Session guitarists tend to be unheralded heroes who ply their trade behind a curtain of anonymity. Ironically, they also tend to be extremely accomplished players who possess versatility and improvisational skills necessary for accommodating a variety of styles. Some, including Duane Allman and Jimmy Page, go on to make names for themselves beyond session work. However, the following 10 players will forever be best known for their work behind the scenes.
As a founding member of the Stax Records in-house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Steve Cropper played on some of the most seminal recordings of our times. “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” “Knock on Wood” and “In the Midnight Hour” merely skim the surface of the contributions Cropper made as both a co-writer and a player. In 1996, Mojo magazine named him the greatest living guitar player.
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter
Although he’s best known for his ’70s stints with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, Skunk Baxter’s resume includes a variety of session work. Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow and Dolly Parton are among the many artists who’ve benefitted from Baxter’s six-string skills. It’s a little known fact that, in 1990, Baxter teamed with Joe Walsh, John Entwistle, Keith Emerson and Simon Phillips to form an aborted “supergroup” called “The Best.”
Joe Messina / Robert White
As primary players in the Funk Brothers, Motown’s in-house band, Joe Messina and Robert White supplied the riffs behind classic hits by the Supremes, the Temptations and the Four Tops, among others. In his early days, as he was developing his style, Messina was known for playing a Gibson L-5.
During his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, Tommy Tedesco played on recordings by everyone from the Beach Boys to Ella Fitzgerald. In addition, several TV theme tracks — including those for Bonanza and Batman — bear his trademark licks. Guitar Player magazine once dubbed him the most recorded guitarist in history.
Best known for his work in Toto, Steve Lukather has in fact put his distinctive stamp on more than 1,000 albums. Known for his versatility, his credits include recordings made with Michael Jackson, Jackson Browne and Don Henley. Lukather is also a prolific songwriter who’s written hits for artists as diverse as George Benson and the Tubes.
Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor represent just a smattering of the artists who’ve enlisted the six string services of David Lindley. A renegade when it comes to equipment, Lindley has often used cheap department-store guitars to capture a distinctive sound. Those incendiary solos you hear on Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” are Lindley’s handiwork.
During the ’70s, Larry Carlton played on up to 500 recording sessions per year, working on albums by Steely Dan, Billy Joel and even the Partridge Family, among many others. He launched a solo career in 1977 which saw him move in a jazzier direction. Carlton’s ever-present ES-335 has earned him the nickname “Mr. 335.”
Jesse Ed Davis
One of John Lennon’s favorite guitarists, Jesse Ed Davis worked with such diverse artists as Albert King, Steve Miller and Lennon himself on several of the latter’s albums. His appearance as a featured guest during George Harrison’s “The Concert for Bangladesh,” in 1971, served notice to the public at large of his extraordinary talents.
One of Britain’s most versatile session players, Chris Spedding has played on recordings by Roxy Music, Elton John and Paul McCartney, among many others. It’s a little known fact that he also produced the Sex Pistols’ first demos in May 1976. Through the years Spedding has favored Les Paul Jrs, Flying Vs, and SG Jrs, as well as the J-200 for acoustic work.
In the late ’50s, as head of RCA Nashville, Chet Atkins further popularized country music by developing the “Nashville Sound.” His trademark picking style graced countless recordings, including albums by Jerry Reed, Floyd Cramer and Les Paul. One of the guitar world’s most important pioneers, Atkins was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.