Excellent questions from the "interviewers" and extremely helpful responses from the "interviewee". And special thanks to the Cafe, with it we wouldn't these (running out of superlatives here) brilliant features.
The Don Stiernberg Interview
By Ted Eschliman - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
March 17, 2010 - 6:00 am
Don Stiernberg is an extraordinary musician whose work I have enjoyed for more than a quarter century. But I'm a drummer.
As this is for a mando-maniacal web-place, I think a few words from Mike Marshall—he's a mandolinist, for anyone born yesterday or maybe this morning, or didn't see the February 10 edition of Mandolin Cafe—might carry a bit more weight. While talking about Don a few years ago, Marshall described him as "the foremost jazz mandolinist in America today. He's dedicated himself to the Jethro tradition but even beyond that, taking it as a very serious jazz instrument. His feel, just having Chicago in his blood, is so deep. He comes out here (to the San Francisco Bay area), he swings hard. Everybody's just sitting there with their jaws dropped. And I think that these things are sort of cultural and regional—he embodies that urban guy who really knows what swing is about."
Jethro (Burns, not Bodine) and jazz are the two Js that sum up Don's musical foundation. Right off the bat (and Don is a baseball nut), that specialty sets him apart from most modern mandolinists and their worship of the two Bs: Bill and Bluegrass. Sure, Don loves and certainly picks 'grass, but he grew up with a father who would hush dinner conversation when jazz clarinetist Pee Wee Russell's solo would blow from the grooves of an LP, so really, what chance did he have? As a jazzman who adores bluegrass, his playing in both genres is informed by each, and while Don the 'grasser solos differently from Don the jazzer, in either case, the ideas are distinctively Don.
He is also among the more thoughtful and articulate spokesmen for his instrument, Don's broad interests allowing him to see and hear parallels and aural analogues few others can. However, Don's more player than professor, with observations and insights delivered not in lecture halls with chalkboard but in concert halls with eight strings and flatpick. But if you want it in oral form, no problem—Don's flair as a communicator in the non-verbal world of instrumental music extends, with ease, to words. So read on.
—David Royko, writer, Chicago Tribune and Bluegrass Unlimited
Listen while you read
Don Stiernberg playing West Coast Blues from his 2007 recording Home Cookin'.
Question from Terry Lewis: You and your music have been a huge influence on me and my progress on the mandolin. Thanks for sharing. My question to you is what one or two things did Jethro teach you or have you learn/develop that helped you the most?
Don Stiernberg: Thanks Terry. You did all of us a favor when you put together the Scales and Modes for Mandolin book!
Of course it's a challenge to pick only one or two things from what Jethro taught. He showed me a good way to address the instrument in terms of left hand position, pick grip, etc. He also showed me where everything is on the mandolin via his chord-melody arrangements of standards. By seeing his favorite chord voicings come up time and again, I got sort of an ear training class in what various types of chords sounded (and looked) like... you know, major sevenths, lots of sixth chords (major or minor), dominant 7b5s, etc.
One thing he said casually may have turned out to be the biggest help of all. He had a bit he did on stage where he would make fun of me: "Donnie, I hear you going up and down, all over the place. The problem is, you are looking for it, while I HAVE FOUND IT!" Talking about improvising one time he said "Just get in one spot and milk it for all it's worth!" Sure enough if you saw him he seemed to move very little in spite of bringing forth torrents of notes and melodies. So I tried it—playing lines for an entire progression in one general territory. This lead me to see how scale patterns are the same all over the neck due to the symmetry of the instrument. Pretty soon I was able to get around in more keys and handle more tunes, just by starting by extending the major scale pattern in whichever key the tune was in. A modern expression of this process might be Ted Eschliman's "FFcP" studies in his "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" book: closed or fretted scale positions that pertain to certain tonalities. But if not for Jethro's guidance, including offhanded comments, I wouldn't see the mandolin the way I do.
Question from JimDola: Thanks for taking our questions. In the past few years I've moved from mandolin to playing mandola almost exclusively. To my ears the slightly lower pitch of the mandola suits jazz stylings very well. My question: from your perspective, is there a genre of jazz that is particularly well suited for the mandola and when do you reach for the mandola rather than the mandolin? Thanks, very much.
Don Stiernberg: I think mandolin and mandola are great in ANY style! I don't currently own a mandola, otherwise I'd be reaching for one more often. I've recorded mandola parts on various projects, and on one tune, "How Long Has This Been Going On?" on the all-Gershwin CD "By George," I played the whole tune on a friend's Nugget mandola. John Carlini arranged that as a bossa, and the mellower sound of the mandola seemed to fit with the nylon string guitar in the track.
I've often thought that a mandola might accompany guitar solos better. Sometimes as the guitar plays single notes, I get self-conscious playing chord voicings "above" that on the mandolin—the right hand of the piano rarely accompanies the left! When I get to play five-string electric, I usually emphasize the mandola range when accompanying other players. So, I think if I had a mandola I would use it primarily backing other instruments, or on pretty ballads and mellower things. I've always dreamed also of having a mandolin quartet play things that sound like a sax section.
Don Stiernberg - Theme From Mannix
The ensemble section of "Theme from Mannix" is just such an attempt, only I didn't have a mandola or cello so it's just 3 mandolins. Hey, mandola would probably be better to sing over too, right? Like on a solo gig.
Download: Mannix Solo Changes
Download: Mannix Soli - Mando 1
Download: Mannix Soli - Mando 2
Download: Mannix Soli - Mando 3
Download: Mannix Soli - Mandola
Download: Mannix Soli - Mandocello
Question from Pete Martin: Is there a place/style preference for when you use rooted voicings vs. rootless?
How "modern" do you want your jazz playing to sound?
Any advice for amplification when playing with horns, piano and drums?
Don Stiernberg: OK, Pete, here we go:
Of course the bluegrass or Bill Monroe voicings have roots in them, sometimes two! And that's how that style should sound, as you know. The repeated notes and lack of color tones yield a more percussive sound that the ensemble needs. Once in awhile I'll sneak in a rootless chord, a sixth chord like G6 fingered 4-2-5. Other modern bluegrass players do this too, I notice, mostly as punctuation at the end of a phrase.
