Premier Guitar

Brent Mason: A Chameleon in Tune Town

January 10, 2012

After accidentally riveting a hole completely through his thumb while working at a toolbox factory, Brent Mason realized that if he didn’t follow his dream of becoming a professional guitarist, sooner or later that dream wouldn’t be an option. So the native of Van Wert, Ohio, hit the road at age 21 and headed straight for Nashville. Not long after arriving in “Music City,” Mason became a fixture on the studio scene. He eventually became the No. 1 session player in town and one of the most-recorded guitarists in history. Along the way, he’s won countless awards, including a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance (with Brad Paisley, Albert Lee, and John Jorgenson, among others), CMA Musician of the Year (twice), and the Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year—which he’s pulled off an astonishing 12 times. In addition to being a consummate hired gun, Mason is also a highly regarded virtuoso solo artist.

The road to becoming the “Nashville Session King” began in the late ’80s, when Mason scored a gig as a songwriter for CBS Songs. He co-wrote numerous songs and played all of their guitar parts. When the songs were later pitched to artists and producers, the question out of their mouths was always, “Who’s playing guitar on that?” And when many of them found out it was Mason, they’d seek him out for their recordings. Higher-profile artists like Keith Whitley also took notice—Mason played and co-wrote tracks such as “Heartbreak Highway” from I Wonder Do You Think of Me, Whitley’s final album before his tragic passing. Soon, Mason became first-call on just about every A-list session, including those for albums by Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith, and Neil Diamond. He also did soundtrack work for TV shows like Friends and movies like A Few Good Men.

The session ace’s new DVD, Brent Mason: Recording Guitar [musicPROmedia], offers a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of a typical tracking session. The nearly two-hour video is a must-see for any guitarist interested in learning about the creative process of putting together guitar parts at a professional level. Even if you have no interest in session work, the video offers useful tips and insights about creating complementary guitar parts and choosing the right gear for the job. A good portion of the DVD documents Mason’s process of layering guitar tracks (it even includes PDFs of notated transcriptions), including his rationale for when to use different instruments, and how to punch in tricky parts. At the end, you get to hear the fully arranged finished product. Shred fans will also delight in seeing Mason record four improvised passes of a hellacious solo, with a great moment in the third pass when Mason adds more drive to his tone but then stops cold during the outro solo, shakes his head, and says, “The overdrive doesn’t work on this.”

We recently caught up with Mason to talk about how the studio scene has changed over the years, and to get advice on dealing with the creative and business aspects of being a working guitarist. Oh, and of course we talked chops and gear, too.

What makes a great session player?
The idea is to walk out of there with people going, “Wow, he must play that every day. He lives and breathes that.” If you sit me in a studio, I’ll make sure that by the time I’m out of there it sounds like I’ve been playing that music every night. I can go from a jazz session one day to playing hillbilly twang on an Alan Jackson session the next. There are lots of Nashville guys like that, who can really play. Even though everybody correlates my style with a certain type of country or country rock, I like and play jazz and all kinds of music.

Are there any cons to being a session cat?
The only negative thing about the studio scene—and I don’t really want to call it negative— is that you kind of lose who you are, because you become such a chameleon. And you become such a perfectionist that, after a while, you might not like anything anymore. Like when somebody wants to send you some music and you start thinking, “Well, I know it’s not going to be good, but go ahead and send it.”

Mason at an outdoor festival with one of his Valley Arts signature guitars, which features a Gibson mini-humbucker in the neck position, a Duncan Hot Stack in the middle, and a Duncan Vintage Lead Stack in the back position.

People are recording at home now more than ever. With the ease of cutting and pasting, even non-musicians today are putting out tracks from pasted loops. How has that affected the studio scene?
I could never imagine someone like Ray Charles or the Beatles doing that. If we did that on everything, it would become boring and stagnant after a while. I think that’s the charm of recording, to have a realistic approach and spontaneity.

There’s still a lot of the human element left here in Nashville, with people recording tracks together, which is my favorite way of cutting tracks—having everybody in front of each other, all in one room for one session to get the right vibe going.

Do you have to play all the way through a whole track anymore?
I play through the whole track. That’s the ideal thing. There will be some overdubbing after that. I know I’ve done some things where everything was pieced together and sent over the internet. But you can copy [and loop] some things without it being too noticeable—like a pop or disco-type song, where it’s just constant repetition.

You’re actually making yourself available for session work over the internet now, right?
Yeah. I can see that it’s kind of the wave of the future. It’s inevitable. Ironically, most of that isn’t from Nashville. It’s from all around the world—England, Ireland, Cuba [laughs]. [The clients] send specific information on what they’re looking for. Like, they might ask for a twangy baritone part for one section and a Buck Owens-type part for another section, or ask for a more rockin’ ZZ Top vibe. We’ll discuss everything before I start to record, and I’ve never really had any discrepancies.

