The Studio Musician’s Handbook

The Studio Musician’s Handbook reveals:

How to become a studio musician

Who hires you

How much you get paid

What kind of skills are required

Proper session etiquette

How to get the most from a vocalist

What kind of gear you need

The history of studio musicians (it’s longer and more varied than you think)

The best way to prepare for a session

The real “Studio Musician 101”

and much more!

What It's About

What happens during a big-time professional recording session can be easily applied to make even the most casual recording session successful. The Studio Musician’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski and Paul ILL reveals the inner workings of a major Hollywood recording session, including a look at the players themselves.

Among the things you’ll learn are how you become a studio musician, who hires you and how much you get paid, what kind of skills you need and what gear you must have, the proper session etiquette required to make a session run smoothly, and how to apply these skills in every type of recording session regardless if it’s in your home studio or Abbey Road.

Also included are individual session musician guides for guitar, bass, drums, vocals, keys, horns, and strings.

As a bonus, an accompanying DVD takes you inside an actual record date in a world-class studio with world-class players.

The Studio Musicians Handbook also includes interviews with well known session players like Leland Sklar, Ricky Lawson, Charlie Drayton, Rami Jaffee and more.

Kind Words From Readers

…and dozens more like it!

Let's Look Inside

Table Of Contents



Chapter 1 – A History Of The Session Musician
    The Studio Bands
    The Rise of the Independents

Chapter 2 – Why The Studio Is Different From Playing Live

Chapter 3 – Who Hires Session Musicians

Chapter 4 – Different Types Of Sessions
    Film and Television Scores
    Record Dates
    Home Studio Dates

Chapter 5 – How Do I Become A Studio Musician?

Chapter 6 – How Much Can I Make?
   Union Gigs
    Non-Union Gigs
    Getting Paid

Chapter 7 – What Equipment Do I Bring To A Session?
   Different Gear For Different Jobs
        Well Maintained Equipment Required
        The Comfort Factor
        Tailor What You Bring
    Is Vintage Gear Necessary?

Chapter 8 – Before The Session Begins

Chapter 9 – Session Musician 101
    Your Roots
    Your Mindset
    Your Musicality – Ears, Chops and Feel
    Serving the Muse – Playing the Music, not the Instrument

Chapter 10 – Session Etiquette
    Before the session begins
    While recording
    When the session ends

Chapter 11 – The Session
    Your Studio Comfort
    The Headphone Mix
    The Signal Chain
    Working With The Engineer
    Working With The Producer
    Working With The Artist
    A Session Example

Chapter 12 – Guide For Guitar Players
    Before The Session Begins
    Your Sound
    What To Bring
    Standard Session Procedure
    Guitar Player’s Utility Kit

Chapter 13 – Guide For Bass Players
    Before The Session Begins
    Your Sound
    What To Bring
    Standard Session Procedure
    Bass Player’s Utility Kit

Chapter 14 – Guide For Drummers and Percussionists
    Simple Is Best
        The Concepts Of Feel And Internal Time
        Rushed Or Lazy Fills
        Are You Playing Too Loud?
    What Makes A Drum Kit Sound Great?
    Tuning The Drums
    Standard Session Procedure
    The Drummer’s Utility Kit

Chapter 15 – Guide For Keyboard Players
    Your Sound
    Hauling Your Gear
    The Quick Setup
    Standard Session Procedure
    Keyboard Player’s Utility Kit

Chapter 16 – Guide For Vocalists
    The 3 P’s
    Take Care Of Yourself
    Mic Technique
    Phrasing Is Everything
    Standard Session Procedure
    Singer’s Utility Kit

Chapter 17 – Guide For Horn Players
    Mic Technique
    You’ve Got To Hear Yourself
    Standard Session Procedure
    Horn Player’s Utility Kit

Chapter 18 – Guide For String Players
    During The Session
    Standard Session Procedure
    String Player’s Utility Kit

Chapter 19 – Guide For Percussionists
    Motion, Dynamics, Texture
    Standard Percussion Items
    Standard Session Procedure
    Percussionist’s Utility Kit


Ronnie Ciago
Charlie Drayton
Bernie Dresel
Frank Fitzpatrick
Eric Gorfain
Jerry Hey
Rami Jaffee
Ricky Lawson
Brian MacLeod
Leland Sklar
Gary Solt
Peter Thorn

Chapter 2 Excerpt - Why The Studio Is Different From Playing Live

Why The Studio Is Different Than Playing Live

All musical performances are really about “the moment”. Live music happens in the moment for that moment. Recorded music captures that moment so that it can last forever. The former is like a live TV news feed of an event while the latter is like a carved statue of the same subject material.  

