AS A KID GROWING UP IN CALIFORNIA AND LEARNING
how to play guitar to punk-rock records, my impression of Nashville
at the time was of cowboy hats and twangy guitars. However,
once I moved here and started doing sessions and tours,
I quickly discovered that Nashville truly is “Music City.” Consider
that both Paramore and Kings of Leon emerged from Nashville—
not to mention that the contemporary Christian music
and bluegrass industries put roots down here a long time ago—
and Nashville emerges as a much more musically diverse place
than you’d expect from a city whose name is practically synonymous
with, well, cowboy hats and twangy guitars.
This diversity is the primary reason why the session guitarists
who work in Nashville agree that versatility is equally—if not
more— important than the ability to play lightning-fast licks.
Session players need to have a variety of musical genres in their
back pockets at all times, because you never know what you’ll be
called on to play, and you may have only once chance to prove
that you’re the right guy for the record.
I recently had the opportunity to interview some the finest
and most in-demand players that the guitar community here has
ever seen: Brent Mason, Dann Huff, Jerry McPherson, Kenny
Greenberg, and Tom Bukovac. These guys offer great insights
about the mentality of session work and what it takes to stay
relevant in this constantly evolving scene.
Why is it that your style is often associated
with chicken pickin’?
I got known as a Tele player because
that’s what was popular when I first
started playing on records. When I play
double-stops on a Tele, I’m really thinking
more about syncopated Latin rhythms,
but I’m applying them to note selections
that are more country. I was a big fan of
Albert Lee and Jerry Reed, and was also
really into jazz players like George Benson
and Pat Martino. All of those guys influenced
What stylistic changes have you noticed
though your years of playing sessions here?
When I played on Alan Jackson’s “I
Don’t Even Know Your Name,” it almost
sounded like a Brent Mason instrumental.
Those were the guitar days. Now, things
have shifted to more of a ’70s rock sound,
or a producer will say, “Play a U2 sounding
part,” or “Let’s give this track a Tom Petty
feel.” A lot of people use the same references:
Coldplay, Rolling Stones, Matchbox
20, stuff like that. I study what’s going
on, and that’s how you stay relevant. You
have to be a total chameleon and have to
reinvent yourself all the time. When you
start getting too predictable, that’s when
your career is going to end.
You do a lot of “eSessions” at your home
studio. How is that different from tracking
with a live rhythm section?
Working at home is fine if you’re
overdubbing—it’s great for getting the
perfect tone and the right solo for the
song, because I can really take my time.
But I feel like some of the essence and
feel in a track is lost when people don’t
play all of the rhythm parts together in
When you were playing tons of sessions in
your 20s, did you ever think you would end up
becoming a producer?
No. Ever since I was 13, all I wanted
to do was play sessions. But after years
and years of three and four sessions a
day, things can get a little mundane.
Eventually I met Mutt Lange, and he was
the one who told me I was a producer.
He compared it to being a general contractor
instead of a subcontractor. Playing
guitar is like pounding nails in one
room of a house. To produce, you’ve got
to have an understanding of the big picture,
the entire house.
What are some differences between working
as a guitarist and as a producer?
When you’re a guitar player, you’re
judged on your performance every day,
and you know you did a good job if you get
called back. The quality of your work can be
measured in that way. Production is a different
story. You can build what you think
is the most perfect piece of music, and at
the end of the day it’s judged not by how
well it was done, but by how much money
you made the people who hired you to produce
it. If you don’t make them money, all
of the painstaking time, love, and care you
put into the project are irrelevant.
How does one become in-demand as a session
When you start making the composition
as a whole sound better, that’s when producers
will scoop you up. You’re there to
frame a song and to make the artist sound
the best they can possibly sound. It’s not
Do you still work on flashy guitar techniques?
There has to be a good reason to keep
up on certain techniques. For instance, I
use to do a lot of speed picking, but I don’t
anymore because it became passé.
When you moved to Nashville in 1986, did you
have to change anything about your playing?
I incorporated more country vocabulary
into my playing. When Dann Huff
started to produce more, he started recommending
me for sessions that he couldn’t
do. I remember Paul Leim telling me to
buy a Mindy McCready record that Dann
had played on. I bought that record, but I
really learned more of the country vocabulary
from just being in town and absorbing
it from other players.
You’re great at dialing in sounds and textures
to create the impression that an instrument
other than guitar is present.
I think a lot of that comes from listening
to Peter Gabriel and David Bowie records
and loving the vibe—especially the Bowie
records that Brian Eno produced. Adrian
Belew was also a huge influence on me in
that area. His first solo record, Lone Rhino,
was an encyclopedia of crazy sounds. A
big part of my sound revolves around layering
a lot of different effects and creating
textures. If I want to hear that kind
of a sound and a keyboard player isn’t on
the track, I have to find a way to come up
with it. My parents had a lot of orchestral
music on vinyl and I was really into how big
that music sounded. I wasn’t interested in
learning how to play violin, and keyboards
never clicked with me, but I still wanted
to get those kinds of sounds, so I started
gravitating toward effects that could help
me do it with a guitar.
What’s it like working for producers that are
You’d think that a guitar-playing producer
would beat you up on every little
thing, but my experience has been that
they appreciate the fact that your phrasing
or tone is different than theirs. Producers
are usually so over hearing themselves
play, and chances are they’ll like what you
do because it’s a different from what they
What is the mindset you need to have as a
When I do a session, I’m there to have
a good time. The most important thing is
to have fun, because that’s what makes the
You were originally a producer, and now you
spend most of your time playing sessions. How
did your career end up going opposite than is
usual for most session guitarists?
I started out playing in bands, and then I
started producing bands and writing songs.
