A-list session bassist Mike Chapman (above) shared some great wisdom about being a session player in Nashville in the form of a 'pizza' at The Fillin' Station in Kingston Springs, TN at Eric Normand's first Berklee Alumni Jam Session on February 7, 2012.
Mike said that he believes there are a few key slices that make someone a great session player...
Talent/Skill- You've got to have the musical talent and skill to be a session player. In Nashville, this includes knowing the 'Nashville Number System,' a numerical system used as a road map in the studio to tell players what the chords are regardless of the key. He said this is part of being what he called studio ready.
Attitude- Be personable, positive and upbeat at sessions. Don't be 'that guy' that brings a negative vibe; ultimately you're in a service industry as a music professional.
Work Ethic- Show up the session at least 30 minutes early, be responsible and be ready to start on time. Some publishers and songwriters will need to record up to five songs in a three hour session, so you have to be ready to play.
Flexibility- Sometimes you have to read the minds of people that may not be able to give you concrete feedback in musical terms. It's good to be familiar with current hits in other genres in case someone says, "Can you play it like that Keith Urban tune or like the riff in that Lady Gaga song?"
Tasty- Make sure what you play is creative but tasteful. You might be able to but your own little twist on a George Jones song, but it still needs to sound like George Jones. Be creative within the boundaries you have to work with.
Mike grew up playing clubs in northern Alabama, when he and his friend Milton Sledge (drummer) hatched a plan to get out of playing in clubs to doing studio work. They worked locally doing demos for songwriters for free or $15 a song to get started, and over time, the songwriters they worked for ended up with publishing deals in Nashville. Those same songwriters hired Mike and Milton to come to town to play on their demos, helping them to begin to build relationships leading to more session work.
"We played on songwriters' demos, then got to know their publishers and song pluggers. These folks would hire us for more sessions. And, as I tried to do my best with the slices I've shared tonight, work kept leading to more work," said Mike.
It was during one of these sessions that he met Garth Brooks, then an unknown demo singer making $40 a song. They forged a friendship through playing sessions together, and when Garth was signed, his producer asked him if he had specific musicians in mind for his record. Garth asked for Mike to play bass on all of his albums (Milton was also recruited to play on the records by Garth's producer Allen Reynolds).
A genuinely nice and down-to-earth guy, Mike Chapman is a versatile musician who doesn't believe that 'it's better if it's old or it's better if it's new'; as he put it 'it's all good.' And with Mike behind the bass, I can tell you that is indeed all good!