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John Stein, A Double-Dose of Blues, Bop, Ballads, & Bossas

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John Stein is a prolific guitarist who has garnered fifteen albums under his own name, ten with Whaling City Sound.

JGT: John, you’ve been quite busy lately—tell our readers what’s going on in your musical career and personal life these days?

JS: I was a long-time professor at Berklee College of Music and I retired last year in order to spend my days playing music. In one way my timing was impeccable because I got out of teaching right as the pandemic shutdown started; Spring semester 2020 was already going to be my final one, we got to midterms, they sent us home, and we never returned to campus. So, I finished the semester on Zoom and that was it for my teaching career at Berklee.

JGT: Tell me the history of your teaching at Berklee—obviously everybody knows how prestigious that place is. Give me a quick synopsis of your career there: When did you start? And what did you teach?

JS: I went there as a student in 1980 and was there for four years. It was the first time in my life I was actually a good student. In high school I had been a mediocre student, but it was easy enough to make good grades. After high school, I went to a liberal arts college in Wisconsin for a couple of years, and I eventually dropped out. It was in the tumultuous era of the late sixties, early seventies. And the Vietnam war was shaking everybody in the country. It was just a chaotic time. I kind of turned into a hippie at college at that point. I needed to explore my life options and I dropped out of college. Ten years later, I returned to school when I was 30. That’s when I started at Berklee.

JGT: Were you already living in Boston trying to develop your skills as a guitarist?

JS: Well, at the time I was living in Vermont. I had somehow ended up there, living in a cabin in the woods and learning to be a carpenter. But in fact, I knew that I wanted to be a musician. I played in local bands and I was reading Guitar Player magazine in those days. I kept seeing interviews with famous musicians who had attended Berklee and they all said, ‘Oh, hey, I have a career now, and I just learned to do this at Berklee—but now I’m getting paid for it!’

I was in Vermont, only two hours away from Boston. So, I thought, okay, that’s what I better do. I got myself to Berklee in 1980, and for the first time I was motivated to do a good job in school. And I just absolutely loved it—the curriculum at Berklee is fabulous. It was exactly what I’d been trying to learn as a musician all my life—presented on a silver platter. It was like, ‘here, you want to be a musician, learn this stuff.’ So, I did a really good job at Berklee—I graduated with high honors and they offered me a job.

JGT: Did you feel ready for that? Weren’t you at all reluctant?

JS: I looked around Boston and I thought, ‘All the people I admire are teaching at Berklee here. So, if I’m going to stick around Boston, I better take this opportunity.’ I had a number of different jobs over the years at Berklee, ending up as a Professor in the Harmony Department, and after I graduated I remained there another 36 years. So a total of 40 years of my life—hard to believe—I spent in the environment of Berklee. And frankly, I love the place. You know, I dealt with academic politics. I didn’t enjoy that part of it, but there’s always politics in higher education. My attraction was the actual environment for the students, for the faculty, and the fact that everybody there is obsessed with learning music. Basically I spent 40 years trying to improve my musicianship and then sharing what I was learning with eager young people.

JGT: So what prompted you to finally make a change?

JS: It was a great pleasure to teach, but I was ready to retire because, you know, I want to be a performing musician. I went to Berklee not to teach at Berklee, but to be a musician. And I felt like I was starting to get old and I decided to take the years that I have left and spend them playing music. I want to play more and stop talking about it so much. So that’s why I retired.

And then, of course, I hit right when the pandemic started. So, I retired, and every gig that I had was canceled because of the pandemic. And it was also bad timing because I had just released a record. You know, I’ve managed to release a lot of records over the years, even though I’ve been at Berklee, and I wanted to tour the record and I wanted to make some hay with the record. I had recorded it in Brazil and had opportunities to go back there and play all kinds of concerts.

JGT: And so…

JS: Because of the pandemic, none of that happened. And the record did fabulous! Last year, we released the record right around the time of the beginning of the pandemic. It was released on March 9th a year ago, right when the pandemic started getting serious in our country and everything shut down. The last day at Berklee College of Music for me on campus was March 17th. They sent us home and we never went back. Basically, every gig or concert that I had scheduled to promote the recording disappeared. Ahead of my retirement from teaching, I had also been looking for local gigs and I was starting to get some restaurants to play at and stuff like that, but all of that just shut down with the pandemic.

