Opening the doors to sessions
for anyone online could
introduce a different dynamic—
like, say, getting hired by
someone who wants his daughter
to be the next Rebecca
Black but who also perhaps
has unrealistic expectations in
comparison to an industry pro.
How do you set your limits?
You leave a little grace period
before you shut it down. I usually
get paid in full first through
PayPal or direct bank accounts.
That’s how I weed it out, to be
honest with you. Some people
are, like, “I’ll give you a deposit of
half and then the other half when
it’s done.” When I tell them I
need to be paid in full, if they’re,
like, “I don’t want to do that,”
then I’m, like, “Nah,” and I move
on. But I haven’t had any trouble.
How important is it for a
session player to be able to
It’s always good to be able to
read to a certain extent. We’ve
got this number system that we
use in Nashville [the Nashville
number system], and the only
kind of notation that might be
on a chart is like signature licks,
hook licks, or a written-out
intro. Or, if a bar has syncopated
stops, all of the syncopated 16thor
eighth-notes might be written
out. But that’s about it, nothing’s
written out from top to bottom.
Mason uses a thumbpick so much that he used to call it his “pacifier.”
Nashville’s probably got less
reading than anywhere else,
because we’re so big on the creative
aspect of developing a song.
We generally don’t hear the song
or get charts or mp3s until we go
into the studio to work on the
record—that’s the first time we’ll
hear what we’re doing. But on a
big record, you’ll have, like, three
hours to do one or two songs.
Would an L.A. guy who’s
used to reading fully notated
scores have a hard time acclimating
to the Nashville scene
and vice versa?
It could be if somebody just got
thrust into it for the first time,
because it moves fast here. But
we’ve had some L.A. transplants
that just blended in nicely and
brought some of their L.A. into
Nashville. And if we go there,
we might sweat blood while trying
to read a symphonic chart.
I’d have to really decipher it. You
might have to say, “I have to go
to the bathroom for a minute,”
and take the chart to the bathroom
and study it. I admire guys
like Tommy Tedesco, who could
flip their charts and read it backwards
One of the trickiest aspects
for young, non-union musicians
trying to break into the
scene is dealing with money.
Because it can be a fairly
secretive and sensitive topic,
a newcomer might not know
what the average rates are and
either ask for too much—and
disqualify themselves—or too
little, which shortchanges them
and lowers the market rate for
peers. What advice do you have
for negotiating rates?
You have to have some kind of
template for that. Here, with
the union, we have several different
scales that depend on the
project you’re doing. There’s the
demo scale—where publishing
companies demo songs to
pitch—and there’s a set scale
for that. That’s the lowest. Then
you might have some dude
from Iowa, and he’s cutting a
record to sell out of the back of
his truck. That’s what we call
“limited pressing,” when they’re
going to press only a couple
thousand of them—less than
10,000. Above limited pressing
is the “low-budget master” for
established but not big record
labels, like independent labels
with less inventory. Then you
jump up from that to “master”
scale, where you’re into the big
record labels like Warner Bros.,
Sony, or Atlantic.
I advise everybody to join a
union, because you get a pension
that way. A lot of young guys
don’t think about that. They’re
just glad to be playing, because
it’s a fun life of rock ’n’ roll. But
when you get to be about 50
you think, “Gosh, I wish I had
a retirement plan.” But even if
you’re not in a union, you can
use the union scale as a template.
You’re known for your flexibility
and adaptability, but also
for your tremendous chops.
How did you develop your
technique to such a high level?
Mason tunes his Joe Glaser-modified ‘68 Fender Tele, which features a middle pickup with its own volume knob.
It was about deciphering guys
like Pat Martino by ear from a
phonograph record until you dug
a hole into the vinyl. Now we
can slow all this stuff down with
software. I never went to college
for music. But speed is just
practice and the will to make
it happen. It’s like, “George
Benson’s burning this down—
I’ve got to do it, too.” Where
there’s a will, there’s a way.
Ironically, most sessions do
not call for virtuosic playing.
Yeah, the studio scene is not
Do you always play with a
Yeah, the thumbpick is my
thing. With a thumbpick, I
can do single-note lines and
you’d think it was a pick. I
use a flat pick sometimes, like
when I’m playing rhythm or
something that would require
an even stroke. Sometimes I’ll
go out to sit in [at a session] and
then be, like, “Arg! I forgot my
thumbpick—let me use your
[standard] pick,” and I have fun
with it. In the past, it used to be
like a pacifier—if I didn’t have
that thumbpick, I couldn’t get
up. I would sneak out with my
head under my coat [laughs].
Do you use your other fingers
in conjunction with the
Yeah, it’s a hybrid of thumbpick,
middle finger, and ring finger,
especially for arpeggios. And if
it’s something chromatic, I might
just use the thumbpick as a pick.
The first part of Recording
Guitar shows you adjusting
your guitar’s volume knob
a few times, mid-track, during
section changes. Do you worry
about bringing it back to the
same volume when that section
repeats, and if so, how do
you make sure it’s precise?
It doesn’t have to be that
micromanaged! I’ve got a good
sense of where the set volume
should be. If you’re doing a
solo and the level goes down a
little bit, you’re going to hear it
from the engineer: “Man, your
level went down. Bring it up 5
dB or something,” or, “Man,
your track’s not even close to
the volume on that first track.”
You’ll be called out on it if it
fluctuates that much. But it
doesn’t have to be that mathematical.
Your sense of where
it was or where it should be is
usually good enough.
Tell us about the mods you’ve
had done to your ’68 Telecaster—
which has been heard
on thousands of recordings.
Joe Glaser added a middle
pickup that’s wired in with its
own volume knob, which can
be bled in as an out-of-phase
sound. That was all done way
early on, when I was playing in
honky-tonk clubs. I took out
the original pickups because
they were noisy and put a
mini-humbucker in the neck,
and Seymour Duncan Vintage
Stacks for the middle and back.
I love Seymour’s work. [At the
time] I couldn’t afford to have
a Strat, a Les Paul, and a Tele.
I was broke and couldn’t afford
more than one guitar—now
I’ve got about 50.
What about your new Wampler
Hot Wired Brent Mason
It’s got characteristics of a Pro
Co Rat and an Ibanez Tube
Screamer, plus a little bit of a
plexi Marshall thing, too. It’s
also got a fat switch that we
really worked on. If you’re using
an open-back cabinet, sometimes
you’re missing that lowend
push. With this fat switch,
if you hit a low barre chord it
will push at you real big but
still have that open-back sound.
You get that air around it still.
You have a sweet collection of
vintage amps. Could a digital
modeler replace your rig?
No, I don’t think so. Things
like the Eleven Rack are close—
that’s as close as you’re going
to get right now—but I’ve got
to have the real thing. I love
hearing how the amp is going
to sound in a different place.
You might take the amp to a
studio with different acoustics
and it’s going to sound totally
different. To me, that can never
be duplicated or emulated. It’s
so three-dimensional. It’s pretty
remarkable what they can do
these days, and maybe it’s just
me being old-fashioned, but I
love the real thing.