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One of the best things about my job is that recently I've been given the opportunity to sit down and talk to some of the players that had such a dramatic effect on my playing. Imagine my excitement when I heard Mike Stern was playing 3 consecutive nights in London. Needless to say I had to get tickets to those shows and try to line up an interview with the man himself. What follows is a combination of my interview with Mike conducted in tandem with Guitar X, some words of advice and exercises from his clinic and some of the stories Mike shared with me when I got a cab with him from the clinic to his hotel.


For those of you unfamiliar with Mike's work, I can't recommend him enough. His album "Time In Place" is a jazz fusion classic containing the tune "Chromazone" which is a fusion standard now. But it doesn't stop there, from "Jigsaw" and "Play" to "Who Let The Cats out?" and his latest offering "Big Neighbourhood" Mike continues to mix his blues and rock influences in with his passion for bebop. He was the sole influence for my column "Bop 'n' Roll". If you ever wonder what would have happened if Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix had a kid - look no further than Mike Stern.

Hi Mike, and Welcome back to London, it's great to have you here on Live4Guitar

Thankyou very much, it's great to be back.

So you're in London at the moment doing a set of shows at the legendary Ronnie Scott's right?

Yeah, we're doing three nights. We played last night and it was really fun - its with Dave Weckl, Bob Malach on tenor saxophone and Chris Minh Doky on bass. They're all kicking my ass, I'm lucky to be in the band! *laughing*

You're currently promoting "Big Neighbourhood" which features Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, but its a pretty old record. Is there anything new on the way?

Yeah, I've already started on three tunes with with Al Foster. It's very much like "Who Let The Cats Out?" and "Big Neighbourhood" because I've got lots of guys playing on it - and I'm excited about doing another record like that. Jim Beard, Kenny Garret Al and Dave Holland which is fun because we all played with Miles at some point. Dave is great, we played with Joe Henderson together. These are all my tunes, I like to try and push myself to write for this. I've got Anthony Jackson on a tune with Chris Potter on saxophone. Keith Carlock is playing on a few tunes, and then I've got Bob Malack on one with Will Lee and one with Victor Bailey. Then we're doing as another recording session with Richard Boner and Dave Weckl and Bob Franceschini and hopefully we're going to be able to get Victor Wooten on one.

So lets start at the beginning, what was it that got you started on guitar?

Probably my mom, she was very musically inclined - in fact she still plays some classical piano and a little bit of jazz, but it's mainly classical. She was just listening to records all the time at home, lots of classical and a bit of jazz too. That got me into jazz because I originally started out as a rock and blues guy. When I first picked up the guitar it was all about Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and all those cats. They're bad motherf**kers!

How did you make a start in the music business?

Well I was playing in rock bands and blues bands in Washington DC where I grew up, we were playing in clubs and bars and then I went to Berklee. While I was there I was lucky to get a recommendation for Blood Sweat and Tears, and they were pretty big at the time. It was actually Pat (Metheny) who was one of my teachers at the time who recommended me. *laughing* he was like 4 years old when he started teaching there man! He was two years younger than me, he was 18 and I was 20. He was already an absolute motherf**ker back then, but he said there was something about my playing that he really liked, I didn't know what it was *laughing* and I still don't! He said that all I needed to do was play more so he got me this audition. I thought it would be a great experience to audition for such a huge band, and I wasn't expecting to get it because there were lots of other great players there. I think they liked the fact that I rocked because they wanted a guitarist who could rock but could also play over a few changes - but I was really scuttling over them at the time. I did that for a couple of years then things started happening from there.

You're here doing a clinic today. Educations is something I know you hold dear, so what will sort of things are you trying to pass on when you teach like this?

Well today I'm going to talk about my own experiences and hopefully people can learn some stuff from that. I remember When I was getting into jazz and trying to play over the changes that it was really difficult for me, you know, playing over standards. So I talk about that, that transition between blues and playing by ear to reading, scales and all that thing. It's something that really helped my blues playing a lot. It's really the same sort of thing, but a different way of thinking about it - plus the jazz thing adds to your vocabulary which is really helpful.

And what would you say is one of the biggest tips you could pass on to the budding guitarist?

I would say just play. Practice all the time, I was practising all the time, if I didn't have a gig I was shedding even though sometimes it was hard, I just had to you know? I would say you should record yourself and try to get people to hear it, go out and look for people to play with and then hopefully you'll hear about some little places to play. I was playing all these little gigs back then and I still do. I'm still playing at the 55 bar which is this tiny little club in New York that a bass player I was working with at the time found. That was while I was playing with Miles Davis, and 30 years later I'm still playing there Monday's and Wednesdays, and I'll keep at it as long as they stay open! There used to be a lot more places like that. It started out as just me and Jeff Andrews (bass) and then one day we got a drummer in who was just playing chopsticks and brushes, he was scared to play more as none of us knew how loud we could be. We just got louder and louder until we realized it was fine, it's a really cool hang. Places like that are hard to come by, but they do exist. Sometimes the bread sucks, but you just gotta play all the time.