JGT: Did you get any playing done anywhere?

JS: The weather in Boston gets nice in May and June. And I was able to actually enjoy my summer because I played a lot of music outdoors with other musicians. We were playing in backyards, porches, driveways. I managed some regular sessions, and I stayed busy all summer two or three times a week, playing music with people, which was more than I had been doing as a teacher, anyway. I was almost happy, even though opportunities to play in public had disappeared.

JGT: So, tell me about that album you mentioned, and the people you were playing with on it—what’s the name of it?

JS: That album I released last year is called Watershed and it’s called ‘Watershed’ because I was leaving my academic career and becoming a performing musician—or at least I hoped to be. So that’s why we named it ‘Watershed.’ For me, it was a watershed moment, a change, where the waters divide. It was just a metaphorical choice for the name of the album. And the album is very good. I had recorded it the previous year in Brazil. I’ve had a chance to go to Brazil quite a few times. There was a recent time when Brazil was booming. I have a lot of musician friends there—and they’re great musicians. But in recent years Brazil has fallen into hard times, just like we have in the USA. Their politics also turned bad, and they stopped booming. I was almost going once every year for a few years, and it just ended for a while. Then two years ago—for some reason—something changed and I got a chance to return. I got two big gigs. They were well-paying gigs and they were like three or four weeks apart from the first one to the last one. I managed to fill the time in between with some additional smaller gigs, but it was kind of the perfect scenario. I could play the first gig, work on the music to prep it for recording, accomplish the recording, and then play the final gig and return home. Because of the spacing of the gigs, I had just enough time to go into a studio there and record a CD. So that’s what I did. The gigs were lucrative so I was able to afford the studio and the musicians. I took all the money I was earning from the gigs and I invested in making the record.

JGT: How long were you over there for that project?

JS: The first gig was the day after I arrived. And the last gig was the day before I left. And there were like three weeks in between them. So, I guess I was there more or less three weeks. I recorded it at the end of May and I ended up releasing it the following March, 2020. It had enormous success on the radio.

JGT: So tell me about where it got played.

JS: You know, the good thing about my record label is that they promote all over the whole country. I mean, they promote internationally as well, but primarily in United States. They hire one of the big-league radio promoters, Neal Sapper of New World ‘n Jazz, and he has had enormous success. That year he had the number one record for weeks—that was [pianist] Joey Alexander’s album. And he had me at #2 for a number of weeks, and then the top 10 for quite a few months. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I probably I would have gotten to #1.

My record was released just a couple of weeks before everything shut down. And a lot of the DJs never even got into their offices—some of them figured out how to do their shows from home. And a lot of people didn’t even get to the collect the new recordings. He [Sapper] said, ‘you know, if things had been normal, you probably would have been a number one.’ I don’t know; it probably was my advantage as well, because they weren’t adding new music, and mine got there and it stayed there for a long time. At any rate, I was happy about it. That recording was the one piece of really good professional news in an otherwise bleak year.

JGT: Talk to me about your record company.

JS: Okay. Well, my record company is called Whaling City Sound. It’s located in New Bedford, Mass, which is South of Boston by about an hour and a half. New Bedford is a small city and it’s where Herman Melville wrote about Captain Ahab. At one point in our country’s history, New Bedford was possibly the richest town in the whole country because of the whaling business. All the whalers left from that port, and all of the money from the whaling business came right back to New Bedford. It was very big business in the era prior to the use of electricity, because the oil from the whales was what we used for lighting. The whaling business was huge and New Bedford is still known as the whaling city.

JGT: Who is the label owner?

JS: His name is Neal Weiss. He’s a wonderful man. You know, the record business is pretty difficult, but Neal is just loves music, and he does whatever he can to promote music and musicians. And he’s been releasing records for quite a few years now. And I myself have released probably ten records on his label. I met him after I had already released five records, and every one since has been on his label. We don’t even do “official” business anymore. We just decide if we’re going to release something—it’s all a gentleman agreement. I used to have contracts. We don’t even do that anymore. He’s very honest and I love the man as a friend, really respect him, and appreciate him for what he does for all the musicians in the whole area.

