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
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
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.”
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.
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.