In jazz playing the root chord can be expressed as a Maj6, Maj7, or just plain major. I'll avoid roots there too, since that's what the bass or guitar or piano might play, and the additional color tones (6, 9, 13, etc.) fit the style and "widen out" the sound of the band. Looking at the common denominator progression, ii7-V7-I, I usually play the minor chord straight, with a root, maybe adding a ninth if anything. So if the chart says Am7, I just play Am! Not sure why, I just hear the cadences better that way I guess. Similarly, the dominant chord usually contains a root too, but I'll freely add tensions or color tones. So D7 would have the D in it, but perhaps be replaced by a b9 or #9, or have a #5 or b5 or 13 added.
Now the "tough" question! Certainly the aspiration is to be as modern as possible, in terms of being able to improvise and have something to say in any harmonic situation or groove. The reality though is, I've got my hands full trying to cope with major and minor ii-V-Is, connecting chords, and a few very basic chord substitutions. Some of my improvisational heroes seem to be able to play cool melodies, inside or outside, over ANY type of progression. I'm thinking now of George Benson, Mike Stern, Toots Thielemans. I'd like to have that type of vocabulary and flexibility, but... hey, I'd like to play for the Cubs too!
Also, this question could be answered various ways depending on what constitutes "modern." Certainly some of the things Bix Beiderbecke or Louis Armstrong did in the '20s are as modern as anything that came since. Wes Montgomery's concepts were modern, many unique to him, others assimilation of Parker or Coltrane ideas. But as fresh as his work sounds, he unfortunately left us in 1968. Is that modern? Thinking that way, I seem to be drawn most to jazz styles up to about the 1950's I guess—Swing, Bebop, and the like. The modal things, Coltrane changes, and post modern things don't come as naturally to me, but again, I'd like to become more conversant in all the concepts and have them at the ready. I really like playing tunes with lots of changes and trying to make connected melody lines: standards, Bop heads, Latin things, even pop tunes from my time. But the concepts for improv that I apply to these were probably all worked out by Charlie Parker time in the late 1940s.
For playing in an ensemble and being heard, I use a transducer, a preamp, and a full range amp, although here lately just the preamp into the monitors and house works just as well. More sound guys are used to getting good mandolin sounds direct. The combination of these with a mic for the house is also great, and if the right guys are on the gig I might go with the mic alone. One club here in Chicago I remember using all three! Everything! That's because the drums are just to the left (right by the bathroom door) and the piano to the right. So having the signal coming back from the monitors in front of you and an amp behind you is helpful. I don't want to give the wrong idea, we don't really play that loud. For gear heads like me: the transducer and pre-amp are both L.R. Baggs.
Download: ii-V7-I Activities in Major
Download: ii V i Activities in Minor
Question from PurplePlectrum: In The Mel Bay Complete Jethro, page 21 Pinky-Control Exercise, I am not posting my index finger so I can reach the pinky notes. I guess that I just don't have the stretch yet. Is there anything wrong with moving your hand to reach those notes? In your experience with students, have you known of someone being able to finally break out into full reach after working on it and what did they do? Also I am taking it slowly to make sure it is clean. But, I tend to stay slow and not push myself. If you suggest a way of helping me know when to increase speed it would help me. Thank so much.
Jethro's endings were just adorable. Was he the originator for many of them or did he look for smart phrases from other sources and what inspired him to come up with such comedic, expressive ideas?
I have admired your stage presence. It always seems that you put the audience first in your mind. Can you give us any set principles that guide your decisions on what to portray in a given situation? I have seen you totally melt into the background and at other times take over and command the movement of the scene. It is an elusive skill we all should work towards and add to our entertainer's tool belt. You are a master of it and have given your audiences great experiences through your skilled use of it. Thank you so much.
Don Stiernberg: Dear Purple, Most of the time when my students have trouble stretching or using the pinky it's due to a faulty left-hand grip, the one where the thumb comes up and over the neck, flattening out the fingers. Fiddle players call this "pancake hand," where the neck is supported by the entire palm of the hand. When I see this I say "Drop your watch to the floor"—lowering the wrist makes it easier for the left or noting hand fingers to address the board from closer to a 90 degree angle. Think of the pianist—if the fingers lay flat on the keys nothing gets done. Another couple of drills help agility for fingers 3 and 4: play open string scales (like G) without your index finger, just 2, 3 and pinky. You won't lose skill with your index finger, it will always be there, and the other three may limber up some. Also try playing just octaves, say the 3rd fret A string C with index, and 8th fret E string C with pinky. Slide that baby around and noodle some melodies. Again, there may be a payoff in strength and accuracy.
You're right, slow and clean beats fast all the time. Jethro stressed accuracy over speed, and as a means to achieve speed. You're right about his endings, and his musical vocabulary did come from everywhere—he was very open minded and somehow brought the mainstream popular musical language of his day (jazz) to the mandolin. I suppose the comic nature of everything he played or said could not be helped—he was naturally funny all the time, kept everyone at ease and laughing. If you watch Homer and Jethro videos, it all feels spontaneous, but he told me their act was rehearsed to the most minute detail! And he had comedy heroes like we all have musical heroes... Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Joe E. Louis, and I suspect possibly Victor Borge.
Thank you for your kind words about performing. Besides trying to carry on with some of the things I saw Jethro do (even some of the same jokes, with his permission...), I'm usually just trying to convey to the audience the fun we're having on stage. I'm lucky enough to get to play with some really great musicians, and I can't help but be thrilled by that even after all these years. Also, I believe people come to shows to connect with one another and to have an enjoyable time, not so much to look up and see someone with their head down playing chorus after chorus. So, I try to bring other things to the party, whether it be a funny line or facial reaction or something that pokes fun at us onstage, or a local reference of some kind—anything to involve the audience beyond the notes and keep things lighthearted. Thanks again for noticing. That helps me to keep trying.
Question from Mike Bromley: Where did you hone your relaxed affability as an instructor? You mentioned bits and pieces about Jethro's theory knowledge, or apparent lack thereof. How did that influence you as a listener and translator of music for mandolin?
