"To me, the challenge of guitar playing is playing stuff people want to hear over and over again" – Nashville session player Rob McNelley teaches the art of writing hooks

Brett Papa YouTube channel
(Image credit: Brett Papa / YouTube)

Rob McNelley has technical chops, but that's not why he keeps getting work in Nashville as a top session guitarist for artists including Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Church and Buddy Guy. He writes songs himself and he brings that melodic mindset to the studio for other artists. 

"My favourite players are people like Keith Richards and George Harrison, they played a ton of great parts and hooks and riffs," he explains to Brett Papa in a new lesson for the latter's YouTube channel. "Those are the things I always remembered. Guitar solos are always great and you need them, in most applications, they can be very useful and effective but to me, the challenge of guitar playing is playing stuff people want to hear over and over again. And guitar players love to hear flashy playing, and it's exciting for people in general, but the thing you always remember are the hooks, and you always remember the riff."

That's the theme of the lesson above. McNelley is known for his work with a lot of country artists, as well as premier players such as Joe Bonamassa and George Benson, but his song example for this session is actually more towards alt. rock. 

"In most of the time I've been doing sessions the trend has been four chords over and over again," McNelley says of his more commercially-driven music sessions. "I figured out the only way I'm going to make a living out of this was to be able to hear five different ideas as soon as you hear song. Five drastically different ideas."

That can sometimes using unexpected tones with EQ or a delay pedal, and McNelley demonstrates this too alongside how he comes up with hooks. Check it out above. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.