Top Five Most Useful Pieces of Gear for a Session Guitarist That Most of Us Might Not Think Of
When it comes to important gear for a session guitarist to have, we all have heard the typical answers like a variety of amps and guitars ect.. And although that is one hundred percent correct, what are some pieces of gear that will make us, as session guitarists, a huge asset, but that we might not initially think of, or read about in the typical ‘what gear is useful’ articles? We will take a look at that here! This is not an exhaustive list of overlooked but useful gear, there are a lot of other pieces of gear that are very useful in a multitude of different ways. This is a list of gear that I have found in my own experience to be a lifesaver.
Earvanna Compensated Nut:
Honestly, when I first heard about these compensated nuts, I was very skeptical. However, at one point I decided to buy one just for the sake of trying it. When I got it, I got my tech to install it and set the guitar up with it and I was shocked at the results. Everything, across the fret board was perfectly in tune. Where I noticed the biggest change was in the root position area of the neck. All the ‘campfire chords’, as many people call them, sounded more in tune then I have ever heard them. Apart from myself enjoying playing more because I am really sensitive to tuning, I started having producers and engineers constantly commenting on how in tune I always sounded. And when you’re doing studio work, obviously tuning is huge. I even had some engineers/producers that I work with who are big on the ‘chord by chord’ method of recording guitars finding that they didn’t have to tune each chord as often, which greatly improved our recording time. Bottom line is that the longer we as hired musicians spend tuning our guitars, the longer we disrupt the creative process, and the whole point of being a session musician is to be someone who not only never disrupts the creative process, but actually helps it a long. So, anything that we can do to keep our instruments more in tune and intonated is a huge plus.
2. Palmer PDI-03:
I have probably gotten more mileage out of this unit than anything else musical that I have purchased. The PDI-03 is a speaker simulator that you plug your amps into and it acts as a load box so that you do not need a speaker cab, then provides speaker simulation. It can be run in one of two main ways, both of which are very useful.
First, you can take a speaker cable from your amp head or combo’s speaker out, directly into the PDI-03, then just take an XLR from your PDI-03 into your interface/preamp, or, if you’re playing live, into a PA. Then you’re able to play your amp with no speakers/cabs. The other way has you take a speaker cable from your cab’s speaker out directly into the PDI-03’s through jack, then take another speaker cable from the PDI-03’s speaker input jack into your heads speaker out jack, then take an XLR from the PDI-03 into your interface or PA.
With this second way of running the PDI-03, you’re able to still use a cab for recording, or on stage, but you are also able take a signal from the PDI-03 directly into your recording interface or PA. I have found that this second method is a huge bonus for when you know that the artist who is hiring you to play a show or tour is being filmed. The reason for this is that most people in professional film take the audio from the concert straight from the PA. So, if you use the PDI-03, then they are going to get a clean, attenuated signal from your amp. Generally speaking I have noticed a huge difference in video footage from when I was using the PDI-03, from when I wasn’t.
Furthermore, a big thing that separates this unit from other units like it is that it is all analog. This helps because, unlike a lot of other units like it, there is no upper mid fizz that I tend to hear with many of the older digital modeling units, and with many other speaker simulators/load boxes.
Also, the Palmer is very simple. It has two three way dip switches that control the high and low frequencies, and two volume knobs. One for the XLR out, and one for the ¼ inch out. And when you’re a working live or studio session musician, time is everything. We do not have the time to fiddle with knobs and switches forever, so to have something like this that is very simple and great sounding is essential.
3. D’Addario NYXL Strings:
Like the Earvanna Nut, I was very skeptical of these strings when I first heard about them. To be very honest, as much as I have always loved D’Addario products, I initially thought that the NYXL line was just a clever marketing ploy to sell strings at double the price. But when I eventually tried a pack, I noticed three main things right away.
First, when I was breaking in the strings, it only took one, two tops, tugs of the string to break it in. After that, it sat in tune perfectly. This is a huge lifesaver. If you’re in the studio, or onstage, and you break a string, you need to get it replaced within a minute, tops. So, you don’t have the time to be breaking in a string for minutes on end.