As an anecdote, I learned more from you by listening to your playing than any dissertation on theory would have taught me. Our shared encounter of the "Potato of Fifths" seemed fitting as a metaphor of the pure music you project while teaching.
Don Stiernberg: Hey Mike, I looked up "affability" in the dictionary and it said something like "technique used by nervous mandolin teachers who really don't know that much..." No, seriously, it once again comes from the guy who taught me, and also that I take teaching seriously and it seems that keeping things relaxed helps get the ideas across. Especially with young students, I can remember what it meant to me to have someone there saying, "way to go,!" or, "you can do this!" I've noticed through the years that most of us default to a stance of, "Oh, I could never play thus and so..." I'm not sure where the negativity comes from, but I try to counteract it in lessons and workshops.
The story I tell often about Jethro's theory knowledge is this. Well, two stories actually. Near the end of his life Jethro was asked by Chet Atkins to contribute arrangements for a recording project. Chet wanted charts with Nashville numbers for the chord progressions. Jethro called and asked me for help with that! "Donnie, you know about the number thing, right?" I almost dropped the phone, and I still kick myself decades later—all those years working with him, and we had never really talked about how he related to chord progressions! Obviously he didn't think about ii-V-Is and such like. Did he know theory though? Of course, but people from his generation did not conceive of things using the same language. So "Cherokee" for example went from Bb to Bb7 to Eb to Ebm, rather than I to I7 to IV to IVm. Could he read music, transpose any of the thousands of tunes he knew to any key, improvise freely on any of them regardless of harmonic challenge? Yes, all of the above. The other story: once, Howard Levy had Jethro on a gig and one of the tunes was stumping him a bit. He asked Howard mid-tune to tell him the changes. Howard at the piano responded by saying something like "Oh, it's easy, just goes to a dominant II here..." to which Jethro replied "Just tell me the @#$!%*& chords!"
For those that weren't at the ROW camp last year, the "potato of fifths" refers to when an instructor discussing the circle of fifths drew what was supposed to be a circle on the board only to observe, "It looks more like the potato of fifths..."
Question from grassrootphilosopher: Let's talk tools: I've noticed that you are pictured with a Monteleone Grand Artist on your website. You are frequently playing a Nugget two-point mandolin (as in Germany last year). What do you look for in a mandolin that suits your style of playing and how do these two instrument fulfill your requirements? What are the differences and similarities of these instruments?
Let's talk dates: will you be back in Europe this year? If not, do you have plans to return, and if yes, when?
Let's talk technique: is there a different approach to playing the mandolin when you play solo as opposed to playing in a group (duo, trio etc.)? If there is, please elaborate
Do jazzers have anything to learn from the bluegrass approach, or is it impossible to combine the two styles?
Don Stiernberg: I've been so fortunate, blessed even, with the instruments I've chosen. The Monteleone Grand Artist I've used on so many recordings has an exceptional amount of sustain and is remarkably comfortable to play. I'm sure some of the musical ideas I've found on the mandolin are a direct result of that instrument's unique makeup. The Nugget two-point has a very strong sound. The notes decay a little differently, the tone ever so slightly darker. I also have a Collings MF5 which interestingly enough has qualities similar to both of these mandolins, kind of a compendium. What I look for in a mandolin that might suit my playing style is a top that moves freely so the notes sing. I can't play very fast, so each note has to last longer! Also, I'm no good without a radiused fretboard.
Looks like I'll be to Europe twice this year. Luckiest man in the world, I know! June 3-6 for the European Mandolin and Guitar Association (EGMA) convention in Bruchsal, Germany, and August 22-28 to teach at Carlo Aonzo's Academy of mandolin in Savona, Italy.
I try not to play solo very often! If you do play solo, you need to have the harmony, melody and groove going all at once. I'm better at reacting to changes provided by the rhythm section. I love hearing solo players though, like Caterina Lichtenberg, Alison Stephens, Evan Marshall, Hamilton de Holanda, Carlo Aonzo. I do still try to play the solo arrangements Jethro showed me, and make up new ones. Playing chord melody is an important part of what I try to do, but I don't have many occasions to go out there by myself. Scary! I'm intrigued by the commonalities. I wonder if Jethro was hip to Calace?
As far as I can tell, bluegrass was originally an improvised form. So I tend to see both styles as guided by the same principles. But then again, I wouldn't play chop chords on the jazz gig, and believe it or not I try to be tasteful about applying color tones and chromatic licks to bluegrass. Both forms are also blues-based, both have flowing eighth notes as a common rhythmic denominator. So I think it is possible to combine the styles in various ways. Certainly we hear jazz influences in the playing of our revered bluegrass masters such as Monroe, Grisman, Bush, Steffey, and more. I think jazzers could learn from the bluegrass approach in the realm of staying out of one another's way more. The jazz guys explore ALL the possibilities, sometimes to the detriment of the song's content or what the other cats are trying to play.
Download: Chord melody for Tenderly
Question from ralph johansson: You play both jazz and some bluegrass. Very often bluegrass solos are long unbroken strings of eighth notes, whereas jazzers tend to use more rests and a greater variety of note values. What's your own approach to bluegrass? Do bluegrassers have anything to learn from the jazz approach?
Don Stiernberg: Dear Ralph, apparently, you, grassroot (see above) and I all like BOTH kinds of good music: Bluegrass and Jazz! Yessir. That's the stuff I love.
Earlier on I would seem to play the same 3 licks on any type of gig. Here lately I do try harder to approach each style differently. In addition to the observations in the last question, I would add that bluegrass is a primarily diatonic music, while jazz is purposefully chromatic. So I'm trying to not play flatted nines or fives on bluegrass so much. I'll turn up the blues component when playing the hard grass. Also, I'll try to conjure a spiritual version of what my bluegrass heroes might do. I don't like to duplicate licks or choruses (never was disciplined enough to memorize very many...), but I don't mind trying to channel a ferocious tremolo ala Monroe or Busby or Grisman, or borrow hammer-on/pull off ornament things from Sam Bush (I call them diddly-ahs or Sam Bush-isms) or I might become intrigued with a rhythmic motive that Monroe or Compton might use, say rocking (and I do mean rocking!) between a minor and major third.
