Tested By Art Thompson
There’s no question that Nashville session ace Brent Mason is one scary mofo, and when he puts his signature on a guitar—well, it kinda goes without saying that it has to be a pretty hip ax. The result of a collaboration between Mason and custom guitar maker Valley Arts (an ex-California custom guitar company now owned by Gibson), the Brent Mason Signature Custom Pro is based on the Joe-Glaser-modified 1968 Fender Telecaster that Mason has used on countless sessions for the last 15-plus years. The Signature’s most notable features are its Gibson mini-humbucker in the neck position, Duncan Hot Stack for Strat humbucker in the middle slot, and Duncan Classic Stack for Tele humbucker at the bridge.
A separate Volume control allows the middle pickup to be blended in with the other pickups. The Signature also has a push-pull function on the Tone control that activates a coil tap on the middle pickup.
Cosmetically, the Signature is a curious blend of somewhat disparate elements. Okay, the silver body and black pickguard go good together, and the matching headstock is a nice touch, but then you’ve got a mix of chrome-, gold-, and nickel-plated hardware, a “vintage” toned neck, and, of all things, a red pickup. The color combo is hard on my eyes—and the matte-textured paint might seem like an odd call on such an expensive instrument—but Valley Arts probably took great pains to replicate the finish of Mason’s guitar. Looks aside, the Signature’s big neck feels great, the large frets are smoothly rendered, and the neck joint is ultra snug (if only the pickguard fit more precisely around its butt end).
The Signature came up to pitch easily and intonated well, courtesy of its six-saddle bridge. The low action elicited some string buzz above the 12th fret—which wasn’t distracting, but it added a little “razz” to high notes. Those who favor huge necks will absolutely flip over the girth of the Signature’s gloss-finished stick. You might want to try before you buy if your hands are really small, but my average-sized mitts loved the feel of this neck. At 8.5 lbs, the guitar is a bit of a load, but it balances well when strapped on.
The Signature’s passive electronics yield a fascinating range of tones. The basic idea of the pickup and wiring scheme is to deliver classic Tele spank, but with bigger neck-pickup tones and a whole lot of niche sounds in between. That’s exactly what the Signature does, but not always in ways you’d expect.
For example, with the pickup selector in the bridge position, the middle pickup knob at zero, and the Tone-knob switch in the down position (bridge pickup solo), the tones from the Duncan Classic Stack bridge pickup sounded cool, but weren’t as bright—or as ballsy—as the sound from a ’72 Fender Tele I used for comparison. However, when I pulled up on the Signature’s Tone knob (which activates the middle and bridge pickups) the tones suddenly sparked to life—but only when the middle pickup Volume knob was off. Turning up the middle pickup in this mode didn’t do much until nearly the end of the knob’s rotation, where the tones began to take on a darker burnish. Then, at the very last twiddle of the knob, the volume suddenly dropped in half and the tones became markedly skinnier. (Valley Arts says that the volume loss is due to a phase-cancellation problem, and that a fix is in the works. Guitars that have gone out with the current electronics will be retrofitted at no cost to the owner.)
It quickly became clear that the Signature’s controls are interactive to the point of distraction. To keep from getting too confused, I started jotting down the other main knob/switch settings and their resulting sounds. Here’s what I came up with:
With the pickup selector in the middle position, the main Volume knob turned up, the middle pickup Volume at zero, and the Tone knob pushed in, the Signature delivers big, deep, and reasonably bright dual-pickup tones.
Turning up the middle pickup increases fullness, but not clarity, and pulling up on the Tone knob (with the middle-pickup Volume back at zero) provides a bright twangy sound and a slight volume increase. Hot country spoken here! Increasing the middle-pickup Volume in this configuration fattens and darkens the tones, which proves nice for jazzier vibes right up to the maximum setting, where another noticeable volume drop occurs.
With the pickup selector in the neck position, the main Volume knob turned up, the middle pickup Volume at zero, and the Tone knob pushed in, the Signature produces clear, girthy neck-pickup tones that speak with a bit of Les Paul bluesiness. Adding the middle pickup in this mode had little effect until the very last squinch of the knob’s rotation, where the tones again suddenly dropped in volume, but assumed a darker, funkier attitude. Pulling the Tone knob up in this mode decreases the midrange emphasis, yielding a snarkier flavor of funk, and—once again—a bit less volume.
The Brent Mason Signature packs an impressive variety of sounds. It’s certainly more tonally flexible than a stock Telecaster, but the flexibility comes at a price—such as having to perform three moves on the guitar’s controls just to cop a sound that matches that of a Tele with its pickup switch slammed all the way back. Obviously, such complexity makes the Signature a difficult partner for a bar gig.
As it should, the Signature reflects the very personal requirements of Brent Mason—which means it’s a monster instrument for copping tons of different tones in a studio setting. And the relative calm of the recording studio—where a player can concentrate on (and clearly hear) ever-so-minute tonal tweaks—is really the best environment for dialing in the Signature’s myriad flavors of Mason-approved magic.