Playing from the Heart
by Hermon Joyner
April 17, 2015
When it comes to folk, old-time, and bluegrass music, there are few players that can compete with Jody Stecher. Since the 1960s, Stecher and his recordings have been credited by an entire generation of players from David Bromberg to David Grisman for introducing them to those original songs and music, and his enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject is seldom approached, much less matched. If the worth of a person is measured by the lives they’ve touched and influenced, then Jody Stecher’s worth makes him a rich man, indeed.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in the late 1940s and 50s, Jody Stecher, whose last name is pronounced with a hard “K,” was surrounded by music and mandolins. Stecher explains, “There were mandolins in my family. I had a great aunt that played mandolin. I had a second cousin that played. There was also a guy who was married to a cousin, who was well known in the family as a mandolin player. So it was all around me.” In addition to the mandolin, Stecher came to soak up a myriad of musical influences and eventually became equally accomplished on the guitar, fiddle, banjo, and even classical Indian instruments like the sarod and sursringar.
Music was a big part of everyday life in the Stecher household. His father could play a couple of tunes on any instrument and his mother was a talented singer. But it was soon evident that Jody Stecher had a special aptitude for music. Because of this, he was encouraged by his family to take his music as far as he could. When he was 11, his great aunt gave him her mandolin and he even had the loan of an old Gibson A2 from a cousin. His mother let him use her small-bodied, flat-top guitar made by Raphael Ciani, who was an uncle and teacher of the famous guitar builder, John D’Angelico. Stecher said of this guitar, “It was very nice for a boy of 12 to play on.” It was just the right size for him.
Stecher mostly learned to play the different instruments by ear, though he did have a few guitar lessons to learn basic chord positions and right-hand patterns. When it came to the mandolin and bluegrass in particular, he explained, “I grew up listening to the radio. One song out of three or four was what we call bluegrass now, but back then it was just part of country music. So I heard it all the time. I just copied what I heard and then made up my own ideas.”
It wasn’t long before Stecher was playing and recording professionally. His first recording was in 1962 when he was 15 and it was a collection of bluegrass tunes called Banjo Time recorded for a local supermarket; the band was called the Banjo Band. He got a whopping $51 for doing it, but the names of the band members were left off the album.
It was during the 60s that he ran across another bluegrass mandolin player in the New York area and his name was David Grisman. They were even in a band together called the New York Ramblers, though Stecher ended up playing guitar in the band, and they’ve maintained a close friendship over the years. Stecher said, “Back then, I was in Brooklyn and he was in Passaic, New Jersey, which is a long way apart, but we knew each other and we’d come down to Washington Square to play bluegrass. It would be unthinkable today that he and I could be in the same group because we were both mandolin players, but I also play guitar and I didn’t care; I just wanted to play the music. So then we could play together. Even now, occasionally, David plays with his bluegrass band and sometimes his guitar player, Jim Nunnally, can’t do the gig because he is playing in other bands, so I’ve stepped in and played some shows. It’s always fun.”
Stecher’s approach to the mandolin has always been a little bit different from Grisman’s, though it was inevitable that they should influence each other. Stecher explained it like this, “David’s development and mine took place at the same time, and I eventually came around to be interested in some of the things he was interested in, but I wasn’t at the time. Back then, if he heard something on a Bill Monroe record, he wanted to learn it exactly as it was done. It wasn’t something I was trying for at the time. David and I evolved in different ways. As teenage players, his big model was Bill Monroe and my biggest was Jesse McReynolds.”
A big part of Stecher’s technical repertoire is focused on the right hand and this comes from a variety of sources ranging from his study of East Indian music to the influences of his primary hero Jesse McReynolds. Stecher finds his personal technique to be one that changes to suit the musical environment in which he finds himself. For him, it’s never a matter of “one size fits all.” Adaption is important to him.
Stecher said, “I hold the pick in a variety of ways. I changed how I held it while playing with Peter Rowan, particularly in my tremolo. I used to play with some contact with the top of the instrument and I found that a completely free hand had a much bigger sound, but it took some time to change that after having done it one way since I was 12 years old. Some very good players aim for uniformity in tone, but I try to avoid that. I like a variety of tone colors and the mandolin has a lot of sounds in it. I do that by where the pick is and at what angle it touches the strings, and of course down- and up-strokes have different sounds. And I have a more patterned right hand than a lot of players. Part of that comes from having studied the sarod, a North Indian instrument. The sarod is a banjo of sorts; it has a skin head and an edge bridge, like a banjo, and because it has short sustain, it’s a very rhythmic instrument. I learned all these patterns on that instrument and I applied those ideas to the mandolin. And then I do cross-picking patterns like the ones that Jesse McReynolds does, he’s really a creative guy, and also ones I got from guitar players and ones I developed myself.”
