Dave Stryker and I met at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble bookstore in Manhattan. I was thrilled to meet this amazing guitarist, whose distinctive personal writing style and soulful blend of blues and jazz has gained him recognition as one of the most unique guitarists of our time. Genuine and forthcoming, he talked about his beginnings as a guitar player, his personal approach to playing jazz, and his upcoming live recording at the Jazz Standard. JAZZREVIEW
: When did you start playing guitar? DAVE STRYKER
: I started playing guitar in Omaha, Nebraska, when I was about 10. I started taking lessons I was into the Beatles. I had an older sister who was about 5 years older than me and she had all the 45s of the Beatles and all the stuff that was going on then, like the Rolling Stones. I started taking lessons when I was pretty young, 10 years old. By the time I was 12, I started playing in rock bands and playing gigs. So I’ve been doing it my whole life. When I got in high school, I was pretty good, and I was into the Allman Brothers, and started getting more into the blues and improvisation. I went to a jam session at the Union Hall in Omaha and there were some guys there who were playing some jazz tunes like Song for My Father
by Horace Silver. And I sat in and I thought I was pretty hot. And afterwards, one of the guys said to me, "You can’t be playing those Duane Allman licks over those chords." And that was the first time that someone ever called me on it. So I went to a record store and said, "What’s this jazz I keep hearing about?" The guy pointed me to some records, and I picked up a Coltrane record and a George Benson record. And from there, with all the guys I was playing with, we started jamming and trying to learn some jazz.
I went to some Jamie Aebersold Camps when I was 16. And I started listening to records a lot and that’s how I learned how to play, from listening to records like Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino and Grant Green. I started studying with this guitarist named Billy Rogers, who was from Omaha, who had gone out to L.A. and made a name for himself playing with the Crusaders. He was a really dynamite guitarist who was a big influence on me. So I moved out to L.A in 1978. I had been playing in Omaha a lot in a band that played rock music. Then I was getting better and writing my own music and playing some jazz gigs.
I went out to L.A. because I didn’t know anyone in New York. So I went out to LA and I knew Billy Rogers and another guy from Omaha, organist John Maller. I paid my dues out there and played some organ trios gigs and then went to visit a friend in Manhattan in 1980. I came to check it out and thought I was going to be here 2 weeks and ended up staying 4 months. Once I came here and saw the scene, I knew this is where I needed to be. Compared to L.A., which was all spread out and no real scene, you come here and there are all these great clubs and great players. So that’s how I made it to New York. JAZZREVIEW
: Who were your influences when you were starting out and how have they changed? DAVE STRYKER
: One guy who really had an impact on me was guitarist Grant Green, a very soulful player, and who still has a great impact on me. Wes Montgomery. I like the soulful guys like him. This guy Pat Martino was a big influence, because he was very fiery. I didn’t want to play sleepy-jazz. Pat Martino had a very forward-moving, kick-ass kind of style, really burning. I gravitated toward that. I don’t listen to those guys so much anymore. Now, I’ve been getting my own thing going from my writing and playing with different projects, putting myself in different situations, which helps me to create something new.
Once in a while, I will transcribe a McCoy Tyner solo. In fact, transcribing a McCoy Tyner Solo, or a Coltrane solo or a Woody Shaw solo or any great horn players and then putting it onto the guitar gives you a unique approach that you wouldn’t have thought of if you’re just listening to guitar players. I still do that, but more and more I find myself trying to write music and spend a lot of time trying to get gigs and make things happen. I have a couple groups sometimes I can work with Trio Mundo, which is a world music group I have, and another group I have is Blue to the Bone, and last week I played with an organ trio that I’m starting up. My main group is a quartet with Steve Slagle: The Stryker/Slagle Band. JAZZREVIEW
: How did you meet Steve Slagle and how did your collaboration start? DAVE STRYKER
: Steve and I met in 1985. When I first came to New York, I got a gig with this organ player named Brother Jack McDuff. He was a real soulful organ player. That was a big break for me back then. We went on the road, and when we weren’t on the road, we played up at this place in Harlem called Dude’s Lounge from 10-4 in the morning. He was the old school, and there’s really not too much of that around anymore, which was really a great experience.
