by Vanessa McGowan

Working With Session Musicians For Original Music Gigs & Tours

by Vanessa McGowan

Working With Session Musicians For Original Music Gigs & Tours

Imagine the following scenario: You’re a songwriter who usually plays solo. For your next recording and subsequent tour, you decide you want a fuller band sound, so you’re considering to work with session musicians. Would you know how to prepare for that? US-based bassist Vanessa McGowan kindly provided us with some notes on how to make the process as easy as possible for both parties.

Provide Number Charts (for all your songs)

If you can’t write number charts ask a friend to, or hire someone to do it for you. Whether you want your musicians to have the music memorised or not (tell them ahead of time if you absolutely don’t want them reading from charts at the gig, or if having them on the floor is ok) number charts help in the learning of the songs and reduce the chance for ambiguity about chords (is that a 3 chord or 1 with a 3 in the bass in the bridge?) and clarifies what may or may not be obvious from your recording (is there a quick 5 chord before the chorus?).

You can include comments for specific instruments if you want (guitar comes in verse 1, bass in pre-chorus) but it’s more important to have the form accurate, the chords correct and the chart clear and easy to read. Sometimes too many details will actually make the chart less helpful.

Learn the Nashville Number System for writing charts if you don’t already use it. As someone who reads music, tab and jazz chords, I vouch for its incredible usefulness with most popular music styles including country, folk and pop.

Make Recordings and Charts Easy to Download (and in one place)

Put all your tracks in a folder (Dropbox, Google Drive etc), put all your charts in a different folder and send links to both. Remove any superfluous files not related to the particular gig. Having alternate versions of songs is usually more confusing than it’s worth unless you can make it extremely clear why there are two versions (reference version 1 for chorus groove and version 2 for outro groove).

Backing Vocals

Remember that if you’re asking one of your band members to play as well as sing BVs then you’re asking them to do twice as much work for the same pay, so make it as easy as you can for them.

Have lyrics with the sections they are singing marked clearly. Tell them which parts to learn as clearly as you can (learn the highest melody, starts on an “A” in the pre-chorus). Providing lyrics not only makes it much easier for the person learning them, but also ensures you don’t get any weird mishearings of your carefully crafted words.

Running A Rehearsal

Musicians understand that not all singers/songwriters are trained or have the same skill-set as them (you have an entirely different and just as amazing skill-set that we would love to have too!), but whether you can do it yourself or not, someone needs to act as bandleader/musical director for rehearsals.

To keep the rehearsal moving along to a schedule and to work through conflicts when they arise. If you’re going to do it yourself make a plan for the order you’ll run the songs, stick to a timeline and don’t let the rehearsal go over. Make sure you know your own parts well so you’re not holding up the rehearsal with things you should’ve figured out at home.

If you don’t think you can lead the rehearsal, or you even just don’t want to, ask one of the musicians you’ve hired to take on that job (usually you’ll need to pay them a little extra). Even when everyone in the room has the knowledge and skill to be the bandleader you still need to nominate someone, otherwise you will find yourself in a frustrating and draining rehearsal with no-one directing things and likely will not get your songs rehearsed to the standard you want.

If you’re bringing people in for only a few songs (strings, horns, backing vocalists) plan the rehearsal so they’re not waiting around.


Be up front about the money situation from the very first text or email about it. Whether there’s no budget at all, or you can pay for the gig but not the rehearsal. Maybe the tour has a show rate but no travel pay or per diem.

Whatever the deal, make that part of your initial request to save confusion down the road.

Everyone needs to pay their bills and you should strive to pay your musicians what they’re worth whenever you can, but we all understand what it’s like to be self-funding a project and even the best musicians will still play for free or cheap sometimes if you ask them (and you follow the above tips to make it an easy and fun experience).

Just make it clear what you’re offering and let it be their (informed) choice.

Last Thoughts

My main piece of advice is to be clear, be concise, and remember that this might be the most important thing happening in your world, but it’s probably one of many gigs your musicians are playing that week, or maybe even that day!

Make their lives easier and you will get a better performance out of them and your songs will shine that much brighter.

Vanessa McGowan is a Fender and Aguilar endorsee originally from New Zealand, currently based in Nashville TN. She plays bass and sings backing vocals for a wide range of touring artists including Brandy Clark and Tattletale Saints.