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Brent Mason: Guitar Wizard​ of Nashville

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Jazz Guitar Today talks to Brent Mason

Bob Bakert, Editor of Jazz Guitar Today: Brent Mason has played guitar on literally thousands of records, lots of movie soundtracks, many television shows and commercials. His client list is the “Who’s Who” of country stars and producers. Brent is known for his country licks and chicken pickin’.  His licks, solos, and kickoff intros have been on thousands of country records and hits.  

I met Brent at the Little Walter Tube Amp show at the City Winery in Nashville last year.  I was fortunate to be performing at the show, as well. I was warming up backstage and I noticed Brent was warming up across the room – playing a ton of red-hot bebop lines.  I had heard Brent was a big fan of Pat Martino and George Benson and in fact, he is.  His guitar vocabulary is stupefying and he is exactly the kind of player we at Jazz Guitar Today want to highlight.  

We love straight ahead jazz players no doubt, but we also celebrate the players that use the language of jazz in other genres.  So Brent Mason on the cover of Jazz Guitar Today?  Absolutely!

CONVERSATION WITH BRENT MASON

Bob Bakert, Editor: I had the opportunity to interview Brent – however, I have to say, it was more like two guys having a beer or two… Thanks Brent!   Below are excerpts from our conversation.  Enjoy.

Bob: I would like to hear about when you first came to Nashville from Ohio. How much of your ‘playing’ arsenal was already developed and how much did you pick up along the way?

Well, I yeah… I had some of that in my arsenal and I picked up a lot (laughs) along the way. So yeah, both.

I was a fan of Nashville musicians, of course my parents played country music.  There was Merle Haggard and my dad loved Bob Wills. And of course, there was Texas swing – which is jazz  from Texas, you know big band music with strings.

I was always a fan of Buddy Emmons and Roy Nichols. They were always  playing a lot of jazzy stuff.

Buddy Emmons, I need to give him a more credit than I do,  I think because I’m always talking about well-known guitar players. I listened to Jerry Reed and always talk about Jerry Reed. But I listened to Buddy Emmons just as much in those early years because although my dad didn’t play steel, he was a steel guitar fan.

When I first heard Buddy Emmons, WOW!   It was just such finesse and flash. Real active, energetic and very interesting notes.  

So then I wondered, “what does Buddy Emmons listen to?” I know he said something about Pat Martino at some point so then…. after Buddy Emmons, I got a Pat Martino album – then became a fan of Pat. Things kind of parlayed from there, it’s kind of how I got in the jazz. 

Also, my brother (Nashville drummer Randy Mason)  always played Buddy Rich solos in the  basement.  I was ready to pull out my hair. Every morning there was a Buddy Rich solo downstairs… Yeah, my brother loved Buddy Rich… I did too!

We had a lot of different kind of music in the house so I always refer to country music.  My mom and dad had a country band and they played stuff like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, and Loretta Lynn. Mom sang Connie Smith and Loretta Lynn songs. Not only did I have country music but I also had Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong (oh man!) in the house too.  So it was a good eclectic collection.

Bob: You seem to dive deep in whatever style you decide to jump into…

I brought all that to Nashville. When I came in Nashville, I thought of Buddy Emmons. I thought I was going to play jazz. They’ll like Jazz. That’s what they all play in the night when they go out. Guys like Hank Garland, they did their sessions all day, but then would sneak out and play “jazz” down in Printers Alley.  That was the whole way I perceived Nashville (laughs).

Bob: What did you find to be the truth?

Don’t play the jazz stuff – your phone won’t ring…Don Kelly (Nashville bandleader famous for recruiting the hottest new young Tele’ players) told me that…

Bob: I saw that interview where you recounted that. (Don Kelly’s advice)

Yeah, so I did it anyway, because I knew the other stuff. Sure, I was okay playing Merle Haggard’s  “Momma Tried”… I know the intro to that… “Yeah that’s what you play!”  But, I had a a Hagstrom Swede guitar I brought to Nashville. Don said,  “It was a great sounding guitar” – it’s all really versatile and  I’d try to do everything on it but Don said, “You need to get a Fender.”  So, you know that’s when I headed out to get some Fenders.

He (Don Kelly) was buying one (Fender) every month anyway, and always trading one in.  But yeah, I would play all that (country licks) until someone like Lenny Breau came and then I’d start playing jazz in the middle of a country song again…  and then when they left, I’d go back to playing country again. Until you know, somebody I’d want to show off to came in… I’d be playing what I was supposed to play (laughs).

Brent Mason, the man that never plays a ‘wrong’ note…and when he does, he still makes it sound right.
BOB BAKERT
Editor, Jazz Guitar Today

Brent Mason on George Benson...

We loved George Benson!  Great songs like ‘Masquerade’. What a great time…when a Jazz song could be at the top of the pop charts.  You know what I mean.

