I use to carry a little black book around with me to all my gigs and sessions. And no, not to register phone numbers of groupies (that book was blue). It was my log of things to work on or get or just something that I could learn from the job I just finished. I try to make everything be a teachable moment for me. So not only am I getting paid, I'm getting a self-prescribed lesson.
For example, I might write in my little black book... "practice playing over Imaj7-VII7 progression" or "listen to some James Brown to get some rhythm ideas" or "tighten up the bottom end on patch 298". Something to work on on days when I didn't have any work.
This one particular session was for a major Latin artist at a major studio with some major session pros. I was already feeling like the low man on the totem pole. I was playing acoustic and was an overdub after the other musicians had already laid down their tracks. The song wasn't a song, but a medley of this artist's greatest hits. A dozen pages of music. The producer was one of my best friends, so on that I rest my confidence. The engineer I didn't know but more importantly, he didn't know me. For some reason he had it out for me. Some people build themselves up by tearing others down. This engineer was one of those people.
I had brought 3 acoustics and my nylon guitar. He set up the mic and went into the booth. I pulled out my Taylor 814, strummed a little, and into my headphones I heard, "Do you have another guitar? That one is too bright." I grabbed the Lowden F22. "That one is even brighter." Uh-oh. Last chance. The Gibson Dove should do the trick. "Nope." "It's the last one I have." I confessed and received a dismayed look and... "I guess it'll have to do."
I hadn't played one note and I was already feeling like a rank amateur. But with the Dove in my hands I forgot my insecurities and began tracking. Often I don't think I can play until I have the guitar in my hands, and then I know I can. We worked our way through the chart. My friend the producer knew the songs very well and is a good guitarist himself so he told me the feels and grooves for each section. After we tracked the steel string we took a break before tracking a little nylon. I headed into the booth, sat down exhausted on the couch, turn to the man on my left and said, "hi, I'm Tom, what's your name?" It was of course the famous Latin artist. Hey, I'm really bad with faces.
There are so many lessons that I could pull from this one session, I could probably fill up an entire black book. But here are a mere two...
1. I needed a darker guitar. Maybe the engineer was just exhibiting his insecurities or maybe he had a point. From that day forward I was on the hunt for a guitar darker than any of the ones I currently owned. And thus I found my 70's Martin D-35, which I love and is now my main acoustic.
2. Know who you are working for. I didn't even know what the artist looked like, let alone know his catalog. I should've known all of his hits at least. Then I would've known every song in the medley I was tracking that day. From now on whenever I get called to work with a new artist I research them. I especially study and memorize their face! I have worked for that artist since by the way.
Epilogue - I hadn't been in that studio again until just last week, five years later, when I was tracking acoustics for Justin Bieber's new record. I had a flashback and recounted the above story to the amazing engineer and friend on the other side of the glass. He was mad and wanted to know who this guy was. I wouldn't tell him. Every one in the room thought this unnamed engineer was crazy. "Oh I don't know," I said, "that session is why I got this Martin I'm playing right now." Then I took a break and sat down on the same sofa. I knew who was sitting on my left that day.