Visiting Mike Stern | The Making of Stompbox Book

From the late Seventies through the early Eighties the world of young jazz guitar belonged to John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Mike Stern. Stern came to fame through his tenure with Miles Davis (an honor he shared at one point with Scofield), where his playing on the trumpeter’s The Man With The Horn, melded Hendrix and Montgomery. Davis even titles a tune, “Fat Time,” after the then much heavier guitarist.

Stern went on to carve out his place in the pantheon with his funky compositions and seemingly endless supply of bebop-based solo lines, on almost two dozen solo records, including Upside Downside, Who Let The Cats Out?, and Trip.


“After his initial tenure with his MXR Distortion +, Stern’s sound has stayed essentially the same and he has remained loyal to one of the O.G. pedal companies: Boss”


The guitarists he came up with are all personable fellows but Stern in particular is famous for his friendly, endlessly positive disposition. This ingrained optimism came in handy in 2016, when tragedy struck. Crossing a street in Manhattan, he tripped over some construction debris. The fall resulted in nerve damage to his picking hand. As he told Guitar Player Magazine, “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 who has difficulty holding his sticks due to being burned in a fire, told him to try wig glue and that helped him grip the pick. He soon regained much of his former speed and fluidity.


Many have tried, but few have ever found Mike Stern without a guitar in his hand.


Stern’s sound has always been instantly recognizable through his distinctive pitch shifted guitar signal, courtesy of a Yamaha SPX 90 harmonizer effect. His contemporaries have experimented with guitar synthesizers, loopers, and a variety of pedals from various manufacturers. But after his initial tenure with his MXR Distortion +, Stern’s sound has stayed essentially the same and he has remained loyal to one of the O.G. pedal companies: Boss. 

His current pedalboard displays a Boss SD-1 for overdrive but until recently he was using the Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal. Other Boss pedals that have passed through his board (a Boss board of course), are the Adaptive Distortion (Boss DA-2 discontinued) and Boss AW-3 Dynamic Wah. “I use Boss pedals all the time and I’m not even endorsing them,” he says.


Stern is a fan of basic Boss pedals but he also favors the more unusual Multi-Overtone, which brings out specific octaves from the overtone series.


In his study is a souvenir picture recalling his time in Miles Davis’ band.


The wear on his Yamaha Pacifica shows it has been a long time since it replaced his original Fender Telecaster.


The Pacifica’s distinctive headstock design staves off any suits from Fender.


Nerve damage in his tragic fall has reduced his right hand finger strength and requires that the guitarist glue his picks to his hand to keep from dropping them.


An ever growing “Wall-odex” of important phone numbers.


Playing guitar is his happy place.


Full interview and photo of Mike Stern’s chosen pedal will be featured in the Stompbox Book, coming fall 2020.

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