NO RULES: A Personal Interview with Guitarist Stratakat
by Jami Mills, rez magazine.
George Beauchamp and Stratakat have never met, but they would have been in awe of one another. Back in 1931, Beauchamp did Stratakat a huge favor by developing the first successful electric guitar and launching the electRO-PATin-Instrument Company with Adolph Rickenbacker (yes, *that* Rickenbacker) a year later. And just imagine the look on Beauchamp’s face if he could have heard what Stratakat has done with his nifty invention. Of course, we should also tip our hats to Les Paul, who created the first solid body electric guitar, and we can’t forget Leo Fender, without whom Stratakat would have needed to choose another name.
For over 80 years, the electric guitar has transformed popular culture like few things have. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan had to beef up his security on stage to protect him from angry fans who found his switch to electric guitar blasphemous. The electric guitar has suffered a great deal of abuse over the years, being splintered into pieces, doused with lighter fluid, burned to ashes – all in the name of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Hendrix’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner, complete with screaming feedback, was quite a shock at the time, but seems rather quaint now.
“He got the action, he got the motion… Oh, yeah, the boy can play”
Walk of Life, Dire Straits
Some critics have faulted the Yamaha musical teaching method for over-emphasizing technique, and we’ve all had to endure well-meaning and undeniably passionate players who sorely lack the minimal skills to make their music listenable. As with all the arts though, when technique is blended with passion, something special – something transcendent – happens. And it happens every time Stratakat straps on his guitar and hits the stage. Oh, yeah, the boy can play!
Jami Mills: Strat, thank you for taking time out of your busy day to meet with me for this chat. Our readers are going to enjoy this opportunity to get to know you a little better, the man behind the mythic name. When you slip your guitar over your shoulder, you go to another place, don’t you? You’ve mentioned it in your concerts. You’ve ended songs out of breath and disoriented. Music transports you. Where does it take you?
Stratkat: That is a very good question. I often ask myself the same thing. What’s amazing is that when I get into this trance-like deal, these notes come flowing off my fingers, and I sometimes don’t even remember what I’ve played until I go back and listen to it. Then I think, “Where the heck were my fingers when I did that?” No doubt I get into a thing that we call the zone! The zone is where I AM the music, completely – – mentally, spiritually, and obviously physically.
I learned a long time ago that you learn as much as you can about theory and then you forget it all and just play by ear. I love that when I’m playing music, all the stress and troubles of RL are completely gone from my mind, so it’s like meditation to me. And it’s been years since I’ve had the opportunity to play to an audience that appreciates improvisation. I’m able to get moved to that place and share it. I have to say, it is the spirits and souls out there listening to me that take me deeper and deeper into that zone. But where is it actually? I have no idea, but I sure like the results.
JM: For those of our readers who haven’t yet had the good fortune to have heard you live in SL, you bring a jaw-dropping technical command of your instrument, mix it up with Funk, Rock and Jazz, and just let your raw emotions flow through it all. Let’s start with how you got so damn good. When did you start playing guitar and how has your playing has evolved over the years?
SK: Funny as it is, I have always loved the guitar as far back as I can remember. I was nine years old, onstage, singing and pretending to play guitar. In those days people used to have cigar boxes, so my dad made a pretend guitar out of a cigar-box. I was in 3rd grade up onstage singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and also “The Crooked Little Man.” One year later we were heading to England and we stopped at one of my dad’s uncle’s houses, and all the adults were sitting around playing guitar. When they were done I asked if I could play guitar and he said yeah. They were in the other room and within a few minutes I had figured out how to play a song called “Walking the Strings” and another song called “Hava Nagila.” They all came in and asked, “How did you do that?” I only learned the melody, so I guess I’ve always been drawn to melody… a great melody is always great.
When I was 13, I could play better than any other 13-year-old I knew, but by the time I was 15, I had gotten bored with guitar, as I could only keep playing the same old stuff. I still played around with a guitar, but I had lost that drive. But then a year later, at 16, I met a guy who was 17 who played guitar really well. He showed me the blues scale and the blues progression. He knew a bunch of Led Zeppelin and Hendrix songs and showed all those to me. We sat around all summer and all we did was play guitar for like 18 hours a day for three months. I remember playing “All Along the Watchtower” for hours on end.
