Good Session Guitarists Always Do Their Homework

A Lesson in Professional Integrity.
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WHEN I WAS 16 YEARS OLD, a classmate of mine asked if I would play acoustic guitar and sing at his big sister’s wedding. I accepted the opportunity, and agreed to meet with the bride and groom to discuss their song choice and details. They were a perfectly nice people, and they wanted just one song performed at their wedding: “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story.”

This tune was the most popular love song of the day, as it was the theme for the 1970 mega-hit film, Love Story. It has a haunting melody with a minor sixth for the very first interval—which always bugged me. I bought the sheet music (instead of the single), and looked it over briefly, half-learning it.

As the event approached, my mom asked me, “Don’t you think you ought to practice that song for the wedding you’re playing this Saturday?” I replied, “Nah, I got it. I’ll just read the chords and lyrics and nail it.”

On the morning of the ceremony, I got the chart out, played it down one time, and then packed up my guitar and the music and drove to the Church of the Lighted Window—a place that will forever live in infamy in my pre-professional memory. When I arrived, the pastor showed me the stairway to the choir loft where I was to perform the song at the appropriate time. I set up overlooking the congregation, took out my little folio, used the railing for a music stand, and waited for my cue.

In those days, video cameras were huge contraptions, and it was novel for folks to have their weddings professionally videotaped. When the moment came, the pastor pointed to me, the cameraman trained his rig up to the choir loft, and I began to play and sing. But about halfway through the song, a draft from out of nowhere (certainly not heaven) lifted my pages from the railing, and sent them wafting down to the pews below.

As the people saw sheet music raining down from above, they undoubtedly heard the song going badly wrong. I had to completely make up the bridge, music, and lyrics, and somehow get back to the Am7 chord of the verse. By that point, I improvised anything in the way of lyrics and chord changes that came to mind, and made a complete mess of it. When I limped to the finish, I felt so bad that I packed up my guitar and didn’t hang around to get paid or congratulate the newlyweds. I was outta there as fast as possible!

As horrible of a nightmare as it was, that day a kid learned a valuable lesson. I have never again been unprepared or under rehearsed, or have taken any gig—big or small—for granted. My personal demand that I aspire to the highest level of musical integrity began that day. Every time I pick up my instrument in front of people, my internal motto has always been: I will not suck.

I never met the married couple again after that. I often wondered if I provided years of laughter whenever they viewed their wedding video. Thankfully, nothing like that ever happened again—well, except for the time I was called for a three-hour bluegrass banjo session, and all I had was a grim-sounding bantar [6-string banjo]. But that’s a different story…

Carl Verheyen is a critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer, clinician, educator, and tone master with 12 CDs, two live DVDs, and two books released worldwide.