How To Become A Session Drummer
Making a passion into a profession
Session work is a hugely alluring area of the music industry to work in. It’s become increasingly visible in this day and age, both in the studio and on stage, with many aspiring musicians setting their sights on a session career over traditional rock stardom. Factors such as technological advancement and decreasing label budgets are however making it more difficult to carve a career as a session musician. With a smaller need today for musicians to supply that ‘real’ feel, it can be a tough road to getting yourself on the session circuit.
There are few secrets to achieving a fulfilling career as a session musician: vast amounts of practice and playing, a good work ethic, the right attitude and, as most won’t mind me saying, a bit of luck.
To practice one’s instrument is an obvious requirement. The more we practice the greater we will be able to express ourselves. Second to that, when playing music we as musicians must serve the piece in question; this is no secret to all working musicians, and must remain at the forefront of our minds when playing and practicing. To remember this important notion is one of the crucial facets of session playing and sums up what is to follow.
There is a clear distinction that should be made between the pro-level drummers that we see and hear. They can be roughly categorised as either virtuosic or band drummers.
Today more than ever, we are surrounded by exceptionally gifted drum-set technicians and with YouTube we can view thousands of videos featuring drummers with chops to die for. This, however, is creating a wave of technically minded players as opposed to musically minded ones. This is not to say that any one drummer that is overtly technically is not approaching the song from a musical point of view, but to develop the necessary sound and feel producers and fellow musicians look for in a drummer, ignore the notion that your ability is based on your chops.
Drum clinics are particularly popular and over the last thirty years have been a positive vehicle in educating students and players alike. Over time their focus has shifted to virtuosic players, with abilities less applicable in modern music, but allowing players to show off their most innovative and difficult techniques. This writer has no aversion to this type of performance entertainment, but a drummer wishing to become a session musician should always clearly understand the attributes required in order to achieve his or her goals.
To put this into the relevant context, here is a hypothetical example of the pitfalls in misinterpreting what to play and when. Imagine several drummers get their chance to audition for a folk singer/songwriter. One by one they get their chance to play with the band after which the most suitable candidate is chosen. The drummer with good time and ‘pocket’, who plays for the song, will always be chosen over the player that skilfully manages to execute a semi-quaver quintuplet inverted flam tap roll leading into the chorus. The latter has made an error in judgment thinking that it was suitable for the folk song in question. Of course, the requirements of any one song or genre differ from one another, but misunderstanding musical context is an all too common occurrence. Believe me when I say less is more.
The list of influential session drummers is too long to mention, but the American greats Bernard Purdie and Steve Gadd, and Britain’s Ralph Salmins and Ash Soan, are four prolific session drummers everyone should research. As much as they are all individual in their styles, they each play with the sole purpose of serving the song in question, no matter how simple.
Kenny Aronoff is another world-class session drummer based in Los Angeles. His career and recording credits are extensive both in the studio and live. In a recent interview he said: “The purpose of a drummer is to first and foremost pick the right beat that’s gonna get that song on the radio. Second is to keep time and try to get the band to play in time with you.” He goes on state that it’s important to “listen, learn, lead, and understand that I’m not the boss.”
This final statement is very important. Our egos are often our weaknesses and can lead us to make poor decisions. We are not there to be heard or make our stamp on the song or music in question. We are there to serve it completely and work together with producer and musicians.
In an early interview with Modern Drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta shared what being a good session drummer meant to him: “Somebody who has real good time, is an excellent reader, whose drums sound good, someone other musicians are comfortable playing with, and who can assimilate a variety of styles.”
That brings us to the point of reading music and it’s benefits. Both live and studio work can require charts at any time, with time often being the most important factor. Being able to read music will greatly increase your chances of getting a call. Fortunately drum notation is easier to read than other instruments so those who can’t read shouldn’t shy away from learning. The ability to read music will also change your approach to music and playing as well develop your musical understanding of drumming and how it fits within the song. Whether it’s charts written by yourself to quickly memorise an arrangement, or reading the lead instrument’s chords to improve your interpretation, it’s an important skill, even for drummers.
Vinnie’s point on time (and your ability to keep it) clearly shows the primary task of all drummers. Being the time-keeper weighs heavy on the drummer, both in live situations and in the studio. All session drummers will be successful based on their ability to play both with a click and without one and both these skills require constant practice.
Los Angeles based session drummer Josh Freese is one of today’s most in-demand session drummers. He said: “About 98% of the sessions I do are with a click. Just practicing to a click or metronome is a great way to practice playing with one. Sometimes it can be more fun to practice to a drum machine then just a plain and simple click track. You can program an interesting percussion 4 bar loop or even a 1 or 2 bar loop and then just practice locking in with that. It’s more like you’re getting to play with a percussionist that has perfect time and less like just a boring old metronome.”
Vinnie Colaiuta also clearly states the importance of playing a variety of styles. From rock to jazz, television jingle to a calypso, the gigs can come in a variety of forms for studio musicians particularly.
The points being made may seem to amount to a lot, but this is not necessarily so. The variety of styles may be vast in modern music, but with good musical understanding your individual feel can be applied successfully across many genres. A good example of this is the aforementioned Steve Gadd. He is identified as one of the few players to sound authentic when playing any style, yet his approach is always simple and his grooves don’t require much variation from one style to another. He always finds the quintessential groove whilst never having to sacrifice his style and sound.
So how did these musicians get to this point and how did they get their break? How did I get my break? Well, maybe a slight bit of luck, but more importantly through sheer hard work and playing gig after gig – as well as the obvious practice – all of which never stops.
I never turned down a gig until I was too busy to take one. I played with anyone that wanted me to and recorded for free as well as gigged for free. You have to love it and, within reason, never say no!
One final point is every country or state has a city that as musicians we see as the place to be for work. London is Britain’s music capital and I grew up in Nottingham. I had some advice to move there to get my break as Nottingham was smaller and London was, well… London. This can be a damaging choice if its not done at the right time. I decided early on that unless I had outgrown my city, unless I was firstly the No. 1 choice in my smaller, yet still vibrant city, why should I migrate to one in which players like me were a dime a dozen. If no one knew me in Nottingham, if I hadn’t proved I was capable of all of the above, then I certainly wasn’t going to find success anywhere else. Remember that no city makes a musician, only you can do that!
I believe that with belief and a good attitude you can achieve anything. It’s no different for your goals as a musician, no matter how competitive our industry. The risks can be great, but they only lead to greater rewards.