The Mark of the Rookie

By Todd Smith

A friend of mine who is a session player in Nashville tells this story:

"When I first came to town, I was about 19 years old, full of fire and ambition. I wanted to show everyone how good I was. I was the hottest fiddle player back home, and I was sure it wouldn't be long before I was first call in Nashville.

"After knocking around town for awhile I got hired for my first session. I was so excited that I would finally get the chance I deserved to show my stuff. On the day of the session I very confidently took my place in the studio among the old veterans, thinking, yeah, I'm the new kid in town - but just wait till the downbeat. And man, when that tape started rolling, I went for it. I laid down some of the hottest licks I had ever played. I even surprised myself.

"At the end of the take, everyone was just sort of quiet. I thought my performance had left them speechless. Well, I was right, but not in the way that I thought.

"Eventually the producer said, `Man, that was some awesome stuff.' `Thanks,' I said with my best false modesty. He continued, `Next time through, don't do any of it.'

"In that brutal moment I learned the most important lesson about being a session musician: Play for the track, not for yourself. Your goal as a session musician is not to satisfy yourself artistically or to gain admiration from other players. If you are being paid to play, you are a professional, and therefore have a professional obligation to do your job."

And what is your job as a session musician? To play what is best for the track. And who decides what is best for the track? The producer, who has been hired by the record company to make that decision. It is no more the musician's job to make the decisions than it is the producer's job to play the instruments.

A smooth recording session is like a finely-tuned machine, in which each part performs its specific job with precision. What happens to a machine when things don't do what they're supposed to do? Breakdown, chaos... sounds like a lot of sessions I've seen.

The most successful session players are the ones who give the producers what they want. Hot dogs don't get called back, no matter how technically good they may be. Indeed, technical ability is only the qualifying round; there are many more subtle levels of skill in the accomplished musician. Ideally, a player is sought for his ability to interpret the producer's vision in his own style, but his first responsibility is still to play to the track.

So when the red light goes on and you hear that count-off, just lay back, get out those long, slow notes and save the fireworks for the 4th of July.

And remember what the scientists say, "Less is more;" an everyday phrase which is actually derived from one of Einstein's lesser-known theories, which states that when working as a session musician, the fewer notes you play, the more money you will make.