Session musicians are the unsung heroes of popular music. Usually credited only in tiny text within album liner notes, they help solo artists flesh out their musical vision, as well as provide backup for larger acts. Beyond that, they’re staples on concert tours, especially when a particular song has too many parts for the main members of a band to accurately replicate live by themselves. Some of these session artists have so many contributions to their names they’ve developed followings of their own, and to boot a few have fronted critically, if not commercially, successful groups. The following are some of the most sought-after in the business.
5 Adrian Belew
Though largely unknown to casual rock fans, Belew has lent his alternately mechanical and animalistic guitar playing to a wide variety of artists, ranging from the fringe (Frank Zappa) to the mainstream (David Bowie) in his nearly four decade long career. Belew details his beginnings in the Zappa concert film Baby Snakes, specifically how he started out playing for a “crud band” before being noticed by the avant garde musician in 1977. He toured with Zappa for a year, appearing on the best-selling album Sheik Yerbouti. According to an interview with the artist on Guitarhoo!, his skills caught the attention of David Bowie and producer Brian Eno during a concert in Cologne, and in short time he was accompanying the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust on his Isolar II tour and was the lead guitarist on Bowie’s ’79 album Lodger.
The ’80s was an especially productive time for Belew. He appeared on Talking Heads’ landmark album Remain in Light and played with the band on their ensuing tour (in David Bowman’s 2002 biography of the band, it was revealed that when group tensions were at their highest, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Franz asked Belew if he would replace David Byrne as frontman; he declined). He even contributed to Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors. Early in the decade, he also became a member of Robert Fripp’s progressive rock act King Crimson, singing lead vocals and adding his screeching guitars to the mix. Since then, he’s played on four Nine Inch Nails records to date, as well as lent his guitars to Paul Simon, Mike Oldfield and even William Shatner.
4 Gail Ann Dorsey
Gail Ann Dorsey has been active in the music scene since 1985, and while she’s not a household name she has been one of David Bowie’s primary collaborators for nearly two decades, first touring with the artist in promotion of Outside and then playing on his 1997 record Earthling, an industrial and drum and bass-inspired record. Since then, she has played on ‘Hours…’, Reality and Bowie’s most recent record, The Next Day. Dorsey was also a fixture on Bowie’s Reality tour, lending not only her bass-playing but her singing to the mix, particular on the Bowie and Queen collaboration “Under Pressure.” Prior to that, she toured and recorded with synthpop act Tears for Fears.
Besides her work with Bowie and Tears for Fears—and not to mention three solo albums, released in 1988, 1992 and 2003—Dorsey has worked with Lenny Kravitz, Gwen Stefani, Ani DiFranco, Bryan Ferry and Seal. She also has the unusual distinction of being one of two bald bassists on this list—an extremely specific demographic.
3 Josh Freese
Hailing from Florida, Josh Freese has played the drums on a truly daunting number of albums since he began his musical career in 1990. The drummer started out in the Huntington Beach-based punk act The Vandals, with whom he has continued to play ever since—barring frequent obligations to the many bands and solo acts he has worked with in nearly a quarter century’s time. Perhaps his most notable work is with Trent Reznor’s industrial rock project Nine Inch Nails, having played live with NIN and contributed to a few albums from the mid-to-late 2000s. He has also played live with the Mark Mothersbaugh-led Devo and been a semi-regular drummer for alternative rock supergroup A Perfect Circle, which includes singer Maynard James Keenan of Tool and former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha.
For those who tend to stay away from heavier music, the energetic drummer can be found credited in the liner notes of hit pop artists, counting Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Avril Lavigne, Miley Cyrus and even Michael Bublé among his past work. Just this year, he played drums for a track on Bruce Springsteen’s album High Hopes. When not collaborating, contributing or touring, Freese has also found the time to record not one but four solo albums.
2 Robert Fripp
Reserved and methodical, progressive rock guitarist Robert Fripp burst onto the music scene in 1969 with King Crimson and their debut album In the Court of the Crimson King. Since then, he has remained the prog rock act’s sole constant member. While Crimson’s history has been marked by periodic breakups and dormancy, Fripp has spent his downtime playing with a number of well-known artists. In 1974, he lent his guitar playing to keyboardist and future Talking Heads and U2 producer Brian Eno, and a few years later was working with Peter Gabriel and David Bowie on their albums Peter Gabriel I (Car) and “Heroes”, respectively. He ended this particularly fruitful decade with Talking Heads on Fear of Music. In 1980, he worked with Gabriel and Bowie yet again on Peter Gabriel III (Melt) and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and reformed King Crimson with a lineup consisting of himself, fellow list members Adrian Belew and Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford.
Known for his fast and precise manner of crosspicking, as well as his innovative use of “Frippertronics” (using semi-parallel tape machines on stage or in studio to create ambient soundscapes), Fripp’s work is often so complex he has to sit rather than stand like most rock guitarists. He has put his skills to work on several collaborative albums with Brian Eno, and sounds of his design can even be heard on the Windows Vista operating system. Combine four solo albums, seven live albums, nearly thirty collaborative albums and 20 guest appearances, according to his discography on Wikipedia, and you have a very, very productive artist.
1 Tony Levin
A Boston native, Tony Levin has stuck mostly to the lower end of the tonal spectrum in his career, primarily playing electric and upright bass as well as the Chapman Stick, a 12-stringed combination electric bass and guitar that is played by tapping. Beginning in 1980, the tall, bald and mustachioed bassist has been one of Peter Gabriel’s go-to backup musicians, first appearing on Peter Gabriel III (Melt) and having played on all but a few of the solo artist’s records since. While recording Gabriel’s 1986 hit single “Big Time,” he and drummer Jerry Marotta used drumsticks to give the electric bass a percussive edge. Levin adapted this technique into a more wearable form as Funk Fingers, which are shortened drumsticks that bassists and other guitar players can attach to the ends of their fingers.
Apart from his extensive work with Gabriel, Levin has been a long time member of on-and-off progressive rock act King Crimson, contributing his bass and Stick skills, as well as backing vocals, to the band since their 1981 album Discipline. He also played on Pink Floyd’s 1987 record A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and two David Bowie albums, including the most recent The Next Day.