Bob: I am a huge fan of George Benson.  I had “Bad Benson” and “Beyond the Blue Horizon” and all those records.  So as soon as the “Breezin” album came out, I went and got the vinyl. I stuck it on the turntable and when ‘Masquerade’ came on I said, what is Stevie Wonder doing singing on this record?  (it was George singing)

You’re Right, he did sound like Stevie!  I was a Stevie fan too, still am. Stevie Wonder was the man. I was into all the country stuff and of course, I lived and breathed Jerry Reed with a guitar. But when Stevie Wonder came out with “Superstition” and “Higher Ground”, I went out and got it – and I mean I wore that record out. I love how the songs just kept going and going at the end  – and rev you up more before it faded out.

Bob: There’s a quote, I don’t know if it’s true or not…  George had already won the Down Beat pole like 6 years in a row and a critic wrote he was selling out. He responded, “Well when they pay me $1,000,000 a year to play jazz, I’ll play jazz again”

(Laugh) Yeah right. Still, you know what, it was good music. He (George) interjected class, great playing and great singing into the pop field and into contemporary music. It was well commended I thought.

Bob: I love it!

I did too, I mean we were listening to Steely Dan, Donald Fagen was doing it (playing  sophisticated changes in pop tunes) and I appreciated that just as much.

Bob: George can do anything he wants to as far as I’m concerned

“Breezing” – I did hear that first. But that was the “pop jazz” side and I went back and got “Cookin” and I was playing some jazz with some college guys in Fort Wayne, Indiana and they said you need to get “Blue Benson”. The album with the real cloudy-stormy looking cover on the album.  I bought it and went “holy sh&#, I love it. Then I kind of went retroactively and start looking up his earlier stuff too. 

Bob: Your learning process over the years… You obviously know your music theory. Did you learn it on your own or did you have a teacher? Did you ever study formally or just kind of pick it up?

Yeah, I had a ‘chat’ with a guitar teacher from Fort Wayne, Indiana. I had some guys back then that I played with and we’d play a little jazz… We played a little Hank Garland and stuff like that. There was a guitar player in that group that kind of played like a Hank Garland… which I love.  “Jazz Winds from a New Direction” (Hank Garland album), I was a fan of that one.

I like the fact that Hank was based in Nashville playing on records you know, and then he would do his jazz prowess at night.

Bob: What musical style intrigues you currently? 

Well, I listen to… more so just compositions –  way back when I started I’d listen to  James Taylor and stuff.  It got to be more about the song than just about the instrumentals or the chord changes or how well it was played or if you could jam on it…  it was  also about putting beautiful lyrics to a song and the music together, I kind of got into that when I heard James Taylor and those kinds of artists.

Bob: Yeah I’m a huge fan of James Taylor.

Yeah…I heard stuff like Ricky Lee Jones and James Taylor… these days my wife and I listen to a lot of R&B… she  just goes crazy over Chaka Kahn, Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder; she loves Donald Fagen, that’s her favorite and Steely Dan.

So here’s what I do… When we go to Maui or Key West on vacation, I don’t even take a guitar. I may be there two weeks and while I don’t touch a guitar,  I might pick up a Ukulele or something – people go “whoa – play that again” – I’d say, “yeah, I don’t know this thing, I’m just messin’ with it”.

But we’ll sit around and play songs we like and both know… Steely Dan all the time or George Benson.  We have a play list of all kinds of stuff.

Corinne Bailey Ray or anything that she (my wife) likes, I like!… and it inspires me, but I don’t touch a guitar

It’s just like when I get home I really want to play… I’m like deprived.  I need to pick it up and play (guitar), so taking that time off really clears my head out. We’re not listening to Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett, which probably, if I was by myself I might have thrown in some of those too… brain cleanser. I’d listen to Keith Jarrett on the way home from all those Honky Tonk Sessions and stuff.

Bob: Really!!

Yeah, on the way home I’d like to stick to the standards by Keith Jarrett and stuff you know, I love that stuff! Just something different!

Bob: No, I understand

You know when you’re playing on records and stuff, that gets to be pretty deliberate and redundant…

Bob: Love your story about playing the same kick-off, 4-bar intro into two different records, recorded  a year apart but released at the same time

You got that, I tell that story all the time!

Above video shot and provided by Terry Parker.

Bob:  Larry Carlton is famous for putting away his guitar for 2 or 3 months at a time and only pulling it out when he has a gig…

YEAH, I think it’s good …it’s like fasting. If you don’t put down your instrument, listen to something else and stop playing, you never advance. Sometimes the inspiration goes away, so you’ve got TO GET inspired…  Use your ears and your heart – and not pick up your instrument. 

I also love Christmas music. It really gets me in the mood. It makes me think different. You know how to approach compositions and rearrange chords, different melodies and different progressions and things like that.

Bob: Yes, when I watch you think on the guitar, I can see your creativity, you have a very active mind going on there… I can absolutely see you doing the rearranging, if you will.

