Stanley Jordan Interview: Jammin’ And Jazzin’

Technique. Some have it, and some don’t, right? Some guitarists don’t ever consider their technique in the least, they just pick up the guitar and let it happen. And then there are those players who have taken technique itself to such a high level, they can’t help but be noticed.

And so it was when Stanley Jordan burst on to the music scene in the mid-’80s, with his crazy two-handed tapping technique. It was plain and simply, unbelievable. And it was way beyond single string, rock ‘n’ roll trickery too.

But since then -- many might think -- Jordan faded into the dim recesses of jazzbo anonymity. Where has the man been who almost single-handedly revitalized the historic Blue Note label with his record-setting Magic Touch album in 1985.

Well, for a large part of the past decade, he’s been sitting in with just about every jam band he can find. That’s right, jam bands. Like String Cheese Incident. Like moe. Like Dave Matthews. Like Umphrey’s McGee. Jordan has repeatedly shared stages with all of them, just, jammin’, in front of tens of thousands of more than amazed audiences, in many cases..

So now he’s got a pretty cool thing going on: jazz dude by day, jam dude by night -- or whenever there’s a major festival stage to share. On the jazz side, he just released Duets (March 23) with Kevin Eubanks -- the former Jay Leno bandleader. And on the jam band side, well, don’t be surprised if he pops up on stage at Bonnaroo in Tennessee in June, or at the Sweetwater Fest in Atlanta in April

In this exclusive interview, Jordan speaks with us about his impeccable tone and the gear that gets it right. He also discusses jamming with all the above mentioned groups, and how that all came down. And then he fills us in on his latest journeys as a student of music therapy.

Read on:

Jordan: Hello this is Stanley. Hey Stanley, it's Adam. So what do you have going on these days? How is your new album coming along?

Jordan: Coming along great. Actually, there's two things, because Kevin Eubanks and I recorded an album [that just came out March 23, 2015 on Mack Avenue Records]. It’s called Duets. And then I'm also working on an album with some guest artists, and it's gonna come out in August.

I've got some great guests on it so far. It's a little early to confirm who all of them are, but guitar-wise, I feel like I'm in a good place with my sound. And I just finished recording a project with Charnett Moffett. His next album is gonna be released sometime this Spring, and I'm a guest on that.

So we were in the studio and I was really pleased with how my guitar was sounding when we were recording. Basically I'm using some nice preamps and effects and stuff, and just really dialing in the right settings. You work on something for years and there's still more to do, you know (laughs).

Stanley Jordan and Kevin Eubanks Perform “Morning Sun” from Duets I sure do know. It never ends. The search for the perfect tone never ends, does it?

Jordan: Yeah. What kind of preamps are you using?

Jordan: The preamp is a Focusrite ISA 430 MkII. I had tried that a couple years ago at the NAMM show and I really liked it. It was real clear and the compression was great. I have a lot of difficulty working with compression. And what I decided is  that the compressor needs to cost at least $1,500. That's what I figured out, because basically with the technique that I use, the touch technique, sometimes the dynamics can be a little bit challenging. And some of the reasons are high-tech having to do with the physics of the vibration.

When you're playing with a pick, or fingerpicking, you're actually putting two waves into the string, because you excite it in the middle so the wave travels in both directions. It's actually two waves in the string, which means that the signal the guitar puts out is very robust. It has a lot of protection against weird audio effects like masking. Let's say one of its phase signals get's masked out. The other one will probably still come through because it's a different phase.

So the instrument tends to be pretty revealing as far as whatever all the things are that are going on in the mix. Whereas when you do a hammer-on, the vibration is starting from one side of the string, so there's only one vibration in the string. So it's a simpler tone and vibrational pattern, and I love that tone. I really love that tone. But it also means that you're more vulnerable to things that might happen, like, let's say it goes into phase with some other note, and it sort of disappears. And then there's no other backup behind it. So then what can happen is, if you turn up your volume to eliminate that kind of problem, then you can turn it up too high, and then the slightest little movement of your fingers can come out too loud.

So then you start thinking you need to use a compressor, and then you start putting compression on it. And I find that most compressors change the attack. It messes up the attack more than you would get with a normal guitar. The attack (of the touch technique) is really different because you don't get the pick noise. Normally we're accustomed to hearing the pick noise at the beginning of the note. So there's a certain amount of time that has to pass before the pitch begins. So we're accustomed to hearing a certain delay on the pitch of a guitar, whereas with the touch technique, you don't have that delay. It's instant. Plus with the purity of tone, it has really unique, almost spooky audio properties.

