Skip to main content

How Do You Make a Living, Session Guitarist?

Noah Davis talks to Ron Zabrocki about how the music business has changed, why he writes for Guitar World, and the value of saying no.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Ron Zabrocki. (Photo: Lori Zabrocki)

Ron Zabrocki. (Photo: Lori Zabrocki)

Ron Zabrocki didn't plan to spend his life in a studio. He wanted to be on tour, shredding guitar licks in front of an audience every night. But life intervened, and he had to figure out how to make a living. For the last three decades, he has worked as a session guitarist, playing for anyone and everyone. Zabrocki took a break from "one of those weeks where I'm sitting here mixing and mixing and mixing" to talk to Pacific Standard about how the business has changed, why he writes for Guitar World, and the value of saying no.

What do you tell people you do when they ask?

I start with the dream. I always say, "I'm a guitarist." And I am a guitarist. That's what I'm supposed to be. But in this day and age, you do a little of everything. I've always done everything. My creative field is as a guitarist, but I got really good at doing all these other things out of necessity. You can get a job or you can diversify.

In the music business, you can make money or you can make music. What people don't realize is that it's called the "music business." It's not called the "music pay to play." It's not called the "music have my stuff for free." Anybody who doesn't get that better be so good, have a great team, and have $5 to $10 million to break into the business as an artist. If they aren't going to do that, they have to remember this is a service business. You need to do things to make people like what you do. People want to make money being their creative selves, and that's not what it's about. You can play for yourself anytime you want, but you're not going to be in a business. You make money by diversifying.

What are some of the other things you do?

I live in Litchfield, Connecticut. I moved up here after 9/11 because you go where you have to go. September 11th shut down the music business in New York, so you run to the hills, literally. Half of my house is a recording studio, as good as any professional studio anywhere. I record people, but it's my house also, so it's not a recording mill. It's not about that at all. I mix. I edit. I produce. Jingles and things like that.

But I also play guitar. I really am a session guitarist. In the old days, you'd go running from studio to studio. Nowadays, it just shows up in your email. It's a lonely business. Someone sends me a track, I add the guitar as best as I can, and I send it back. While I'm doing the guitar, I listen to the track and, after I've gained their trust and they like what I do, I suggest that I could help them in other areas. You start easing your way into doing extra things for them. I sing backing vocals.

I love to teach guitar. I haven't had much time lately, but I do teach. And I teach music production. All of that alone is a pretty busy thing. I play out occasionally. And I record my own music and sell it. That's a lot.

How long ago did you start diversifying?

We gotta go back to '86. I'm 55 years old. I'm not afraid to say it. I'm not trying to be the next big thing. That has nothing to do with my life right now. I just like being a guitarist.

It's 1986. I'm 25, 26 years old. I'm out playing a lot. It's all good. It's fun. Just doing a lot of live shows, breaking into the session world. And then my father dies and my mother gets sick, and I have to stay home to take care of her. Out of necessity, I have to figure out a way to work from home because I ended up spending literally the next 11 years locked in a house taking care of her. Life took over. I could get a job or I could figure out how to make it work in the house. I started buying home recording gear. It wasn't totally impossible to get decent results at home. I started putting a few studios out of business here and there. That was good. It meant I was taking their clients. You do everything you can at the beginning. But I'd still have to run out and play guitar in studios.

That's what got me started. Before that, I had no intention of being a studio guy. I wanted to play live. I didn't know if I was going to be an artist. I wouldn't mind being the backing guy, road warrior-type, but I knew I didn't want to be sitting at home, playing in a studio. But life took over. Once you're established, it's like, OK, it's not that bad.

I don't like it much anymore because you don't have the camaraderie. Back then, you'd still see a lot of people. Over the last five to 10 years, it's really gotten isolating.

How do you get new clients?

You have to get your name out there. People used to pay for advertising, but you don't advertise anymore. You have to have your name in the game, and you do that through endorsement deals. I have a few of those with companies like Line 6. They keep me at the forefront of technology and in my studio career, it helps me get more work than my competition. I write for Guitar World, and guitarists find me. I could teach all day through Skype because of that, but I'm too busy playing and enjoying it.

It's also important to look ahead. I'm planning a video instruction series for guitar and production. You do things like that because they will sell on their own. It's just like an online business. You don't have to run it. People just download them.

The music business is the Wild West right now. It's every man for himself, and that's a good thing. I like that. You don't have somebody telling you what to do; you tell yourself what to do and then you do it.

If I relied only on local, I would be in financial debt. I am in farm land. There is no music scene. You have to open yourself up to the rest of the planet on the Internet. When you do that, your client potential opens up exponentially. Right now, I'm working on people from Manchester, England; Beijing, China; Milan, Italy; and Bangalore, India. It's a global thing. That's really important.

I found you by Googling "session guitarist." You were one of the first names that popped up. Did you actively try to make that happen?

Yes. I'm the first one that pops up. Why? Because I contribute to one of the largest, if not the largest, guitar magazines in the world on session guitarists. You build up a reputation. When people ask me to play for them, they want me to play something that sounds like something today. They aren't in this for their health. They are in this to make money too.

What percentage of your income comes from the different streams?

I would say 50 percent from guitar session work, maybe 30 percent from production work, and 20 percent from teaching, writing, and the other extra stuff.

Do you actively push to do other things to a track beyond the guitar?

I would if I heard that it was required. It happens all the time. If they like you, they hang on to you. I have had some clients for 20 or 30 years. Those people will always be around. Well, they are getting older so they won't be around forever because they'll be stopping it at some point. But you always have your old friends.

You have to make them happy. You can't make yourself happy. You try. That's creative. I keep myself happy creatively by doing my own thing. I'm trying to make more time for that. I hope to be doing 50 percent of that in the next year, just because I can. You get your name out there enough, and it can become a viable thing. Anyone else my age would be retiring and moving into something else that they enjoy doing. But it's hard. Once they get you, oh my God.

You have to keep saying yes.

That's the other thing. Saying no is tricky, but I'm learning how to do it. I say no 80 percent of the time. You can tell the signs. Sometimes you make money, sometimes you make music. If you can make money and music, that's great. But you can tell if the person is going to be a real pain in the ass. This is the music business. There are a lot of really crazy people out there. They'll say something like "I want to hear something like blue skies," and you just know there's no way to make them happy. Or, they are going to do something that will get you nowhere. If you are just making money, it's not worth it. Run away. Just run. There is always another job, in any field.

I could have made a lot of money transcribing music. I did it once. I made incredible money. But I hated it. I put it off for two weeks, and I finally did it. This was years and years ago, and I think the guy paid me $3,000 for a job that ended up taking 10 hours. That was a lot of money back then. I'd rather drive a cab. I hated it so much. It didn't hurt me by saying no.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.