JGT: Okay. So let’s shift gears and let’s talk about the new project.

JS: Okay, this goes back to Neal Weiss also, because I told you earlier that I watched as all my gigs were canceled and the restaurants that were going to have me play there were shut down. Only one gig stayed. And the one gig that stayed was supposed to be a live concert for people, but that couldn’t happen because of the pandemic. So for that reason, Neal Weiss—who was the promoter of this event—decided that he would videotape us playing, and then he broadcasted on the internet instead.

JGT: What was the gig?

JS: Well, it has to do with something that Neal has done for many years in New Bedford, where he lives. In that city, the second Thursday of every month they have what they call “AHA! Night.” They have all kinds of artistic performances, sponsored by different people or organizations. During the nice summer months, Neal produces a concert outdoors in the parking lot of his business in downtown New Bedford. He’s got a loading dock and a parking lot. And he puts chairs on the parking lot and sets the musicians up on the loading dock and they play for people.

JGT: Wow…

JS: He’s done this for years, once a month in the warm season, and I was scheduled to perform in September. Of course, it got canceled because it couldn’t happen live. So instead, he took us into the New Bedford Art Museum, which has a large room with a high ceiling and we were sitting spaced apart, not close to each other. Neal hired a very good professional sound mixer and video editor, to videotape and capture both the sound and the video of this performance. It was supposed to be a concert for people. Instead, it turned into a concert for video cameras that was then broadcast on the internet, but we treated it as a concert.

We prepared two one-hour sets and we played one song after the next, as if we were playing a live concert for an audience. I used two musicians that I had been just doing casual sessions with during the summer, a drummer and a bass player.

JGT: And those are Boston guys that live there?

JS: Yeah, local people that live near me, the people I played with all summer for fun.

JGT: Who are they?

JS: The bass player’s name is Ed Lucie and the drummer is Mike Connors. Both of them played fabulously. We were paid something for the gig, which was basically the only money I personally made as a performing musician during the pandemic year. It’s crazy. The guy that videotaped it, John Farrell, makes a living as a sound man for rock bands. For the most part, he travels all over when he can. He’s with a group called Blackberry Smoke.

JGT: I know that group. I saw them playing Red Rocks in Denver a coupla years ago. They’re incredible.

JS: Exactly. And he’s their sound man. He lives in the area somewhere near New Bedford. He’s a friend of Neal Weiss’s, so Neal hired him and he just did an absolutely fantastic job. He had one stationary camera and someone who was working with him that he could move around. Because John’s a professional sound man, he captured our sound. Everything was just one take—move on to the next song, no matter what happened. And you know, we played for two hours with a small break in the middle. Not every song came out perfectly, but I got plenty to release as a recording.

Initially I was looking at the video, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll post this on Facebook. Which songs did we do a good job on?’ But one day I was doing some errands around my house. Instead of sitting there and watching the video, I just played it while I went about my work. And that’s when I realized that it’s sensational music. I was hearing things in the music that I didn’t notice when I was watching with my eyes—it’s just better to listen to music with your ears than with your eyes, you know?

I thought to myself, man, this is really worthy of a release because first of all, there’s something about live recordings. It’s both great and it’s intimidating because there’s more energy in live recordings because you’re doing something really in the moment; it’s not like, ‘Oh, I can fix this. Oh, I don’t like that. Let’s try it again.’ There’s something about the studio that’s sterile and it’s hard to come up with something really great in the studio. But the studio means you can try something again, or you can edit something if you don’t like it. Live recording is “just do it.” And there it is. It’s done.

JGT: Sounds like you may have stumbled into something good serendipitously…

JS: Serendipitously is the best word. I never expected to come up with a live recording that would actually be great music and also captured really well. Then I had to work on Neal Weiss. He loves music so much and he struggles to release music at a reasonable rate. It costs a lot of money to release a recording and these days it’s rare to recoup much of what it costs. Neal would release even more music if he could. There was a time when he was releasing three or four records every month. His own records were competing against the other ones he was releasing, not to mention all of the other thousands records that get released every month on radio. Neal’s had to learn to edit himself, and he’s really simplified and cut down.

