Guitar instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. Today we meet one of the finest fusion guitarists of them all: the brilliant Mike Stern. GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
MS: I love the sound of guitar, so that’s what appeals to me.
GT: What can an instrumental provide a listener that a vocal song can’t?
MS: I really like a vocal approach. I have been singing along with my guitar but even without the voice involved, I like to say something with melodies. Sometimes you can play things instrumentally that are impossible to sing.
GT: Are there any tendencies with instrumentals that you embrace or avoid (rhythms, harmony, playing approach, tones)?
MS: I don’t think of it that way. When I’m writing a song, I try to make sure to carry the emotion behind the inspiration of the song. If it’s exciting, if it’s sad, I want to keep that. What I include or exclude comes naturally as I’m writing. The heart comes first.
GT: Is a typical song structure verse, chorus, middle eight, etc always relevant for creating a good instrumental?
MS: No. I don’t mind a typical song form. But it doesn’t have to be that.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach when it comes to creating guitar melodies?
MS: Very, very useful. For me, it’s very important to try and sound as vocal as possible.
GT: How do you start writing one; is there a typical approach or inspiration for you?
MS: Writing is a big challenge for me. It’s usually 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. For most people, I think that holds true, if you are trying to write from the heart, and not mechanically.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage for the duration of the piece?
MS: It’s the same priority. The emotion of the music always comes first and foremost. And sometimes that’s difficult in writing or in playing. Sometimes it seems impossible, but you gotta go for it in my opinion.
GT: Many vocal songs feature a guitar solo that starts low and slow then finishes high and fast. Is this structure useful for instrumental writing, developing pace and dynamics over the instrumental’s duration?
MS: It’s not necessary, but it’s important to try and build a solo however you do it. Sometimes you don’t have to build a solo in a super dynamic way, you can just tell a story in a more even way.
GT: Do you have favourite keys or tempos to write or play in?
MS: Not really, but whatever the tempo is, the time feel is always very important to me.
GT: Do you have favourite modes that you like to write or play in?
MS: Again, not really. All scales and modes are really cool, and each has unique possibilities. I try to learn as many as possible and then create melodies from them.
GT: Instrumentals often require considerable vocabulary. How do you develop it?
MS: For me, learning new musical stuff is always difficult, like learning a new language. But, it seems that the more vocabulary you know, the more it opens up possibilities to express colours and emotions.
i like a vocal approach. but even without the voice involved, i like to say something with melodies
Mike Stern with his wellworn Yamaha signature guitar
Mike is equally comfortable in all keys, tempos and modes