MIKE STERN MOSTLY PLAYED ROCK, BLUES, AND funk before studying jazz guitar with
Pat Metheny at Berklee when he was 23. Metheny helped him land a gig with Blood,
Sweat and Tears, and from there Stern went on to work with an impressive array of
master musicians—among them Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, and Jim
Hall—as well as leading numerous bands and releasing more than a dozen albums of
his own music.
On his latest album, Big Neighborhood [Heads Up], Stern teams up with 17 players
that include longtime collaborators drummer Dave Weckl and keyboardist Jim Beard
(who also produced the album), rising star bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and
Medeski, Martin & Wood. But what most distinguishes the album from Stern’s
previous work are the contributions of
Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, who play on
two tracks each. “I don’t usually have other
guitarists on my records,” says Stern. “But
I’ve always dug Steve and Eric, and there
were some tunes I thought they would
sound great on, so I just went for it.”
Was there a concept behind your new album?
I called it Big Neighborhood because it
includes a large number of people from
different backgrounds that I’ve wanted
to play with for a while. The two constants
were that I wrote the material and
that I played all over the album, but working
with all those people taught me new
things and pushed me in different directions,
both as a writer and a player. I had
to have faith that it would all just come
together, and everything worked out in
When recording Vai and Johnson, were you
guys all in the same room together?
Yeah, and that’s really important.
Someone suggested that they could just
“fly in” their tracks, but I don’t even know
what that is. I don’t even have a computer
or a cell phone. But I do know that
having musicians overdub their tracks
has never worked for me. The kind of
music I like to play has got to have the
edge that comes from everyone being
there playing at the same time. If you
want to fix something later, that’s cool,
but the whole thing is a conversation that
happens between everyone, and that can’t
happen with overdubs. Eric and Steve
couldn’t make it to New York, so Jim
Beard and I arranged to record Eric in
Austin and Steve in Los Angeles.
The title track with Steve Vai sounds a lot
like the Band of Gypsys.
Definitely. I wanted to write something
simple but not too simple that was
coming from a place we would both really
dig, and the Hendrix-y thing seemed like
a good idea. I also wrote “Moroccan Roll”
with Steve specifically in mind. It’s a little
more intricate, and has a difficult
melody, but he got it right away and
played it better than I did [laughs]. Also,
when rehearsing that tune they were playing
it a little funkier than I wanted, so I
asked Dave [Weckl] to add more ride
cymbal. Then I asked Steve if he was
familiar with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the
Pakistani singer, and he said, “Yeah, I
almost played with him,” and I thought,
“Man, I hooked up a good tune for this
guy.” Steve also overdubbed a really cool
sitar guitar part onto the melody line.
Were the songs you did with Eric Johnson also
written with him specifically in mind?
The song “6th Street” was already partially
written, but I didn’t know how to finish
it, and then when Eric agreed to play on it I
made room for his parts, with that great
clean sound he gets playing through an
Echoplex particularly in mind. And he used
that clean sound again on “Long Time Gone,”
playing quietly and adding little fills in the
beginning while I played the melody, before
rocking harder during the solos. I asked him
if he could do certain things and boom—he
got them all right away. At the end we
vamped out and went a little nuts trading
solos, but more like having a conversation
than trying to play louder and faster than
one another, which I’m not a big fan of. Eric
was totally cool. People said that he’d be
really crazy and want to check out every note
before approving his parts, but he just played
a whole lot of stuff and let it go. I was really
honored that he was into it because he’s a
bad cat and a really beautiful musician.
What did you play through on the album?
My standard rig that I use when I’m not
on the road is a Yamaha G100 2x12 combo
paired with a Pearce head going into two
custom-built 2x10 cabinets loaded with JBL
speakers. I use an old Yamaha SPX90 as a
splitter to run the amps in stereo, and also
to create a sort of chorusing effect by setting
it on pitch change with a value of zero.
Some of the tracks were recorded in Austin
and Los Angeles, and for those I rented a
couple of blackface ’65 Fender Twin Reverb
reissues, which are the same amps I ask for
when I’m on the road. The Fenders are really
cool, and I like them as much as or maybe
more than my other amps. It was also easier
to record them in stereo because they
sound identical. I like the guitar to sound
like it is singing, which is what I get with
two amps. There is more air, like with a
voice or a horn.
