Even with so many great drum programs on the market, in my humble opinion, the best drums are live drums. And you might be surprised to find out that some of your favorite live drum tracks were played by session drummers .
You may have heard the term “ session drummer” pop up at a studio session or live gig and thought to yourself,
What do these people actually do?
In this all-encompassing guide to session drummers, we're going to talk about what it is that they do, why you might consider hiring a session drummer, how to start your own journey as a session drummer, and some of the best session drummers of all time whose names you should probably know.
What Is a Session Drummer?
A session drummer is essentially a drummer for hire.
A band, artist, or producer will contract a drummer to work with them short term. The role of a session drummer will depend on the project at hand. For example, some session players are needed to track live drums in the studio for singles or albums, while others are required to play in the backing band for an artist on tour.
However, the landscape for session drummers has changed drastically in recent years. With the slew of new online gigging platforms, many session players are finding new ways to collaborate and make a living.
What Does a Session Drummer Do?
As I said before, the role of a session drummer will depend entirely on the project at hand.
One of the most common roles a session drummer might have is playing as a studio drummer on particular recordings, such as an entire song, a specific part of a song, or throughout a whole full-length album.
Some people will refer to these professionals as “studio drummers,” as they work with bands, musicians, and producers who require drum accompaniment in their studio recordings.
While it used to be the case that an artist or producer would sit in the studio with a session drummer to record, remote collaboration is becoming more popular than ever, allowing studio drummers to record in their own studios and send stems to their clients.
Drummers not working on studio recordings will often find work in the live touring world. As a result, some people may refer to these professionals as “touring drummers.”
The same player who played in the studio sessions will often go out on tour as the backing drummer.
However, there are no golden rules, and many professional drummers don't like to go on tour as they have commitments at home. It is also the case that some albums or projects include several backing drummers for different tracks.
Why Hire a Session Drummer?
So, what are the benefits of hiring a session drummer?
More and more high-quality drum programs are finding their way into the market, giving producers the freedom to create their own drum tracks at home. In many ways, programmed drums are the dominating force in modern music.
However, that doesn't mean there aren't many upsides to hiring an experienced session drummer.
For starters, when you work with any session musician, you get the freedom to do whatever you want. The creative collaboration possibilities are nearly endless. You may be able to crank out ideas that you would have never thought of on your own.
From experience, I can tell you that sampling and programming drums requires a lot of time and effort and can be very complicated if you aren't used to doing it.
With a real drummer at your disposal, you can create tracks that gel with precisely what you hear in your head.
Do note that live drums are probably some of the most complicated instruments to record. You want to have an expert by your side who can provide you with the technical knowledge and tools to record drums that will fit within the scope of your project. This can mean finding a suitable space to record your drums, the right microphones for a particular drum kit, and an engineer with a well of techniques for dialing in specific drum tones.
Remember, you don't have to hire a session player for your entire project.
You might just consider hiring a drummer to lay down some cool breaks, so you can chop them up and sample them at a later time. You may even just want some cool cells for a track that you've already made.
Where to Look for Session Drummers
I believe one of the best ways to find a session drummer is to start locally. If you live in a larger city with a solid music scene, you might consider asking around to see if any of your musician friends know any good drummers.
It's much better to get a recommendation from someone you trust and potentially work in person with a drummer if you have a very specific set of ideas in mind.
The one thing to note is that it can be a bit difficult to find local drummers that have very specific skills or sounds that you're looking for. For example, you might have a large network of rock and metal drummers, though you're looking for someone that can match the neo-soul Questlove style.
One of our absolute favorite platforms for finding remote session drummers is SoundBetter. Whether you're looking for a seasoned pro or to save some money and work with someone who might just be getting out of music school, you can find what you're looking for on this platform.
Beyond helping you find drummers for various projects, whether big or small, remote collaboration is one of the best ways to extend your network reach beyond your surrounding community.
How To Start a Career as a Session Drummer
If you are looking to become a session drummer yourself, you’ll want to start by networking. Work isn't going to come to you, even if you're the best drummer in the world. You have to build relationships and make new connections to get the word out that you're available for work.