But much of Stecher’s mandolin technique is driven by his needs for musical expression and for him, it’s hard to separate these two qualities. He said, “To me, technique and expressiveness are partners. Technique enables expression to come out unfettered. When I play, either with friends or in performance or in a recording session, I don’t think about technique at all. The technique is what I practice, but when I play, I am playing with the mind of the singer and the technique is there to rely on.”
Stecher continued, “If I’m playing a song—and that means something with words—I have the words and the breathing in my mind, and I like to be able to play it how I would sing it. I always tell my students, at least be able to play with the singer does. But what a lot of instrumentalists do is dumb down the melody and they don’t hear what the singer is really doing. Just try to play what Carter Stanley sang; it’s not as simple as you think. There’s unusual timing and there are swoops and curves, and the melody is more subtle and complex than you’re taking it to be. On the other hand, I don’t play mandolin just like a vocalist, because then it would fall flat. You know, then I use the right hand. I don’t change the melody at all, but I add to it with right-hand strokes and give it some rhythm and it starts to sound like mandolin music. It gets very lively and it brings out the potential of the instrument. The mandolin just sounds so good with rapid strokes, including tremolo, which is really rapid strokes. It just sounds so wonderful.”
Stecher has devoted a great deal of time and energy to studying older methods of mandolin technique, whether in the original study books or in the early recordings. He’s found a lot of interesting tidbits that he puts to good use. One technique comes from an early 20th Century mandolin method book by Zahr Myron Bickford; it’s called a glide. Stecher explains, “Bickford talked about going from one course to another by dropping the pick. So for instance, if you’re going from an open D string to an open A, and instead of having two down-strokes or a down and an upstroke, he’ll play one continuous downstroke. It’s a slur—he called it a glide—but it’s a translation of a glissando. It’s a harp technique. And I use that a lot. So for instance, for three notes with crossing the string, if I want it very separate, I’ll go down-up-down. But if I want it to make it more flowing I might go down-drop-up. Let’s say were in G major and we’re going G, A, D. Down-up-down will get you one sound. Third position starting on the fifth fret, all on the D string, down-up-down will get you a different sound. But down-drop-up will get you a very different sound and it lends itself to swing music. And I’ll reverse that; I’ll go up-drag-down. For example, an A major arpeggio: E, C#, A. The obvious way is an open E string: down. Then, fourth fret of the second string: up, C#, and then down. Down-up-down. But another way to do it is to play the E on an upstroke and then drag that upstroke to the C# on the A string and then played down on the third string, seventh fret. So I use that a lot.”
He also uses techniques he learned from the classical Italian mandolinist, composer, and luthier Raffaele Calace, where whenever you go to a new string, your first stroke is always a downstroke. He said, “I think it’s an old world string technique, particularly for double-stringed instruments. And I don’t think it makes it sound better, nor does it make it sound worse, but it makes it sound old. If it’s done a particular way, it gives it a different color and whenever you change strings, you start with a downstroke. I modify that by including those drop and drag strokes. Those are some techniques that I’m sure other mandolin players use, but they are particular to me and I teach it to all my students. I think it gives them a very colorful sound and a flowing rhythm.”
Besides being an authority on mandolin technique, Stecher has always been a prolific composer and he has been able to take the forms and idioms of old-time and bluegrass and apply it to modern sentiments. In this way, his songs take on a patina of age and authenticity that very few people can match, and at the same time, they carry a relevance to our times. He talked about his process of writing, “Some of how I write or compose is mysterious to me. Some of what I compose arrives in my mind first—the central musical idea. A lot of my compositions have come in dreams and I wake up and remember the core of it, especially if I get up and play. Occasionally this has been on fiddle, banjo or guitar, but it’s usually mandolin. That’s usually what I reach for, to play the dream melody. Often when walking or rambling, I get musical ideas. But sometimes I’ll compose with an instrument in my hand and that’s different.”
