Top 10 Session Musicians and Studio Bands

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Session players are the unsung stars of the music industry. As temporary members of big name bands, they step in during recording or touring to fill in the gaps in an act’s lineup, and often learn their parts in only a matter of hours. While front men and bandleaders might get the bulk of the money and the fame, it’s the session musician who is often responsible for playing the bass line or guitar riff that helps makes a song a hit. Some of them—like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones—have even gone on to become rock legends. Here are the top ten session musicians and studio groups. You might not have heard their names, but you’ve definitely heard their music.

10. Thomas Lang

Instrument: Drums

Performed With: John Wetton, Peter Gabriel, Asia, Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner, and many others

Austrian percussionist Thomas Lang isn’t as famous as Neil Pert or Keith Moon, but he’s regularly listed by music magazines as one of the most technically skilled drummers in the world. Lang began drumming at the age of five, and gained prominence in the 90s after a string of session gigs and tours with pop acts ranging from Peter Gabriel to Kelly Clarkson. In addition to his career as a studio musician, Lang also plays as a solo act and as part of the avant garde heavy metal band stOrk. Famous for his high speed drumming and mesmerizing stick spinning, Lang is also known for a series of instructional books and DVDs called Creative Control, and for the Thomas Lang Drumming Boot Camp, an intensive 8-day camp that specializes in instructing serious players on advanced drumming techniques.

9. The Hollywood Studio Symphony

Instrument: Full symphony orchestra

Performed With: Major motion picture composers including John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, James Horner, and Elmer Bernstein

Little known outside of Los Angeles, the Hollywood Studio Symphony is a rotating group of orchestra musicians responsible for playing the soundtrack music for countless big screen films. While most of its members are classically trained, the group does not perform outside of the studio, and it doesn’t even have a stable lineup. Instead, it is a revolving door of contracted session players from around the L.A. area. The group first got its name in 2002, when the American Federation of Musicians negotiated with the studios to have film music performed by local musicians, but the symphony has been around in some form or another for many years. Among hundreds of others, they are responsible for the soundtracks to films like Back to the Future, Blazing Saddles, L.A. Confidential, Star Trek, and The Bourne Identity.

8. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section

Instruments: Keyboard, Drums, Guitar, and Bass

Performed With: The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and many more

One of the most famous session bands of all time, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is a group of Alabama-based musicians who have backed up some of the most storied acts of the 60s and 70s. Also known as “The Swampers,” The Rhythm Section were responsible for creating the famed “Muscle Shoals Sound,” which can be heard on numerous songs including soul hits like The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and rock classics like The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” During a time when racial tensions were constantly at a boil in the Deep South, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, whose members were all white, were responsible for recording with a number of black Motown acts at their Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. They would eventually collaborate with everyone from Elton John to the band Alice in Chains, and their studio went on to host such luminaries as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. The Rhythm Section’s original members included David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, and Roger Hawkins, but the group later expanded to include Spooner Oldham, Clayton Ivey, Randy McCormick, Will McFarlane, and Pete Carr. During the 70s, the band became so revered that they were even mentioned by name in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama,” where it’s said that their signature sound can “pick me up when I’m feelin’ blue.”

7. James Burton

Instrument: Guitar

Performed With: Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Bob Denver, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, and others

Even at the age of 71, journeyman guitarist James Burton is still going strong as a session musician. Born in Dubberly, Louisiana, Burton was a semi-pro musician by his early teens, and by 18 he had already played the guitar solo on the 1957 Dale Dawkins hit “Susie Q.” Since then, Burton and his trademark Fender Telecaster have appeared on dozens of recordings, including albums and live shows by Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris. Burton was one of the members of The Wrecking Crew, a loosely organized group of L.A.-based studio musicians, but he also toured constantly with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, and Bob Denver. Still, his most famous gig is arguably his eight-year stint as the lead guitarist in Elvis Presley’s TCB band, with whom he played over a thousand shows. Burton remains one of the most respected guitarists in the music industry. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, he was introduced by none other than Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

