We bassists live in an era of great innovation. Advances in technology continue to make our lives easier, and thanks to laptop and desktop workstations, fast hard drives, and remote recording, few session musicians still make all of their living by laying down bass lines in brick-and-mortar recording studios. As such, studio bass—pioneered by giants like James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, and Carol Kaye—has become something of a lost art.
Mike Brignardello is among a handful of players doing his best to keep it alive. The lessons he’s learned from these studio heroes have made him a first-call session player in Music City, and like his bass lines, this Memphis native is a solid, dependable staple in the Nashville studio scene. His calm, friendly demeanor makes him easy to hang with, but his smooth vintage tone, his seemingly innate ability to know exactly when to play what, and his willingness to put the song above everything else is why he’s credited on over 500 albums (and countless demos) coming out of Nashville.
Although widely known for his work with country megastars like Reba McIntire, Blake Shelton, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton, Brignardello’s multi-genre bass skills have resulted in a successful career in rock, pop, CCM (Christian contemporary music), and the blues, too. In addition to a host of CCM artists such as Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, he’s recorded with Jewel, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tonic frontman Emerson Hart, Keb’ Mo,’ and his own band, Giant.
Each week, Mike’s schedule is jammed with studio dates, where he splits his time between demo work and master sessions. Armed with his ’59 Fender Precision and a few other Fender-style axes, Mike logs hour upon hour in studios across Nashville. We talked to him at one of his favorite studios, Ocean Way Recording.
How did you go from playing in local bands in Memphis to becoming a top studio bassist in Nashville?
Through a fortunate turn of events, I got the chance to play bass for an Amy Grant concert in 1981. Her producer [multi-Grammy Award winner Brown Bannister] liked my style and asked if I had ever thought about moving to Nashville and doing studio work. I loved the idea, so I moved that next year and began working with Brown and other producers in CCM. From there, things just took off, and for the next five years, I just did studio work.
But you didn’t settle into the studio scene completely, right?
Right. Dann Huff and I had worked together since the mid ’80s, along with his brother, [drummer] David. In 1987, we all got the itch to create a rock band, so we formed Giant. From 1988 to 1993, we had some success, releasing two albums and touring quite a bit with Whitesnake, Heart, Bad English, and other bands. We had a pretty good hit with “See You in My Dreams,” but unfortunately, we were bit late to the ’80s rock party; grunge killed it all just a few years later.
You didn’t seem to have any problem landing back on your feet, though.
Once again, I was blessed to catch a popular new wave of music. I moved back to Nashville in ’93, just as country music exploded. I jumped back in the studio and played on albums by Travis Tritt, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes, and Brooks & Dunn. Since then, I’ve stayed very busy in Nashville, mostly in country music.
Country music went through a serious evolution in the ’90s, utilizing more 16th-based syncopated rhythms along with heavy synth and guitar. What do you think of those changes, and how does it affect what you play?
To me, it was a happy, natural evolution. The demographic has changed in country music, from the listeners, the singers, the producers, and the record labels. All these younger fans grew up on pop music in the ’80s and ’90s, not Waylon and Willie, so it makes sense that country music would respond to that. As a bassist, I find that contemporary country is more fun to play, and it draws on more elements from my own youth, like rock, pop, and funk.
How do you come up with your bass lines for a studio session?
There are two steps I go through in every session. First, I listen to the demo and write a bass part in my head. The moment the studio session starts, though, everything changes because of what the drummer, guitarists, and other instruments do. So, my second step is to adapt what I heard in my head to the other ideas being presented by each individual in the room. That’s one of the hardest parts about session playing; you can have your own ideas (and love them), but it’s a collaborative process, and you have to adapt to the ideas everyone else brings to the song.
What gear do you think is essential for a studio bass player?
First and foremost, you need a Fender 4-string. I use a Sadowsky 5-string sometimes, but mostly I prefer to tune down a 4 if I need something below a low E. You also need a good DI, a compressor, and maybe an EQ.
Some people say it’s best to just send a dry signal and let the engineer alter the sound, but you don’t hold that view.
No, not really. Most of the time, especially in demo work, the engineer is not going to take time to dial in the bass tone you want, so you need to do it yourself and send it to them, but not in a way that will draw unnecessary attention or be distracting. I bring my own gear to the studio so that I can control what is going to the board. Keep in mind, most of the time the engineer and producer are focused on the artist, the vocals, and maybe the main instrument. The bass is often not anywhere near the forefront of their mind, and you have to accept that.
What do you think makes a bass player desirable to a producer, and what advice would you give someone looking to break into the studio scene?
Keep your setup simple. Make sure your gear is bulletproof: no humming, no buzzing, nothing rattling around. It doesn’t matter what your rig is—it can be a rack full of fancy gear or it can be a bass and a cable—but it needs to work well. Be friendly and accessible. Let everyone know you’re open to input. Sometimes I come up with what I think is a killer bass part, but the producer will want to keep things simple. I’ve had many a cool bass line tossed out later in the mixing process. When that happens, don’t take it personally. It’s their song, so you should play what they want. Don’t blow up if they don’t dig your idea. Try to figure out what the artist and producer want, and play to that. In the end, serve the song.
With so many albums under your belt, it might be easy to settle in and get a bit complacent. How do you keep things fresh?
The best advice I can give someone who wants to stay fresh is to get in a deep pool. There are so many great players in Nashville. Victor Wooten lives here; Edgar Meyer lives here; Tommy Sims lives here. Being around so many great players encourages me to stay focused on pushing myself. One of the ways I’m doing that right now is by learning to play the upright. That’s a new challenge for me. I want to be studying until I’m dead, always on the path toward growth; the joy for me is in the journey.
Basses 1959 Fender Precision, Sadowsky PJ5, Bluesman Vintage ’62 Deville
Rig (studio) API 312 preamp/550A EQ, Tube Tech CL 1B compressor, Pultech EQP 1A EQ
Effects Origin Effects Cali76 compressor, Boss GE-7 EQ (modded by AnalogMan), Visual Sound Volume Pedal, Fulltone Bass-Drive Mosfet overdrive, EBS OctaBass octaver, Ampeg SCR-DI preamp/DI
Strings D’Addario Nickels .045–.125
Blake Shelton, Red River Blue [2011, Warner Bros. Nashville]; Emerson Hart, Cigarettes and Gasoline [2007, Manhattan]; Travis Tritt, T.R.O.U.B.L.E. [1992, Warner Bros. Nashville]; Giant, Last of the Runaways [1989, A&M]; Amy Grant, Lead Me On [1988, Myrrh/A&M].