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Mike Stern on Embracing What You Can't Do

Words of wisdom from a jazz master

By November 27, 2017Uncategorized

As we guitarists are so often caught up in the technique rat race, it’s important to remind ourselves once in a while that so much of the personal style of the players we admire is actually a function of limitations. Let Mike Stern explain:

“Sometimes people’s styles and their voice is defined in as much by what you can’t do as what you can do.” As he does so many times in our interview, Mike really hits the nail on the head with this pithy encapsulation of musical personality. And it relates to challenges we think about all the time here at Cracking the Code.

A lot of players who come to Cracking the Code may initially have a hard time with the idea that the “sound” of great players is often the result of avoiding phrases that don’t fit their technique. After all, Eric Johnson is a rare talent who can play anything right? And related to this is another question we get all the time: How can you really improvise if you have to work out all your lines ahead of time to fit some formula of lines you can play versus ones you can’t? In other words, if you have limitations, how you can be truly free to improvise?

Well, I don’t know every word in the English language, even though you wouldn’t know it by the length of some of our lessons and blog posts. But when I talk extemporaneously, particularly when the cameras are rolling, there is this illusion that I experience, where I feel that I am free in my ability to communicate.

The truth is, musical expression isn’t just about attaining all-powerful skills and limitless vocabulary. It’s also about whittling down the vast universe of everything to some manageable set of elements you can manipulate: “Some people have great technique so they sound more technical,” Mike explains. “And some people don’t have such great technique, so they find some other stuff.”

If our limitations can be a catalyst for that narrowing down, as we search for Mike’s “other stuff”, we at Cracking the Code embrace that.

The Mike Stern interview is coming to Masters in Mechanics later this week! In the mean time, we may post a few cool excerpts as we see them while we’re editing.

Troy Grady

About Troy Grady

Top Comments

  1. Great point. I’ll add that technique borrowing from the speedy greats may allow an aspiring jazz student to cop repertoire not otherwise possible. I didn’t start sweeping and DWPS until a couple of years ago, but when I use those techniques, I bring decades of jazz articulation to the mix. So for those that have felt handicapped for many years, I guess I throw it in there that the focus on one’s unique set of skills lends itself to development possibly unrelated to what our speedy heroes have achieved. So I suppose I’m saying the same thing from the other side of the coin (perhaps?), but I do believe CTC points to realms that are like the difference between speaking one language, or two. The jump is a dramatic one, well worth the effort, as the benefits multiply. I’d be a fool to have ignored your research, @Troy. (Yay Mike!) Cheers, D

  2. History is full of examples where progress emerges from compromise. Many of us have heard the story that the Marshall JTM45 got its sound because Jim Marshall was trying to clone the electronics of the Fender Bassman, but had to use different vacuum tubes because of what parts were cheaply available to him in England at the time.

    And back to CTC material, I don’t remember the specific chapter, but I think this theme comes up in discussion of Django in the Siv Lie interview:

    https://troygrady.com/interviews/siv-lie/

    And of course, the same concept is expressed glibly by the old adage: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

    I agree with the observation that suprisingly ingenius ideas can arise from limitations, but The Simpsons have used similar concepts as fodder for some interesting humor over the years:

    Bart attends karate class:
    Instructor: "And this is our map, The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. It will teach us our most important lesson: We learn karate so we need never use it."
    Bart: “Excuse me sir… I already know how not to hit a guy. Can we break out the nunchukas?”

    Looking up the quote, I had forgotten that in the Karate class (Japanese) the teacher is referencing a Chinese book (Art of War). I guess the writers figured it was more important to name a book that would be widely recognized in the English-speaking world. And while I haven’t read Art of War in its entirety, I don’t think it has the Zen-like quality they’re linking it with above.

    Another favorite: Lisa attends a jazz violin performance:
    Patron: "Sounds like she’s hitting a baby with a cat."
    Lisa: "You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing."
    Patron: “I can do that at home!”

    And one last shot: Lisa tries to help Bart clear his mind by asking him “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” To which Bart responds “Piece of cake!” and claps his fingers against his palm. Lisa tries to clarifiy the purpose of the riddle for him, but Bart isn’t budging from his answer.

  3. Very profound. Never thought about it like that. I’m always thinking that “anybody SHOULD be able to do what they want to a certain degree”. Maybe he’s right though. Still I don’t I hope people don’t see this as encouragement for giving up on a certain technique.

    btw, he has some nice DWPS going on there! I’m envious.

  4. Troy says:

    Mike has plenty of picking technique. But he spends a lot of time transcribing from other instruments where it’s simply not possible to play some of these things on guitar given the layout. So he makes up his own versions of things. I think that’s all he’s saying. He’s not too hung up on doing things any particular way, he just wants to get it at least one way, and whatever way that is, is just fine.

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