John Wheatcroft continues his look at jazz guitarists of all stripes, as he examines a true player’s player, the incredible Mike Stern.
Mike Stern’s resume is a who’s who of jazz. Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, The Brecker Brothers, Jaco Pastorius and hosts of others. He’s featured in collaborations with John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Lee Ritenour and Eric Johnson and he also keeps in touch with up-and-coming players, so keep your eyes peeled for a recording with French Gypsy jazz virtuoso Adrien Moignard. At last count, Mike had recorded 17 albums as bandleader and he’s consistently either touring the world or performing around New York, his hometown for many years.
You’d be hard pushed to find a musician as enthusiastic as Mike. He bounds with energy and radiates passion and joy whenever he has a guitar in his hands. Even his accident in 2016 when he sustained damage to his arms after a fall, causing him to have to literally glue the pick to his fingers while overcoming nerve damage, couldn’t put him off. But he’s back to full form and coming to a town near you very soon. Just try and stop him!
You need to see Mike live to get the full experience. He’s phenomenal, with an endless vocabulary of ideas: bebop, blues, funk, rock, even some classically inspired lines and all with total control and complete spontaneity. Stern is steadfastly dedicated to his art and continues to devote as much time as he can to perfecting it. Mike took lessons at Berklee with players like Pat Metheny and Mick Goodrick, and then correspondence studies with pianist Charlie Banacos. “I’m always learning,” he says. “Always trying. It’s just an endless journey, a ‘more-you-know the less-you-know’ kind of thing. But I love it.”
Rather than spread ourselves too thinly, we’re focusing on one specific area of Mike’s playing: how to approach a static chord vamp. This is an area in which he excels, but don’t assume he’s not equally comfortable with fast and furious chord changes. In fact, in some instances this is how he imagines playing over one chord, with implied twists and turns to the harmony, all spontaneous and perfectly executed. One consistent concept is just how comfortable Mike is at mixing different harmonic ideas within a phrase. You’ll rarely see just one scale, arpeggio or concept. It’s clear that he can hear the impact of each of the 12 possible tones against every possible chord, knowing in advance which notes create tension or dissonance, which support the harmony and which create extensions and consonances. Any work you put into this will definitely be rewarded, so grab your guitar and let’s get stuck in.
NEXT MONTH John digs deep into the vocabulary of genuine jazz giant, the great Grant Green
Just keep it happening, no maTter what. Practice every day. Just water the flowers. It’s good for the world, it’s good for everybody. Mike Stern
Mike Stern stays faithful to his Yamaha MS Signature
Mike remains faithful to his Yamaha signature, based on his favourite Telecasters with a Seymour Hot Rails in the bridge and a ’59 humbucker in the neck position. Chorus comes from an old Yamaha SPX90, and there’s a small selection of Boss pedals. Mike generally alternate picks and this makes a considerable impact on the tone, favouring Fender medium picks and switching between bridge and neck pickups frequently. Choose the amp settings above for his high-gain lead tone.