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.
You can’t talk about Nashville guitarists without discussing Brent Mason. The two-time winner of the CMA Musician of the Year Award also holds a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance, and is a 12-time winner of the ACM Guitarist of the Year Award. Brent Mason is a name that is synonymous with chicken pickin’, but he is also highly skilled at playing many other genres— especially jazz.
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 my style.
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 the studio.
“As a producer or a guitar player, I don’t want to be identifiable. If you’re too identifiable as a player, your session career could fade away with the trend that people associate you with,” says Dann Huff, twotime winner of both the CMA Musician of the Year Award and ACM Producer of the Year Award. Having succeeded on both sides of the studio glass, Huff has acquired tons of experience as a guitarist and a producer.
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 guitarist?
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 about you.
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.
Some session musicians are like a one-hit wonder. They’re around for while and then you never hear from them again. And then there are musicians like Jerry McPherson, who has stood the test of time, enjoying a guitar-playing career that has spanned over 25 years and is still going strong.
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 guitar players?
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 would’ve played.
What is the mindset you need to have as a session player?
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 creativity flow.
If you’ve spent any time listening to country radio recently, you’ve surely noticed that modern country often sounds more like AC/DC with a little bit of fiddle and occasional steel guitar. The country genre is adopting more pop/rock sensibilities, and when you hear those big, aggressive guitar parts, there’s good chance you’re hearing Kenny Greenberg. After trading his trombone and cello for guitar after college, Greenberg moved to Nashville in 1978. And since that time he’s earned two Grammy Awards, an Academy Award nomination, and has several hit songs under his belt.
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 what happened.
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 session players?
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.
After moving to Nashville in 1992, Tom Bukovac spent several years on the road with a variety of artists. In 2000, he decided to quit touring so he could pursue session work full-time. With the exception of a tour with John Fogerty and one with Faith Hill, Bukovac has stuck to that career path and has flourished in the Nashville session community.
You’ve worked with a long list of the industry’s best producers, so what qualities make a good producer?
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 6 effects
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 6 Delay.
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.