On July 3, 2016, Mike Stern was crossing a street in Manhattan when he tripped over some of the construction debris that dots New York City. Putting out his hands to break his fall, Stern suffered fractures to both arms, and his right hand—his picking hand—suffered nerve damage. An injury like this would be shattering for any guitarist, but for Stern, who, since his days with Miles Davis, has had a reputation as one of the most technically proficient players on the jazz scene, it was especially tragic.
But Stern didn’t become one of jazz’s leading guitar lights by giving up when the going got tough. Within an amazing three months, he was back on stage, wielding his Yamaha signature guitar, and trotting out the endlessly inventive (if microscopically less fluid) bebop lines on which he has built his reputation.
His new record, Trip [Heads Up]—get it?—contains all the elements Stern fans have come to know and love. The groove-based title track and “Watchacal-lit” feature his trademark angular heads. “Half Crazy” finds him burning through rhythm changes at a wholly insane pace. “Screws” recalls the guitarist’s Davis days by melding Jimi and Miles into a bitchin’ brew, and “Amelia” revisits the wordless vocals and African attitude of Stern’s Voices. He is ably abetted throughout by an all-star lineup of fusion stalwarts, including drummers Dennis Chambers, Dave Weckl, and Lenny White; bassists Victor Wooten and Tom Kennedy; saxophone star Bill Evans; and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Like his 2012 record, All Over the Place, Trip takes you on a, well, trip through multiple genres and tones.
How are you doing physically after the accident?
Obviously it’s a challenge, but generally, things are a lot better. I had nerve damage in my right hand. A doctor Wayne Krantz recommended patched me up. It happened in July, and by the second week of October, I was playing. But it was hard. The pick wouldn’t stay put because there was not enough strength there. A drummer named Ray Levier, who has difficulty holding his sticks due to being burned in a fire, told me to try wig glue, and that really helped me grip the pick.
Other than having to glue the pick to your hand, did the injury change anything about your technical approach to the guitar?
Not really. I have always played with a light pick attack—like Jim Hall. In his playing, you don’t really hear the pick. It’s a vocal sound he heard in his head that he went for. Sometimes, when I’m digging in for rock, I want to hear the percussive part of the sound. But, most times, I try to get a more vocal sound. I’m also after a horn-like approach, and I try to get the quality of that phrasing on the guitar. I transcribe a lot of horn music. I forget most of it, but some seeps into my playing.
Which picks are you gluing to your thumb?
D’Addario heavys. I was using medium picks until about three years ago.
What strings are you using these days?
I played Fenders for years. When I was first playing in the ’60s, the gauges for a set of Fender .010s were .010, .013, .015, .026, .032, and .038. Now, D’Addario is making me a custom set of those gauges, except that I now substitute an .011 to get a little fatter sound on the high E string.
How about your amps?
For the new record, I used Roland Blues Cubes with two 12" speakers. Some of my amps are falling apart after using them for so many years, and I thought the Cubes sounded really good.
Will you take them out on the road?
No. I’m one of those guys who gets used to something that works. I’d rather focus on the music, and not stress out too much about new equipment. I’ll still use the blackface Fender Twins I’ve been renting on the road.
The distortion sounds on the new record are great, and it seems you were using more dirt on the record than usual. Did the distortion help you play after the accident?
That’s exactly right. My thumb was still not fully flexible, and the compression that happens naturally when you use an overdrive helped. I used a Boss DS-1 Distortion and a Boss BD-2 Blues Driver. The Blues Driver has this thing where it sounds like the amp is breaking up a little in a cool way. Also, other things about the situation might dictate what sound you use. For example, the drums were right next to me in a small room, so I used the Blues Driver more because it focuses the sound and makes it pop out. I was also into changing up a little, and using a dirtier sound.
Do you use the Blues Driver and the DS-1 separately or together?
Usually separately—when I use them at all. Sometimes, I’m just playing through the harmonizer effect in a Yamaha SPX90, which makes the sound fatter and a little more legato. Like I said, once I find something that works, I stay with it. The patch I use on the SPX90 is like a chorus, but it has a sound quality that I like better. The SPX90 is a pretty cool multi-effect, but I drag it around just for that one effect. It’s part of my sound.
Your compositions are really groove oriented. Do you compose with a drum loop or a program?
I just get a groove in my brain, or I’ll hear somebody play something. I always carry a little notebook around in my guitar case. If I’m playing with Dennis Chambers, and he’s doing cool stuff at soundcheck, it might inspire me to write it down. Inspiration hits you, and then it’s gone. Sometimes, people think they will remember it later, but that hasn’t worked well for me. I have to write it down whenever I get an idea. Time has always been an important part of music for me—even in ballads that don’t have a strong groove. It’s always in the tune somehow. No one has perfect time, but you can work on it. A person’s musical voice is defined as much by what they can’t do as by what they can do. For example, some people who don’t have strong time figure out a way to float over a groove in a beautiful way.
Who would be an example of that?
Allan Holdsworth was a really good example. He had a good sense of time, but it wasn’t about swinging in a pocket. He would phrase over the time in a way that came out as interesting rhythms, but that wasn’t “hitting up against the time,” as Jaco used to say.
Was the new record recorded before or after the accident?
I’d written most of the stuff before, but it was recorded after the accident. It was no coincidence that I called it Trip [laughs]. I figured, I can’t really ignore this accident, so I may as well embrace it, and get something positive out of it. It’s like Django Reinhardt after the fire, or Les Paul after his car accident—if you really want to keep going, you can do it. There’s no way I was going to give up—that’s for damn sure. I love to play too much.