I had met McDuff in LA when I lived there at a place called Jimmy Smiths’ supper club, and he told me when I came to New York to see him. I came to New York in 1980’s and went to Lickety-Split in Harlem and sat in with him. He didn’t have a guitar player in the band at the time, but Steve Slagle was in the band. So that’s the first time I had heard of Steve. So we just started playing together - the first gig we played was at a place called Pat’s Lounge on 23rd Street - and we’ve been playing going on 18 years. There have been a lot of different projects and bands. We’ve each made our own records, but a lot of times we collaborate. I play on his records, and he plays on mine. JAZZREVIEW
: Do you write together as well? DAVE STRYKER
: We have. A lot of times, he writes things and I write things and we offer suggestions. We’ve collaborated on some tunes. It’s good to have that partnership, it’s something different that a lot of people don’t have. We can travel together and go to London and Canada and Japan. As long as the two of us are there, the music is pretty tight if we can get the local bass and drummer that are the hot guys in town. JAZZREVIEW
: Are you doing any recordings in the future? DAVE STRYKER
: Right now we’re going to do a live record at the Jazz Standard on March 2nd and 3rd. We have a new quartet with Ed Howard on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. Victor is from Omaha. He was already here playing in New York when I was still in high school in Omaha. He was here playing with Dexter Gordon and Woody Shaw. He played on a record of mine in 1990. I’ve never done a live record. I’ve done a lot of live recordings, but never tried to make a live record. Also I have a record coming out (Big City) on the Mel Bay Guitar Sessions label. Mel Bay is a publishing company and they’ve been putting out guitar books forever. They started a label and I recorded with some of my favorite musicians: David Kikoski, a great pianist, and the same bassist and drummer Ed Howard and Victor Lewis. And that’s coming out in June. And the Stryker/Slagle Band record will be coming out in October 2005 on Zoho Music. JAZZREVIEW
: Is there a specific guitar that you prefer to use on your gigs? DAVE STRYKER
: I have been playing the Gibson-347 for a long time. I use it on most of my records. I think I decided a long time ago, when I first started making records, to try to get a different sound, something of my own, instead of the classic jazz guitar hollow-body sound, so that’s why I play this particular guitar. It just feels good and sounds like me. JAZZREVIEW
: Can you describe how you prepare for a recording? DAVE STRYKER
: I’ve been very fortunate to get to make so many records. Back in the 80’s it was even harder to get a record made. Luckily, I ended up getting picked up by a Danish label called SteepleChase, a small jazz label. Nils Winther, the producer there, got behind me. I’ve made a record a year since then, as well as other projects for other labels. There’s a certain amount of planning involved, regarding who’s going to be on the record, and what direction I am going in. This record will be my 18th record as a leader. So the first thing I do is figure out who I am going to play with and what material I am going to do. My writing is a lot of times as big a part of what I’m trying to say as my playing. If I get a drummer like Billy Hart or Victor Lewis or Adam Nussbaum, I’ll think of the way they play and what would they sound good on. Recently I did a record (Shades Beyond/SteepleChase) with Lenny White, one of my heroes, and so I wrote music thinking of how he plays. So that when we go in the studio, it’s easy. I don’t want to make it hard. That’s what I do ahead of time. I do rough demos of the tunes sometimes. I have a little 8-track machine in my studio at home, and I have an electric bass and drum machine, and I’ll write the music that way and write out the music and send it to the guys.
When we go into the studio, almost all my records have been live-to-2-track. You go in and play and try to capture the magic. There’s no over-dubbing. They just roll the tape. In New York they have a handful of engineers who can do this, they know how to mic the stuff and you just go in and capture it. I do the preparation ahead of time; hopefully do some gigs with the guys and sometimes it will be a working band. Have the music ready, and then we go in and do it in a few hours. We can do 8 tunes in 4 hours. JAZZREVIEW
: How many takes do you record for each song? DAVE STRYKER
: Usually the first take is the best for me. I think a lot of jazz guys are this way. If I keep trying to do it, it gets worse and worse. On my next CD, we did 7 tunes, and 3 of them were one take only. It took me a while to get there. When I first started, I was obsessed with every note I played. But that’s my voice on there, so I’m not gonna obsess. You just gotta go for it. JAZZREVIEW
: What advice would you give to guitar players who are starting out? DAVE STRYKER
: My suggestion is to listen to records. Which seems kind of obvious, but I think a lot of people, with all the jazz education out there, are trying to learn the correct scales to play over which chords, which you have to know. But really, the way that the music has been passed down from generation to generation is an oral tradition.
Back in the old days, Charlie Parker listened to who came before him, and Wes Montgomery listened to Charlie Christian who came before him, and people listened to Wes Montgomery, and so on. It’s still the most important way to learn how to play - to listen to records and to transcribe it and figure out how to play it. I have my students listen to people like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. That’s how I learned. I listened to one song on a Wes Montgomery record over and over until I could sing and play it.
By doing that you start building up your own vocabulary. That’s how it worked for me. You don’t want to be a copycat, but I think if you learn how other people do things, you can take a little bit from everybody and bring in your own thing, and that’s how you can get your own sound going. JAZZREVIEW
: Do you have any words of advice for aspiring musicians? DAVE STRYKER
: If you love what you’re doing and you work at it then eventually your own voice will come through. What’s inside of you will come out. You just have to stick with it and not get discouraged. That’s what so great about jazz music. You have to get it so that it’s in the moment. You try to take it to that level where you’re creating melodies and sometimes the magic happens. When you have one of those good nights, there’s nothing like it.
There are a lot of people out there that don’t have that outlet. When you get out there and do your thing, you’re lucky. It’s exciting playing jazz, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Anything can happen. It’s a cool feeling, there’s nothing like it.
If you hang in there long enough, certain things will happen for you. It’s tough. You gotta keep a positive attitude. There are so many musicians in New York. If you’re here in New York doing it, you have something to say. It’s easy to get discouraged, but you have to just realize that you’re in where all the heavies are. If you put your stuff out there, let the chips fall where they may. JAZZREVIEW
: Did you always have that conviction and perseverance? DAVE STRYKER
: I was always pretty driven. Of course there was a bit of luck involved, but I was ready when I got the gig with Jack McDuff and with Stanley Turrentine. Those were big deals for me. Those were guys that I had grown up listening to. And all the guitarists that I admired had played with Jack McDuff. You’ve got to have a certain amount of guts to get up and do it. It’s easy to get discouraged and be dark. I try to stay positive and be glad for what I have, and what I hope to accomplish.
Dave Stryker will be recording a live CD with The Stryker/Slagle Band at the Jazz Standard on March 2 and 3. For more information, check out his website.