6. Billy Preston

Instrument: Keyboard, Organ, Harpsichord, Accordion, Clavinet

Performed With: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others

Piano player Billy Preston is a familiar name to music fans. He had a lengthy solo career, several hit songs including the classic “Nothing From Nothing,” and even won a Grammy for his 1972 instrumental track “Outa-Space.” But while Preston’s own output was impressive, he is still best known to many for his studio collaborations with icons of 60s and 70s rock and roll. A music prodigy, Preston started playing piano at age three, and by age 16 he had already featured with Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke. Preston first met The Beatles in 1962 while on tour with Little Richard, and in 1969 he reunited with the Fab Four to play keyboards on the group’s final album, Let It Be. Preston’s influence on the record was so pronounced that John Lennon briefly considered making him a permanent fixture in the band, and Preston has since become one of the many musicians referred to as the “fifth Beatle.” Billy Preston would go on to record and tour with bands like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Before his death in 2006, he also featured on albums by Johnny Cash, Steve Winwood, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

5. Carol Kaye

Instrument: Bass, Electric Guitar

Performed With: The Beach Boys, The Doors, Ritchie Valens, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Frank Zappa, Simon and Garfunkel, and many more

Described by many as the most widely heard bass player in history, Carol Kaye has played on dozens of Billboard Hot 100 hits while still remaining unknown to most casual music fans. The daughter of two musicians, Kaye grew up in Los Angeles, where she worked as a bass instructor in her early teens. After playing in a variety of live acts, Kaye fell into studio work in the 1960s when a scheduled session musician neglected to show up to a recording gig. Kaye stepped in, and soon became the recording industry’s go-to bass player. She has since taken part in over 10,000 studio recordings, perhaps most famously appearing on the Beach Boys 1966 classic Pet Sounds. As a member of the L.A. session group The Wrecking Crew, Kaye played on numerous film and television soundtracks as well as pop records. Among her more notable guitar and bass work are such hit songs as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “La Bamba,” “Good Vibrations,” and “I’m a Believer.” Kaye’s legendary admirers include Brian Wilson, who once called her “the best damned bass player in the world.”

4. Ray Cooper

Instrument: Percussion

Performed With: Elton John, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Art Garfunkel, Weezer, AC/DC, and others

English percussionist Ray Cooper has played drums for some of rock’s biggest names, and along the way he’s developed a cult following for his unique choice of instruments, astounding technical skill, and prodigious, often 15-minute-long drum solos. Cooper is probably best known for his association with Eric Clapton and Elton John, but he’s also toured or recorded with everyone from Wings to Weezer. Not content with your everyday drum kit, Cooper has been known to use a massive percussion set-up that also includes glockenspiel, tubular bells, congas, tambourine, and even a gong. His on-stage enthusiasm made him a fan favorite during a mid-90s tour with Elton John, when Cooper and his mountain of percussion instruments served as the only back up to the singer-songwriter and his piano. In addition to his music career, Cooper also moonlights as an actor, and has appeared in small roles in films by Terry Gilliam and Robert Altman.

3. The Wrecking Crew

Instruments: Guitar, Drums, Bass, Keyboard, Saxophone, Trumpet, Trombone, Percussion, Harmonica, Vocals

Performed With: Simon and Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Partridge Family, and many more

Individual members of The Wrecking Crew appear elsewhere on this list, but it would be an oversight not to recognize the whole group for their immense contribution to pop music. The Wrecking Crew is perhaps the most well traveled gang of studio musicians in recording history. If you’ve ever listened to a hit song from the sixties or seventies, then you’ve likely heard The Wrecking Crew playing in the background. The Crew was composed of a group of L.A.-based studio players, many of them classically trained, who became the number one call whenever the record companies needed a back-up band. Their most notable collaboration was with producer Phil Spector, who used the group’s great breadth of talent to create his famous “Wall of Sound” on songs like The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” But The Wrecking Crew didn’t just play rock songs. They also played on commercial jingles, TV show theme songs, and film soundtracks, among them M.A.S.H., Bonanza, and Mission: Impossible. Some members, like Tommy Tedesco and Carol Kaye, remained studio musicians for most of their careers. Others, like guitarist Glen Campbell, went on to be famous solo acts.