Do you prefer working alone to a studio session?
There are good parts and bad parts about it. You don’t see other players. You sit around in your pajamas and do your parts, and then you get cabin fever after a while. The plus is that you can really zero in on some great guitar tones, and you can do the ultimate solo. In Nashville, we record so much that you might only get like 15 minutes to record a solo.

Mason in the studio with his ’76 ES-335 and a red Matchless DC30 barely visible behind the music stand.

But does taking away that time limit ever lead to obsessing over minute details that may not be that important rather than just sending out a perfectly good track?
I don’t overthink it. I’ve been doing this for years. I can get a good solo and it wouldn’t take all day. I’ll do a couple of solos and they can pick out the one they want. You just play what you hear, and if it’s soulful and it moves you, it’ll probably move them.

Because there’s no immediate feedback, what happens if parts come out differently than the client expects?
It’s no big deal. If they say, “Can you redo this?” I’ll just call it up and knock it out. But if they wait too long, it might be a laborious thing—because you have to go back through [the digital files], find it, and get the sounds again. It’s more about when you’re all set up and ready with the tones, because when you go on to something else, your mind goes to something else.

Another option is you can always Skype or iChat somebody while you’re doing something. You just have to know if they’re going to be pleasant to work with. You can always shut them off if they’re assholes.



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.



Brent Mason's Gear

Guitars
Modifi ed ’68 Fender Telecaster, ’65 Fender Stratocaster, ’68 Gibson SG, ’76 Gibson ES-335, ’73 goldtop Gibson Les Paul, PRS David Grissom, PRS SE Mike Mushok Baritone, PRS 12-string acoustic

Amps
’67 Fender Deluxe Reverb, ’65 Fender Twin Reverb,’65 Fender Bassman, ’63 Fender Bandmaster, silverface Fender Twin Reverb (modifi ed to head format), Matchless DC30 driving a Matchless 2x12 cab, various Little Walter amps

Effects
Wampler Hot Wired Brent Mason Overdrive/ Distortion, Creation Audio Labs MK 4.23 Clean Boost, Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer, Analog Man-modded Boss TR-2 Tremolo, Wampler Ego Compressor, Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai, Visual Sound Visual Volume, Ernie Ball Volume Pedal Jr., Xotic Effects BB Preamp, Vox wah, Strymon El Capistan, Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Benado multi-effector, other effects “in piles in a box somewhere”

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Herco blue thumbpick, Boss TU-2 Tuner, D’Addario straps, George L’s and Planet Waves cables

Youtube It
To see Brent mason chicken-pickin’ up a storm, check out the following clips on YouTube.com.


In this clip from his new Recording Guitar DVD, Mason demonstrates his approach to layering different guitar flavors on a single tune.


The session stud smokes his way through his signature tune “Hot Wired.”


Mason sings “Since I Fell For You,” then takes a burning guitar solo punctuated by George Benson-style scat singing.


Bebop meets country on this 2010 video featuring Mason and his brother Randy.



Brent Mason's Gear

Guitars
Modifi ed ’68 Fender Telecaster, ’65 Fender Stratocaster, ’68 Gibson SG, ’76 Gibson ES-335, ’73 goldtop Gibson Les Paul, PRS David Grissom, PRS SE Mike Mushok Baritone, PRS 12-string acoustic

Amps
’67 Fender Deluxe Reverb, ’65 Fender Twin Reverb,’65 Fender Bassman, ’63 Fender Bandmaster, silverface Fender Twin Reverb (modifi ed to head format), Matchless DC30 driving a Matchless 2x12 cab, various Little Walter amps

Effects
Wampler Hot Wired Brent Mason Overdrive/ Distortion, Creation Audio Labs MK 4.23 Clean Boost, Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer, Analog Man-modded Boss TR-2 Tremolo, Wampler Ego Compressor, Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai, Visual Sound Visual Volume, Ernie Ball Volume Pedal Jr., Xotic Effects BB Preamp, Vox wah, Strymon El Capistan, Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Benado multi-effector, other effects “in piles in a box somewhere”

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Herco blue thumbpick, Boss TU-2 Tuner, D’Addario straps, George L’s and Planet Waves cables

Youtube It
To see Brent mason chicken-pickin’ up a storm, check out the following clips on YouTube.com.


In this clip from his new Recording Guitar DVD, Mason demonstrates his approach to layering different guitar flavors on a single tune.


The session stud smokes his way through his signature tune “Hot Wired.”


Mason sings “Since I Fell For You,” then takes a burning guitar solo punctuated by George Benson-style scat singing.


Bebop meets country on this 2010 video featuring Mason and his brother Randy.