It was after that summer I realized all I wanted to do was play guitar, but I couldn’t seem to learn what music was. I found out years later, that only 30 miles away in Santa Barbara was a guitar player named Joe Pass. And he was teaching at a little music store there. If only my parents could have taken me to ONE lesson with him. But back then only a handful of people knew who he was, yet he ended up being one of the most celebrated jazz guitar players ever. Only he was straight ahead pure jazz, not Hendrix stuff, but still, if only I could have met him when I was 13 or so. It’s a huge word, that word “IF.”
When I was 19 I moved to Ohio and found this little jazz school where I was able to finally study jazz with a bass player who used to play bass for Wes Montgomery. He was so strict. I remember the first lesson; he made me memorize my 1, 3, 5, 7 in all 12 keys. I came back the next week and he says, “Okay, so what is the 1, 3, 5 of A flat. I said “Well, I’m not really sure but I’ll know it by next week.” He says “Nope, that’ll be $10. I’ll see you next week when you know it.” Needless to say, the next week I knew 1, 3, 5, 7 in all 12 keys and still know them to this day.
Because I couldn’t afford to go to music school, I joined the Army so I could get the GI Bill and get my college paid for. And that’s what I did. I did my time and then went straight back to Columbus, Ohio and started on my degree in Jazz Guitar, where I got straight As. With one semester left to get my bachelors in jazz performance, I left college for a very strange reason. I didn’t think that having a piece of paper that said I was a Jazz guitar player meant anything if I couldn’t play jazz the way I felt it should be played. I needed to have real experience. This is where I started my journey of paying my dues so I could let my playing say I was a Guitar Player. I learned a ton in college, but it was a very difficult time for me, as I didn’t have any money or any family. All I had was a handful of friends that were just a broke as me, but it gave me a grounded starting point to continue learning.
From there, I went on to start a band called “Third Planet” and I continued playing in bands for the next 20 years until I was about 40. It was then that I got into writing software and started buying CDs from everybody. I have over 850 CDs of over 650 different guitar players. Anyone and everyone who played guitar that I could find, I have their CD. I loaded all those songs into my computer and while I sat and wrote code/software, sometimes 18 to 20 hours a day, I’d put my music player on random and listen to these songs over and over and over.
And now that I’ve found Second Life, I have a way-cool reason to learn even more. I hope this didn’t bore you too much. There is more, but I’ve got to stop somewhere.
He stopped the music and looked at me and asked, “Why the hell are you taking guitar lessons?”
JM: On the contrary. That’s a fascinating story. You certainly seem driven by something within. Many musicians have someone who has profoundly affected them, maybe inspired them to not only pick up an instrument, but to master it. Is there such a figure for you?
SK: When I would listen to other guitarists, I started to realize, “Wow, there’s nothing these guys are doing that I can’t do,” except for one guy. One guy’s guitar playing stood out from that whole group of 800+ CDs, and I thought, “What the heck is he doing?” He was doing stuff that seemed physically impossible to me. (Hehe, it’s some of the same stuff I do today, thanks to his help.) I thought, “You know what? Maybe I should take a guitar lesson to see if I still have it – or maybe I should just quit thinking about guitar all together.” I was 49 years old and I wanted to go back to school, but I wanted to learn from the very best. If I could study from one person out this group of guitar players, who would it be?
Well, it had to be that one guy whose playing I could never figure out – – Greg Howe. I figured he’s just way too famous, playing with Michael Jackson, NSYNC, Justin Timberlake, and Enrique Iglesias. There was no way this guy would ever teach guitar, but I went to look him up anyway, found his website www.greghowe.com , and right across the top it said “Guitar Lessons.” I couldn’t believe it. I called and asked if it was true (did he really give guitar lessons?) and his manager answered, “Absolutely!” So I asked her what he charged, and she said “Well, it’s $75 an hour unless you take two or more hours and then it’s $50.” I said, “Okay, I’ll take eight hours.” She replied, “Oh, I don’t know. If you do, do you mean like over four days?” I told her, “No, I mean all in one day” and set up a time to fly out to Pennsylvania for an eight-hour lesson.
