Jazz Guitar Interviews

Mike Stern

Mike Stern is an American jazz guitarist. Following a stint playing with trumpeter Miles's Davis' band, Mike Stern launched a solo career, releasing more than a dozen albums. He was hailed as the Best Jazz Guitarist of 1993 by Guitar Player magazine, and in 2009 was listed on Down Beat's list of 75 best jazz guitar players. This exclusive interview for PlayJazzGuitar.com took place on Monday August 21st 2012.

Hi Mike - your new CD "All Over The Place" sounds fantastic. Are you happy with it? Can you tell us a little about it's genesis?

I am very happy with All Over The Place. It's a more adventurous effort. I was fortunate to work with many amazing musicians.

I notice a number of different rhythm section players on this CD. Was this a logistical decision or do you simply love to play with different players?

It was a bit of both things, actually. I love to play with different musicians. It's very inspiring. And also, I had tunes in mind, some of them were inspired by some of my favorite players. So I thought, let me see If I can get some of them to collaborate with me on this record. I ended up getting them all.

I notice quite a pop influence on a couple of tracks, namely "Cameroon" and "Light". Do you feel this is a departure for you and what has the response been from your fans?

It's not a departure at all. I have always been influenced by certain stuff. I always dug the artist Sting and love soul music. Growing up in the sixties, I would listen to nothing but soul music on the radio..such as Motown. I love the Beatles. These different sounds have been on my records from time to time. I love african grooves. Cameroon has that African feeling. I like popular tunes from every era, from jazz standards to pop. If a tune gets to my heart, I don't care where it comes from. I don't really question it. I love the way the tunes came out on this record. Everybody was great!

Can we talk guitar just a little, and your background? Were you self taught? Did you get any formal music training?

I was 12 years old when I began playing the guitar. My mom wanted me to play the piano. I made the decision to play guitar and in deciding to learn the guitar...it gave me sort of an independence. It was a really good feeling. My first guitar was a nylon string guitar that cost 50 bucks. I played that for a while before upgrading to an electric guitar. I went to music school at Berklee and truthfully wasn't sure if I would be able to make it. Wasn't confident that I could make a livelihood from music. But I really wanted it to work out. At the age of 22 years old, when I joined Blood, Sweat and Tears...that's when it kind of hit me then that I could really be successful in pursuing music.

What technical aspects of the guitar gave you the most problem, if any, in your formative years? How did you overcome them?

At first, it was actually learning the notes and the physical aspect of playing some tempos. There were technical problems and issues of memorizing stuff. I had to choose different fingerings ...figure out how to play certain things with a pick. I still go up against technical problems, sometimes when I try to play the hornline on a guitar. I transcribe a John Coltrane solo and try to play some of it on the guitar. Some is impossible, but some you can catch. The possiblities on a guitar and the challenges one comes up against are infinite. If there are technical things you just can't overcome, the main thing is to play from your heart. There are plenty of people that dont have a lot of technique on instruments that are some of my favorite musicians.

What musicians have had the most impact on your guitar playing throughout your life?

I had some wonderful mentors. Charlie Banacos...I studied with him for 30 years. He was a piano player, but was a teacher of all instruments. Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny were great mentors who inspired me, as well. When I met Pat Metheny, he pushed me to get out and play more. Pat gave me the confidence, that extra boost that I needed. He heard something he liked. Pat truly believed in me. Studying at Berklee was a great environment for me. It allowed me the opportunity to meet great friends and many up and coming musicians.

Were there any specific books or educational material that turned your life around?

Musically, books such as method manuals have been great. When I first went to Berklee, they assigned the William "Bill" Leavitt method. I learned a lot from that. Also, there is the Joe Pass method and chord solos. There are tons of books for guitar. I like to do transcribing myself instead of reading transcriptions from a book. I would much rather transcribe solos from recordings myself. That is probably the way I learned the most. That and playing as much as possible all the time. I love jam sessions. If I don't have gigs, I am playing/practicing with another guitar or bass player.

What guitar players in particular do you like to listen to today?

Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Jim Hall, John Scofield, Vic Juris, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, George Benson, Kevin Eubanks, Wayne Krantz and Oz Noy. Also, Adam Rogers, Lee Ritenour, Scott Henderson and Lionel Loueke. I think all those guys kick my ass and that's a good thing. They give me a lot of inspiration. I can learn from all of them. There are more guitar players that I enjoy listening to. If I mentioned everyone, the list would be too long. There is a lot of inspiration out there!

Do you practice obsessively these days? If so how much time do you dedicate to it?

I devote usually 4 hours a day between playing annd practicing when I am home. When I am on the road, it is much more difficult. But I do practice alone and with another guitar player or bass player as often as possible, but sometimes more.

Are you happy with where your career is going at the moment? Do you have any wild career ambitions left you still need to accomplish?

There are always things that I would love to do and other people I would like to record and play with. But I have been very fortunate to play with some great players over the years and have been able to make my own cds and play my own music.

How do you feel about the record business right now?

The business is very difficult right now. Much more so than when I was coming up. With illegal downloads and everything being free on YouTube and the creation of things like Spotify and Rhapsody, there is not a lot of income coming in for the artist who puts in the work to write the tunes. I don't consider this a major problem for me because I have been lucky enough to come up at a time when,overall the situation was fairer for musicians. One of the unintended consequences of computers and internet is undercutting what music is worth and unfortunately making it more difficult for young players to make a living.

What advice would you give to a guitar student looking to enter the music profession today?

The only absolute guarantee I tell students is that you have the music and no one can take it away from you. The more you put into it, the more the passion for the music can grow. Odds are that the better you get at playing the instrument and music in general, the more possibility for work there is. Then there is the question of letting as many people as possible know that you are interested in doing gigs. Give out your business cards, get out and speak to people. Let them know you are around and ready to play.

Visit Mike Stern on the web at www.mikestern.org

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Read all about the great jazz guitarists here:

Bill Frisell Charlie Christian Django Reinhardt George Benson George Van Eps Grant Green Jim Hall John Mclaughlin Joe Pass John Scofield Kenny Burrell Larry Carlton Lee Ritenour Pat Martino Pat Metheny Tal Farlow Wes Montgomery