One of his more popular songs has been “Kenny in Kansas City,” which was included on his recent CD, Wonders and Signs. He was in a band called Perfect Strangers and one of the band members, Chris Brashear, said he had a song in mind, “Kenny in Kansas City,” which combined the music of bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker with Claude Williams’ Kansas City jazz fiddling. The band was trying to get music together for a recording, but Brashear never produced the song; he only talked about it. It turned out that he had never set down and wrote it. It was just an idea, but it was too good to let go, and Stecher said he would write it. Stecher said, “And right there, right in the chair in front of my computer where I was emailing him, I picked up my mandolin, which was there next to me, and I composed it in 10 minutes and it’s got four parts. And I cannot tell you how I did that. All I did was think about how Claude Williams played and the sort of double stops that Kenny played and that was the tune that came out. I’m really happy with that one because people really like to play it and the audiences really like to hear it, too.”
Stecher finds composing music shares a lot of common ground with how he approaches improvisation. It’s all about creativity. He said, “When I’m playing, the idea of improvising isn’t any different than composing. It’s the same thing. You’re making something new and it’s coming from your own imagination, but I’m relating it to a melodic and harmonic model that already exists.”
This level of invention extends to every level of performance for Stecher. His need for creative exploration is strong. This is especially true when it comes to playing traditional songs and tunes. Part of how he keeps every song fresh and alive, no matter how old it is or how many times he’s played it, is by changing it up and trying something new within each performance. Stecher said, “Often, when I play a traditional tune I’ll play it different every time through or when I play something I’ve composed, I won’t stick to what I’ve written; it’s a little bit different every time. I hope to be inspired and play in the moment.”
Though there are some mandolin players that seem to change instruments like other people change their clothes, Stecher has been a one mandolin kind of guy for a good many years. As a matter of fact, he’s played the same A-style mandolin for 29 years. Stecher said, “At the moment, I have one mandolin. I’ve had a number of them, but my primary mandolin is made by Stan Miller in Washington State. I bought it new in the mid-1980s. It’s been refretted a number of times and it’s had an inlaid pick guard put in because I was scratching it up too much. Oh, and the tailpiece has been replaced. Stan put on a new James tailpiece that I love. It changes the sound. It made it better. That mandolin really suits me.”
Now that Stecher is in his 60s, he has chosen to cut back on touring. He recently left the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, after playing with Rowan’s band for several years, and now performs and records closer to his San Francisco home with his wife, Kate Brislin. And the recording projects keep multiplying. He figures that he has written enough new material to fill several CDs and each of them could have a different theme: mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, old-time music, and even Celtic music. His energy and enthusiasm for music and life is as great as it ever was and that is saying something.
To listen to Jody Stecher is to hear music that is pure and true, authentic in every detail. Like the old time music that inspires him, you have to listen beyond the surface in order to hear the subtleties and beauty. And it’s that search for beauty that propels his performances. Stecher said, “There is an unexamined idea that to sound modern, you have to sound ugly, or to sound modern, you have to sound really, really smooth because any edge is ugly. There are all these unexamined opinions and I think the best thing to do is to listen to the older music and hear how beautiful it is. Bluegrass music can accommodate anything, but I would prefer that it would be both more beautiful and more exciting.”
As long as Stecher keeps performing and recording, he’ll be doing his part in making bluegrass and old-time music just that: beautiful and exciting.
[A different version of this article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Mandolin Magazine.]
Jody Stecher's Selected Discography (selected for mandolin playing):
Wonders and Signs – Jody Stecher – Vegetiboy Music
Perfect Strangers – Perfect Strangers – Rebel Records
Chicken on A Rocket Ship – Chad Manning
Legacy – Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band – Compass Records
Return – Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin – Vegetiboy Music
Songs Of The Carter Family – Appleseed Records
Oh The Wind and Rain, Eleven Ballads – Jody Stecher – Appleseed Records
Stay Awhile – Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin – Rounder Records
Our Town – Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin – Rounder Records
Blue Lightning – Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin – Rounder Records
A Song That Will Linger – Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin – Rounder Records
The Driven Bow – Alasdair Fraser & Jody Stecher – Culbernie Records
A Bed of Roses (featuring the song "Columbine," Jody's favorite recording of his mandolin playing) – Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight – Topic Records
Most of these recordings are available at: www.jodyandkate.com