2. The Funk Brothers

Instruments: Bass, Guitar, Drums, Piano, Trombone, Percussion

Performed With: The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder

From 1959 until 1972, The Funk Brothers provided the studio backup sound for nearly every act on the legendary Motown record label in Detroit. Unlike The Wrecking Crew in L.A. and Booker T. and the M.G.’s in Memphis, The Funk Brothers were rarely credited for their work, and few outside of the industry knew about them until the release of the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Despite their relative anonymity, the group—lead by piano player Earl Van Dyke in its later years—can be heard on countless hits from The Temptations’ “My Girl” to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” The Funk Brothers featured a core team of 13 musicians, and were known to experiment with unconventional and often jerry-rigged instruments. On some songs, they even used tire irons and snow chains as percussion equipment. In 1972, The Funk Brothers were unceremoniously dismissed from Motown after the label moved to Los Angeles. Most of the members continued to operate in relative obscurity as master session musicians, but it was only recently that their important contribution to pop music was finally recognized.

1. Hal Blaine

Instrument: Drums

Performed With: Frank Sinatra, Elvis, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, John Lennon, The Supremes, John Denver, The Mamas and the Papas, and many more

Drummer Hal Blaine is the epitome of what it means to be a session musician: talented, prolific, and yet still relatively anonymous. While his name is certainly well known to music diehards and industry insiders, Blaine has never been a mainstream star. Despite this, he has featured on thousands of songs, and is often listed as one of the most recorded musicians in history. Not only that, but he’s played on more number one hit songs than any living musician, and more than Michael Jackson and The Beatles combined. These include such classics as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Good Vibrations,” and “Mrs. Robinson.” As a member and unofficial ringleader of The Wrecking Crew—whose name he coined himself—Blaine was also responsible for creating the themes to famous television shows like M.A.S.H. and The Munsters. A popular anecdote about Blaine tells of how the drummer would carry around a rubber stamp that read “Hal Blaine Strikes Again!” so that he could leave his mark on every sheet of music he used or club in which he played. According to some accounts, by a certain point in the 70s, there were few music venues that didn’t have Blaine’s stamp on them. He was simply that much of a presence in the music industry—and remains so to this day.


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45 Comments

  1. Good list, only Art “Garfunkle” from Simon & “Garfunkle”‘s last name is spelled Garfunkel. Anyways, I liked this list a lot!

  2. Thank you for including The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in this list. I was born and raised in Sheffield, AL (just North and West of Muscle Shoals) and I am very familiar with this group. What a lot of people do not realize is that many (although not all) of the songs associated with “The Muscle Shoals Sound” were actually recorded in Sheffield. For example “When a Man Loves a Woman” was actually recorded in Sheffield. Cher’s early recordings with The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were actually recorded in Sheffield. Just thought everyone should know.

  3. Just a quick mention of Booker T and the MGs? And although generally derided, the members of Toto were all over late 70s/early 80s radio.

    • THANK YOU!! you might be the only real musician on this entire page. Toto’s members were the most requested musicians of the 70s and 80s. If you don’t recognize Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, Steve Lukather, Mike Porcaro or Steve Porcaro, you have a lot to learn… obviously you are the exception haha

  4. A travesty that Jim Keltner isn’t on this list. Session drummer who’s played with (and not limited to) the following: Leon Russell, Gabor Szabo, Delaney Bramlett, Roy Orbison, Harry Nilsson, Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, Joe Cocker, Van Dyke Parks, the Rolling Stones, Ronnie Wood, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, Seals and Crofts, The Ramones, Bill Frisell, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Phil Keaggy, Steve Jones, Crowded House, Fiona Apple, Elvis Costello, The Bee Gees, Jackson Browne, The Manhattan Transfer, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Sam Phillips, Los Lobos, Pink Floyd, Warren Zevon, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Petty, Gillian Welch, the Steve Miller Band, Alice Cooper, Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams.

    I know it’s impossible to please everyone especially when it comes to music lists but common sense should have prevailed here!! Good list though 😉

  5. Fact: The first time the Wrecking Crew was ever credited on a record was Marvin Gaye’s brilliant “What’s Going On” album.

    • Marvin Gaye insisted on James Jamerson for bass on “What’s Going On”. The night of the recording they found him but he was unable to sit on his usual stool in the Hitstown USA (Motown) studio. He laid on the floor with his bass and laid down that classic bass line in one take. Thin of that next time you hear one of the best bass lines ever recorded.