The last album I did, the Friends album (2011), the engineer, Todd Whitelock, made an interesting comment. He said, "Your sound is really interesting to mix because it comes off faster than the other sounds. It actually comes out faster, and so when I mix it, I have to take that into account."

And it's just because of the audio properties of the sound itself. So a conventional compressor is not fast enough to handle that kind of an attack without messing it up somehow. I find that most of the time with compression on guitar the tone can sound kind of artificial. It can make it sound plastic or something. It's not keeping up with that attack because it's sort of an unprecedented kind of signal that audio engineers aren't usually having to take into account.

But I find that with the Focusrite preamp and compressor, I can still maintain the tone and attack of the guitar, but at the same time I can put a light amount of compression on it, so that I can just ping the parts that are challenging in a mix, without getting rid of the dynamics of my playing.

So that was one thing, getting that Focusrite in there. That really helped. And then I can put just a light amount of EQ on it, and depending on the situation, that can be really helpful. And the other thing is, for my effects, I’m using a Lexicon PCM96 Surround.

With that I get the high quality reverbs and delays. Usually I put it on a pretty subtle setting, although I'm thinking about getting a little bit more radical with that stuff. I used to use it a lot. I used to do a lot of performances where I would crank up the delays, and I would set up these cascading delays, and then using the touch technique, plus all the delays, I could create these big sound pockets.

Stanley Jordan Performs “Eleanor Rigby” at NAMM 2015


Then when I sort of joined the conservative working world, and I had to think about my image as a jazz guitarist, I thought, "Let me keep it simple." And I just focused on the guitar, and not as much with effects. And it's funny because one time I was doing this show, and at one point in the middle of the show I had this feeling like I wanted to turn up the delay.

So I did for about a minute, I turned the delay up and I played off the repeats, and I hadn't done that in years. And for whatever reason it wasn't working. So I turned it off again. So it was only for that one minute that I did it.

And then after the show some guy said, "My friend said that you don't really play all that stuff, you just use delays." And I said, "No, I was really playing all that." And he said, "Well there was one point in the show where my friend said, 'See, right now, he's using a delay right now.'" And I said, "Yeah, OK, I did for like one minute." (laughs)

So it's so stupid because in just that one minute, in this guy's mind, it invalidated all of the other stuff I played, which is actually the reason why I wasn't messing around with heavy effects.

At this point I'm just really done with caring. At this point, I just want to make music, and I just want to make whatever music I hear in my head. By this point the people who don't know that I can do that stuff without delays, if they haven't found out, I can't wait. So I'm probably going to be doing some more extreme things, and also doing some more things with synths, and expanding my sound palette. I'm really looking forward to that. And some of that stuff is going to be on the next album that I'm working on now. So are you using the Focusrite live?

Jordan: Yeah, sometimes I do that. At some shows, for practical reasons, I don't bring all that equipment. But when I can, I've been bringing it to my live shows, as well as using it in the studio. It's really a challenge to bring all that equipment, especially by the time you get really protective cases and you're paying for a lot of excess and overweight and all that. But these days I'm traveling so much, I can't afford to leave stuff home and figure, "Well, next time I get off the road I will get into this piece of gear and that piece of gear."

Then I never end up getting into it. So I just decided that this is the stuff I want to use and it's worth it just to pay the expense of having it with me. So it's paid off in terms of being more happy with my sound in my shows. So what are you using live besides the Focusrite and the delay?

Jordan: Normally I don't use amps. If I do, I have a short list of amps that I'll use: a Mesa/Boogie or JCM-120 or a Vox AC30. The Vox AC30 has been my first choice these days. Or a Fender Twin. I play in so many places, and a lot of towns I'm playing in are small towns in some other country, so I try to be open to what people can pull together.

A lot of times I don't use an amp. I find that guitar amps were created to reproduce a range of frequencies that are commonly associated with guitar. There's a lot of mid-range in there. And a lot of times in a band, in sort of a typical rock band format -- and I mean that in a big sense, anything from surf to heavy metal -- the guitar is kind of responsible for those mids in the mix. And so it makes sense that it evolved that way.