We sat there and talked for a few minutes and it was like I knew this guy my whole life. I remember seeing him in Guitar Player magazine in the late 80s holding that Fender Stratocaster, as he was the icon of Fender back then. We went down to his studio to take my lesson, he puts on some music. He soloed a little, then I soloed a little, and he soloed, then me. We played for about 10 minutes, he stopped the music and looked at me and asked, “Why the hell are you taking guitar lessons?” I’ll never forget how bad I felt. I asked him, “Really, am I that bad?” He said, “Are you kidding me? You play some of the coolest jazz bebop lines I’ve ever heard. You don’t need lessons, you just need to play.” I explained to him that I had all these CDs and I’d been studying all my life. I majored in jazz guitar in college, but he was able to do things that I couldn’t figure out, things that seemed to be impossible. He laughed and said, “I know what you’re talking about. You’re talking about my hammer-ons from nowhere.” And he played a few of them and that is exactly what I was talking about. It took me about two years to be able to play them once he showed me. So I felt like a kid who went back to school. It really put the fire back in my life for playing guitar. Needless to say, Greg Howe has been the biggest influence in my life when it comes to putting the icing on the cake, so to speak. He also reminded me that my blues licks are the heart of any good solo. And the blues is as American as any music ever created. I truly owe my playing progress over the last eight years to Greg! I got to study with the best guitar player on the planet, and it was kind of like getting my doctorate degree in fusion guitar. And I’m just getting started.
I grew up on Jimi Hendrix and graduated to Greg Howe, so really every song to me is just a canvas for me to throw paint at – and I paint with notes.
JM: Most of your material is instrumental, although you throw some vocals in your sets from time to time. I overheard one listener say, “Who needs vocals when you can play like that?” You’d better have your chops together to carry an entire set instrumentally. Our friend Voodoo Shilton can do it, but I’m struggling to think of many more who can. How do you like to use vocals in your music?
SK: Actually I use vocals more for an effect than to try to display any type of singing talent because I honestly don’t think I have any singing talent whatsoever; that’s why I learned to play guitar, so I didn’t have to sing (laughs). Although in college I did have to take a bunch of formal vocal lessons and if I really put my mind to it, I can do some pretty strange things with my voice. The thing I like to do the most is “scat.” That’s where basically I play bebop sounds with the same notes I’m playing on the guitar (or I try to) – – kind of like what George Benson made famous back in the 70s. And I think as I do this more often, you’ll hear a lot more scat singing when I do my jazz stuff. But real singing? I’m going to leave that for the people who use their voice as their instrument.
JM: Now I want you to promise not to hold back on me. Our readers are very sophisticated and always want to know about the technical aspects of your performances: guitars, amps, pedals, mics, effects, manufacturers, etc. Please describe your rig and feel free to totally geek out.
SK: It’s actually kind of funny. There was a time when I had every pedal and every geeky effect that you could ever want, but while taking my lessons with Greg Howe, I brought my cool little pedal box and I plugged it in and Greg played his guitar straight to the app with a microphone in front of the speaker – – no effects (okay maybe a little delay).
And Greg proved to me that there is no better tone than a guitar straight to the amp. Now that may seem a little funny, but that’s really all I do — play the guitar straight to the amp. Something about moving air and capturing that with a microphone, there is still no electronic gadget that sounds as good as a guitar mic’d straight to a good amp, and when you’re a guitar purist, that’s the sound and tone we all shoot for. I have another cabinet showing up pretty soon, so my tone should get a little bit better. I just bought something called an ISO cab. It’s where the microphone and speaker are enclosed and I can turn it up without waking up the neighbors. Basically, I use a little bit of delay, tiny bit of reverb and the rest is all guitar.
JM: My favorite song of yours is your powerful arrangement of The Pump, by Jeff Beck. I know most guitarists don’t want to be considered in the same breath as Beck, but after listening to both of your versions back to back, Beck’s version seems rather subdued compared to yours. Your arrangement is more like the bruising version by Steve Lukather (of Toto fame) and jazz great, Larry Carlton. Please describe how you incorporate your jazz sensibilities into power rock tunes.
SK: I really don’t know where to start to answer this question. There are so many great guitar players and I think at some point in time, you learn all you can and then you just play. I got to study from one of Hollywood’s greatest composers, a guy named Dick Grove. Dick Grove proved to us that with a little bit of thought and some rhythmic creativity, any note can go to any other note, any chord can go from any chord to any other chord; so I seem to have this inborn theory that there are no rules. I grew up on Jimi Hendrix and graduated to Greg Howe, so really every song to me is just a canvas for me to throw paint at – and I paint with notes. I love doing the unexpected as often as I can, and my paints are many and colorful. (Notes that is)… probably too many notes. But it sure is fun.