Through producing records I found out
how much I really love to play guitar. Out
of everything I’ve done in my career, playing
guitar is my strongest skill, but I still
produce and write.
How did you transition into doing sessions?
I produced a couple of records for Tony
Brown, and after that he started recommending
me for sessions. Tony really got
my session career off the ground. I never
really imagined myself in the middle of the
session world, but that’s how things go. I
remember when I moved to town in 1978
and was playing in bands with Michael
Rhoads, he said, “Dude, you need to learn
how to play country guitar!” I said, “It’ll
never happen, I’ll never do it.” But look at
Do you remember the shift that occurred
when ’70s-style rock rhythm playing started
making its way into country songs?
In the late ’90s, Brooks & Dunn had a
song called “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You.” After
I played on that song I remember getting
called a lot to do that sort of rock playing.
After that, I realized I needed to keep both
expanding my vocabulary and also be able
to play like Don Rich, so I started playing
California-style country and practicing a lot
of B-Bender guitar. The thing about sessions
now is it’s not about chops and shredding.
You’ve got to have a vocabulary in a variety
of different genres. In Nashville, you need
to be able to play rock and roll equally as
well as hillbilly music.
What do you think the future will be like for
Country music is still a radio-driven
genre and country singers don’t generally
have their own bands to record with, so
for the session player, that’s good news.
Also, Nashville has so many publishing
houses and all of those companies are constantly demoing songs to pitch to artists
and to films and television shows. There
are a lot of what we call “custom records”
being done in Nashville, which is a record
that is paid for by an investor or an artist
who is funding their own album without
a label. Those three things are still driving
the need for session players.
How does it differ working for indie labels?
It’s more satisfying for me because the
independents don’t have the constraints of
a major label and can be more daring. I feel
like Nashville today is how Los Angeles was
in the late ’60s and ’70s. LA was doing it
all back then—movie scores, pop records,
rock bands—and California also had that
Buck Owens Bakersfield country sound
too. I feel like Nashville is now the place
where all of that is going on. When most
players move to Nashville, they think they
have to play “yee haw” country-style guitar.
It’s good to know how to play like that, but
modern country is just another version of
pop music with story-based lyrics.
You’ve worked with a long list of the industry’s
best producers, so what qualities make a good
Any sound that comes out of a set of
speakers has an emotion attached to it.
When a person selects a group of sounds
that all convey a similar emotion, that’s
when music is effective. When a song has
jumbled and mixed emotions, that’s when
people will say, “Eh, I don’t really like that.”
That applies to country, thrash metal, or to
any genre. I think that’s a producer’s job;
to make sure everything in a song is hitting
the intended emotional target. The
producer has to know the goal, and then
be the goalkeeper. You can produce music
in so many different ways, and there isn’t
any one right way, but I don’t like it when
a producer tries to sugarcoat what they’re
telling you—it takes up too much time. If
I’m working with someone like that, I’ll
say, “Dude, I’m from Cleveland, just tell
me what you want!”
Are you doing more eSessions these days?
I do that a little bit, but I prefer to be
in the room with the producer. I don’t
want to guess at what the producer wants
because I’ll end up second-guessing myself
and recording ten different options. If he
was in the room, we could get it right once.
The other thing about that is I’m obsessive
about my takes. I’ll keep recording
passes because I can always do it better.
So it helps when the producer steps in and
says, “That’s the take!”
What do you do to get through a session when
you’re not enjoying the music?
If I’m in a situation like that I’ll tell myself,
“I’m going to nail these eighth-notes,” or
“I’m going to play this slide part perfectly
in tune.” It might be the worst song you’ve
ever heard, but that’s when you’ve got to
focus on the one aspect of the music you
can control—your own playing.
GEAR 1968 Fender Telecaster, 1965 Fender Bassman head, Little Walter head, Matchless
30-watt Dual Channel, Fender Bandmaster cabinet, Marshall 4x12 cabinet,
Little Walter cabinet.
CREDITS Alan Jackson, Alabama, Brooks & Dunn, George Straight, Neil Diamond,
Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Shania Twain, the Judds,
Willie Nelson, Zac Brown Band, and many others.
GEAR James Tyler guitars, Peavey amplifiers
CREDITS Michael Jackson, Keith Urban, Rick Springfield, Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan,
Amy Grant, Joe Cocker, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Smokey Robinson, Kenny G.,
Hank Williams Jr., Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney, Celine Dion, Barbara
Streisand, Tim McGraw, Billy Joel, Shania Twain.
GEAR Modified 1966 Fender Telecaster, PRS guitars, Vox AC30, GHS strings, Line
CREDITS Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, Amy Grant, Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire,
Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Michael W. Smith, Donna Summer, John Tesh, DC Talk,
Wynonna Judd, Phil Keaggy, Chris Martin (Coldplay), Kelly Clarkson.
GEAR PRS & Fender guitars, 1948 Gibson J-45, Category 5 amps, Klon Centaur, Line
CREDITS Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Brooks & Dunn, Gretchen Wilson, Willie
Nelson, Kenny Chesney, Wynona Judd, Lee Ann Womack, Toby Keith, Sugarland,
Trisha Yearwood, Montgomery Gentry, Faith Hill, Bob Seger, Amy Grant, Etta James,
Mandy Moore, Jewel, Indigo Girls, Joan Baez.
GEAR 1959 Gibson ES-355 (factory mono), 1959 Fender Tweed Deluxe, Roland
RE-501 Space Chorus.
CREDITS Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow, Rascal Flatts, Chicago, Carrie Underwood, Toby
Keith, LeAnn Rimes, Sugarland, Gretchen Wilson, Van Zant, Lonestar, Brooks &
Dunn, Taylor Swift, Stevie Nicks.
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