In the end, though, the jazz thing gets in there and I hit notes "in the cracks," not always the notes of the chord form or triad. That's probably why I can so easily clear out a hard grass jam session, or why my colleagues sometimes laugh when I play breaks on fiddle tunes or Monroe/Stanley/Martin tunes: "Man, that jaiz ain't a part of nuthin'!"
I think similarly inclined bluegrass players might benefit from some jazz concepts in pursuit of their own voice. Understanding things from a theoretical standpoint opens up possibilities. You hear that in players like Dawg, Chris Thile, Barry Mitterhoff, John Moore, Adam Steffey, Alan Bibey... just naming a few.
Question from AlanN: Was Jethro a patient guy?
Don Stiernberg: Hi Alan! Well, he must have been very patient—he had me in his band! I always found him to be very supportive and positive, as mentioned above a few times. If someone rubbed him the wrong way, though, he was not above dealing with them in one way or another. Certainly hecklers or even unsuspecting audience members occasionally met with some great anti-heckler material from the stage.
I remember one time he told me about a student who made the mistake of saying something like "I learned so-and-so's style, now I want to come for a lesson and learn your style too." Jethro, aware that his style warranted more than one lesson, was ready when the guy showed up: "I made it hell for him," he said. I hope that guy doesn't read Mandolin Cafe! A bit worse was people trying to tell him jokes. "Donnie, they don't understand, I know all those jokes." But overall, yes. Jethro was patient. Just the greatest.
Questions from mandocrucian: Here are several related questions to prompt your answers down a different avenue or two:
1) For more advanced players, how important is it to transcribe/learn solos as played by other (non-mandolin) instruments (sax, guitar, trumpet, vibes, etc.), and to what degree should the mandolin player try/attempt to replicate the phrasing and dynamics (which might include slurring, bending, or playing passages in rather non-mandolinistic positions or fingerings) in order to come closer to the sound/feel of the original instrument/player?
Don Stiernberg: Thanks for joining in here, Niles.
Transcribing solos is a great way to bolster one's understanding of theory, gather vocabulary or concepts, and get playing things on the fretboard that one probably wouldn't have otherwise. I wish I was more disciplined at it. I usually stop in the note gathering part of the process—why does that note sound good there? How can I use that device again? Replications are cool as study, but of course you'd never use another cat's solo verbatim. Even if you could play it "exactly," it would never sound the way its originator's version did. Still, it's great to ponder the things you bring up—how can we get a "windier" sound or phrasing on the mandolin (so much jazz is saxophone or trumpet focused...), or, what can a piano player's comping tell us about how chords move? I think it's beneficial even in small pieces. I like to read stuff out of the Charlie Parker Omnibook. Will I ever play one of those solos in its entirety? Most likely not. Have I lifted sequences or phrases that creep into my own solos? Yes, a lot.
mandocrucian: 2) Following up on the above, you're a Wes Montgomery aficionado. If you play a passage in octaves, do you use a Wes style "skipped string" voicing, or the adjacent stringed index/pinky variety (favored by Bush)? Some options/examples below.
If you use the "skipped string" octaves, are you dampening the string in the middle, while playing the octave with the pick? Or, for tonal reasons, do you use the right hand thumb (no pick) like Wes did, to get more of the tone of flesh on the strings? Or, do you go with the (RH) "pick + index finger" which eliminates the need for fingering/dampening the middle string?
Don Stiernberg: I use the index/pinky one more frequently. The other I use a fair amount, but separated, not striking both notes simultaneously. I like to make a line where I'll play, say, low C, then high C, then move up chromatically doing the same thing. Cheap show-off stuff, I know—but it can lend a little tension or interest in a solo. On my electric I'll use my thumb, sometimes for whole tunes or choruses—love that sound! But on acoustic it's always the pick.
Don Stiernberg solo chord melody
Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave, performed at the European Mandolin Academy in Trossingen Germany, September, 2009.
mandocrucian: 3) What/who are your FIVE (more, if you prefer a more detailed list) foremost non-mandolin player influences (including singers), and why? And/or, what elements and/or techniques of/from their playing have you incorporated (or tried to) into your mandolin playing to push beyond the "normal/conventional" mandolin approach and vocabulary.
Don Stiernberg: There's a long list at the MySpace page. But let's see, the foremost, or four "most?" I'd start with guitar guys: George Benson, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery. I like the long, flowing melodies, the ferocious swing, and the back and forth between single note and chordal playing. Funny, each one of those guys sounds like a mandolin to me in some ways. I guess there are parallels in the decay time or something—all archtops after all. A friend described Wes as "an elixir." Listening to him makes you feel good! I'd love to get that going, also the uncanny ability to BUILD energy from one chorus to the next. Sometimes listening to the CDs I want to give a standing ovation at the end of a series of choruses! Pat Martino is another one I dig a lot, and Mike Stern. Jim Hall of course for interesting voicings and thoughts.
In the horn family it's Charlie Parker, and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. Don't listen to his records, you'll hear all kinds of things I stole! The descendants of Bird, too, like Cannonball, Johnny Griffin, Stan Getz. Another big group for me is all the swing guys I grew up listening to at home: Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Ernie Caceres, Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell—the Eddie Condon crew. Some call it Dixieland or Chicago style.
When I heard those records as a boy I thought they were playing just for me! The hard swinging Bix and Louis influenced stuff—I love the combination of harmonic interest and melodic accessibility. We used to sing along with the solos.
Also crazy about Errol Garner on the piano and Clifford Brown on the trumpet. Their lines sound like "pickin'"—the notes are carved out cleanly. Also, Errol's intros and endings are so cool—they connect to the tunes in very unusual ways.
Singers? The ones that sound sweet and soulful, who sound honest and illuminate the feeling of the lyrics. Bonnie Raitt, Chet Baker, Jack Teagarden, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Lowell George, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Levon Helm, Sam Bush, Red Allen, Tom Boyd, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay. Oh, man—BB King! Singing and playing! Somebody stop me, this is too much fun. I would love it if a bit of the emotion and story-telling of any of these artists would creep into my mandolin solos.
mandocrucian: 4) How would you describe your level or areas of guitar playing? Rhythm guy? lead player?