I’m there to create, not play the same thing over and over; and with that, there may be a questionable note here and there, but there should also be some moments that make you think “H**y S**t! What was that?”
JM: Greg produced your first CD, No Rules. You self-financed the entire project, but this is the part I want everyone to know about: you’re giving away the CD on your website www.stratakat.com. It doesn’t get any purer than that. People are on the honor system to donate what they can afford. I’d like to encourage all of our readers to check out this CD and, if they like it, make a generous contribution to your musical devotion. You mention that it took you seven years to make No Rules a reality. How much fun was it to make it?
SK: I can’t tell you in words what making this CD was like, but I’ll try. Greg is just one amazing human being. He has become one of my very best friends. We may not talk to each other for three or six months, then we’ll talk every day for three weeks. The most fun was looking forward to making the CD and every chance I got to work on it, I’d take it. Greg was and is a very busy man, so I was totally on his schedule. As it started to come to an end, it was almost sad, as I didn’t have those days when we would be getting together in my near future. But I learned SO much from creating this project. I had no idea how guys would transfer their playing skills into songs. And I was able to see it first hand — not only how a master player like Greg played, but how he created the canvases of sound to play over. It will go down as one of the most special accomplishments in my life. Even when I finish the next CD, it will not compare to the ‘No Rules’ project. And it really does stand for its title, as I truly play with no rules and the songs have no set style or genre they follow. I just hope people hear the passion and devotion to guitar and music I hold in my heart.
JM: Some of your sets seem like one long dream, where the solo isn’t a portion of the song, it IS the song. You love improvisation.
SK: When I learned to play, it was all about being able to play the solos of the song. And the solos were always way too short for my liking. Then I learned jazz – and jazz is all about creating a NEW melody over the chords of the song. So now I get to play a solo for the whole song, if I choose. Like I said in my show last night, “I feel as a jazz musician, I have the authority to play the melody or not play the melody.” And that makes what I do very special, even to me. I just hope my audience gets that aspect of my playing. I’m there to create, not play the same thing over and over; and with that, there may be a questionable note here and there, but there should also be some moments that make you think “H**y S**t! What was that?” I know I do. I loved every note and mistake Jimi Hendrix ever played. I like to just utilize every style to express things that are new. I’m pretty sure no other guitar player on the planet is playing an instrumental version of “Atomic Dog.” Okay, maybe, but none that I’ve ever heard.
JM: There have been many technically astounding guitarists. Al Dimeola, Johnny Winter, Joe Satriani (listen to his Flight of the Bumblebee sometime). But while technique can be dazzling sometimes, it can often lead to an emotional disconnect with the listener. Your technical skills are so outstanding, how do you make sure you maintain that emotional connection?
Greg once told me, “Strat, you have more chops than Joe will ever have, but you need to learn to control them.”
SK: Well, this is a GREAT question. I’m not so sure I do connect as much as I hope to. I would think I use the technical aspect of my playing for FX more than just the total sound, and I really do think in melodic terms, as in a song like “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure. I’ve always loved that song, and when I play that melody, I’m feeling it as if I’m singing the lyrics. When it gets to the part where the lyrics are saying “I’ll run away with you,” I know (hope) every person listening is hearing the words in their heads. If I do actually connect as you are suggesting, I would hope it’s because of the melodic approach I apply to every song – that and the Tension/Release I alluded to above. I hope to GRIND, grind, grind on your nerves. Then just when you think “Okay, I’ve had enough of this,” I release that into something very inside musically and soothing to your ear. I know I’m still working on that a lot.
I can name a thousand players on YouTube and in recordings that play faster than me and have way more technique that I’ll ever have. I know of an 11-year old girl that outplays me, but there is one thing I never, ever totally move away from, and that’s the Blues. I throw in Blues notes in places you just wouldn’t expect, and it’s such a familiar sound that can be both tension and release in the same one note. I also love every musician and guitar player on the planet. I learn from the kid who’s been playing for three months, and the guys that have been playing their whole lives. I love every style of music and every note that’s ever been played. I spent a whole chapter (okay, about three months) studying Dixie and redneck music, just for the fast staccato vibe that they possess. You mentioned Al and Johnny. I used to spend days upon days playing just one lick from them and of all the guys you actually mentioned, Johnny Winters was my all-time favorite back when I was like 15, as he played so fast and furious, but also never strayed from the Blues. It’s no doubt the reason I have to work so hard outside of music, as I was broke all my life until I put down the guitar in 1997 to learn computer programming.