But what I try to do in my solo shows is go for more of a full range sound. And so very often, instead of using amps on stage, I'll just play with stage monitors, and I'll go direct, line signal. I'll just send a line signal to the house, and then I'll put the line up in the monitors.

There's an exception to that, where that approach really doesn't work. One example is, let's say I'm sitting in with a group, maybe an acoustic group, or a big band where most of the instruments are acoustic. Then I should use an amp because in that case, every instrument is a point source (of sound), so I want to be a point source too, so that way I'll be more compatible. You can't have the trumpets here and the trombones there, and then the guitar is kind of everywhere (going through the PA). It doesn't really blend. So the amp makes me more compatible, and also it's going to give me those mids to help me cut through.

But most of the time, when I can get the sound right, especially when I'm soloing, I'm just playing direct, and I get that full fidelity sound, with the crisp highs and the deep lows. That's more what I'm going for. And with my solo shows, the guitar is kind of functioning like an orchestra, in a way. So I want to get that whole range.

And the other thing is, I will tend to not mic the amps on the stage. I put the amps there -- or monitors instead of amps -- pointed at the audience. I don't mic them, I just use them to fill in that middle (the middle of the physical stage, not the audio spectrum). A lot of times, when you go to a concert, the sound is coming from the mains, on left and right, or maybe above, or maybe there's some subs down below.

Stanley Jordan Plays “Sounds of Silence”


But in the middle it's kind of hit or miss, because whatever you hear coming off the stage is what you get in the middle. So I try to fill the middle with something that's aimed at the audience. I find that if I use wedge monitors, and I stand them up and point them toward the audience, and then I go out there and I sit and listen, I find it's a more pleasing sound.

A lot of times those sort of honky mid-ranges can really get in the way of the technique that I use. And a lot of times I don't notice it, because when I'm doing a soundcheck, the amp is below me, and so I'm out of the plane of those high frequencies. So if I really want to check it out I have to get down and listen at amp level and I have to go off into the first couple of rows and listen from there. And then I realize, 'Oh man, this is a little bit harsh."

And even when they supply amps for me, I end up going through the monitors anyway. In the past few years you've been sitting in with a lot of jam bands, like moe, and String Cheese Incident, and Dave Matthews. What are you using with those bands?

Jordan: Depending on the situation, sometimes there's not a lot of time to set up, or a lot of space available. Sometimes things will happen spontaneously: I might meet someone at a festival and they say, "Hey, come sit in with me in an hour." And so I'll bring the smallest set-up. In that case, I can get some good fidelity with the right stompboxes.

In that case I'll use a Boss DD-7 for my delay, and a tc electronic Hall of Fame reverb. And I also have this Fulltone overdrive box that I like a lot. It's the blue one. I forget the exact model number. It gives me a smooth distortion tone that works for me. Basically I go through those three pedals, and then I go through a high-quality DI. I have a stereo DI from Radial, and those are the ones with the big fat transformers inside. So it's just real simple, passive DI, with a transformer, and I get a nice sound.

I don't know if this kind of detail fits for your readers, but I find that certain components that often get overlooked can make a big difference in the sound. The detail is very much appreciated. It’s frustrating when we don’t know exactly which piece of gear is preferred by the players who inspire us. So you use these pedals when you’re sitting in with various artists, and you've been sitting in with a lot of people. How did all the jam band stuff happen?

Jordan: I just love to play with other people. I just love to jam. And I like a lot of different kinds of music, and a lot of times, when I'm doing my thing, we do what do, but it's interesting getting with other people, and going into their musical world, and seeing if I can enhance it somehow, if I can contribute something positive to it. So it's a lot of fun. And I always learn a lot doing that as well. I know you've played with them, but have you sat in with String Cheese Incident, for example, multiple times?

Jordan: Yes. I've sat in a lot of times with String Cheese. I've sat in with EOTO -- which is a side project of a couple of the members of String Cheese, when they do that project. And I sat in a lot of times with Umphrey's McGee. Those are great guys, and it's really an interesting band. You can't really classify them, and that's my favorite kind of band. So every time I play with them, it's different. Yeah, Umphrey's is part jam band, part progressive rock, they're kind of all over the place. It's cool.

Jordan: Uh-huh. And then you were out with classical guitarist Sharon Isbin not long ago, right?

