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 the end.
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 Signature guitar?
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 an .011.
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 effect sometimes.
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 mostly downstrokes?
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.