I really thought I would never ever play guitar again, but what happened was I made enough money to buy every CD from every player I could find. It was then that I realized I was just getting started, and now I look at Johnny and Al as peers (well, sort of – they’ll always be my idols). Now that’s exciting! Greg once told me, “Strat, you have more chops than Joe will ever have, but you need to learn to control them.” And that’s what I’m doing now, and SL is totally giving me the opportunity to learn to control something that I thought was lost. When I went out to take that lesson from Greg, there was barely the spark of a flame left for music, and he totally poured pure high-octane gasoline on that flame. Now I wish I could quit programming and just play guitar, but through all the dreams I’m still a realist and I’m just glad and feel privileged to be able to play guitar. The honor is always mine when I do get the opportunity to play.
JM: Are there any musical areas you haven’t explored yet but yearn to? You are working on your second CD now. What direction are you going to take in it? What’s next for Stratakat?
SK: Tough question! Of course, I have still never toured overseas or been able to enjoy sharing this gift with those in South America, Europe, Australia, Russia, Japan, China… all over. But with SL, I just may be able to get to that dream, and all from the comfort of my home studio. I would LOVE to put together a big band, with horns, sax section, trombones, and a full rhythm section, and be able to blow Hendrix/Satriani-style solos with that kind of a band. I’ve always wanted to score some movies, and a TV show like CSI. I would love to score that show. I know I’ll be lucky to be able to play another ten years at this level, so I also know my time is coming to an end soon. So as I said earlier, if I were to be sent into the afterlife today, I’ve had a great ride.
As for my second CD, I’m really not sure how I’m going to pull that off. The plan is to put out 33 songs. 11 will be Jazz Standards, Stratified to the HILT. 11 will be along the lines of the “No Rules” format, and the final 11 will be hopefully from a place I haven’t yet found, but if I don’t get the RL work thing balanced soon, it may just be a dream.
JM: What do you enjoy the most about your SL concerts? Is it difficult to bridge the virtual divide and connect with your audiences? It sure seems like it’s effortless for you, and I can assure you, your audiences are thoroughly enthralled with your performances.
SK: I have to say what I enjoy the most are the people, and how well I’ve been received, and right there with that is the freedom to play what’s in my heart. I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to improvise and solo and that’s all I do – I start a track and solo for several minutes. I read Voodoo saying, “Damn, Strat, you never seem to run out of ideas,” and I have to say there are nights I feel like I’m doing just that. But then I hear it back and think “Where the hell were my fingers on that lick or that phrase?”
The people here in SL have made me feel so at home, I’m actually a bit sad that I don’t get to spend more time here talking and hanging with everyone, but I hope they understand that I have such a full life outside of SL that it truly is amazing that I get to play here at all. I’m really praying and working as hard as I can to get more and more time to play here. I want shows in all time zones, too. I just played for the Australian time zone and I thought it was a bit over the top for them, but when I was done, I guess they got it and wanted more, but 2:00 a.m. is a bit tough when you have to get up at 4:30 the next day. So it’s on my thoughts daily. “How can I JUST play guitar?” I know we’ve all paid our dues in one way or another, but I really didn’t think I would be where I am today. Nothing pleases me more than playing guitar, but believe it or not, very, very few people in my RL have a clue I play at all. It’s really quite sad, and even funny. I’m praying that will change soon!
JM: Thank you for this wonderful interview, Strat. This might be the most honest, heartfelt interview I’ve ever had. I thank you so much for opening your heart and soul to our readers. You brought to this interview the same personal intensity you bring to each of your performances. Thank you so very much for that. Before we leave, is there anything you’d like to share with our readers about what it takes to be a Stratakat?
SK: Actually, I’ve probably said too much here already. I can’t thank you enough for finding what I do something you feel will be interesting to the rez readers. If I could request one thing, it would be to ask everyone to please get my CD and share it with everyone you know. I’m more interested in pointing people to the great players of our era, like Scott Henderson, Greg Howe, Alan Holdsworth. And if my crazy style and NO RULES approach can shed a little light on other great players, then I’m doing all I can to help use music as a way to keep people thinking positively. Then everyone will be able to be a total Stratakat, loving the music that is made from a Stratocaster.
Thank you Leo Fender, you’ve made my life worth living. And thank you, Jami. I hope I didn’t bore anyone.
Second Life photographs by Jami Mills.
rez magazine, May 2012.