Jordan: Yeah, Sharon Isbin and Romero Lubambo. We had an 18-city tour at the beginning of 2014, and one of the shows had to be postponed because of snow, so they moved it to November, and we ended up surrounding it with some other shows. So it was a nice get-back-together. We're talking about doing some more maybe this summer. Romero and I were both guests on Sharon's Guitar Passions album. That's how the whole thing evolved. And I know at NAMM you played with Muriel Anderson for her All Star Guitar Night event.

Jordan: Yes, that's right.

Stanley Jordan Plays with Muriel Anderson at All Star Guitar Night I've seen you at one of those. I see her here in Chicago frequently.

Jordan: Does she still do her annual thing there? Yes, she does play at her old high school -- where my kids now go -- every Thanksgiving. Did you guest with her here once? I know she's been doing it for about 25 years and always brings someone with her..

Jordan: Yes I did. So you live in Sedona, right?

Jordan: Yeah, I do, but I'm not there very often. I'm on the road most of the time. I was in Sedona recently. It's a very inspiring place, which I'm sure you can agree with.

Jordan: Yeah, I do. I miss it, but I'm happy doing what I'm doing. It's nice to come home to a place like that. Of course.

Jordan: The last time I was there, I think it was for like two days. Where am I calling you now?

Jordan: I'm in Pennsylvania. I know that you've been involved in a lot of varying music projects, including music therapy. Where are you with that right now?

Jordan: I am still involved. I'm still doing advocacy. My Masters degree is on hold because I've been traveling so much, so I'll complete that later. But I'm still doing a lot of outreach. The last time I was in Brazil I did a session on developmental delay. I can't say that it was a music therapy session, because that would be like I was practicing medicine without being an M.D. But it actually was a demonstration of the kind of thing that would happen in a music therapy session.

What we did there was talked about music and how we can use it for education. You have the kids there, the parents, and you just want to have fun as a group, without addressing anyone's particular condition or anything like that. So basically we're just saying things that would be useful for anybody. The point is, people with developmental delays can often find that music can help them in a lot of different ways. So I like to give examples of how people can use that power.

For example, we talked about using music to learn their numbers. Maybe clapping on 1, 2, 3, 4. Then just clap on 2. Then just clap on 2 and 4. And the whole group is doing this. And it becomes a lot of fun. We talked about directions, and sounds, and how we can use sound to express things that are sometimes hard to say.

Like sometimes you can show how you feel with the sounds that you make. You don't have to have the words. And that's the truth with anybody. Sometimes we just don't have the words to express what we're feeling. And so we go into a mode where we talk just in sounds for awhile, using different sounds to express different feelings and having fun with that.

And also there's a process called "entrainment." And I did a demonstration of that. It takes some time to really show it, so the abbreviated version gives people an idea. If you make some gradual change in the music -- in this case it's with tempo. So we gradually slow down. And then after we stop, we gradually start to speed up again.

And if you make that change gradually enough, the body will follow that, but it has to be gradual, and it has to be consistent over time. And so what happens is, when you get slower and slower, it really slows down your whole system, and when you start getting faster, not only do you feel energized, but you feel energized emotionally too. And I like people to experience that. So we lead the group in a groove, just a jam. You can play any way you want. But as we play together we gradually slow down, then speed up. And we have fun.

There's a lot to music therapy, more than people think. Typically people think it's about the music itself having some sort of tonic or healing effect -- and that can be part of it -- but what music therapy is all about is really how you use the music. Any kind of music could potentially be helpful, depending on how it's used and with whom. And once you get that concept. The possibilities are huge. So are you going to be doing some online guitar lessons?

Jordan: Yes, I'm putting that together, and hoping that will be ready soon. Once the thing is up and running, I'd love for you to check it out. This represents a big step for me, I'm really excited about it. We'll definitely let people know about it when it's up and running.

Jordan: Thank you, I appreciate that. Well thank you so much for your time today Stanley.

Jordan: All right, thank you Adam. Goodbye.


Related Links:
Stanley Jordan Website 
Stanley Jordan on Facebook 
Stanley Jordan on Twitter

Focusrite ISA 430 MkII 
Lexicon PCM96 Surround 
Boss DD-7 
tc electronic Hall of Fame Reverb 
Fulltone Overdrive 
Radial Direct Input

Kevin Eubanks Website 
Sting Cheese Incident Website 
EOTO Website 
Umphrey’s McGee Website 
Sharon Isbin Website 
Romero Lubambo Website 
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