To devotees of fine Country guitar picking, Brent Mason is the king of the game.
Stuart Bull meets Brent Mason: Nashville's - and maybe the world's - most recorded session guitarist. Gary Cooper profiles the 'Guitar City' legend.
To devotees of fine Country guitar picking, Brent Mason is the king of the game. He has played on records by just about everyone who is anyone in Nashville, probably appeared on more top ten hits than any other session guitarist, won a Grammy, been 14 times winner of the Academy of Country Music Guitarist Of The Year Award, the CMA (having been nominated every year since 1991), and has been showered with accolades since, aged 21, he moved to Tennessee from his Ohio birthplace.
But as our interview shows, there's even more to Brent Mason's repertoire than the Country licks he apparently effortlessly squeezes out of his trademark, heavily modified, '68 Telecaster. As his sits speaking with Gi's Stuart Bull, with a PRS in his hands, what you're hearing is more Jazz than Country - which is perhaps curious for the man whose ability to spit out blistering Country licks is unsurpassed.
Once you start to delve, though, it soon becomes apparent that Mason is a man of many parts. Among his influences he lists James Taylor, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall, John Mayer, Sting, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Anita Baker, Michael Franks, Steely Dan and Keith Jarrett, while he says his favourite guitarists are Jerry Reed, Lenny Breau, Pat Martino, Roy Nichols, George Benson, Jeff Beck, Carlos Rios and Larry Carlton...neither list what you might expect from one of Country's biggest stars.
Though he comes from a musical background, Mason started life working in the family owned toolbox factory and famously quit when a punch went through his thumb. It was a defining moment, you can't help feeling, when he faced a straight choice between playing and working in the family firm.
Just like in the movies, breaking in to the Nashville scene wasn't easy - Guitar Town is competitive. But through his one session contact in town, Mason ended-up with a regular gig, eventually being taken under the wing of that great mentor of Country guitarists, the late Chet Atkins. Not only did Atkins come to hear Mason play, he brought George Benson with him the next time, then later asked Brent to guest on Atkins' album, Stay Tuned.
That tightly closed studio door had opened at last, and Brent Mason was on his way. Twenty five years later, he is still regarded as the hottest property in town and has worked with an astounding list of artists including (but by no means limited to): Alan Jackson, Alabama, Josh Turner, The Chipmunks, David Gates, Brooks & Dunn, George Strait, Neil Diamond, Rascal Flatts, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt, Lorrie Morgan, Brad Paisley, Clint Black, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Shelby Lynn, Tanya Tucker, Keith Whitley, Natalie Cole, Trace Adkins, Terri Clark, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, The Judds, LeeAnn Womack, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood.
It can be hard to get a handle on a guitar player's style when their work is mostly to be found on other people's records, but Mason has two albums to his name: 1997's Grammy award nominated Hot Wired (bizarrely still out of print from Mercury records and commanding obscene prices on eBay) and Smokin' Section, recorded with his brother, Randy, released in 2006 and much closer to Mason's heartland music of Jazz than the Country many had anticipated.
Mason is also a teacher (in the widest sense) having produced tuition videos and, most recently, having released the DVD Recording Guitar (see our clip and link below) which can be bought direct and which gives a real insight into the processes that make a Nashville guitar recording the thing of wonder that it is.
For seven years from 2003, Valley Arts (subsumed into Gibson) produced a Brent Mason Signature model, based on his venerable Tele. He used it alongside an impressive array of vintage instruments including a Les Paul, an SG, a 335 and a Strat - some 50 guitars in total, he confesses. Most recently, however, Brent has teamed-up with Paul Reed Smith. For now, he is playing an NF-3, as reviewed in this issue, though he told us also plays a PRS DGT and "Paul's Signature model - a lot". It's hard to imagine that it will be long before PRS introduces a Brent Mason signature model.
Amp wise, Mason seems pretty uncommitted (at least, in terms of endorsements - for the most part he's a 1960s vintage Fender man) but he is firmly associated with the pedal genius Brian Wampler. Indeed, not only does Brent use and endorse Wampler pedals, but he has his own Wampler pedal, the Hot Wired, an overdrive/distortion: one of the highest regarded pedals of its kind.
Finally, there's hope for those out there who despair of ever being able to read music. Brent Mason, Nashville's Number One and unquestionably one of the finest electric guitarists in the world, doesn't read a note and has never had a lesson in his life!