Though guitarists tend to get a lot of the fame in bands, the same cannot be said about their studio counterparts. The countless session players who play on tons of records every year often get overlooked, overshadowed by the big names who hired them to play on the record. These players get forgotten, but they have played some of the most iconic riffs and solos ever.
In today’s article, we’re going to look at some of the greatest studio guitarists of all time. You may recognize some names, and others you might not know unless you’ve obsessively read through liner notes. Either way, these players are some of the best guitarists of all time, despite their lack of widespread fame. So let’s shine a light on these incredible players who have changed music for the better.
First up on this list is Larry Carlton, one of the more well-known session players. He has played on countless records, including some all time classics. Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Towns Van Zandt, Joan Baez, David Crosby, Michael Jackson, Tommy Emmanuel, Cass Elliot, Jerry Garcia, and more all called up Carlton to play on their records. With a list of names like that, it’s easy to see that he’s an incredibly well respected player.
Carlton became interested in guitar as a kid, starting lessons at age six. His early inspirations were jazz players like Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery. In the 70s, he found that session work was reliable and paid well enough to make it a full-time job. He’s played on hundreds of records since then, becoming one of the most in demand session players ever and earning over 100 gold albums.
In terms of playing, Carlton’s style leans heavily on his jazz influences. Even when playing on rock tracks, he likes to use jazz concepts like modal interchange, focusing on chord tones, and using unique and unexpected intervals. Though he’s certainly capable of playing “straight,” Carlton shines the most when he can work in some jazz and spice it up. Steely Dan’s Kid Charlemagne features arguably his most iconic solo, and it is a perfect example of Carlton’s signature mix of jazz, rock, and blues.
Chet Atkins is probably one of the more recognizable names on the list, mainly because of his own solo career and general importance to country music. That said, he was also a prolific session musician and producer that helped define the “Nashville sound.” Country music would not be the same were it not for Chet Atkins. From Jerry Reed and Willie Nelson to John Hartford and Dolly Parton, he either produced or played on records from some of country music’s most important artists.
Chet became a musician as a kid, learning ukulele and then fiddle. He eventually managed to scrape up enough cash for a proper guitar, and he quickly developed his skills. In his early 20s, he auditioned for Red Foley’s band and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. He then started to work on solo music and got the attention of RCA Victor. He started playing on records, became a session leader, and finally scored a big hit with his classic Mr. Sandman. Soon he was put in charge of RCA’s Nashville division, where he worked to revolutionize the country music sound.
Atkins’ style is instantly recognizable and unmistakable. He was heavily influenced by Merle Travis, adopting Travis picking into his own style. He was an incredibly proficient player, working in jazz influences from Django Reinhardt and Les Paul alongside the classic country influences. Chet is a guitar player’s guitar player, and his skills were unmatched. Though it’s not an example of him playing on someone else’s record, Mr. Sandman shows exactly why Chet Akins became such a respected guitarist.
The Wrecking Crew – Glen Cambpell, Tommy Tedesco, and Carol Kaye
The Wrecking Crew is one of the music industry’s most well-known session bands, only rivaled by The Band. They played on hundreds of records and had hundreds of top 40 hits while working as Phil Spector’s house band. Between their work for the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the Byrds, the Monkees, and the Mamas & the Papas, you’ve definitely heard them.
At the time, they were largely unknown, but they have since earned the recognition they deserve for their contributions to music. Though all members of the Wrecking Crew should get acclaim, the focus here will be on their two guitarists (Glen Cambpell and Tommy Tedesco) and bassist (Carol Kaye).
Glen Cambpell is the most famous of the three, having gone on to have a very successful solo career. Campbell was a remarkable acoustic player and was particularly fond of 12-string acoustics. He was a bit of a chameleon in terms of playing, able to switch between rock and jazz and blues and country effortlessly in an instant. He could also play just about any string instrument, whether it be guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, or something else.
Tommy Tedesco may be less well known than Campbell, but he’s just as great of a player. He was one of the most in demand session players of all time, being possibly one of the most recorded guitarists ever. His credits list is astonishing, ranging from Frank Zappa and the Fifth Dimension to Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis. He also played guitar on a number of movie soundtracks, including The Godfather, Jaws, and The Deer Hunter. Like Campbell, he was a virtuoso who could play nearly anything—no matter what genre.
Last but not least is Carol Kaye, the bassist of the Wrecking Crew. She’s not a guitarist, but it just wouldn’t be right to ignore her here. She took up session work after realizing it paid better and more consistently than jazz gigs, and the rest is history. She played some of the most iconic bass lines ever, and that’s not an exaggeration. These Boots Are Made For Walking, La Bamba, and Good Vibrations all wouldn’t be the same without her. She was also a trailblazer in the industry, being a woman session musician in a world largely dominated by men at the time.
