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10 Great Session Guitarists

Michael Leonard
|
06.17.2014

You may think playing in a band is sometimes tough, but it’s nothing compared with being a session guitarist.

You’ll be playing other artists’ songs. You’ll be required to work very quickly. You often need to be able to interpret others’ ideas without your own ego coming into play. And you need to be super-versatile enough to change playing style and tone for whatever your paymasters demand. But also to have your own ideas to flesh-out the bones of a song-in-progress. It’s a lot to ask. As such, the best session guitarists just might be some of the greatest guitarists ever. Here are just 10 masters who made their mark, with tips and tricks on what it takes to deliver when that recording light turns red.

Steve Lukather

Lukather’s résumé is phenomenal. He’s not only a cornerstone of Toto and also a solo artist, but as a sessioneer Lukather has played on over 700 albums. Rod Stewart, Chicago, Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, Don Henley and Michael Jackson are just a few who’ve called on his versatility. He’s not so “famous” for his work as others: people always talk about Eddie Van Halen rockin’-up Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” but EVH was just the solo. “Luke” delivered the killer riff and rhythms on his ’59 Gibson Les Paul, a go-to of his session work, and the bass parts.

Lukather says: “People don’t really understand what a session player is. They imagine a guy sitting on a stool, reading dots. The work I did required some music-reading – that’s true – but there’s a lot more to it than that. We were hired – the guys I came up with, and myself – to essentially take sketches on a canvas, and help finish the painting.

“You have to have your sound, your own ideas, and an ability to understand and interpret ideas coming from someone who, in some cases, may not be very musical. And you have to be willing to change something you’ve already done. You have to leave your ego at the door.”

Read Gibson.com’s Steve Lukather interview.

Steve Cropper

Like Lukather, Cropper blurs the lines between a disciplined guitar-for-hire and creative tour-de-force. As a founder of Stax house-band Booker T and the M.G’s, he played on countless tracks by Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave (he co-wrote “Soul Man”), Otis Redding (he co-wrote “Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay”), Tower of Power, The Blues Brothers, The Jeff Beck Group and many more.

In 1996, Cropper was named “the greatest living guitar player” by the U.K’s Mojo magazine. What does Rolling Stone Keith Richards think of Steve “The Colonel” Cropper? “Perfect, man.”

Steve Cropper

Larry Carlton

In the 1970s, Larry Carlton played on up to 500 sessions per year. His playing has enriched albums by Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Sammy Davis, Jr, Herb Alpert, Quincy Jones, Paul Anka, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, The Crusaders, Dolly Parton and hundreds of others. Carlton’s ever-present Gibson ES-335 has earned him the nickname “Mr. 335” and his delicacy of touch is renowned. Joni Mitchell – Carlton is on her legendary album Court and Spark - said his playing was like “fly fishing.”

A masterfully versatile player. More from Larry Carlton.

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter

He was a member of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers in the ‘70s, but Skunk’s session work takes in artists diverse as Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Ricky Nelson, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, Gene Simmons, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand, and Donna Summer. Let’s just say he’s never short of work.

Learn more about the Gibson Skunk Baxter Firebird – it’s as versatile as he is.

Skunk Baxter Signature Firebird

Tommy Tedesco

And old-school session player in the days of sheet music, the late Tommy Tedesco was dubbed “The Most Famous Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of.” He had an incredible list of credits, including Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, The Mamas & the Papas, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Zappa, Ricky Nelson, Cher, Nancy and Frank Sinatra. He was the guitarist on TV/movie themes for Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, M*A*S*H, Starsky & Hutch, Batman and The Godfather. He was a key part of the famed “Wrecking Crew” group of ‘60s session players.

Tedesco said: “When that red light goes on, whether it’s running a race or playing guitar, whatever it is, all the adrenaline goes through the body. Some guys are at their best then, some say they’re at their worst. I’m at my best with the pressure.”

Learn more about Tommy Tedesco.

James Jamerson

Yes, Jamerson was a bassist. But his credits alone make him one of the greatest session players ever. As part of the Funk Brothers session troupe, he was the uncredited bassist on most of Motown’s hits in the 1960s and early 1970s – he played on 30 Number 1 singles. Jamerson rarely got written credit, but classic records by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Temptations, Gladys Knight, The Four Tops and many more mark him as a session legend.

Jimmy Page

In ‘60s London, the imposing “Big” Jim Sullivan ruled the session guitar roost. So when a young sessioneer called James Page also joined the party, hiring producers dubbed him “Little” Jim. Tom Jones, The Kinks, The Who, Marianne Faithful, Burt Bacharach, Joe Cocker and many others benefitted from “Little Jim” Page’s adaptability. But after a stint in The Yardbirds, Page would have his own vision… some wannabe band called Led Zeppelin, who you may have heard of.

Page later recalled: “My session work was invaluable. At one point I was playing at least three sessions a day, six days a week! And I rarely ever knew in advance what I was going to be playing. But I learned things even on my worst sessions – and believe me, I played on some horrendous things. But being a session musician was good fun in the beginning – the studio discipline was great. They'd just count the song off and you couldn't make any mistakes.”

Learn more about Jimmy Page’s 1960s Sessions.

Chet Atkins

In the late ’50s, Atkins was more than “just” a brilliant guitarist – he was head of RCA Nashville. A pioneer of the “Nashville Sound,” his sublime fingerpicking style and production skills graced countless recordings by the likes of Jerry Reed, Merle Travis, Waylon Jennings, Floyd Cramer and Les Paul. A true guitar legend of studio guitar.

Chris Spedding

Chris Spedding’s solo career was relatively low-key, resulting in only one U.K. hit, “Motor Bikin.” Watch the video. But as a session player, he’s appeared and recorded with Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, Elton John, Brian Eno, Jack Bruce, Nick Mason, Johnny Hallyday, Robert Gordon and Katie Melua, among many others. Spedding produced The Sex Pistols’ early demos and rumors still persist his guitar is somewhere in the mix of Never Mind the Bollocks. Yet also played guitar on the recordings of the U.K. TV kids’ show The Wombles and for teen-popsters The Bay City Rollers. That’s versatility.

Gibson Les Paul Jrs, Flying Vs, SG Jrs, and J-200s remain Spedding’s guitar squeezes.

Spedding says: “I would never have told anybody at a session I could sight read. I just kept quiet about that. What they really wanted is somebody eclectic enough to sort of draw upon all styles of music, which is what unintentionally what I've been doing since.”

Jimmy Johnson

Part of the original 1960s’ Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Johnson has a host of credits including Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, J.J. Cale and many more. He’s part-genius session guitarist, part studio sage. He notably worked as engineer on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, and produced early Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others.

There have been many other guitarists behind the scenes who make classic records sound classic without ever getting much of the spotlight. But that’s all part of the job. Are you up to it?

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