TrueFire's Guitar Blog

Fireside Chat: Mike Stern

A legend among modern jazzers yet still a hard-working musician, Mike Stern is a rare breed of guitarist. Even those who don’t know his name have probably heard his playing. Stern has been a band mate of Miles Davis‘, best buddies with Jaco Pastorius, and a muse-in-arms with Billy Cobham. Oh, and he was also nominated for 5 Grammys.

With a long list of high-profile gigs and a substantial catalog of adventurous solo releases,  Mike Stern had all but conquered the known musical world; and has made his mark by rethinking the jazz and rock traditions that inform his playing. 

Yet, throwing all that aside, if there is one thing that Mike Stern is known for among his fellow musicians it’s his uniquely tasteful compositions and improvisations — not to mention his ongoing quest for the freshest groove. That’s why we’re sure he had no problems in getting a lineup of musical titans to sit in on his new album, A Big Neighborhood. Luckily for us, Mike Stern agreed to stop by our own neighborhood this month for a chat by the Fireside.

1. First off, if you weren’t a musician, what would you be and why?
Probably something in the arts if I could; writing or painting. I felt I didn’t have a choice and I had to play music.

2. Honestly, how many hours a day do you practice?
Sometimes it’s hard on the road but when I’m home, about 4 hours. It includes playing with another guitar player or bass player. I’m still studying with Charlie Banacas. There is so much to learn — music is endless.

3. What are you listening to lately?
Right now I’m listening to and transcribing a couple tunes of off Saxophone Colossus. I’m transcribing “St. Thomas” and a blues. Also, a live McCoy Tyner solo with John Coltrane.

4. How would you describe the music business today?
It’s always a challenge for jazz musicians but I’ve been very lucky to be affiliated with very good record companies. I’m currently with the Heads Up label  and they’ve been great. I have also been able to tour with my own band and play my music.

5. Stranded on a desert island, which guitar would you take?
I have 3 that I would take. An acoustic guitar with nylon strings. A Tele, kind of a mutt, that I played on Upside Downside. Also the Yamaha Pacifica Mike Stern model. It’s very comfortable. I dig it.

6. Should world leaders learn how to play guitar? Why?
Definitely. Guitar, piano, saxophone, something — all world leaders should. At the very least it will give them something to do instead of making bombs.

7. Let’s talk about what’s going on with you right now, your new album, and what’

s next?

I really like the way the new record, Big Neighborhood, came out. I did all of it live and all of the musicians played their asses off. Also, I also have a new DVD with Dave Weckl and Tom Kennedy. I have other ideas that I hope to do; I would love to record with Jimmy Cobb and also something with Chick Corea would be great.

Questions submitted to TrueFire via Facebook, Twitter, and our Forum.

8. What do you feel is the most overlooked thing that up and coming guitar players ignore? – jimiclaptoncarl
I’m not sure, but I know when I teach I tell people to concentrate on the sound. Something that will inspire them so it sounds good to listen to and also the feel. That’s the most important thing in any music. Those are the 2 things players need to concentrate on.

9. How do you structure your practice sessions and how has it changed over the years? – charles
I transcribe other instruments, then the guitar. I read through other transcriptions I’ve done over the years and I have a stack of them. Not to learn licks, but just to get the phrasing [subconsciously] in my playing. Sometimes I practice Bach and other classical pieces — nothing too hard. I like to practice hard tunes that I wouldn’t normally play live with a bass player to challenge myself. Also, trying other ideas with a bass player at home; Charlie Banacas gives me tons of stuff to work on. He teaches theory to all instruments. He’s great.

10. When you invite a guest to play on your album (John Scofield, Bill Frisell) do you give them some instructions about how to fit their style in your compositions; i.e. direct them about the groove they should play, the tone they should use, etc?  – Rgalvez
Usually we just play and it works out, especially John and Bill because we’ve played together so much. Even Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, whom I never played with, I didn’t have to say much. I sent them demos and they learned it and then we just played and I didn’t have to say much. It just kind of came together.

11. Should artists allow free downloads and file sharing — or does that devalue the music? – rmaloof  
No and yes. No, they should not allow downloading, and yes, it devalues the music. It affects new artists more than me because when I started, there was no downloading and you could actually see royalties from actual sales. Illegal downloading has led the average consumer to expect that they are entitled to [free music] for some reason. Most people do not know how this has almost destroyed the record business. Because of mass piracy, it has become extremely difficult for the record business to survive.

12. And finally, any words of wisdom for your fans and fellow pickers?
Just keep playing. Don’t give up — no matter what happens. It’s a joy to play music and there are challenges. No one can ever take that from you but yourself. So, keep playing and play from the heart!

Visit Mike Stern online at http://www.mikestern.org or listen to some songs from his latest album, A Big Neighborhood.