- Published Mar 20, 2013 in In The Studio
- Read time: about 2 minutes
It can be nerve-racking to have that little red light on while you’re playing a song for the first time. But master the talent and you’ll always have a gig.
Early in my music career it occurred to me that if I could set myself apart from the crowd, it might be easier to get gigs that would pay the rent. My next realization was that, out of the very few people who read music at all, even fewer of them could walk into a session cold and hammer out a great part based on a chart they just got a few minutes before.
So this became one of the unique things I could offer producers who were looking to save time and money, the kind that really adds up over a handful of sessions. Perfecting this kind of talent takes a lifetime. But here are a few tips to help you get started:
1 Scan the whole chart from beginning to end.
If you only have a few minutes to get your head around a new chart, the first thing you want to do is scan the whole thing and look for the trouble spots. There might be a weird key signature change, a measure of two or a 1/16 note run you need to practice before the downbeat. Your best bet is to prioritize. You don’t have a lot of time to go over every note so find the difficult spots and give them all the attention you can. The idea here is to make sure you don’t completely drop out during every take when the hard parts come up.
2 Make note of the overlying harmony.
One of the first things I always do is figure out the basic chord structure and mark it on the chart. Even if the producer wants you to play the piece note for note, I like to make sure that, if I happen to get into trouble with a certain passage, at the very least I know I can do a little fancy footwork around the harmony. It’s not something you want to do too much of, but it can mean the difference between getting through a take or not. This works especially well for my instrument, bass, as I’m often encouraged to go “off the page” now and then to embellish a groove that just repeats itself anyway.
3 Don’t stop playing. Never stop!
At musical school, our instructors would literally yell at us if we stopped in the middle of a piece. This is the cardinal rule they want to drill into your head at the beginning. And it makes good sense as you rarely see Sting or Lady Gaga completely drop out in the middle of a song to find their place on the page again. The same is true in the studio but for different reasons. For one thing, you really don’t want to be the one guy on the session who makes the whole thing take 3 extra hours because you can never get all the way through a take. Another good reason to keep going is that fact that you never know when a happy accident can completely take a song from good to great. And, if you get into the habit of stopping every time you make a mistake or lose your place, you’ll never get into a groove. And neither will anyone else.