Don Stiernberg: Well Niles, for my "day job," I'm a guitar player. Freelancing around Chicago has helped support my family and my mandolin habit. When I'm here in town I play Stratocaster with a great dance band, or sessions in studios, usually on acoustic playing bluegrass or swing oriented stuff. I love playing rhythm, especially bluegrass on the flattop and trad jazz on the archtop. I play rhythm and a few leads on my own recordings, played rhythm for Jethro on his final recordings. On gigs I'm expected to cover the changes, the hooks, and solos. Here in the Midwest they're called "jobbing dates." Out East they call them G.B. (general business) or "casuals." In any event the material goes from Jobim to Motown to 80s rock to The Black Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift. Yikes. No wonder when I have mandolin work I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, and that's been on the increase these last few years.
mandocrucian: 5) What other instruments (besides mandos and guitars) do you play or have messed with, and any specific reasons why for any particular instrument(s)?
Don Stiernberg: I have a tenor banjo and have played a bunch of trad jazz gigs. For a long time that was seen as "Chicago Jazz" for conventions, Mardi Gras parties, etc. There are really great players here in that style and it also gets done as concert music sometimes.
I'm also a fiddle "owner." I can get through bluegrass and Western Swing gigs on it, play a few standards, etc... I've been trying ever since hearing Byron Berline, Vassar Clements, Johnny Gimble, Sam Bush... It's never been my strong suit, and in recent years as I've been busier with mandolin the call for it has fallen off. Jethro used to say "Oh, Donnie... your fiddle. If I give you $2, will you put it away?" Going back to your influences question, certainly the fiddle players have been huge to me too: Johnny Frigo, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, et al.
Longer ago I had an electric bass and made tuxedo gigs on that. I had played a little bass in high school. Since I played bassoon, I could hear the low notes. My hands won't tolerate that anymore.
Thanks, Niles, now everyone knows my secrets of wearing tuxedos or red vests, stepping on distortion pedals for the screaming lead on "Don't Stop Believin'" or "I Want U 2 Want Me..." Oh well, it's all music, right?
And it's fun to try. But yeah, it's been more and more mandolin each year and that feels best.
Listen while you read
Don Stiernberg playing It Might As Well Be Spring from his 1999 recording About Time.
Question from Darren Weiss: You've mentioned in the past trying to offer some sort of online teaching. Any progress on that front?
Don Stiernberg: Darren, looking forward to seeing you at Santa Cruz! I'm still working on the online thing. I have a new computer now—one step closer. If I do get it together it will probably be a bit after the camp season, and I would hope to announce it here at the Cafe. I have been sending audio files to students that I knock out on a Zoom H2, but certainly the Skype/iChat thing is where it should go. My son is my tech adviser and hopefully will advise me... summertime, maybe.
Question from George Wilson: I understand that Jethro didn't like to talk about Homer and Jethro very much. Did this apply to the technical issues too? When you listen to them you can hear his use of the mandolin to reinforce the humor. I'm curious if there was a specific plan to this or did he just know how to make music funny? We know about the blue incidentals (we can't always use them effectively but we know they're there) so are there also funny incidentals?
Don Stiernberg: He told me that with Homer and Jethro EVERYTHING was planned out. Watch on YouTube how he moves the mandolin in and out of the camera shots. He knew exactly what he was going to do, just made it look fresh and easy. He said they rehearsed their facial expressions along with the lines, most of which he wrote.
Funny notes? My fave is the bit where he plays a very familiar lick or melody and ends on a wrong note, like a half step higher than the tonic. Homer says "you better play that again." Jethro repeats it, wrong note played with even more conviction. Homer says "I thought you was playin' it wrong the first time." Also, his quotes tickled me every time. In the bridge of "Cherokee" when it got to the key of A he'd always play "Devil's Dream." and he'd squeeze "Nola" into any number of tunes.
I don't think he minded talking about Homer and Jethro, just not so much in the years immediately following Homer's untimely passing—too much pain there. The first time my good friend John Parrott came and played at Jethro's house, he said, "Sounds just like Homer." It was the only time I think I saw him cry. Later on it seemed he was proud to tell their story, and it's incredible of course.
Question from David Horovitz: How long does it take you to really learn a new jazz tune (chords, head, improv)? I assume this takes less time now than it did when you were starting out. How long did you work on new tunes in your early years? Days, weeks, months, years?
I think you've commented in your Mandolin Magazine columns that the jazz lines you compose for instruction are often different than what you would play spontaneously on the bandstand or in a jam. Why do you think that is? Do you transcribe your own solos using any slow-down software or just listen back at full tempo and transcribe?
Finally, I've noticed you use a lot of triplet and other 3 over 4 motifs in your improvised lines. Is this something you recall consciously working on developing or is it just a natural element of your playing style that happens intuitively when improvising?
Don Stiernberg: The heads or melodies take longer for me than the other things. Stuff I really want to play I'll teach in hopes of one day being able to play the tune correctly and effortlessly. That type of thing takes longer now actually now than earlier on. I like Johnny Gimble's line: "I never play anything the same way ONCE." I may be strung up that way too in that getting melodies down cold is harder for me than making up stuff on the changes. I memorize harmonic structures of tunes by looking for tonalities so as to reduce a tune that may have a dozen chords to the two or three keys the tune passes through. I'll also look for the really conventional patterns that keep coming up—blues, rhythm changes, minor cadences, etc. For example, "Rawhide," "Don't Let The Deal Go Down," "Caravan," and "I Got Rhythm" all have a circle of fifths progression. I try to break things into smaller pieces like that, it helps keep track of tunes and changes.
My first tune with Jethro was Old Joe Clark. Every week he'd ask "how ya doin' on Old Joe Clark?" and every week I'd mess it up. I finally put it aside in frustration, didn't even try it for a month or more. Then one day I picked up the mandolin and out it came in its entirety. I think that's how we learn—stuff gets in there at its own rate sometimes. I think it's good to look away from time to time and not kill your hands trying to force the issue.