You’ve probably had a lot of experience playing live, but playing in the studio is a distinctively different experience. The thought process is different, the mindset is different, the approach is different, and the chain of command is different.

Sixteen Ways Playing in the Studio Differs From Playing Live
In an effort to contrast these two different experiences, let’s move from the most simple differences to those that are, shall we say, a bit more subtle.

1. Repertoire – Most live gigs rarely change repertoire without rehearsal. Only on the fringes of the Jazz community do musicians show up at a live gig prepared to “wing it” every show. A session musician has to be ready to change material on the fly.  If it’s a one-tune record date for a singer/songwriter the song may take on a completely new character within moments. The session may start with the artist playing the tune by his or herself. As the rhythm section falls in, not only are they are expected to learn it “on the fly” but to come up with the appropriate parts that will help make the song not only as memorable as possible but as accessible and pleasing to not only the artist and producer but to listeners who may make the song part of their lifetime’s musical soundtrack. No pressure!!!

2. Scrutiny – On stage whatever you play is gone as soon as you play it.  In the studio, what you play is under a microscope and will likely be analyzed, dissected and reorganized all in the name of making the performance stronger.

3. Equipment – The gear you use on a gig won’t always translate to the studio.  You choose the gear for a gig based upon versatility, durability and general ruggedness.  The only thing that counts in the studio is the sound.  While one size might fit all on a gig, it usually makes for a boring recording, especially if you’re recording multiple tracks or more than one song.  The studio requires a wide range of sonic possibilities, so you’ll need to bring different guitars, amps and pedals to get there (more on gear in chapter 6).

4. Leadership – On a gig you have a bandleader that calls the songs, counts them off, possibly may direct the solos, and ends the songs.  In the studio you’re answering to a hierarchy consisting of the producer, artist, and engineer (in cases of sonics).  The producer is the ultimate decision maker, with ultimate authority over everything you play.

5. Nuance – The little things count in the studio.  Everything you play can be critical so nuances are just as important as the body of what you’re playing.  When you play live the nuances are usually gone in the wind, overcome by the the stage volume, acoustics and attention of the players and audience. In the studio, everything you play is scrutinized and that’s too much pressure for some players.  On stage, your band mates may be listening hard (if they’re good they will be) but the audience will be grooving to the music as a whole.  No pressure, just play.  In the studio, you’ve got to be great every time, every take.

6. The Live ‘Feel” versus the Studio ‘”Feel” – Rest assured that watching drum god Steve Gadd play live with Eric Clapton is a whole different experience than his studio work with Ol’ Slowhand. There is definitely a different feel required when playing in the studio. Players well versed in both idioms tend to exhibit more finesse and restraint in the studio and cut loose in a different way. Remember, music in a studio terminates at some kind of recording or broadcast device. Live music just disperses in the ether. The studio requires the musician to play to a whole different set of variables created by the signal chain after the instrument and the needs of the session.

7. Etiquette – You can get away with being a jerk on a live gig since the other players usually will put up with you (up to a point) as long as you perform well or the audience loves you.  Not so in the studio.  In order to take the music to the level it needs to be at, a constant give and take is required with everyone in the studio.  If you make someone feel even slightly uncomfortable for any reason, chances are you probably won’t be asked back.  There are too many great players with accommodating personalities waiting in line for the chance.

8. It’s hard work.  That’s not to say that playing or singing on a 4 or 5 hour gig isn’t difficult, but you play a lot of different songs every set and get the glory of audience feedback.  In the studio, the only feedback you get is from the producer, artist and maybe the engineer, and 99% of the time they’re analyzing how you can play a part better rather than singing your praises.  And the level of concentration is definitely up a few notches.  On a gig you can breeze through the music, almost losing yourself in your playing.  In the studio, every note counts and requires your utmost attention.  It’s not unusual to spends hours on the same song (or even the same phrase), playing or singing it over and over until it fits perfectly.  On the other hand, some sessions require that you play it perfectly the first time (or in a few takes), which brings a pressure all its own.

Chapter 10 Excerpt - Basic Tracks - Preparing For The Session
Bassist Leland Sklar Interview Excerpt

Bassist Leland Sklar
Interview Excerpt

Known for his distinctive long flowing beard, Leland Skar is one of the most respected and in-demand bass players on the scene today. Lee has contributed his skills to literally thousands of albums, soundtracks, films and television shows with such diverse artists as Clint Black, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffet, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, The Doors, Vince Gill, Ricky Martin, Diana Ross, and of course, James Taylor.

