Michael Jackson, Jerry-Lee Lewis, Diana Ross, Elton John and Lionel Ritchie have all produced some incredible music throughout their careers. And we're willing to bet good money that you're familiar with songs by ALL of these great artists. There's also a good chance that you've watched the movies 'Jaws' and 'The Godfather', along with at least one episode of 'Batman' or 'Starsky & Hutch', and loved the music or soundtracks to all of them. There may even be fans of musical theatre reading this article that adore the original cast recordings of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ or ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’. And it’s probably impossible for you to NOT have encountered some of the excellent tunes featured in Disney productions (those of you with kids are most likely experiencing this on a daily basis…)
But here's the thing; all of the music produced by the artists we've mentioned, or contained within the films and shows we've listed, features some pretty amazing guitar playing on the recordings. And who's playing that guitar? You don't usually see Diana Ross or Elton John holding a 6-string on stage. Batman never kept a Stratocaster in the Bat-cave (unless Alfred had it neatly tidied away in a cupboard). Baloo the bear was too busy dancing in ‘The Jungle Book’ to concentrate on strumming anything. And no great white shark has ever been known to play even a simple blues solo, either on or off the big screen.
The answer lies in that often-unsung group of professionals known as session musicians. Instrumentalists (and sometimes singers) with the skills to read, write, jam or improvise basically any type of music in pretty much any situation. These are the people behind the scenes in studios, forming the backing band for a major solo artist on stages throughout the world, and generally blowing your mind with their ability to produce sonic genius on demand.
A full list of the session guitarists that have shaped music history over the years could easily fill a book, never mind a blog. But here's a list of best session guitarists that you've listened to but probably never heard of...
9 Best Session Guitarists
One of the Nashville greats, Hank Garland was a true virtuoso, using his jazz-rooted playing to set the bar by which Nashville’s Country and Rock’n’Roll guitarists have been judged ever since. Alongside a huge body of work with Elvis Presley (who described Garland as “one of the finest guitar players anywhere in the country today), Hank contributed to recordings with Patsy Cline, The Everly Brothers, Don Gibson, Brenda Lee, Charlie Parker and Roy Orbison to name just a few. Gibson based much of the design of their Byrdland electric guitar on Garland’s specifications, and gave him the #2 instrument off the production line. All this in a career that lasted a mere 15 years before a car crash tragically curtailed his playing.
A founding member of Stax records house band ‘Booker T & the M.G’s’, and representing Memphis in this article, Steve Cropper (aka ‘The Colonel’) has been described variously as “the greatest living guitar player” by Mojo magazine, and “Perfect, man” by Keith Richards. Even Hendrix once cited him as an influence. Never mind his awesome work on-screen in the ‘Blues Brothers’ and on-stage with Bob Dylan – you can hear Cropper’s superb playing on tracks by artists ranging from Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding to Jeff Beck and Sam & Dave (including that epic riff from ‘Soul Man’). The only reason he never worked with The Beatles was due to Brian Epstein’s concerns about security…
Guitar Player once described Tommy Tedesco as “the most recorded guitarist in history”, and we’ve no reason to argue with that, although they failed to mention his skills on ukulele, mandolin, sitar and many other stringed instruments. A key member of the legendary LA ‘Wrecking Crew’ collective of session musicians, Tedesco’s CV is beyond impressive. He’s lent his guitar genius to the music of The Beach Boys, Barbara Streisand, Cher, Elvis, Zappa, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, the list just goes on! Not to mention background music in films like ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Deer Hunter’, or television themes for shows like ‘Batman’ and ‘Starsky & Hutch’. Working with him must have been fun too – he apparently turned up for one session dressed as a boy scout!
Originally a New York native (where he first worked with James Taylor), Kortchmar’s musical journey took him to London before finally reaching California, where his contributions to the singer-songwriter sound of the 1970s were extraordinary. Whether independently as a session player, or as part of legendary LA instrumental rock group ‘The Section’, the guitar of Danny Kortchmar can be heard supporting music by Harry Nilsson, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King (yes, that’s his playing on ‘Tapestry’). But he also found time to produce recordings for other artists you might have also heard of – Jon Bon Jovi and Tracy Chapman for example.
Berry Gordy moved Motown to LA in 1972, essentially dissolving the labels legendary group of session musicians known as The Funk Brothers, only a few of which decided to head out West. Joe Messina remained in Detroit, where he stopped playing for 30 years. But just consider his work up to that point. Even before his Motown recordings, Messina was part of the ABC Television studio band, playing in his mid-20’s with the likes of Charlie Parker, Jimmy Giuffre and Dizzy Gillespie. And when it comes to his studio credits, the list runs into the hundreds. Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, this man has worked with then all.
Another monster of the LA scene, Larry Carlton has taken his originally jazz-orientated guitar skills across an impressive collection of genres throughout a career spanning over 50 years. Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Quincey Jones, Dolly Parton, Sammy Davis Jr and the Partridge Family have all benefitted from his electric and acoustic playing (although the Gibson 335 remains the guitar he’s most associated with). Carlton is even a Grammy award winner, in recognition for the ‘Hill Street Blues’ theme – one of many film and television soundtracks he’s produced.
We could mention that he’s a founding member of Toto. We could drop a few names concerning the over 1500 albums he’s appeared on (Elton John, Paul McCartney, Miles Davis, Lionel Ritchie etc etc). We could talk about his Grammy award for the George Benson song ‘Turn Your Love Around’. But let’s keep it simple; it’s Steve Lukather’s guitar playing that you hear throughout most of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album. That should cover the scope of this man’s awesomeness.
Crossing the Atlantic, we come to the work of British guitarist Chris Spedding, who proves that you don’t need an LA Zip code to stay busy as a session player. Over 40+ years he’s contributed to recordings by Elton John, Brian Eno, Jack Bruce, Art Garfunkel, Katie Melua and many more. You can also hear him on the original recording of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, and it’s his production skills on the first demos by The Sex Pistols. All this and he’s still found the time to be in no less than 11 bands over the years, including Nucleus which took first prize at the 1970 Montreux Jazz Festival.
Yes, this is a guitar blog, but we can’t ignore the bassists. So let us hail the indisputable first lady of the 4-string. Carol Kaye’s playing appears on over 10,000 tracks (and not just bass – that’s her guitar you hear on Ritchie Valen’s ‘La Bamba’) and has been cited as a major influence by Paul McCartney. As a member of the LA Wrecking Crew she’s recorded with The Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, The Monkees, Frank Zappa, Tina Turner, the list is truly formidable! When you listen to ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ by Nancy Sinatra, it’s Carol Kaye’s bass notes that are telling your boots to walk…
And there you have it – just a brief glimpse into the frankly astounding world of session guitar playing history. This is making me feel like a massive under-achiever, so I’m off to do some practise. Until next time…