When I write my column I don't really transcribe but rather go right to paper. The mandolin is in my hand and I use it to hook things together, but usually I'm trying to illustrate one thing or another, say, the use of a certain interval in a line. So, it comes from the idea to the page. Maybe those two activities come from different sides of the brain? If it is a chord melody or rhythm voicing, I will think of a few bars at a time, memorize it, and write it out. That's a bit more like transcription. But I don't record whole solos and then write them out. The method I'm describing here for writing etudes has led me to some things I wouldn't be inclined to play off the top of my head, which helps I guess in terms of getting new ideas. But the stuff that comes out in actual playing is freer, swings harder. Maybe I should start trying to write some of that down?
At this point I suppose it has become intuitive. Perhaps a way to add interest or "set up" an oncoming chord change, or beginning of a melodic phrase. I wish I could incorporate more of that actually. The aforementioned heroes of improvisation even comfortably fit groups of sevens or fives in the course of a four beat measure, and of course Jethro was way into triplet things. Sam, Bela, Chris, Jerry Douglas, Mike Marshall—they're all about the compound meter stuff in their compositions. I stand in awe of that, and the layered rhythms of Brazilian stuff. But for me getting one note to follow another in either 3 or 4, and have it swing a little can be challenging enough...
Thanks David for these questions and your posts and kind words on the jazz discussion board.
Question from Brad Weiss: You've got the most relaxed feel of almost any musician I can think of. Makes the point that it's not just the notes, it's what's between them that makes it jazz. So, how do you know, not just what to play (hard enough), but when to play it (unfathomable, to me)? Another way to say this: what is the rhythmic dimension of your melodic improv, and how do you work at it?
Don Stiernberg: Thanks Brad! I've seen your YouTube stuff, it doesn't seem like anything "unfathomable" is going on there! The relaxed feel you kindly note may be a response to a natural tendency to rush. Also, a lot of my ideas come in response to the chords or figures played by the rhythm section, rather than leading them through. It's good to consider the style, too. Bluegrass tends to lean a little forward, on the front edge of the beat, as does Choro. Rock grooves can be "straight up and down" sometimes—things land right in the center of the beat. Jazz tends to "lay back" more. Even the bass player when playing steady four might place each quarter note on the latter part of each beat. So, I'll try to be sensitive to what the context is, try not to rush, and hopefully make the tempo!
John Carlini taught me a good saying from Natale Mugavero, the great percussionist he named his famous tune "Mugavero" for. He said "Wait for the right note." If I'm playing fills behind a vocal, or comping behind another soloist, the "what' and "when" get easier, it's just a direct response to what the lyrics are about or the vibe the soloist gives. Trading fours with a drummer is great for this— causes one to consider the rhythmic component of melodies as well as how to generate interest using repetitive figures. Comping is almost more fun—throwing out spurts of harmonic information in unexpected places, hoping to egg the soloist on or engage in conversation. Doing that assumes being really aware of the pulse. The solo one plays after that might be more relaxed or in the pocket because of all the focus you've just used tracking the pulse. Dig some great compers like Django (!!) or Wes (OMG) or Wynton Kelly or Mike Marshall... I'll bet it has an impact on the line playing especially regarding feel.
Question from Paul Glasse: When I listen to your mandolin playing I hear the Jethro influence yet overall you're very much your own man. Please talk about how you sorted out or worked through having such a prominent influence yet ultimately assimilating that influence into your own sound. To what degree was the finding of "the Don sound" conscious versus intuitive?
I know you play many different styles of music as well as perform as both a leader and sideman. Tell us about how you think (or don't) about playing appropriately in various stylistic settings. For instance: do you deliberately work to keep bluegrass phrases out of your jazz gigs or vise versa? When you're a sideman on someone else's gig how do you interpret your role differently, if at all.
Don Stiernberg: Speaking of heroes... Hello, Paul Glasse!
And thanks for your kind words. Looking for my own sound continues to be a conscious effort. But there is a story, and as usual it involves Jethro. After a gig in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (1970s or early 80s) we sat at the bar and he said out of the blue "Donnie, do you ever think about getting a different mandolin?" I was playing a red Florentine A5 at the time and making every effort to play like him. After posing the question he saw I was a bit stunned and said "Well, buddy, if people want to hear Jethro, they can. "THANK YOU, JETHRO!" Thus began my quest to sound like myself. I began by delving into more modern sounding things—Bird, Wes, Andy Statman. Also incorporating things from the music of my own time: Steely Dan; Earth, Wind and Fire; Doobie Brothers; George Benson. And going back to the freer sounding spirits of the early jazz... Pee Wee Russell, Bix. What a mess, huh? For a while some real laughable combination of elements came out, but that's how we learn, right? By trying stuff on. Later, another mentor, Richie Fudoli, reminded me "people want to hear about the road to YOUR city, they don't want to hear anybody running somebody else's stuff." So, yeah, the quest goes on. On a lucky day if I can get myself out of the way of the music, some things fall into place and make me want to keep trying. Feeling confident and comfortable in my own skin is the most challenging thing, also the most rewarding on the rare occasions when it falls in a little.
Sometimes I think I might play better as a sideman than on my own gigs because I'm not feeling the pressure to be responsible for the whole, not as distracted by the time schedule, P.A., or things like 'where is the guitar player?' So, I guess maybe it's a matter of maintaining a sideman perspective even when leading—anything to get out of the way of the music and let it happen. We were talking about stylistic concerns in previous questions. I don't mind mixing things up, but not too much, I guess. A lot of the people who hire me know how I play and encourage or allow me to do that, but I still make an effort to find what's in the song and play to that and what the other cats are doing.
Paul Glasse: When are we going to record that duo album and book the tour?
You know I'd love to! And I have good feelings about 2010. Nice things are happening already. Do you think anyone would want to hear it? Or come to the gig? Let's try to find out. The Guys Who Went to Different Schools Together, in the studio and on the road! Jazz Mandolin Appreciation Society. Coming to your town soon, I hope.
Question from Shaun Garrity: What kind of music do you enjoy playing outside of jazz? What do you play for your own enjoyment?
Don Stiernberg: Thanks for asking, Shaun.
Around the house I try to work on my reading. Besides jazz heads from fakebooks, I'll look at Choros from Mike's book. John Carlini sent me some Bach inventions some time ago. I think when I'm in my nineties, just before I'll be getting towards retirement age, I might be able to play some of these things.
