Mike Stern has played his Yamaha Pacifica signature model since it came out in the early ’90s. The T-style single cutaway features a Seymour Duncan ’59 in the neck position and a Hot Rails in the bridge. Photo by Sandrine Lee
On July 3, 2016, Mike Stern was headed to Europe to kick off a tour. He never made it. Hours before his flight, he tripped over hidden construction debris in the street. “Once I lost my balance, I thought, ‘Uh oh, it looks like I’m going to fall.’ Then I was trying to regain my balance—my feet were moving faster to catch myself. But I didn’t,” recalls Stern. “I fell on my elbows or forearms, but the shock is felt from the humerus bones, and it goes right up to the shoulder. I broke both of my humerus bones.”
As bad as it sounds, that wasn’t the worst part. The accident led to nerve damage in Stern’s right hand—the secret weapon for his jaw-dropping, alternate-picking technique. This discovery was incredibly traumatic for Stern, who is notoriously obsessive about the guitar. For decades, he’s had the instrument in his hands for practically every waking moment.
“Mike spends eight hours on the guitar every day that he’s not travelling,” explains his wife, renowned guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/singer Leni Stern. “That’s how he plays like he does.” A typical day saw Mike waking up early to practice for several hours, then he’d practice with Leni, and then a bassist would come over and they would play for a few more hours.
Leni reveals, “When I practice my other instruments—n’goni, calabash, and voice—the bass player comes to replace me in Mike’s practice room.” To top this off, he’d do a three-hour gig in the evening. Having lived with this daily routine for decades, not being able to even hold the guitar was incredibly disheartening for Stern. But he refused to give up hope.
With his right hand still badly mangled and bent like a claw, on October 10, 2016, Stern made his return to the 55 Bar in New York, where he maintains a Monday and Wednesday residency whenever he’s not on the road. To be able to hold the pick, he wore a glove to which picks were taped. About two weeks after that, he played a series of shows at the Blue Note with Chick Corea’s band, which featured a formidable lineup including saxophone titan Kenny Garrett.
Stern has since had several surgeries to maneuver his thumb to be able to actually hold the pick. Still, even with all these obstacles to overcome, between January and March 2017, he recorded Trip, his appropriately titled 17th album as a leader. The album features Stern’s signature brand of intricate funk-bop on tracks like “Whatchacallit” and “Trip,” tender ballads like “I Believe You” and “Gone,” and recrafted jazz standards like “Scotch Tape and Glue,” based on “Green Dolphin Street,” and “Half Crazy,” based on “Rhythm Changes.”
Premier Guitar caught up with Stern at his NYC apartment to discuss the making of Trip, the recovery process, and how spirit is everything.
Tell us exactly what happened with your recent accident.
It was a very unlucky day. They’d left some kind of construction stuff that was invisible right on the median of the road. It was yellow on yellow—usually they have, like, bowling pins sticking out to divide traffic—and there were none. So, I was just walking normally and tripped on that thing.
I fell kind of like a quarterback falls sometimes. This is a common quarterback injury, when you have your arms up, protecting your face and your head. I thought I dislocated my shoulders but they told me I broke my humerus bones. The left one was a clean break but the right one was really messed up—it was broken in four places, but still they let me out the same night.
I understand you also ended up getting nerve damage.
Apparently, this is a very rare symptom. It doesn’t happen very often that you get nerve damage in your right hand from a break all the way up here. At first they gave me a doctor that was in-house at New York University hospital. He was a specialist but a general specialist. Now, I’ve got this other doctor—Alton Barron—that Wayne Krantz recommended. He’s really one of the top guys in the world. He’s a guitar player, too, and he’s worked with musicians and sports guys forever. Last time I was there, this guy showed up and gave me his number [points to concert pianist Lang Lang’s name scribbled on his wall Rolodex]. So that’s the place.
What was his diagnosis?
Three weeks after the accident, I had all this metal in my shoulders but my hands weren’t really coming back. They were still numb, and the other doctor was telling me it should happen, or it might take time. Everybody was telling me that. The new doctor recognized right away, and said, “I’ve never seen this much numbness three weeks after an accident.” He knew that I’d be out for a long time if he didn’t do something, and he did something so I could hold a pick. And recently he did something else so my thumb would be better.
Mike Stern’s album Trip is his first release since suffering serious injuries to his arms and hands when he tripped over roadside construction debris in 2016.
Are these temporary fixes just to get you playing for now?
It’s just in case. If something else heals, then you don’t have to worry about it. You have extra tendons in your hands that are just sitting there not doing anything. If you get the right guy, you can really do a lot. But I think his feeling at the time, and he wasn’t sure but now it looks like it’s correct, is that I’d go crazy if I couldn’t play for a whole year—he was right. Two months later, I was playing.
That must have been a tough time for you, mentally.
Spirit is everything, no matter what goes on with you, if you get low and feel depressed. Ray LeVier [drummer] was a big inspiration. He was badly burned when he was a kid and has almost no hands, and he plays his ass off. When this happened, someone said, “Call Ray,” because I was using a compression glove, Velcro, and tape. Ray said, “Try wig glue.” Like Donald Trump uses [laughs]. So, I tried, and it worked a lot better.
That was last October . Since around March, the doctor also did something with my thumb, so now, generally, everything’s better. But I did Trip before that. I had a lower primate thumb, kind of like a monkey’s thumb, for a minute, and I had to do the record like that.
I remember your first gig back at the 55 Bar, and your attack was a bit choppy. On Trip none of that is present. How were you able to control that?
When you’re recording, you’re sitting down and you can do a couple of takes. When it’s live, if you drop your pick, then it’s over. It’s not like you can go “take two,” because the pick is sliding. The recording was a little easier in that regard, but it also came out a lot better than I thought. I’d go back into the control room and say, “That feels like shit,” and then I listened back and went, “Wow, that’s a lot more happening than I thought.” So, I was able to get through it pretty good, and I was happy with how it all came out. You know the choppiness? That’s not a bad thing necessarily, if it’s in the groove, and if you get your ideas out. And there was always a little because I pick every note.
Did you do a lot of takes?
I had to fix a little bit, but as little as possible. I like to do everything live and get a good take. It was more just sitting down and not feeling like this is the only take I could do. That makes you relax a little more. I like to keep my live stuff, mistakes and all.
Did you overdub parts or do complete passes?
I did complete passes.
Not just phrase by phrase?
Oh, no way. I don’t know how to fuckin’ do that. I used to do a little bit of that way back in the day, or if something bad happened with the sound. But for years, I’d just go for the basic solo, and if there’s anything that I want to fix later, I’ll fix it, but as little as possible. I mean, there’s no other way to capture the interaction that happens, especially with drums, the rhythm section, and the soloist. Unless you’re doing something where it’s really freeze-dried, like where the drums just play a part or it’s not so interactive. Then it doesn’t matter. But I like a lot of interaction, even on a ballad.
There are some spots on the album, like the solo in “Screws,” or at the outro of “Trip,” where you go nuts and play super fast and aggressively. Even moreso than you have on recent albums. Did you feel like you had to prove to yourself that you could still do it?
Maybe a little. I think also some of the tunes I’d written have some of that kind of energy. I like to play for the tune. Like if it’s a song like “Gone,” the acoustic guitar piece where it’s a lot slower and more lyrical.