This question pops up a lot with professional musicians. In this article I want to focus on what I think is the most important skill a session guitarist has and answer based on my personal experience and the experience of many of the session greats.
What’s the most important skill for a session guitarist?
In one of my prevous articles I mentioned the following skills as the one a session guitarist needs:
- Ear accuracy
- Music memorization
- Instrument proficient
- Vast repertoire of genres
- Gear and tone understanding
- Good communicating level
- Entrepreneurial & self-management
Apart from the business and tone related skills, all others are connected to this one skill.
After many recording sessions, good and bad, and after following for years some of the session greats like Tom Bukovac and Tim Pierce, I formed an opinion on what would be the one thing that separates the boys from the men in the session guitarist world.
This might sound obvious, but it all depends on what you do with the frets and strings you are given! So the answer depends on how well you know those frets.
In other words, the most important skill a session guitarist needs is fretboard knowledge!
Fretboard knowledge explained
What does it really mean to know the guitar fretboard and how is that related to the session world?
The concept of the fretboard knowledge has been somehow mixed up a lot during recent years from the many available online tutorials giving different answers to the same question. And actually none of the answers is wrong, the difference lies in the goal you want to achieve.
Ultimately fretboard knowledge from the perspective of a session guitarist is the ability to instantly play any lick or voicing your knowledge everywhere on the fretboard without thinking about it.
Learning the fretboard implies learning all the following aspects of music/guitar playing
- Ear training
- Learning chord/triad shapes
- Memorising notes and intervals
- Left hand dexterity
- Muting efficiently
The first in the list is ear training, because you should be able to recognize what you are playing to the extent that fingering chord voicing, different intervals or licks comes not only from memory.
Memory is limited, while your ears are limitless.
For some people, fretboard knowledge is knowing your chords, scales and probably your Modes. Some players, like myself, base fretboard knowledge a lot on knowing triads and the CAGED system. All the ways are right and the method you choose does not dictate your proficiency.
But what’s always there is the ability to find shapes, not just memorise and the ability to finger them while not allowing any unwanted notes. That’s where hand dexterity and muting come in hand.
Tom Bokuvoc, Aka Uncle Larry, Nashville’s first call for session work has his own triad based method which he humbly calls “The Secret.”
Why is learning the fretboard so important?
Imagine having a complex chord chart in front of you and you are recording a session or playing a gig with another guitar player.
If you are asked both to play rhythm, you have 2 choices, either go with the common chords, or support the other guitar player by playing in a totally different area of the fretboard the same notes.
If you are asked to play lead over that very tricky progression, the only thing that will save you is a combination of your ears and how well you know the triads of the chords in all positions of the neck.
If you want to create a special sounding guitar part or even write a good guitar song, using all the “unusual” shapes is one of the best ways to do it. Just thinking of the many songs you learned and thought “wow, is that thing I’m fingering here really an A minor and how the hell did they think about it”
The goal of all musicians is to be Free, knowing the fretboard is what gives you that Freedom!
A way to help you learn the Fretboard
The internet has helped guitar players advance to new levels of proficiency in recent years. Even though there are aspects of which might have also harmed guitarists in forming “their style” and put them to nonsensical comparisons to guitarists online.
One very helpful solution to master the guitar fretboard in the Fretboard Geek Web App
With it’s 14 drills it includes exercises for both ear training and mastering the fretboard of not only the 6 string guitar but also 4, 5, 6 string bass & 7 and 8 string guitar. Some session guitarists may also appreciate the mandolin drills, since it’s usually session guitarists playing mandolin in sessions.
Sign up for a free trial of all the Drills and see for yourself if it’s a solution that works for you. Also, you can check out Fretboard Geek’s cheat sheets for chords and scales to have a handy companion with you on rehearsal and sessions.
About the writer
I’m Altin, Online Session Guitar Player devoted to the cause of serving the song and adding depth and emotion to your music, with my playing. You can find out more about me and more articles in my website.