I really enjoy a lot of different music styles. At jams and gigs I enjoy singing almost as much as playing. I love the Western Swing repertoire and the Bluegrass repertoire. I miss having a regular opportunity for trio singing, especially bluegrass stuff where I like to go for the tenor part. My first professional experience was in a band called The Morgan Brothers with my brother and John Parrott. We were crazy about J.D. Crowe, the Newgrass Revival, Country Gentlemen, et al. I still am! When John Carlini and I do shows, we'll put "Rabbit In the Log" right in there with "Naima." With my own trio I love trying to sing "I Am a Pilgrim" or "Workin' On a Building" right next to a Chet Baker tune like "Let's Get Lost."
On those electric guitar gigs I was talking about, I live for the times when they'll cut me loose on a blues solo or let me sing a Van Morrison song like "Into the Mystic" or "Domino."
Don Stiernberg and Mike Marshall
Playing Green Dolphin Street from the European Mandolin Academy in Trossingen, Germany.
Question from RHBoy: How would you suggest building one's musical vocabulary?
Regarding improvisation, how can one "get in the zone" on demand as players of your caliber seem to do instantly?
Thanks for all your contributions to the Cafe, I read anything from you with delight.
Don Stiernberg: Dear RH, I like to come up with little devices to try in pursuit of musical goals. One of my favorites for building vocabulary is kind of a simple form of transcription of solos by heroes. I can't write rhythms well or quickly (untrained) but that's OK! I'll just listen and jot down the pitches. Then I'll analyze spots in the solo that really speak to me... Wow, that was cool, what was that, and why does it work in that harmonic situation? What interval is it? A lot of what I play has come from that process.
Of course the other one to try is to generate ideas completely from within. But again, I'll do this in small pieces. A guitar teacher I had caught me once as he listened to me improvise: "You don't know the difference between major and minor!" So, on a recorder I'd play a long spasm of a major chord, then at some random place switch it to minor, and back, etc. Kind of like flash cards for math problems, a very mechanical exercise I know, but responding to those tonalities when jamming along with the tape (remember tape?) really opened things up. Nowadays I'll do that with complete cadences, or a section of of a tune that's bothersome, and rarely a complete tune. I know a lot of people do this with Band-In-A-Box or such like. I think looking at smaller pieces helps, too, and you can set your metronome along with whatever changes you throw at yourself.
We can't forget learning tunes or pieces from all the great written materials available. When you learn a fiddle tune, or Choro, or Charlie Parker tune, or Chopin waltz, or Jethro style chord melody, or a Dawg tune, or Bill Monroe instrumental, you're expanding your vocabulary. It may not feel like it, but that stuff gets in there and comes back out when you least expect it! I tell my students, here, try this, and some night it will turn up in one of your solos on the gig or at the jam. Be sure to call me or e-mail when that happens.
Getting in the zone, let's see... most players are just afraid of playing bad notes when improvising, or sounding "bad" or "dumb." Just let go of that and play! Sure, there will be funny notes, or odd choices, but there will also be things you've never played before that you'll want to keep in your trick bag. Of course familiarity and preparation play big roles, like for instance start your set with one you have down cold, where you can see the changes in your mind's eye the way a hitter sees a fastball. You may also want to say something humorous or affirmative to yourself before plunging into your choruses, like "OK, let's see what happens..." Jethro would introduce tunes by saying "Here's one we've had little or no success with." When everyone stopped laughing he would proceed to disassemble and reassemble the tune.
Thanks for your support on the Cafe "contributions." That helps me get in the zone!
Question from pickloser: Many thanks for excellent advice and instruction here at the Cafe and at Kaufman Kamp. I also very much enjoy your recorded music. I like that you have started singing some, and I hope you do more of it.
Are there common gaps in musical knowledge and/or technical skills that you see in students? Do you find that you are suggesting some things repeatedly? What building blocks have to be in place before one can expect to improvise intelligently, or, if not intelligently, then with some sense of a plan or approach? I'm already familiar with the "keep your fingers moving and hope for the best method."
Could you tell us a bit about the next Mel Bay Jazz Mando instruction book in the works?
Have fun at the Mandolin Symposium. You will be missed in Maryville.
Don Stiernberg: Hi, Laura, I still remember your cool chord melody playing from the master class session at Steve's Kamp. Bravo.
I've noticed from teaching that when we have problems, it has to be either a mandolinistic issue (Where's an Abmaj7 on this blasted thing?) or a musical issue (What's a maj7 chord anyway?) I think more of us have musical issues than mandolinistic ones. There are really great players who can play all manner of stuff but not know what any of it is! I'll stop players mid-solo and ask, "How did you finger that Bbm phrase?" or "What was that cool thing you played on the dominant chord?" and they won't know where to look. So knowing the names for things on the fretboard in addition to what they sound or feel like seems a good building block. This is less daunting than it seems: there are only four qualities of chords in all of music (major, minor, augmented, diminished) and the beautiful mandolin fretboard is laid out SYMMETRICALLY. Thank You, Lord. Learn one major scale pattern or chord shape, now you can find them all. And as you do, put the names of things in your memory too.
On the music side, if you're tackling improv on a tune you'll need to know its chord changes, tonalities, and form. As in, well there's an A section which hangs in the key of F predominantly. Then in the B section it goes from F7 to Bb, then G7, and then C7 which of course leads us nice back to the key of F in the A section. That was "Honeysuckle Rose" I was thinking about.
Have a "territory" on the fretboard that corresponds to each change or tonality: "I know these notes are good for F7." Then you're ready to marry the mandolinistic with the musical knowledge of the tune, so you're up and running except for rhythms. NO WORRIES—try playing all one rhythm just for starters. Be able to fill the spaces with eighth notes, and if that's too hard on your chops or mind, quarter notes are fine! Fancier rhythms and speech-like playing with stops and starts will come soon enough.
Our esteemed moderator Ted Eschliman and I are putting together a book called "Jazz Mandolin Appetizers," sort of a follow-up to his excellent "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin." For my part I have submitted a series of melodies written over conventional jazz style chord changes. Let's say you were wanting to play "Sweet Georgia Brown" or "Lady Be Good..." We could talk a ton about scales and chords, but at some point people say "give me something I could play" and that's what will be in the book. I'm pleased with what came out in the writing and I hope people from all styles of mandolin playing will enjoy playing the melodies.
