can’t hear it.

When this does happen, it’s only because the part is outside your musical language. Don’t panic. It’s important not to allow nerves or fear overcome your connection with your inner ear. Ask to hear the part slowly, and sing along with it until what comes out of your mouth matches what’s coming out of the speakers note-for-note. Try tapping out the rhythm too. If you can do both of these operations but you still can’t play the part, then it surpasses your physical abilities on your instrument. This where the boys are separated from the men. If you can sing it, that means you musically understand the part. But if you still can’t play it, you just don’t have the chops yet.

On most professional recording sessions, and most particularly on jingle, film, TV and record dates, there’s little or no time to practice or get the part together. It can be a very unforgiving environment. But there’s hope!

Even the best players sometimes have to take a minute or two to get a part under their fingers. Even the best sight reading, sweetest-voiced session singers sometimes need time to work things out.  A good leader on any recording date will create a studio environment that is nurturing and creative, as all of us play best in low-stress, drama –free environments. If a player is having a hard time with a part, time can usually be spent to work things out.

Your Feel

Your “feel” is how you react to the groove of the song. ALL good music, regardless of whether it’s Rock, Jazz, Classical, Rap or some new space music that we haven’t heard yet, has a strong groove. 

If a musician can’t find the groove and therefore play with feel, all the chops and technique in the world won’t matter. In fact, most artists would prefer to use a player short on technique and long and feel, since that’s what takes the track to the next level. In the end, that’s exactly what a studio musician is hired to do.


You can read more from The Studio Musician’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

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