And he told me, ‘You know, John, I may even have to stop at some point, but I want you to do at least one more record. And here’s where I got you plugged in—it’s probably going to be the end of this year or maybe early next year.’ I was in his cue of music to be done. Since he had offered me another recording, I had already begun planning it. The serendipitous live recording is extra, and I had to go to Neal and try to convince him to release this [live album] not instead of, but in addition to the one that I was already going to do.

JGT: And so how did you sell that? What did you say?

JS: I just said, “Neal, first of all, I don’t want to do anything that makes it hard for you.” I wasn’t trying to twist his arm or anything, but, you know, I just said, “this is really good stuff.” And one thing I did do before I shared it with Neal, I sent it to the other Neal associated with the label, Neal Sapper, who does radio promotion and who very successfully worked my last record. And I just asked him if he thought it would be successful on the radio. And it took him a while to listen to it because his life is busy. But, to my great appreciation, he did actually listen to it carefully. And the feedback he gave me was, “Yes, this is great. First of all, I had no idea that this was a live recording. It doesn’t sound like it because it’s done so well—it sounds like it’s a studio recording. Secondly, it would be a great bridge for you—you had huge success on your last recording, which almost reached number one on the charts. People know you, and we could put the live recording out this year. And then the new one that you’re planning to record in the studio could go next year. And that would really build for you. And I think that’s a fabulous idea!” So that’s when I approached Neal Weiss at the label and I said, “Well, I did share it with Neal Sapper and this is what he said, and I’m hoping you’ll really consider it.”

JGT: So, it’s going to happen? You’re actually having two releases? I watched and listened to the video by the way, and I loved it.

JS: Thanks, Wayne!

Initially, since Neal was fitting this in as an extra record in his release schedule. It wasn’t clear when he would release it because his schedule was already booked up. I want to tell you that after talking to you (JGT) yesterday to arrange this interview, just to make sure that this was right, and he really is going to release it, I thought I’d better run it by Neal Weiss to confirm. I called him up after talking to you. Every week I had heard a different story. Two weeks ago—I wasn’t sure he was going to release it. Last week, it sounded like he was going to release it, but he didn’t know when—and yesterday I called him up and to my utter amazement, he said, he might want to release it within a couple of months because some other things have changed and people are postponing. So now he’s pushing me to the front of the queue rather than the end of the queue. So, it looks like it will be released in June!

JGT: You have a name for it?

JS: I labored over the name for a really long time. Actually, you used the right word a couple of minutes ago when you responded to the story of the recording by saying it sounded serendipitous. That’s really the story of this recording, so ultimately, I decided to name it Serendipity. When I realized that I might want to release it, I went back to the engineer and I had him go through it and really start tweaking the mix to make it sound as good as possible. And I learned something with my last record—I had never actually mastered per se a record before. Every engineer I ever worked with when I was mixing music with them, I would get to the end of the mixing, after we had worked for however long it took to make the music sound as good as we could make it, then I would say to them, “What do you think about mastering? And they said, “Well, okay, you and I just sat here for the last three weeks or four weeks working on this. And we’ve got this as nice as we think we can make it. And now you want to give it to somebody else and have another set of ears change everything? Why would you want to do that?” Every engineer I had worked with felt that they had mastered it.

JGT: That approach, Johnthat’s actually wrong.

JS: Right, now I agree, but until my previous release, Watershed, I had never taken the mix to a mastering specialist. There’s an engineer named John Mailloux who specializes in mastering music and does a lot of work for the label. I took Watershed to him, still feeling skeptical. I said to him, “You know, I’ve never done mastering before, and I do like the way this sounds, I just worked on this with the mixing engineer to bring it to this point, but I’d like to see what you can do with it. And man, he made it kick ass!

JGT: The difference in sound it’s like night and day, bro. It’s night and day.

JS: Yes, it is, you’re right.