Give us some background on how you got into session work?
I never really thought about being a “studio musician” since I was always a band guy who liked to play live. When I met James Taylor in 1969 and “Fire & Rain” (Taylor’s first single) went through the ceiling, I started getting calls to do records. (Drummer) Russ Kunkel and I were paired as a rhythm section and started working together. That’s turned into a long career for me without really having had to think about it. I feel very blessed by this. I was at the right time and in the right place, as they (whoever ‘they’ are) say!

What do you bring with you to a session?
I bring several basses, a few effects, a DI box, and an amp (No rack!), and a lot of enthusiasm!

Do you tailor what you bring according to the session?
Not really. If I know in advance of any special needs, I’ll take care of that. But in general, I’m prepared for almost anything that might be asked of me.

Is your stage rig different from your recording rig?
Yes, but not by a lot. I probably have less with me on the road than I would in the studio. I generally bring 2 basses on tour. One is a backup for that “just-in-case” moment. I use the same amp I use in the studio, but would probably add a second cab depending on the venue. I’ve been using Euphonic Audio amps and speakers for several years now. In the studio, I use a Iamp800 combo. On tour I would use a Iamp800 head with a 2X10 cab and a 1X12 cab. I was using a GrooveTube Brick or my Tubeworks DI, which is what I normally use in the studio, and a Yamaha Sub-Kick in front of the 12” cabinet as a mic. It’s an amazing sound. That piece of gear is normally used by drummers on their bass drums, but I tried it once on my set up and it’s killer. I don’t us any pedals live, except perhaps a Boss OC2 Octave pedal. I try to keep the bass as pointed and clean as possible so that the house mixer has something to build the rest of the instruments around.

What do you like to hear in your headphone mix?
It depends on the session. If we’re playing to a click, then that’s what I want the most of. I always prefer something like an old Urei click generator. I really hate when they try to make the click musical and it just disappears in the track. The click is there for a reason, and it doesn’t help you if you can’t hear it. After that, it depends on what other instruments are being recorded in regards to where they would be in the mix level-wise. Most of the time these days I go to guys houses and overdub bass on pre-produced tracks and it’s just me playing, so I grab whatever I can that will be useful to me and go for it. But it really depends on the individual circumstances of the session.

What was your defining moment?
It’s hard to say at this point because it was a long time ago. Probably when I started getting calls that were unrelated to James Taylor and realized there was a world away from him. I remember one of my first calls was for a Brian Hyland session with Del Shannon as the producer. I was in a room with guys I didn’t know and still had to get into it. It was such a great adventure and it still is to this day.

What do you see that’s common with all good session musicians?
There are many qualities; great ears, focus, dedication, ideas. It’s a special breed of player. You have to bring a lot more than just your facility on your instrument to the date.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
How much more money the composers make than the players (sort of just kidding!) I really don’t think I needed to know more, because few of us really knew anything and that’s why so much great stuff got recorded. We were writing the book as we went along.

Do you have any advice for someone starting out doing session work?
Be focused. Have ideas that go beyond the required playing. Be involved. When the song is done and it is time for playback, don’t go the other way and start making phone calls or playing around on your laptop. Stay involved. Listen back to the performance and if you have any ideas, throw them out there and try to make the performance the best you can. And, if the session starts at 10AM, don’t be pulling into the driveway at 10AM. Be tuned up and have your sound together and be ready to start recording at 10AM. Not all dates are like this but it’s good to be professional and not treat this lightly. If you get to do this, it’s one of the great blessings in life. Treat it with respect.

What kind of sessions are the hardest for you?
If I get called to do a pop/slap funk date, I’m not happy because I do not slap. I can fake it but don’t really do it well. When I get that kind of call, I tell them that’s not my style and I give them some names of friends who can play the shit out of that stuff.

What kind of sessions are the most fun?
The ones that have great songs, great players, a great engineer, and free food.

What do you hate about recording?
Very little. I love about 90% of it. The only thing I don’t like is the new technology of the digital world that’s allowed a lot of people into the business that should never be here. No time, no pitch, no…..Oh well, we’ll fix it later. Bullshit! Do it right or go away! And the new world of ProTools and digital workstations means that everyone has a studio at home, so now I don’t see the other cats I like to play with as much. It’s not nearly as much fun and creative to just sit in a guy’s garage and overdub bass with no input and hang with other players. When we used to do dates together, there was always 4 to 8 players on the live date and ideas flew around the room. Now, when I get called for a full date of band in a real studio, it’s like a gift.

