I love this phrase!
Be ready so you don’t have to get ready.
I heard a friend of mine use it the other day and remembered just how spot on it is for musicians whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been in the game for 30 years.
When I was a teenager there were 2 DVD’s I used to watch on repeat – they were the Justin Timberlake Future Sex/Loveshow (no way is that £35…you can find it cheaper!) and Jools Holland Hip Hop and Soul. These were the DVD’s that made me want to be a session bassist and carved out a very particular style in my playing. Most of my time at music college was spent watching these, learning stupid Victor Wooten tunes and transcribing out Chaka Khan lines. After a whole load of time doing this on repeat, I thought to myself, “you’re alright at bass”. So off I set, bass in one hand, manuscript paper in the other, out into the world of session bass playing feeling pretty self assured that the world wasn’t ready for what I had to offer. Ok, i’m both paraphrasing and exaggerating my entire teenage years, time at music college and my level of confidence/ability – but, whatever my mindset really was back then, it certainly wasn’t ready for the music industry.
I remember my first ever pop session, it was for a guy called Tyler James and it felt amazing to finally get on the session ladder. I learnt the tunes like they were the only songs in existence, but, whilst my ability to be professional was ready, there were so many things that really weren’t ready – these are things that I thought I would share as I still find that if i’m not prepared in these areas today then I end up getting caught out.
Having the right gear for the gig you’re called for is super crucial, knowing how it works is more crucial and making sure that it actually does work is even more crucial-er.
Before you even rock up to a rehearsal or gig, what are you going to take with you. How big is the gig? Does it warrant 2 8×10 cabs? or, conversely is your 2×6″ micro bass amp that you can fit in your pocket going to look really dumb on a 60ft stage? If this is a folk gig, bring a 4 string passive bass instead of your 6 string Ken Smith. It’s even possible that your £200 second-hand strat could be more appropriate for the gig than your £3k PRS…seriously!
On top of bringing the right gear, you need to know how to use it…inside out and backwards. Know how to get the same result in 3 different ways. In the last 2 months I’ve been asked to change the EQ on my preamp to fit around the frequencies of the kick drum sample, create a side chain effect on my Moog (using an external sample, not just ADSR filters) and sample a bass sound from a song to use in Ableton – the only reason I can do these things on demand (which, to some people might be incredibly simple), is because I know how to use my gear.
Lastly, does your gear work? Do you test it/keep it clean before you gig? Don’t get caught out by being lazy or under-prepared with your gear – if it doesn’t work, it only looks bad on you. You’re only as good as the gear you use.
I wasn’t too sure what to label this point, but instead of flexibility I toyed with improvisation, being put on the spot and wtf was that arrangement.
You can learn tunes until you are blue in the face and your fingers are bleeding, but, I guarantee, when you step into rehearsals, something will be different to what you have practised at home. It might be as little as the tone of the guitar which clashes with the tone of your synth, or a monitor mix being slightly off, or, it could be as complex as an entirely new arrangement. What will make you stand out as a musician is the speed at which you can pick up these changes and make them sound as solid as what you learnt at home.
I think you can practice this though, I do it by just sticking Spotify on shuffle and learning songs, lines and licks as quickly as possible. Really, it comes down to having a good ear, the technical ability to adopt the changes and a good memory/focus – 3 skills that I think are the most important for any session musician.
Let’s go back to my first pop session. I bought 2 Gallien Krueger 4×10 cabs and a brand new bass amp head specifically for the gig – so I knew the gear was on point. I had learnt the tunes so hard I reckon I could still play then now without practice, and I wasn’t rubbish at picking up the new arrangements either. But, I’ll never forget the phone call I got from the MD asking me to get a haircut!!!!
I hadn’t even considered the fact that I don’t just need to sound like the part, but I need to look the part too. I wasn’t even offended, I was enlightened!! I literally got myself straight down to Tony and Guy and said, “make me look cool” – make of that what you will – I think they did the best they could!
Here’s footage from when we did Live Lounge post hair cut…it’s also my first ever live lounge. Have a listen with headphones:
Do as you’re told
This is a biggie for me! I’m always right – it’s such a curse but I just have to live with it. Obvs I’m joking (lolz) – but I used to really struggle being told to do something differently to what I think is right and it’s an attitude I’ve had to seriously confront, because, when you are in a session you are there to serve the gig and do what the MD is asking you to do.
I’m a 5-string, big sounding, gospelchops.com, active bass kind of guy – I never used to rate the sound of passive basses at all, I thought they were a sign of weakness. I’ll never forget being in rehearsals a few years ago, playing a tune and the MD asked me to switch to a p-bass, to which I replied, “are you sure”? The MD, who I won’t name, but I’m almost sure will read this post was genuinely lost for words at me thinking I knew better than him about the show he was putting together. Reluctantly I did a run through on my p-bass, which the MD recorded and played back to me – honest to God, it sounded spot on. I’ll never forget this, mostly because this MD brings it up at most available opportunities, but also because I learnt a very serious lesson that day – do as you’re bloody well told!
I did a session for Martin Garrix a few months ago (coincidentally the same MD) for the MTV EMA’s – it’s a very synth-heavy bassline, I went into the session with a sound made up on my Moog, the original sound sampled in Ableton and an interpretation of the line on my bass. Having these options ready meant I could ask the MD if he wanted to hear how it sounded on bass, rather than being stubborn about playing it the way I think it should be played. If I remember rightly, I was asked to try it on bass anyway and that’s how we ended up running the song…it actually sounds dope, plus there are fireworks – here it is if you want a listen!
Alright, let’s wrap this one up. I think my main point is this – ability is only a proportion of the skill you need as a session musician. It’s important to stay on top of your game musically and continue to practice and hone your craft – so that you can handle whatever is thrown at you, but, there are so many other factors that you need to prepare in advance so you’re not caught off guard when the call comes in.
So, like a good sermon, I’ll finish with one of my favourite phrases:
Be prepared so you don’t have to get prepared.
If you get a call for the biggest gig of your life today – are you ready for it?
Let me know what you think below, share on the old book face and subscribe to get post updates. I’m working on posting regularly but with more broad subject matters, so let me know if there is anything you’d like me to talk about.
Lots of love.