JGT: So now that you’ve completed this mixing scenario, tell me more about this new studio project that’s being released after the live album.

JS: The one that I’ve been working on for the past few months, I’ve both been writing some music for it and choosing a few hip jazz tunes to include. It’s going to be a trio—guitar, bass, drums—and about half of the music will be instrumental.

I have a long-time friend, Brian Seeger, who graduated from Berklee. He ended up in New Orleans where he’s now a professor at the University of New Orleans. He’s an incredible guitarist and a brilliant person. And at some point, he introduced me to his friend, Cindy Scott, a vocalist, who is one of the most soulful singers I’ve ever heard—a real talent. A couple of years ago, she applied for and got a job at teaching in the Vocal Department at Berklee, so she now lives part of the year in Boston.

When I was teaching harmony classes at Berklee, the department decided to do a collaboration with the vocal department. I thought, “okay, I’m gonna share some of my music with Cindy, maybe she’ll write some lyrics to one of my songs.”She wrote incredible words to one of my nicest tunes. It was originally called “Lonely Street,” She wrote great lyrics for it, so now it has another title. With her lyrics, it’s called “No Goodbyes.”My instrumental recording of the tune was on my Concerto International de Jazz album—the first record I released on the Whaling City Sound label. It was also the first of the two records I recorded in Brazil.

That got me thinking, you know. I started talking to her and I realized, okay, on this record, I would like to include maybe four tunes that she’s written lyrics for. And then the rest of the album will be instrumental. We’ll have to come up with arrangements for the songs.

JGT: So a half-vocal, half instrumental album.

JS: That’s right. I’ve written a lot of music, a large percentage of the tunes on my recordings are original compositions. The new record will have a couple of hip and less-common jazz tunes on it, but it is mostly a feature for my tunes. I’m thinking that having excellent lyrics and Cindy’s exceptional singing will help feature my compositions.

Another thing I’ve asked Cindy to do, is to record a song I composed that another friend of mine wrote lyrics for—he was one of my old collaborators. His name was Ron Gill. He passed away recently. We did the record Turn Up the Quiet together. He was just one of my greatest and most wonderful musical friends. He was the first person to write words to any of my songs, and he wrote really good lyrics. And I’m going to have Cindy sing that on this project as a small tribute to Ron.

JGT: We gotta do a bit of geeky tech talk about your equipment. What are you using?

JS: I’m a Gibson person. My first electric guitar, which I used in high school, was a late 50‘s ES175. All my adult life I’ve played Gibsons. Over the years I’ve tried a bunch of different models and eventually I acquired what I thought were going to be my dream guitars, the top models I had always hoped to have. First was a 1934 16” L5. That’s like the guitar to die for, you know, aesthetically in my mind. And then I got a second L5 from 1936, when they increased the size of the guitar body to 17”. In the first few years of the advanced-size L5’s, most were made with X-bracing instead of parallel bracing. And they originally made them with a shorter 24 ¾” scale, which I prefer. They settled on a 25.5” scale length and parallel bracing after a few years, because those guitars put out more sound for the guys playing four-to-the bar in the big bands. They projected more sound out front. But the X-braced guitars and the shorter scale—I just liked them better. They’re a little bit warmer sounding, maybe not so loud, which to me is better. It was beautiful instrument, pretty beautiful. I mean, it was beat-up, but it was beautiful beat-up. It was in still nice playing condition.

So, I had two dream guitars but try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with either one of them. I tried to love them. I had a lot of money invested in both of them and neither one of them really worked for me. And so finally thought, okay, I’m going to just see if I can get something I like better and get some of my money back. So, I managed to sell the 16” L5 for roughly the money I had invested in it on Reverb.com. And of course, I sold it to a guy. It turns out he runs a big vintage music store in New York. And he turned around and sold it for nearly twice what he paid me.

JGT: Oh my goodness…

JS: Right!

JGT: What’s the guitar you’re using for that live concert video/album we discussed earlier?