Secondly, they stayed in tune much longer, and under much more strenuous circumstances. I remember this fall I was playing an outdoor festival where the weather was minus 25. Normally extreme weather on either side or the spectrum will throw a guitars tuning for a loop. But the NYXL’s held tune amazingly.
Lastly, they stay bright sounding for way longer. We all know the telltale sign that we need a string change is when the strings start getting duller. Now I change my strings constantly before shows and sessions, but I have noticed on some guitars that I do not play as much, and as a result, do not get restrung as often, that the NYXL’s kept them bright sounding for much longer than normal strings. Bottom line, I have been a user of the standard D’Addario strings for years, but D’Addario made a believer out of me with these strings, they’re absolutely amazing!
4. True-Bypass Looper:
As session guitarists, or session bassists, almost all of us run a pedalboard of some sort. Now, when putting together a pedalboard, it is important to think of the two main jobs that we have. The first job is to get all the sounds that we will need for the gig/tour/session. The second job is to, without sacrificing the tones that we need for the gig, reduce the risk of a breakdown. Now, if we’re running a standard pedalboard, where all the pedals are being run in a line or the alternative method where they’re all in a rack being controlled by midi, if even one cable goes, finding the issue is like finding a needle in a haystack. Both of these two methods of running a pedalboard are only fullproof if we can afford to have a duplicate of the pedalboard or midi rack rig at the gig/session/tour. Having a duplicate is actually how a lot of the larger touring musicians who run midi switching rigs do it, and if you can have one then, especially the midi switching route is fantastic and a great way to go.
However, for those of us who can’t, a True-Bypass Looper is a great solution. They are units that you put at the bottom of your pedalboard that allow you to plug each of your pedals into a different ‘loop’. Then, you leave all of your pedals turned on, and you step on the loop that has your desired pedal plugged in to use it, and then step on the loop again to get rid of the pedal. The reason why this strongly reduces risk is that, because your sound is never running through any of the pedals unless you turn that pedals loop on, the only way for you to lose sound entirely is for the looper to break. Because of this, if you do loose sound, you immediately know what the problem is. And Loopers are cheap so it is easy to keep a backup. Another huge bonus of a looper is that when you are not using a pedal, it is not in your signal chain. This is a huge reason why almost every serious studio guitarist/bassist that I know who runs a pedalboard uses the Looper method; you don’t have much, if any, tone loss.
5. A Good Multi-FX Unit:
This one will probably have a lot of people either scratching their heads or angry, but just hear me out. It is important to notice that the important word in this heading is “good”. There are a lot of terrible multi-FX units out there, but within the last few years, some amazing units have been made. The two best that I have found are the Line 6 M13(or any of the other M-series pedals), and the Fractal Audio FX-8. Another great one is the Eventide Eclipse. A great Multi-FX board can be an asset to a session guitarist in a few ways.
First, it is a great backup. Imagine you have a normal pedal board and it goes down, but you do not have the time to fix it. You’re in the middle of a huge gig or session and its go time. You grab your multi-fx board that is programmed the same as your normal board, plug it in and you’re ready to go within thirty seconds, tops. That is what I call good risk management/problem solving.
Secondly, they’re great for fly dates. As a touring session guitarist, it is not always practical to bring a huge pedal board flying with us, as much as we would love to. When I fly, I often bring a multi FX unit with two OD’s and a Volume pedal, put them in a small bag, and bring them on the plane with me as carry on. This way I get through the airport security faster, which keeps the tour manager/artist happy, and I don’t break my back having to carry or wheel around a big flight case.
Lastly, they’re great for studio work. One great thing about all three of the units that I mentioned is that they all have really easy and intuitive UI’s. If I am in a session and a producer, engineer, or artist asks me to get them some weird sound, it only takes me a few seconds, because the UI is easy, and I know it like the back of my hand.