It’s difficult to find an example that features all three of these musicians since the Wrecking Crew’s exact line-up varied from session to session, depending on the song’s needs and the musicians’ schedules. There are also countless songs that are great examples of the Wrecking Crew’s signature “Wall of Sound.” The Ronettes’ classic By My Baby is one of their more iconic performances however and features both Tedesco and Kaye. The 2015 Wrecking Crew documentary is also a great showcase of the band’s history and impact.
Steve Cropper is yet another prolific session guitarist that has largely gone under the radar. His playing is absolutely iconic, but most who have heard him probably don’t even know his name. He’s best known as the guitarist for Booker T. & the M.G.’s, but he’s played on countless records for many different artists.
Early in his career, he managed to woo Stax records’ founder. This led to him becoming the company’s A&R man, as well as being a founding member of their house band—Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Since earning his place in the music industry, he’s played on records for Neil Young, Otis Redding, Levon Helm, Rod Stewart, Albert King, Richie Havens, Ringo Starr, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, John Lennon, and many more. He also featured in the classic movie Blues Brothers as part of the band.
In terms of playing, Cropper is very versatile like most studio guitarists. He’s capable of playing on just about anything, whether it be jazz, country, rock, blues, R&B, or soul. His speciality though is soulful R&B infused rock and blues licks, which can be heard all over his work with Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Green Onions is a great example of Cropper’s soulful and bluesy playing.
Steve Lukather is the guitarist and founder of Toto, known for their classic hit which has turned into a social media phenomenon—Africa. However, he is also a prolific session musician with a stunning list of albums he played on. He may be more well-known for his work with Toto, but he deserves just as much if not more acclaim for his session work.
He got into session work early, with his first gig in the music industry being session work for Boz Scaggs. He joined Toto soon after, but he kept doing session work. He quickly became one of LA’s most in-demand guitarists, working with the likes of Warren Zevon, Aretha Franklin, Alice Cooper, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Lionel Richie, Ringo Starr, Herbie Hancock, and countless others. However, a high-point in his career was recording most of the guitar on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, an album which needs no introduction.
As his credits list suggests, Lukather is a very versatile guitarist. He’s played on jazz records, rock records, fusion records, pop records, soul records, and more. Like Carlton, he employs a lot of jazz techniques in his playing, such as chromaticism, to bring some extra flare to rock and blues based songs. His solo on Lionel Richie’s Running With the Night is an incredible and overlooked example of his incredible playing.
The Future of Studio Guitarists
Before wrapping up, let’s touch on what the future holds for studio guitarists. The music industry has changed greatly since the era when the guitarists on this list earned their acclaim. Big labels and studios still exist, but more and more musicians are recording and releasing their own music. Big labels don’t have a stranglehold on the recording industry anymore since you can set-up a home studio for a few hundred bucks. Artists can directly release their own records and put them on streaming platforms. It’s easier than ever for a kid in a small town to buy an SM-57, a cheap audio interface, and use a free DAW to record their band. People no longer have to get a label’s attention, fight for a deal, and then deal with the label’s meddling (which often included the use of session musicians, for better and worse).
However, one unintended result of all this is the decline of the session musician. With fewer big budget albums being made in big studios, session musicians are not as in demand as they once were. People are instead recording their own albums, doing it all themselves or with the help of friends.
All that said, studio guitarists aren’t going extinct. The big labels still exist, and they still make big budget albums. In LA and Nashville in particular, session players are still in-demand. Big labels want the best players possible to ensure their records are as good as people expect. That said, competition is more fierce than it used to be. With a smaller pool of records being made with the need for session musicians, getting the gig is even harder. Session musicians in the modern era truly have to be masters, ready to give the perfect performance for any type of song. Looking forward, there may be fewer studio guitarists than in the past, but they will be even more talented than ever due to the high expectations and fierce competition of modern session work.
Session players may not get the acclaim that their in-band counterparts get, but that doesn’t make them any lesser. Studio guitarists have played on some of the most important albums and singles ever, and their parts have become iconic. From Carol Kaye’s iconic La Bomba bassline to Larry Carlton’s revered solo on Steely Dan’s Kid Charlemagne, session musicians have created riffs, solos, and basslines that are essentials for burgeoning musicians.
Without these players, music as we know it wouldn’t be the same. They are some of the best musicians out there and deserve a bit more credit for their contributions to music as a whole. So next time you listen to a record, take a look at the credits. See who the people are behind the music; you’ll likely be surprised when you realize many of the same musicians happen to be on your favorite albums.