  6. Love this site! I think Herbie Flowers needs to be mentioned too! Saw a documentary on Dutch TV about him once and was quite impressed.

    He played the bass on Lou Reed’s Transformer, including the famous Walk on the Wild Side intro. Flowers was paid 17 Pounds for his work (for the full album!). He was modest about his contribution to this and other songs. He once told Mojo writer Phil Sutcliffe about his role as a session musician, “You do the job and get your arse away. You take a £12 fee, you can’t play a load of bollocks. Wouldn’t it be awful if someone came up to me on the street and congratulated me for Transformer.”

    [From Wikipedia]
    He is noted as a member of Blue Mink, T.Rex and Sky and as one of Britain’s best-known session bass-players, having contributed to recordings by Elton John (Tumbleweed Connection etc.), David Bowie (Space Oddity), Lou Reed (including the prominent bass line of “Walk on the Wild Side”), David Essex, Allan Clarke, Al Kooper, Harry Nilsson, Cat Stevens, Serge Gainsbourg and George Harrison: he also played bass on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. By the end of the 1970s Flowers had played bass on an estimated 500 hit recordings.

  7. Are you sure James Burton played for BOB Denver – Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island? Perhaps you meant JOHN Denver? Great list btw.

  8. Heidi_Heidiho on

    Drummer Steve Gadd should have been on this list over Thomas Lang. As technically proficient as he is, I’m sure Mr. Gadd has been on more recordings that Mr. Lang. And I also agree with the James Jamerson observation. As great as she was, I’m sure Mr. Jamerson has been in at least as many recordings as Ms Kaye. Nice of you to mention her though.

    • I actually googled “Best Studio Drummers” because I couldn’t remember Steve Gadd’s name. I was really surprised he wasnt on the list, then reading your post flipped the switch for me. I think I learned of him after hearing “Aja” by Steely Dan, the percussion is just amazing, and I had to know who played drums on it. Anyone who has heard “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon, (one of a very short list of pop songs instantly recognizable by a drum intro) has also heard the ever-tastfully precise Steve Gadd.

  9. WADDY WACHTEL has played with The Everly Brothers, Jackson Browne, Kim Carnes, Rosanne Cash, The Church, The Cowsills, Bob Dylan, Gilby Clarke, Melissa Etheridge, Bryan Ferry, Bernard Fowler, Andrew Gold, Don Henley, Carole King, Miranda Lambert, The Motels, Maria Muldaur, Randy Newman, Steve Perry, Iggy Pop, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt, Adam Sandler, Bob Seger, Carly Simon, The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon and Laura Allan.

    • When you look for a definition of “ubiquitous” in Webster’s Dictionary, you’ll find a picture or Waddy in all his be-speckled, bad hair day, glory. It’s far easier to list who he hasn’t recorded and toured with than who he has. The latter list goes on for days. Who created that 16 beat per bar guitar riff that continues from start to finish in Stevie Nicks’ classic, “Edge of Seventeen?” That’s right, Waddy Wachtel.

      Credit is given to Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine and it is well deserved, but then they include the Wrecking crew. Well who the hell were the Wrecking Crew but Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, etc., etc.? It’s not that Blaine and Kaye don’t deserve credit; they obviously do; but to break them out apart from the band of studio musicians with whom they recorded most often makes no sense whatsoever.

      Likewise, decrying the absence of James Jamerson, and he certainly belongs on the list, but HE ALREADY IS as a founding member of Motown’s Funk Brothers. Again, people ought to be credited within the context in which they most often performed in the studio; and Blaine and Kaye are to the Wrecking Crew as Jamerson was to the Funk Brothers.

      Meanwhile, leaving out guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and most especially bassist Lee Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel, along with keyboard aces Don Grolnick and Craig Doerge, informally referred to as “the Section” doesn’t pass the “60 Minutes” test. Ditto, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold, and drummer Jim Gordon. Sadly Grolnick was lost to non-Hodgkins Lymphoma back in 1996, and Gold to a heart attack last year. and perhaps saddest of all is Gordon, who wrote and played the beautiful piano coda at the end of Derek and the Dominos’ (Eric Clapton) “Layla,” and was at the time suffering from an un-diagnosed case of paranoid schizophrenia. He is now a guest of the State of California having executed a perfect paradiddle on his mother’s skull with a claw hammer, after his voices told him to.

