There has been an argument for years now that the era of the session guitarist is long-gone. With nearly every laptop already having Logic Pro or some form of recording software, beginners guitars cheaper than ever and access to low-cost learning software like Fender Play, any budding bedroom musician can make their entrance into the music world.
But, it’s simply not the case that being a session musician is not a viable career choice. Okay, yes it helps if you spend the years building contacts and growing your audience online (like it would with any industry), but I know plenty of people who have gone on to have incredible careers as session guitarists, playing on a wide range of projects and travelling the globe.
So, how much do sessions guitarists in the USA earn on average per year?
The quick answer is that the average yearly earnings before tax of a session guitarist is $63,000. This is based on the poll data and the actual session musicians I’ve interviewed to get to this average number.
Now, be aware that all of the 400 people involved in the poll have been sessions guitarists for many years, so they will have been earning a lot less prior to building their audience and contacts. That being said, let’s have a look at the data.
2021 Poll & Survey Data – Session Guitarist Earnings
- 450 sessions guitarists across the USA were polled
- A further 5 from this group were interviews as part of this study, just to provide greater context inside this article
- The interviewees provided insights on getting started, careers, growing an audience and the negatives and positives of this kind of career
Question – What are you pre-tax year earnings for 2020-2021?
- 24% stated their earnings as above $100,000
- 60% stated their earnings above $35,000
- 16% of earnings were between $0-35,000
- The highest earning session guitarist surveyed made $450,000 in 2020-2021
- The lowest earning session guitarist surveyed made $12,000 in 2020-2021
More stand-outs from the data
- Over 75% of those surveyed has been doing session work in one capacity or another for 10+ years
- A staggering 97% also teach guitar, whether to supplement their income or as a hobby (e.g. YouTube channels)
- When asked with set responses, including ‘other’, the participants chose ‘love of playing guitar’ as the main reason they wanted to become (and remain) a session guitarist. Second to that was travel, and third was money.
Some of the thoughtful responses received
Would you recommend becoming a session musician to any guitarists reading this data today?
Quote 1: Absolutely! However, you need to be aware of how the industry has changed, and make sure that you’re marketing yourself on the right platforms. For example, jumping on the latest social media platforms to continue to target new audiences and remaining consistent with your output on professional platforms. It doesn’t seem like a lot but it can massively help over time when it comes to building up an established portfolio.
Quote 2: Yes I would recommend it as a career, but it’s certainly not as easy to make quick money as it was in the 60’s and 70’s. Studios now have global access to players rather than just local musicians in the pre-internet area, so my advice is to stay on top of your game, and also be learning and bettering yourself.
Is money a worry for you? How much of a motivation is money for you in this line of work?
Quote 1: I’d be lying if I said money wasn’t a worry, but now that I have an established client base it’s not something I worry about as much as when I started.
Quote 2: It is a worry for me in the same way it would be for any freelancer or independent contractor. Work could dry up or I could have slow periods, so having the pipeline to continually grow your client base is essential to ensuring that work is always coming through your door.
Have you ever had another job other than being a session guitarist? How did the job(s) compare?
Quote 1: Ha… Compared to this job, all others were hopeless!
Quote 2: Yes! It was teaching guitar, and something I still do if I need extra income or want to take a break from touring and do something a bit different to avoid burnout.
What advice would you give for any musicians wanting to become a session player in 2021?
Quote 1: Always be learning and growing as a musician. Say yes to as many opportunities as possible and be kind.
Quote 2: Establish yourself across as many social media platforms and online portfolios as possible. The more eyes on you, the quicker you can grow (in my experience). Plus, you never know who is watching!
The answer to this one was always going to be a bit of an ‘it depends’. And we’d no doubt see similar results across multiple industries if we asked the same questions. The music industry can often be a ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’ type of industry, so naturally those with contacts will be able to utilise them to their advantage when starting out.
That’s not to say that if you want to be a session guitarist, you don’t need to have any prior contacts or ‘clout’ in the industry. Take the tips from the questions I asked for example… looking at those answers, there’s hope if you’re willing to stick to the path and put the work in!