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pix Interview: Strat A. Kat pix
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pix pix by Dan McAvinchey  

Page added in February, 2013 More [Interviews]

About The Interview

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Strat A. Kat literally needs no introduction, and doesn't want one. "No Rules" is the new album released by the guitar player under the project name "Stratakat", and it was over seven years in the making. Helping make it was none other than Greg Howe, who produced the music, and contributed musical parts and ideas throughout. The best part - at the time this interview went to press = you can download the entire album for free at stratakat.com.

Dan McAvinchey passed on to Strat A. Kat some insightful interrogation, and now it's your chance to get to 'know' the pseudonym behind the sobriquet.


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  Dan McAvinchey: Strat, let's talk first about your 2012 solo release, "No Rules" (available at stratakat.com - free downloadable mp3s), which was seven years in the making. When did you write the bulk of the songs, and what did you want to achieve when recording started?

Strat A. Kat: This is a great story. I went to take a couple of lessons from Greg Howe, and after the first few minutes of the first lesson he asked me “Why are you taking lessons? You already have amazing skills, playing very cool bebop lines, and you know, you have all this jazz theory knowledge.” I told him he did stuff I couldn’t figure out. I can pretty much copy just about anyone, But not you. He said, “I bet it’s my hammer-ons from nowhere.” It was!

So, right after the second lesson, he went outside to have a smoke, and we are standing there in the snow, and he says, “You really should put a CD out.”

I asked him if he really thought I was ready. He said, "You were probably ready 20 years ago.”

I said, “Honestly Greg, I've spent my whole life learning theory, jazz, rock, blues, copying everybody, playing top 40, playing jazz, always jamming, studying, doing what I could to stay involved in the music industry.”

I had no idea what it would take to put a CD out. At that time, Greg was living in Pennsylvania and he told me, “Rick if you let me, I’d love to help you. I'll produce it for you. I told him that would be more than an honor and I know it would be just a top-notch CD." Then I added, “But Greg I don't think I can afford you!”

We agreed on a price that was within my budget. So the plan was for me to go home and pick ten of my favorite songs. I told him I had written probably 500 songs in the last seven years. About seven years prior to then, I went through a divorce and over a thousand of my songs, disappeared. When we broke up, my music studio and everything in there disappeared. All of my guitars, my teaching material, my recordings, my recording equipment, everything, gone. In 1984, I took a music course at Dick Grove's School Of Music in Los Angeles. I recorded every second of that course.

I took his CAP program, (Composition & Arranging Program), where I learned how to write and arrange for television and movie, all of those tapes as well, gone. Everything disappeared. And still to this day, what I can’t replace are those songs. I always felt, one day, I’d have the skills to produce those songs into great musical stories. And they all had lyrics. You know, this experience is probably the reason I turned to instrumental music (Hmmm, just thought of that). Just kidding, I’ve always had a passion for instrumental music.

But since we split up, I’ve probably written upwards of 500 songs.

So the task Greg set for me was to go and find 10 songs and bring those back and then we would see if he could do something with them. The plan was to use one of his bass players and a drummer from a couple of his CDs and he would have two or three choices based on what I brought back. I sent him a few of them, so he knew who to call, and we set a date in July of 2004 to meet at his home studio, that was soundproofed and mic’d for drums. It was a great experience. I’m with the world famous Greg Howe, at his home for seven days, living my dream.

We laid down the drums first, brought the bass player in and had him lay down the bass. Then Greg and I would spend the next six-plus years laying down the rhythm guitars, melodies and the solos. The plan was to spend the next six months, not the next six years.

It's a long answer to short question I understand, but basically after losing all of my original material, my guitars, my recording equipment, everything and anything that had to do with music, I had to start all over writing. Then, in the seven years since I lost everything, I came up with lots of different jams. To me, I didn't really understand what it took to write a song; so what I brought to Greg were basically the solo sections, the tempos, the vibe, the feel and the tonal center. Then he put his magic touch on them.


Dan McAvinchey: Talk about how Greg Howe originally got involved and what role, or roles, he plays on the album.

Strat A. Kat: What I wanted to achieve in this CD was the ability to reach the non-musicians with a style of music that is highly advanced but yet is highly ignored.