And how about if you could go back in time and give some words of advice or encouragement to your younger self? What would you say?

I would say I'm glad I did what I did; I'm glad I was so stubborn. I wanted to give up a million times and throw my guitar out the window, but back then I lived in a basement apartment *laughing*. Sometimes I still get frustrated at the press or whatever - stuff that doesn't have much to do with an accurate appraisal of what's going on, but you know what it's like when you feel bummed out. I'd tell myself to keep going. And I'd encourage myself to reach out to teachers, I did that just so there was someone who could help nudge you in the right direction. *laughing* I'd tell myself to be more confident, but also to keep my career expectations low. That way you can't give it up if after a year you don't have a big gig or whatever.

What are your memories of learning jazz?

Oh to me it's like learning a new language, like having to learn French or something. It's very awkward, you have to go word at a time and you're very self conscious. You worry about pronunciation, spelling and then you're scared to say anything in case you offend someone. I had to be really patient and understand that I'd get there - I had to stick at it and all my teachers told me that the more I played it, the more I'd get the language and the more fluent I would become. *laughing* I didn't believe them as it seemed so hard, but I didn't have anything else to do so I practised it, it was an act of faith. When you speak English or whatever it's immediate, you don't think about it, you just open your mouth and the words come out. You don't have to memorize a phrase you just have an idea and you say it, in that sense you're actually improvising when you talk. You can't even think about how fast that process is, eventually you get that with your music. Jazz was a little bit more involved and it took longer, but you get there. I like it because there's so much to do you can do a little bit of this and that and that keeps it fresh.

Could you take us through the first step someone trying to learn that language should take?

Sure! When I first went to Berklee I kinda already knew a few things but I really started to concentrate on chord tones. I had a teacher who told me to do that, just practice playing the notes of the chord, and arpeggios and do them in different ways. They're essential notes because they outline the chords, some of the changes I was looking at were really wacky and before that I was just playing over this (plays some powerchords) then suddenly the chords got more different. I knew some chord forms, but I didn't really know how it all fitted together. So the ingredients of a chord are the chord tones, the melodic notes that if you put together you get the sound of the chord. If you play over Autumn Leaves, that's a really good example, the chords are Cm7 (C,Eb,G,Bb) F7 (F,A,C,Eb) Bbmaj7 (Bb,D,F,A) Ebamj7 (Eb,G,Bb,Db) Am7b5 (A,C,Eb,G) D7 (D,F#,A,C) and them Gm7 (G,Bb,D,F).

I'd take those and try and play them in time, time is so important - music is always about timing. You can always come back later and add passing tones and chromatics but this is first. When I first started I was trying to play a lot of notes, I just wanted to sound like George Benson and those cats who play all these lines. But some of those chord tone ideas are just beautiful by themselves.

What level of importance do you place on formal training in music?

For me it really helped, it REALLY helped. It depends though, I know a lot of guys who get most of their vocabulary by just listening, but most people study in some way. Eventually you get to the point where you need to push forward and develop your vocabulary and get into music in general, not just guitar playing, but theory and writing. You need to ask questions about what's come before - because there's more there than you can ever hope to cover in a lifetime. Its a thrill to learn as much as you can, but the downside is if you do too much you can get overwhelmed and that's hard. So I think a teacher really helps there, or a school - something that will give you a plan for your journey. It's an endless journey, because the more you know, the less you know - but that's the beauty of it. Just dont get overwhelmed, because sometimes you only need three notes like Jim Hall or BB King. BB King has only got three notes, but boy does he play them in the right places with the right feel. There's lots of ways to approach it, but I really like as much learning as possible, formal or in formal. In schools like Berklee I learnt a ton in the class, but I learnt just as much from playing with all the students there. We'd sit down with what we were working on, and shed - that's the way we all learn ultimately. I've found that knowing more - even if I didn't use it - actually helped me and pushed my potential.

And you're still having lessons now right?

Yeah, up until really recently I was stuyding with a great piano player names Charlie Banacos for years and years, but he just passed away. I found another guy who was also a student of Charlie for much longer than I was, and he's a pianist but he teaches all instruments. I think that's really important, checking out how other instrumentalists play is a really good thing, plus it always helps with composition. For example, when I was playing with Miles he knew how it all worked, and when we were playing funk stuff, he'd often tell the bass player to play like he was in half time. That was illuminating to me, it changed the whole vibe. For a long time, I didn't know what to tell people, I didn't know what I wanted. I remember once when we were working on a tune and we were just shooting stuff back and forward and eventually Miles goes over to the drummer and says (adopting a great croak Miles voice) "Hey, don't you know what I'm looking for?" and the drummer says "No, Miles, I really don't" and Miles turns around and says "Well neither do I, I'll let you know when we get there". I was lucky, with me he just wanted someone who rocked a bit, I could play all those bebop lines, and he liked that, but he'd turn round sometimes and just say "Turn it up and play like Hendrix" - he knew what he wanted. I learnt so much from watching how he got the best out of a band.

