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May 2014
more... ArtistsGuitaristsFebruary 2012Brent Mason

Brent Mason: A Chameleon in Tune Town

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Brent Mason: A Chameleon in Tune Town

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 sight read?
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 [laughs].

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?
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.

Mason tunes his Joe Glaser-modified ‘68 Fender Tele, which features a middle pickup with its own volume knob.

Ironically, most sessions do not call for virtuosic playing.
Yeah, the studio scene is not about flashiness.

Do you always play with a thumpick?
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 thumbpick?
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 Overdrive/Distortion pedal?
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.

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