James Jamerson of the Legendary Funk Brothers is credited with playing sideman on hundreds of Motown hits. MOTOWN RECORDS ARCHIVES/Contributed

From the studio engineer who smiles as he applies auto-tune to a struggling artist’s soprano vocals, to the tech who switches the guitarist’s foot pedals from behind the curtain as the sound magically goes from ethereal delays to overdriven mayhem, the music industry is full of unsung heroes. None of these stands closer to rock-n-roll glory than the sideman.  When searching for a good example of a sideman one person instantly comes to mind. When we think of Tom Petty, we recognize his ability to write a hit song.  Most of these songs have an iconic riff that instantly identifies them.  Those riffs were almost exclusively written by Mike Campbell.  When you are a player whose creativity and performance become as integral a part of the sound as the lead singer/songwriter, you have graduated from rhythm section to sideman.

Another form of the sideman is the hired gun. The list of hired guns who have gone on to legendary status is endless. Names like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Don Henley, Luther Vandross and countless others.  Many bands hire players in the studio to play perfect versions of songs the original writers struggle to perform to studio quality. (This happens more often than one might think.)  Bands like Steely Dan have been known to have several of the best players come into the studio until they find the track and player they like for a particular song.  

Sometimes side men consist of entire bands. The Eagles, for instance, had a gig as backup band for Linda Ronstadt. The Hawks band would rename itself The Band after a tour with Bob Dylan. The E Street Band was inducted into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame for its work separate from Bruce Springsteen.

Yet another type of sideman is the specialty player. There are instances in popular music when a riff, from an instrument other than a guitar, becomes iconic. The violin player from Kansas would fall into this category, as well as the flute player from Men at Work, and playing “Money” by Pink Floyd without that sax solo is, well, cake without icing. Still good, but, man …

In some instances, the keyboardist is considered the sideman. There are legendary keyboardists like Reese Wynans, well known for his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble; he has also worked with Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Los Lonely Boys, Martina McBride and most recently Joe Bonamassa. There are many like Brett Tuggle, long-time keyboardist for Fleetwood Mac, whose name is rarely mentioned by the tens of millions who have heard his work.

The career of the sideman could be compared to that of a cowboy. You come onto the ranch, work hard, do a job you’re good at, and make yourself indispensable, for a season. Sometimes you stay, creating something you call your own. More often than not, it’s on to the next ranch, the next bunkhouse. Riding into the sunset with the new group of wranglers — with a kickass theme song.