So you play guitar, you're real good, but you don't have a band/your band isn't taking off yet and you'd like to make a living playing music, one of the many options available is being a session guitarist; playing guitar on a recording session for someone's demo, album, film score/soundtrack, etc. there's enough money in this for you to make a decent living while you await rock stardom. I've worked on a few sessions for other people and just wanted to share what I thought were ten important things (in no particular order) a session guitarist should know.
Be On Time
Whether it's a free/cheap session for a friend or a major label studio session punctuality is the most important thing. You don't want to be wasting your buddy's time even if it is free because when it comes time for him to pay someone for a session he won't be calling you because you disrespected him by showing up 15 minutes late. In a studio situation time is money, and whoever is putting up the money has to pay for that studio time he was waiting for you to stroll into the session, meaning you'll never work on that level (or any other level for that matter) again.
There are very few second chances so respect everyone's time and view it as valuable and you'll be fine.
Seventy-Five percent of the time whoever wants you to play on their session will give you something to give you an idea of what the piece is before you go in the studio, be it sheet music, a rough demo, or if you're lucky the fully produced track just missing your guitar part. Whatever it is take it and get a few concrete ideas of what the guitar part should be before you get there. You don't want to show up to the session trying to figure out the guitar part. The time you're spending on that is costing somebody time and/or money. Ideally you want to be able to show up, go here are 5 ideas, lay them down, get paid and go.
Knowing what's goin on in the studio is also a large part of it. Never forget to ask, how are they recording (Analog or Digital) what kind of guitar sound they are looking for (Strat, Tele, Les Paul Hollow body Jazz) and if there's an amp/gear there, if he has an Amp and by some stroke of good fortune a lot of the pedals that you use, then all you may need is to throw a couple of guitars in the back of the car and go to the session. Ask as many questions as you need to so that all your bases are covered.
Try to talk to the producer and the artist on the session (if they aren't the same person) as much as possible to get a concrete idea about what they want from you before you go formulate your ideas.
Recording session can last anywhere from 3 - 10 hours depending on what kind of project your doing and when people have to spend a whole bunch of time with someone you wanna make sure that their attitudes don't suck. A musician's attitude has a lot to do with how the producer and/or the artist view them. Do you have to be their best friend? Of course not. But if you present yourself as a person someone can bear to be around for a long period of time then you're better off. Nothings worse than getting someone for a recording session and he/she is one cocky premadonna bastard.
When it comes to being a successful session guitarist versatility is key, every style you don't play and everything you can't do is a job you've lost. Ideally producers want to work with as few people as possible even if they do a rock session on Monday a Hip Hop session on Wednesday and a Country Session on Friday. He'd rather go to guy that could do everything than go to a bunch of guys that do one thing extremely well.
Communication Is Key
Ideally as a session player you would want a producer who speaks the same musical language that you do, everything flows perfectly and it's all peachy keen, unfortunately in the real world that's rarely the case. In a session it can range from someone who knows absolutely nothing about music to someone who knows so much about music it seems as if they're speaking Greek. Your job is to decipher what they are saying as soon as possible in order to communicate with them. For example I know that for a certain guy I work with a more soulful sound simply means he wants more low end.
Keep a log of the certain sounds and tones the producer and the artists like it allows things to progress faster and your not there for hours on a quest for the right sound.
Do Exactly As You're Told
Unless you're Slash or Dave Navarro, people aren't hiring you because you're you. You're being hired to come in and execute so it's important to do whatever the artist and/or the producer wants, if they want your creative input they'll ask, until that happens simply play it the way they want it played, no more no less. If you think the music sucks either don't take the job or grin and bear it. Nobody wants some crybaby guitar player moaning that he's not feeling the music. Nine times out of ten the producers/artists know exactly want they want their song to sound like so just do what they say.
Know What's In Demand
To be a good session player it's always good to be on top of things, part of that is knowing who needs guitarists and for what reason. For Example right now I'm being asked by a lot of would be rappers and hip-hop producers to come in and lay down tracks for their beats. The Majority of the time they simply want either 3 or 4 chords strummed on a steel string acoustic guitar or some fingerpicking stuff on nylon guitar, knowing that I have tried to step up my game in that regard. Next month it might be that there's a demand for heavy metal style or jazz style or country style. I guess it goes back to being versatile, but knowing what people need is important.
Don't Burn Bridges
As corny as it sounds you never know who's going to be in a position to help you be successful in the future. The guy who's recording in his parent's basement may turn out to be the next super producer, the girl with the nice voice you play on a session for may turn out to be the next pop starlet. If they were satisfied with the session that works in your favor, but never do things like talk about the people behind their back, leave a session screaming and hollering at someone, pull out a joint in the middle of a session (unless they're into that) just stupid stuff like that.
Respect everyone that you work with no matter what they may say, do, or act like. People will remember your skill and professionalism, but they'll also remember you acting like an ass.
Make Sure You Get Paid
Always make negotiations about payment/compensation before you record a single note. If it's a free session make sure that is clear before you go into record. Negotiate when you're going to get paid (generally you want someone to put something in your had before you start whether it be half the payment or the full amount) if it's a major label session they'll be contracts and there you're less likely to be screwed. But never leave a session without your check.
Always try to learn as much as you can about what goes on in the studio, if you know an EQ that worked well in protocols from another session, write it down and memorize it, when a producers lost he'll much appreciate that you know something other than what he hired you for. If you go to a session and they acted unprofessional, don't work with them anymore. Develop a way you like to work where you can go in and knock something out quickly.
I'm sure there are more things I haven't even thought of but I figure this is a good place to start.