Keyboardist Rami Jaffee Interview Excerpt

Keyboardist Rami Jaffee
Interview Excerpt

One of LA’s most prolific session figures, Rami Jaffee received his break in the business playing keyboards for the platinum selling The Wallflowers. Rapidly expanding into session work, Rami’s played on recordings by diverse acts like Fall Out Boy, LeAnn Rimes, Pearl Jam, Melissa Etheridge, Keith Urban, and Ziggy Marley among many others.  He’s also now an unofficial member of The Foo Fighters.

Give me some background on how you got into session work?
When I first started The Wallflowers in the early 90’s, I met Benmont Tench (the keyboardist from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) through Jakob (Dylan – singer for The Wallflowers). Benmont took a liking to me and asked if it was okay to hand off my number when he passed on a session. Let’s just say now I owe him a little something!

What do you bring with you to a session?
it really depends on what they (producer, band, artist, etc) want. I’m mainly asked to do my Hammond B-3 organ stuff, but sometimes it’s just “I need accordion on one song”. Bringing clients into my studio is usually the smarter idea. That way, all the toys are at our disposal when I first hear the songs.

Is your stage rig different from your recording rig?
Most of the time. When I was in The Wallflowers, I really stayed with a select few staples; the B-3, an upright piano, and a Mellotron. Now, in the Foo’s, I use that set up but add an accordion, a Casio SK1, a Wurli (Wurlitzer electric piano) and a bunch of Memory Mans (Electro-Harmonix delay pedals).  My recording rig for a studio session might consist of that gear, but might reach further into the toy box too.

What do you like in your headphone mix?
You know those fancy headphone mix stations? Yeah, they’re scary. I’d like to start with where the mix is at because most of the time, it’s towards the end of tracking so the mix can be rather full already. I want to hear where the song is at so I can add to it in proper proportion. Having said that, sometimes I need some more drums so I can lock in better (don’t we all?).

What do you think the defining moment for a session player is?
When you realize you’re making a song better. I’m not going to say, “When you stop jerking off,” because sometimes that’s just what the song needs. You just have to know, otherwise, the producer throws tomatoes at you!

What do you see that’s common with all good session musicians?
What I see is that look of “How the hell did we get so totally blessed to be part of all this?” (laughs). Really, I think we’re all different, but what may link us all together is our ability to put the ego in the back pocket and play for the song in a way that heads it in the right direction… #1 on the charts!

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
That’s tough to say. Maybe I’d say to stop playing so busy and to simplify parts, but recently I’ve found that sometimes you can add excitement by getting into the busy playing world. Hey, if a song has a bunch of boring playing out of respect to pop genre, it needs some wackiness. You just gotta rip some character!

Any advice for someone starting out doing session work?
Yes. Please make music better! Listen to the music! Try your hardest to read the artist and the producer! Do your best to get your point across to the engineer! Use all dialogue possible with each and every one involved! These things can make or break the charts! Don’t think, “Oh, whatever,” even if the studio atmosphere is chill. This is music that, at best, will live on way after us. Show some soul, Mama!

What do you consider your big break?
My big break in session work was mainly from Benmont Tench passing my number along to the biggest producers around. Being a player after Benmont’s style, being a Grammy winner, and selling millions of albums didn’t hurt either.

If you were able to go back to those early bands that you played in, what kind of advice would you give yourself?
Oh gosh. Let’s start with “What the hell is wrong with your hair??!! (laughs)”  Seriously, I’d probably say, “Please listen to the band!”  I swear, when you’re young, your ego is so swollen that you probably barely listen to anyone.

What was your worst session?
Probably one of those where the producer is arguing with the artist about where the song should go and the argument concerns what I’m playing, and all while I’m sitting there trying to play and ignore calls from my ex-wife’s lawyer! (Well, you asked!)

What was your best?
I think where I genuinely feel that I played the right thing for the song and the artist and producer feel I took it to a place they never knew existed.

What kind of sessions are the hardest for you?
Believe it or not, the kind where the singer or producer has an idea and shows me on the keyboard. Even if it’s an easy part, I have a weird mental block on other people’s style and not just flowing with my own instincts. It’s funny because that’s completely opposite from most players!

What do you hate about recording?
When a producer or artist is letting their life difficulties take over while they work! It’s totally understandable and I can relate because the lives of musicians and producers do have drama, but when it reflects on the attitude of the session and you’re asked to go circling around different keyboards and styles, you’re going through useless motions sometimes. When I’m producing and those scary moments in someone’s personal or professional life come up, I make the call right away and say “Can we try this tomorrow?” It’s a simple call really.

Buy This Book