We talked about it over and over, how a lot of guitar players seem to put out guitar albums that are dedicated to, and directed towards, other guitar players. And I told him my goal was to introduce the non-guitar player or non-musician to a style of music that takes years to learn and I don't think we ever perfect but can be appreciated on so many levels. Back in the days when big band music was popular, jazz was the dance music of the day, with bands like Paul Whitman, and Benny Goodman tearing up the scene. Then along comes Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. And they were using these crazy chord and crazy bebop lines, and at the time people just didn’t get it. They couldn’t sing the melodies and it paved the way for the three chord rock and roll era. And with that, the majority of music lovers stopped listening to jazz, and musicians needed some serious theory knowledge or a great ear to play. But with the new music of rock and roll, just about anyone could pick up a guitar and be playing the songs on the radio. I asked Greg to help me arrange these songs where I don’t lose the fire of my style, but present it in a way that anyone could digest it, and enjoy it.

So really question one blends with what you're asking in question two.

Greg got involved because he felt that I had something to offer music appreciation lovers of the world, and he knew that if he could have an influence on the way I presented this, that this album would open some doors for me. That’s an understatement as to the doors that have opened since I met Greg Howe.

Greg plays acoustic guitar on “Miles From Nowhere-Lost No More” and the melody on “Night Visits-Chasing The Dream”. He also wrote and gave me “Worried Minds-Where I Belong”. But his influence on every aspect of the project is heard, felt and appreciated far beyond words.


Dan McAvinchey: What are your favorite pieces of gear to use in the studio, and why do you consider them essential to your sound?

Strat A. Kat: Interestingly enough, I don't really have a favorite piece of gear other than my Suhr Guitars. We all know the story of John Suhr, and if you don't you should know it.

For several years John Suhr was the custom shop at Fender. Anybody who came in to get a custom Fender, from the Rolling Stones to the Boss to Jeff Beck, anybody who had a Fender that they wanted customized, John Suhr was the only one that touched that guitar.

I guess one thing led to another and John opened up his own company bringing his precision and talent to the guitar making world, so my favorite piece of equipment are my John Suhr Custom guitars. I have four of them, and four of John's amps. The guy’s a freaking genius, and my tone and my ability to get what I get from guitar is 100% Suhr equipment.

Also, the fact that nothing substitutes a real amp pushing air, with the mic placement carefully dialed in. Little bit of reverb, little bit of delay and electrons on glass bouncing around inside those tubes is something you can't imitate.


Dan McAvinchey: How did you practice in order to get to the advanced level of playing you are now at? Do you have favorite practice routines?

Strat A. Kat: Wow. That could probably be a series of DVDs and videos (laughs).

I majored in jazz guitar and almost got a degree. I need like one more semester, but I have had that jazz theory in my head since I was probably 19 years old.

So, one of the things that I've always loved about music was improvisation. The first time I heard John Coltrane, I just fell in love with that music. I remember when the latest Black Sabbath record or Led Zeppelin came out, I would wear out the vinyl, right around the solo, because I had to learn it note for note. Transcribing is key. But nowadays, my practice routines are mostly going through scales and arpeggios that are substituted over chords.

I was a huge, huge George Benson fan. I think I have every CD he put out since he was very young. And he was a master at playing pentatonic scales over the five. So over a E7(9) play a B Minor Pentatonic. And you get all the cool tones. Blend that with the E Minor Pentatonic, and you nail the chord. For E7 (b9/#9) for color play Gmin Pentatonic, and for some real color play Bb Pentatonic.

I also got introduced to Dennis Sandole’s "Guitar Lore" book. I still go through sections of this book. I actually called Dennis before he died to thank him for what was a huge influence on my originality. And I asked if he ever put out a Volume 2. Dennis actually worked with John Coltrane. Giving him patterns to play, to make the execution of the notes not about strength, but about taste, so you don’t get caught up in playing patterns. And although that’s a natural path for us guitar players to learn all the patterns, once you do, you learn how to break out of those patterns. Here is a link about "Guitar Lore".

I was about 19 when I bought his book, and what Dennis Sandole did was formulate exercises that included every possible movement you could make with your fingers.

So one of my very first practice routines every single time I play is to play a chromatic scale from the lowest note on the guitar to the highest note on the guitar, with 16th note trills with my right hand.

And then, changing strings at random places trying to include all four fingers on my left hand in a chromatic fashion.