Did you play your Yamaha Pacifica 1511MS
Yes, although the one that was made for
me is slightly different than the production
models. It’s made from heavy ash and has a
slightly darker sound. There’s a Seymour
Duncan ’59 in the neck position and a Duncan
Telecaster Hot Rails in the bridge
position. Yamaha modeled it on a mutt Telecaster
that I had been playing since back
when I began recording with Atlantic, and
that guitar was itself actually kind of a copy
of a Tele I got from Danny Gatton, who got
it from Roy Buchanan. Danny souped it up
and sold it to me for $500, because he wanted
to buy a used car. It was stolen from me at
gunpoint many years ago.
Have you always played Teles?
Even though I’m a “jazz” player, I play a
Telecaster-style guitar because I grew up
playing rock and blues on Teles and Strats,
and when I got into jazz I just stuck with
them. I did have a Gibson ES-175 for a few
years when I was studying jazz with Pat
Metheny at Berklee. That was a great guitar,
and everybody there was playing jazz guitars,
but when I would play my rock, blues,
and funk stuff, it would just start feeding
back. At one point Pat heard me playing a
Tele and said that it sounded great, and that
I should stay with it.
What picks and strings do you use?
I play with ordinary Fender Medium
picks, and my strings are Fender Original
150 Pure Nickels, gauged .010, .013, .015,
.026, .032, .038, but I replace the .010 with
Most mixed-gauge sets are heavy bottom and
light top, but you prefer the opposite.
Exactly. It just seems like it works. I tried
a .046 on the bottom and it’s a richer sound
in some ways, but I’m just so used to these.
I started off playing them in a rock context
and I didn’t change. It might have something
to do with the way the necks on my guitars
are bowed, which causes the action to be a
little higher, but makes a fatter sound. Danny
used to do that to his guitars, and after he
set one of mine up that way I just stuck with
it. [The Pacifica 1511MS has a 7.25" radius.]
Did you use any pedals on the album?
I used a blue-colored auto-wah on the
first track, but I don’t recall what brand it
was. Other than that I just used my three
standard Boss pedals. I’ve got a DS-1 Distortion
that I really like because it is organic
sounding, and a couple of DD-3 Digital
Delays. I leave one DD-3 on all the time, set
for short delays with a little feedback, so it
sounds kind of like a reverb and just adds a
little airiness to the sound. I set the other
DD-3 for a longer delay that I use for a special
How high do you crank up the DS-1?
I have it set so that the volume is just a
little bit higher than the clean sound. The
Tone knob is set to about 11 o’clock, the Dist
knob is set to about 1 o’clock, and I adjust
the volume level by ear.
Do you also change the distortion level using
the volume control on your guitar?
Absolutely. Just by instinct. And I like
cleaner solo tones, too, because they can be
more lyrical sounding. Sometimes I like to
start a solo a little bit cooler, and then gradually
increase the intensity while still using
clean tones. Then, when I do kick on the distortion
the vibe changes pretty obviously.
How does your picking enter into the equation?
Usually I pick every note, because that
feels natural to me. I change the dynamics
a lot, picking really lightly on certain parts
of a phrase, and then digging in on other
parts to get a more biting sound for a blues
lick or even a fast line. I try to make what I
play sound conversational. Like when we’re
talking, you hear the pitch of the syllables
going up and down and getting louder or
softer within each word, and there’s all this
music in the language. I try to pick like that.
Using up- and downstrokes?
But when you’re digging in, aren’t you using
Yes, that’s more downstrokes.
Do you use a particular part of the pick, or different
parts at different times?
Different parts. When I want a more inyour-
face kind of feel I use the tip, and when
I want a softer sound I may use a little more
of the side. And sometimes I use my fingers
for playing chords. When I’m doing that I
tuck the pick into the palm of my hand and
it stays there somehow, though if I think
about it too much it falls out.
Do you use your thumb and all of your fingers?
Yes. I wish I could do the thing that
Danny and Roy did where they’d have the
pick between their thumb and their index
finger while picking with their other three
fingers at the same time, but you find your
own way to play. The main thing is to play
your heart out, and whatever helps you to
do that is the right way.