      Regardless, what has transpired here in this list is that a whole lot of LA session hired guns whose playing in the studio, and on tour with major acts to this day, has informed the music of the Baby Boom generation every it as much as the Swampers, Funk Brothers, and the Wrecking Crew; but they have been basically written out of existence by the revisionist history encapsulated in this list.

  10. I’m not sure, but didn’t Blaine do the drum part on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?”

  11. I dig that you put Carol Kaye on here. She really was a trailblazer in the sense that women weren’t often at the forefront of studio players; she opened up the door for later legends like Sheila E. and Tina Louise.

    I do wish you had put James Jamerson on here as well; if it came out of Motown in the ’60s, you could bet a tenner on it being Jamerson on bass.

    • Yes, Tommy deserved a lot more recogniziton than he received. He played on my very first session with the Mar-kets and I’ve never worked with a better muscician than Tommy. Thanks for bringing him to our attention.

  12. Man, WAH WAH WATSON is not included!!! The best guitar tracks ever recorded from this maestro.Second to none.. Barry White, Marvin Gaye Maxwell, The list goes on into infinity,do all a favor and include this man while he’s still alive ( I hope ).

    • You aren’t wrong, but it is Dennis Coffey who is most often credited for bringing the Wah-wah sound to Motown. The theme for the movie “Shaft,” and the Temptations “Ball of Confusion” are just a couple of the sessions his playing brought to life. He and Wah-wah Watson collaborated a lot, so it isn’t surprising that their playing influenced each other’s styles.

      • Where are you getting your info. Dennis Coffey did not play on Shaft. That was Charles Pitts. Get YOUR Facts Straight.

  13. What, no mention of Jimmy Page? He was one of the most in demand session musicians along with Big Jim Sullivan during the 1960s, before he joined the Yardbirds. You don’t even mention John Paul Jones in this list either!

    • I believe he mentioned them all before the list itself. He may be focusing on session musicians that might not have gotten the level of recognition that Jimmy Page and Jim Sullivan got

  14. Great list. I had the opportunity to work with Hal Blaine in the mid 90’s. He is a great guy who provided the beat for some of the best pop music ever recorded. Other incredible musicians are mentioned above, but I do believe that Hal belongs at tha top of this list. Nice job.

  15. Thanks Deserts, Dennis Coffey was a badd cat with the Motown sound.The Funk Brothers were the main ones though. Sadly their services diminished when Motown went Hollywood from Detroit. Wah Wah revolutionized the paddle all throughout the industry with and beyond Motown.Psychedelic soul was a term coined to best describe his riffs,He gave instant creditability to Any rhythm section,absoulutely the Best.

  16. Where are the world’s greatest house band Booker T and The MGs?

    And from Reggae, Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Ark house band, The Upsetters. Or Sly and Robbie, who have played on something like 200,000 records.

  17. Someone wanna tell me where the hell are Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, Steve Lukather, David Hungate and Greg Phillinganes??

  18. Were is TOTO!….HEARD OF BOZ SCAGGS THATS TOTO,, STEELY DAN, THATS TOTO…HALF MICHEAL JACKSON THRILLER ALBUM…YEA TOTO TO…HELLO REDO LIST, can add more george benson, micheal mcdonald ,kenny loggins even lional ritchie songs, come on guys. And get’em in the hall of fame already.

  19. I watched Standing in the Shadows of Motown in film school and it actually brought a tear to my eye. It’s one thing to simply be a musician who plays on a track something that someone else wrote, but another to not be credited with music you made up. That is sadly the case with many of these studio musicians who sometimes bring us the most famous riffs of all time.

  20. This comment is coming way too late, but I’m not going to criticize Evan Andrews for not getting every important session player on here – it’s a daunting task to bring it down to just 10. For instance, the man who currently holds the record for most recorded drummer in history is John JR Robinson. Hey may not have the iconic list that Hal Blaine boasts, but he definitely has a place. He’s one of my favorites – that’s for sure.

  21. Murray Pettinger on

    Can someone please tell me who is the drummer on the Chi Lites ” Oh Girl”. Just can’t get over the groove!!!

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