I know from talking to you before is that you put a lot of stress on transcription as a tool to develop - are you still doing that?

I'm still doing tons, I always was. It took a couple of years, I was learning to read, but I just started doing it. The first one was a Joe Pass solo and I fucked it up completely *laughing* and it took forever. It was just single note stuff and if he did play a chord I tried to get the top note. Transcribing it was very helpful. I've got books of my work, sometimes you don't think it's been helping but then sometimes an idea creeps into your playing or you play a line and think "oh - that's what he was doing there, now what happens if I take it this way?". I started with guitar players, and then when I got a little better I moved on to trying to do some piano and some sax stuff, its more about getting into their heads rather than trying to take their exact lines.

One question that people wanted to know is what are you using to get your tone?

Well I'm just looking for the sound I hear in my head, It's a stereo setup with a chorus type effect that i'm getting from a Yamaha SPX90 which is ancient! I'm just trying to get an ambient sound and sometimes i'll use a bit of distortion (Boss DS-1) to try and sound a bit more like a horn. The main thing is the two amps though, if you have one amp loud its very in your face, two amps seem to spread a little bit better - like a tenor sax does, or your voice. Guitar wise I'm using my signature tele made by Yamaha, I tried the hollowbody thing once, but when you turn it up loud it ain't really happening as you get that feedback. I gave them a Fender tele I was using at the time and they made me this, it's really heavy so it has a nice warm tone to it. There are no rules though, you just need to find what works for you, Pat and Sco are using hollowbodies, and Sco always uses distortion, but it just works for him. 

What are you drawing inspiration from and listening to at the moment?

Oh, lots of bebop! Sonny Rollins or some Miles - the early stuff that's more traditional, obviously when I was playing with him it was more electric, but I love his bop, its those lines. I'm always listening to a lot of Wes Montgomery too. I still love straight blues, guys like Buddy Guy. He doesn't play technical stuff but he sounds fu**in' great to me! You know, BB King doesn't either, but those cats are amazing improvisers. It doesn't matter to me, I just love it. Sometimes I'm listening to post bop cats like John Coltrane and I try to transcribe it and play parts on the guitar. Hear it, write it down then play it, hopefully that way it will sneak its way into my playing. How can I not mention George Benson, John Scofield, Bill Frisell. I was great friends with Sco and Bill years ago, John is a hero of mine, we played in Miles' band together. I dont see them so much now as we're always on the road, but I'm constantly inspired by them. Then there's Pat (Metheny) and John Abercrombie. Then there's Pat Martino and Jim Hall of course, I've had the honour of playing on their records.

I'm really interested to hear of any newer players you've found that you like that you think are pushing boundaries.

Oh hell man! There are tons of them, I really dig Wayne Krantz at the moment. Then there's Adam Rogers, Oz Noy and Kurt Rosenwinkel that all spring to mind. Do you know Kevin Eubanks? He used to play on the Jay Leno show, he's got some crazy techniques I haven't heard any other cats doing. He's playing more jazz now. There are a ton of new guys, and not just jazz guys. I like Joe Bonamassa at the moment too; he's got great feel and a super voice.

On that more modern note, it seems everyone is into fusion at the moment, what tips could you give for creating interest over a static vamp? I know you do a lot of that in your own tunes, and it always sounds fresh.

First step would be to transcribe a ton of Michael Brecker, I played with Mike for a while as you know. With the Brecker Brothers tunes often there was a lot of one chord vamps but Michael is such a great saxophone player, he could just play the hippest shit! Sometimes he sounded out, then he'd come back it, it just sounds funky and cool. I really dig his playing. Let's say you're doing a vamp in C minor and you're just playing C dorian over it (C,D,Eb,F,G,A,Bb,C) one thing I like to do is to play that and then take an Eb dorian (Eb,F,Gb,Ab,Bb,C,Db,Eb) as an outside sound. I'm just picking that because I use that sound, but you could try anything. Let's do that

Download the tab here

There's a lot you could do, creating chord on chord sounds - you could look at John Coltrane for that, he would take a simple tune like "Tune up" the interpolate it with a bunch more chords, and I mean a bunch! *laughing*. Then he would play over them all! You could always just play up a half step and go in and out of that, that works really well too.

Are there any other great lessons you've learned from the talents you've worked with?

Miles and Brecker just played from the heart, no matter what music they played. I don't know how to describe that, as intelligent as Michael was, when he picked up the horn, you could just hear his heart. Obviously that's true with Miles, it's been a treat to play with such great players.