One of the best things you can do these days is to build an online presence. For example, you might consider building an Instagram page where you can show off your chops and provide people with examples of your past projects. Having a website and social media platforms can give people a better insight into who you are as a person and a professional musician.
If you don't already have a website or social media accounts showcasing your drumming, start building in today. Once you have those up and running, get out and build relationships with local music programs, studios, and venues to begin expanding your network.
Top 8 Session Drummers of All Time
Steve Gadd has played drums on more than 630 recordings and is one of the most influential drummers of all time. Many consider him to be among the most elite session musicians on Earth. Blicher Hemmer Gadd, Steve Gadd’s jazz band, recently put out a unique documentary film called “The Concert in Eddis Old Car Workshop.”
In this film, he and his band members discuss collaboration and the joy of making music with one another. It's a must-watch for any burgeoning session musician.
Al Jackson Jr.
At one point in time, Al Jackson Jr. was one of the most prominent session musicians in the music industry, producing instrumentals for Booker T. & the M.G.’s during his time with Stax. He would eventually get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 with his band.
In 2015, Al was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Many called him the Human Timekeeper for his expert ability to hold down a Groove.
As one of the hardest-working drummers in music, Al left his stamp on more than 650 studio recordings.
James Lee Keltner
James Lee Keltner takes the cake as the most-recorded studio drummer of all time. As of today, Keltner has played on more than 975 recordings.
Just about anyone in the music business you can think of, he has probably worked with. Some of his biggest work has actually been in the movie business, however, and he is known for playing drums on Across the Universe (2007), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Man of Steel (2013).
Max Lemuel Roach was a 20th-century legend and one of the forefront pioneers of bebop and American jazz. Many consider him to be one of history's most influential drummers, as he had the ability to switch between styles with natural inclination.
A few of the jazz legends he played with included Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie.
In 1980, he was inducted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame. In his lifetime, he put his signature on more than 580 releases.
While he may have best been known as the drummer Toto, Jeff Porcaro was also one of the most active record producers and songwriters of his time. As a working session musician, he played on hundreds of albums and recorded more than 570 singles and movie scores.
With such a genuine mark on music, Porcaro made his way into the drumming Hall of Fame.
Kenny Aronoff has become somewhat of a go-to session musician in American music. In 1980, he got his big break playing for the John Mellencamp band, recording ten albums and touring with him for more than 17 years.
In addition to his time spent with Mellencamp, he became an enormously successful studio musician. You can hear Kenny’s playing on more than 357 studio releases, making him one of the most prolific drummers in rock music.
Hal Blaine was one of the most influential drummers in rock and roll. He made a name for himself recording drums in the LA-based session musician crew, The Wrecking Crew.
At the time of his passing, he had played on more than 35,000 sessions, 150 of which made it to the top 10. He worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Paul Simon, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, John Denver, and more.
Beyond performing with musical artists, he also recorded a number of soundtracks for iconic shows, such as Batman and The Brady Bunch.
Blaine was eventually introduced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
The Swampers, otherwise known as the Muscle Shoals rhythm Section, was one of the top studio house bands from the 1960s to the 1980s. This band played on a number of platinum hits, and one of these starring members was the band’s drummer, Roger Hawkins.
Hawkins had a very extensive resume, working with artists like Albert King, Eric Clapton, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and more.
Walk to the Beat of Your Own Drum
The more and more you listen to music with an analytical year, the easier it becomes to hear when a track is made using programmed drums versus a real drummer.
Now, I feel it's important to say that there is a place for both of these methods, and programmed drums work beautifully in several genres, especially in the world of electronic music.
However, when it comes to more organic genres, such as rock, country, neo-soul, and R&B, having real drums completely alters the sonic landscape in the best way possible. A great session drummer can bring a sense of space and humanity into a sound recording.
If you are working on a track that needs some rhythmic life breathed into it, consider hiring a session drummer.