Question from Kevin Briggs: How do you practice the mandolin? I'm interested to know if you have a certain schedule you follow, and do you use a metronome? Do you practice with other people?
Don Stiernberg: I guess I have two modes of practice, focused and less focused. The mandolin is in my hands more than I think (I'm told), but it feels like it's hard to find time to maintain and develop skills. I have a big collection of fakebooks and method books. When I get a block of time I will set something on the stand in my office, turn the metronome to a manageable tempo, and read away... Bird, Bach, Jacob, pattern books.
Other times, say, as I'm watching the Cubs game, I'll just improvise or run things that I know. Still, playing gigs or jamming seems to be where most of the real discoveries and advancements come... practicing on the stand, as it were. That energy is critical—it's harder to get things going all by one's self.
One of my favorite stories about practicing came from Wes Montgomery. They asked about his regimen and he said something like, "I just open the case every so often and throw in a piece of meat."
Practicing relates to what's going on, too—currently I'm preparing for a new recording project. It's all swing so the tempos are critical to keep everything from sounding the same. So the metronome has been burning up batteries as I try to make sure the heads sound correct at the appointed tempos. On previous recordings I don't think I've gone over things this much. Please stay tuned to see if there's a payoff...
Main instuments: 1996 Nugget Two-Point, 2004 Collings MF5, 1982 Monteleone Grand Artist, 1987 Stevens "Paul Glasse Model" 5-string electric mandolin.
Strings: D'Addario J75 (11.5, 16, 26, 41). For a long time I also used GHS Bright Bronze PF270, (11-41). In the summer when it's REAL humid here I'll put on some Elixirs so my fingers don't get hung up.
Picks: Jim Dunlop "USA Nylon" 1 MM (Old Reliable), Blue Chip 40 (for extra punch, clarity, or brightness, like around banjo players). Also acquired some tortoise last summer which I'm liking for a fatter sound on tremolo, ballads, etc. All these are "Fender Medium" shape, and I play with the point.
Pickups: Mike Kemnitzer installed an L.R. Baggs transducer in the bridge of the Nugget. It runs into the Para Acoustic D.I., also by Baggs.
Instrument cases: Calton or 30-year old Reunion Blues leather bag (Nugget), TKL (Collings), Harptone (Monteleone).
Microphone preferences: For my own records the mandolin is usually mic'd by a stereo pair of Schoeps CMC6-U (small diaphragm condenser). Other ones I've run into that sound good for mandolin include the Nuemann KM 84 (of course) the Coles(?) ribbon mic(!)and various members of the Shure KSM line. At home I use the Shure KSM 137. I've also had pretty good luck with that on stage too, even though it's a condenser. I keep a 30-year-old SM57 in the trunk of my car! Frequently stage amplification is handled by the pickup alone, either through an amp or direct to the house and monitors.
For the mandolin: I use a Tone-Gard.
Don Stiernberg with Jethro Burns and Friends
From 1983, Jethro Burns and Don Stiernberg, mandolins John Parrott on guitar and Neal Seroka on Fender Six-string Bass.
Don Stiernberg Solo Recordings
Other notable recordings
The Road Home, A Tribute to Butch Baldassari - with multiple artists (2009)
My Very Life - Chicago Sessions with Paulinho Garcia (2009)
Tone Poets - with multiple artists (2005)
The Game's Afoot - with the John Carlini Quartet (2003)
The Swing Sessions - with John Parrott (2000)
A Dark Rumor - with The Henhouse Prowlers
Night Skies - Greg Cahill and Don Stiernberg (1998)
Blue Skies - Greg Cahill and Don Stiernberg, (1992)
Don Stiernberg with Jethro Burns
Don played played rhythm guitar on Jethro's final two recordings.
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Excellent questions from the "interviewers" and extremely helpful responses from the "interviewee". And special thanks to the Cafe, with it we wouldn't these (running out of superlatives here) brilliant features.
Tunes such as Be Bop by Dizzy. You transcribed the head very well in one issue of MM. Tough tune - to play that, do you need the music in front of you? Please say Yes.
This one with Don is particularly interesting. In particular the elements of style in jazz and bluegrass and how do and do not cross. We have a nationally know traditional jazz band here in San Antonio (the Jim Cullum Band - NPR's "Live from the Landing" show) that I love to go see. I have often noted how the soloing in their tunes is so similar to how solos work for Bluegrass.
Thank you Don, thank you Cafe
Then I'll get to absorb some more Potato Juice.
I'm still digesting the interview. It greatly soothes me to see that great mando souls (like you) are not generally in the position to just go out and find mando related music at your doorstep. This part of personal information was very insightful, and I wish you every possible blessings on your way to musical fullfilment.
Especially interesting for me were the thoughts about the grass/jazz aproaches and their respective similarities/differences. This - as you (and Niles Hokkanen's, John McGann's and Paul Glasse's posts on the "Message Board") are allways highly wellcome from my point of view.
And since you're in Europe twice this year I recon I should schedule a trip to Bruchsal or Italy, right?
The Lady Is A Tramp clip is so great. To hear Jethro laughing and say 'Stop it!'; well, it's just fantastic. I could watch and listen to that clip all day.
Thank you kindly for your stories and thoughts on mando. I only hope to have a fraction of a life experience in music as you have. Having someone explore all genres is awe inspiring.
As to mandolin cafe. These interviews, with interactive videos, music, and pictures are incredible. Keep them coming. It helps to break up the tough times of my day up and bring in music and the mandolin, even without my instrument next to me.
Thank you Don, thank you Cafe End Quote
I totally agree! This was such a fun and informative interview to read, which was no surprise, given its subject.
Many thanks to Ted for all the hard work. I'm looking forward to your Mel Bay book with Mr. S., but don't come out with it too soon, please. I haven't finished working through GiJM.
Thank you, Don, for the information, insight, and encouragement. It's a pleasure to hear so many good notes. I admire you as an awesome musician and an inspiring teacher. (You almost make me want to care about baseball.)
What a great interview!