JS: When I decided I was going to sell the 16” L5, I wanted something that was equally iconic, and there is a store in the Boston area, The Music Emporium, that specializes mostly in flat-top guitars, but they also sell some archtops and they have a small and sometimes special offering of consignment pieces. On consignment, they had a 1937 ES150—the so-called Charlie Christian guitar. And it was in mint condition. I went just to check it out thinking, “well, I hope I don’t like this,” knowing that if I did it would complicate my life. And of course, I did like it. It was expensive, but it was less money than I had invested in the 16” L5. I bit the bullet, purchased the ES150, and then fortunately managed to sell the 16” L5.

My ES150 has an original Charley Christian pickup on it. Everything about it is original and there’s barely a scratch on it. It looks like a brand-new guitar. It’s an unbelievable instrument. Some instruments are just special. They’re made out of a bunch of wood pieces joined together and somehow all the different pieces of wood just resonate together beautifully. This guitar is one of those special ones.

JGT: You look comfortable with it.

JS: I surely am.

Once I successfully replaced my 16” L5 with a guitar I enjoy more, it spurred me to do a similar thing with my Advanced L5. I sold the 17” L5 to a wonderful guitarist in Paris who features acoustic archtops in his music, Romain Vuillemin, and I managed to replace it with a guitar that’s sort of equivalent to the bigger L5. It’s an L12, a more obscure model. The L12 was originally a 30’s guitar and the model lasted maybe almost into the fifties, although it’s specifications changed over the years; the first models of the L12 were also 16”. And then they moved up to the 17” guitars and they were X-braced, they had the shorter scale, and came with slightly less-fancy appointments than the top-of-the-line L5 model. I managed to find one of those. I liked it’s neck dimensions better than my 17” L5, so I feel like I improved my position.

I have one more guitar, which is really fabulous. I use it when I travel. It is a ‘50’s ES125. And I spent some money on it a bunch of years ago to make it really practical. Those guitars came with P90 single coil pickups, which generally sound very nice, but there was something funny about the pickup on this particular guitar. It just wasn’t that great, so I replaced it with a one that fits into the routing. I didn’t need to modify anything; it’s got the same cover. It looks like a P 90, but it’s a humbucker by Lindy Fralin. It probably sounds different than a P90 would, but it does sound good.

I did some other work on it to set it up right. And I discovered it’s the perfect guitar to travel with. Of all the vintage guitars, you can still find ES125’s for reasonable money. That model was Gibson’s entry-level option for someone who wanted a decent quality electric archtop guitar. It was inexpensive, it was probably their biggest seller, and they made exponentially more of that model than any of the expensive high-end models. If something ever happened to this guitar while I’m traveling, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I wouldn’t feel terrible because I could replace it. And then with a little effort, get another one that would work as well.

JGT: Just how different are the L5, ES125, and L12? I don’t know much about the L12…

JS: Comparatively very few L12s were made. In the Gibson line, they were just below the top models that Gibson made in that era (L5 and Super 400). The L5 and Super 400 were successful models and remained in production. L12s sales were less successful, they were made in smaller quantities, and phased out after a while, so, they’re not common. The L12 model is similar in construction to an L5, but with slightly less-fancy appointments. Fingerboard material is the only major construction difference: L5’s use ebony, L12’s use rosewood. ES125s were plywood production guitars, aimed for the average Joe who wanted a decent electric guitar. They were much cheaper and thus sold in much larger numbers.

JGT: Boy, you really know your stuff…

JS: It’s been an obsession for a long time—I just love Gibson guitars!

JGT: I noticed that none of those guitars you own now feature cutaways—is that just a coincidence?

JS: It’s interesting. I don’t need a cutaway anymore. I have three guitars, not a single one of them even has a cutaway. I don’t even use a cutaway. I mean, there’s a couple of times when I try to reach for something that’s a little inconvenient, cause there’s no cutaway, but I almost never even think about that anymore.

JGT: Speaking of cutaways, we better cut away from this conversation, ‘cuz I think we just ran outta tape…[laughs]

JS: Well, Wayne, I thank you for this. Being able to talk about these things is always fun and whatever you do with it, it’ll be fabulous.

JGT: Thanks for your time, John—the readers will thoroughly enjoy this.

JS: Wayne, I really appreciate it!


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