Yeah, I’m always thinking like an orchestra… orchestral type things… you know at Christmas when the intercoms going – my wife and kids like to play Christmas music.  I can’t sleep if I hear something that I like. I’ve got to figure out all these versions like if Harry Connick Jr. has a new version – I have to get in the middle of that…  I have to figure it out or whatever.

Back to the originals with Sinatra and Crosby – it’s like I don’t really want to hear another version of White Christmas – just give me the original one, you know, Nat King Cole or whatever.

Audio from interview: Brent on transcribing solos from other instruments like piano, sax and trumpet. And how it often times does not lie well, or for that matter, sound good on guitar.

One-on-One Skype Lessons with Brent!

Bob: You are doing online teaching, that’s pretty cool – are you enjoying it?

Yeah, I am enjoying it!  Awhile back my website guy, Jason Wilding, said, “You need to do Skype lessons.” I wasn’t sure if I could, so I was kind of reluctant at the time… and that’s all right. Actually, I didn’t know if I would really have time to do it. I was recording and playing so much, I just wanted to get home and get away from it. 

I wanted to make sure the lessons were really good quality, high-def and great audio.

So I hooked up an audio interface, an iRig interface and a mic and some amps … I use Fenders and stuff like that. I got everything going right. Skype is mono, which is fine with me. I did the first Skype and thought, “Hey, I really like this!!!”

A lot of guys do the ‘subscribe to monthly lessons’ or weekly, or whatever… and then they just send out the videos.  Everybody subscribes to a monthly thing… but instead of doing that, I find that I really like sitting with people. It’s almost like having a beer with them, it’s very personable.  

Since I have been doing Skype, I really enjoy it.  And occasionally I would get some guys… I would say, “Where is your guitar?” They would say, “Oh no, I’m not going to play in front of you, I just want to talk to you about the business. What should I do?  How do you think when you do this?” It was almost like we were getting real philosophical, but you know what… I’m really into it – almost like a therapist sometimes.

Bob: Guitar therapist… Brent Mason, who knew?

Yeah, I am getting into it, like hyped up on it. I loved it. All of a sudden, it’s like I am an adviser. 

 

 

 

There are metal rockers that want to know how to do double stops and Tele chicken pickin’.

Bob: Anything else you would like to discuss. For example, John Jorgenson mentioned his “steel” playing.

Well, I messed with the steel guitar a bit but I am not going to bring it up (laughs). I suck – there is a reason I don’t bring stuff up.  I think we kind of covered just more than the basic straight-up guitar questions. We have been talking about life and different things in life and how it affects your music ability.

Bob: Yes, serving the song. And how the lyric and all that is more important than how many notes you can play.

What do you think I should play over “All the things you are”.  Those are the kinds of questions I get and am asked a million times – you know what I mean.  Yeah talking about life and how you spend your life at different times, different ages and when you’re young going through all that crazy stuff.

This song is from keyboardist Chris Carver’s album “Wonderland” – I channeled my hero George on this duet 🙂 – Brent Mason

Bob: In sessions, can you talk about what you choose to play and why?

First, I just don’t want to categorize any music…  Yeah I’m a session player so obviously I have to be a chameleon – so I like to get into the character of the song.  If you play on a Bob Dylan song, you play what you’re supposed to play on a Bob Dylan song… If it’s a Natalie Cole song you play what you’re supposed to play.  I loved her too…  If you’re playing with Lynyrd Skynyrd you try to capture the spark about that… Really THERE ARE NO RULES … NO RULES IN MUSIC.

Bob: If you book a gig, “the Brent Mason band”  Can you give us an idea what that would look like?

Well, it would be a collection of songs but it wouldn’t be “commercial”. It would have some R&B and it would have some jazz just like my record “Hot Wired”… It’s got to have soul.

Bob: One more thing, I remember your VHS lesson tape from the 90’s, you were playing a Tele but you also had a Howard Roberts fusion.  Do you still have that guitar?

I don’t have that anymore. I sold that to a guy in Maryland. Actually, it needed a little work on the intonation – it didn’t play in tune very well… but I have to be totally honest – it sounded wonderful.

Bob: I had one I could never get it to play in tune. You validated me!

If you don’t put down your instrument, listen to something else and stop playing, you never advance. Sometimes the inspiration goes away, so you’ve got TO GET inspired…

Awards

Academy of Country Music – Guitarist of the Year – 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2009

Nashville Music Awards – Guitarist of the Year – 1995

Country Music Association (CMA) Musician of the Year – 1997 and 1998

MusicRow Session Guitarist of the Year 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2010

National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame, 2011

Music City Allstars Award

2009 Grammy Award

And Brent is being inducted into The Musician’s Hall of Fame on Oct 22 of this year!

Wrapping it up with "Nothin' To It"

Special thanks to Bob Seaman – Photo credits for all performance shots in the article!

Bob Seaman

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