I also play "Donna Lee" every time I practice, because of the rhythmic challenge and the fingerings.

I make sure that I go through my arpeggios, melodic minor scales, melodic minor arpeggios, and I have a couple patterns that I get my fingers really warmed up on, where I play 7 notes over 8. So one falls on a different place in the pattern, until all 7 permutations are complete.

And I always include "Mock Bock" by Greg. That one kicks my butt because it's swept very distinctly, and sweeping very slow is a challenge, and it kind of forces me to do the economy picking that Gambale is so famous for. And where Greg breaks to get those diminished chords at first was not very intuitive or easy. It gets a little easier every time I play it. But it’s a real finger warmer upper.

I spend time going up and down the neck with what Greg calls his barring technique where you bar two fingers over two strings, and then you hybrid pick one note, then you hammer the next note and you pick the last note. So you get a rolling sound that's extremely fast and you can do that across the whole neck. Greg told me he created this technique trying to learn “Eruption” from Eddie Van Halen. That was before he went to see Eddie live and realized he was hammering with is right hand. And we all know Greg took that thing Eddie did to another level. But of my favorite sound is skipping two or three strings or four strings, with Greg’s barring thing!

I remember when Greg first showed me that, I was so completely uncoordinated, and I told him we would have to work on that one.

And then finally, I try to make very accurate stops with my slide vibrato. You know that signature sound the Greg invented.  And if I play live, I overuse it so much, but to me it’s such an aggressive vibrato.

I also had the honor of studying with Scott Henderson. And he gave me some great insight to his sound and playing thought process. That’s a cool story. I got to know a guy that knew Scott well. So I asked him to ask Scott if I could have a lesson. He came back and told me that Scott said he didn’t do lessons anymore. So I said, “Okay, tell Scott I’ll give him $$$$ for an 8 hour day with him.” An hour later, Scott calls me and says, “Strat, are you serious? That’s just an offer I can’t refuse.” I took two eight hour lessons, and Scott let me video both of those lessons, so maybe one day if anyone would be interested, I may share? Hehehe - or not!

So I don't really have a favorite practice routine. As long as I've been playing, I have several sacred practice routines.

Recently I hooked up with Derryl Gabel. Derryl has a series of CDs, and I have them all. They challenge me every time I go to them and they make me just a little bit better player every day.

Also, Greg reminded me not to lose my blues roots, so I spend a lot of time going over Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. "Red House" is one my favorite songs.


Dan McAvinchey: If a fan of heavy fusion guitar has never heard of Stratakat, what are the two or three tracks off of "No Rules" that you'd prefer a busy, distracted listener would have to hear?

Strat A. Kat: If a fan of heavy fusion guitar wanted to get something from my music, they would have to listen to "No Rules” (the title track), and then probably the third song, “Cruzer”.

Wow, this is really a good question and something I've never thought of.

"Cruzer" has a kind of bluesy ‘Stray Cats’ vibe to it. But I get to some serious outside notes in that song. And then I have a very straight-ahead blues section. I wasn’t too sure about this song when we recorded it. And now I find it’s the one song almost everyone can relate to and say, “Yeah!”

Song eight is probably my heaviest song. Greg wrote this one. Its very dark, with min9 chords, minor driven, and expressive, with these cool layers.

But in my heart, when I hear it, the song that's the most expressive to me, that is closest to my heart, is the final one "Disclosure.” It’s got something haunting going on. To me, these songs all have a heavy-metal vibe, but that’s to me, and again done with that Stratakat style.

One of my friends came up with a word regarding what I do to pop songs. I ‘Stratify’ them. And that I do!


Dan McAvinchey: What do you think is essential for a great guitar solo?

Strat A. Kat: Space is the most essential part of a solo; and it's something I'm still trying to learn how to do. Creating tension and release was one of the first elements I was taught back in college. And there are several ways to accomplish this. Playing fast, and ending with a long sustained note. Using chords that are outside that resolve to the chord of the measure. Playing groups of notes, that resolve to space.

On a serious note, to me a great solo is something that has peaks and valleys, that has a beginning, has an ending, something that's a conversation between the player and the listener.

Listen to Miles Davis. Listen to John Coltrane. Listen to Allan Holdsworth. These are all very expressive players that take and use the chord to it's fullest; they use their techniques to their fullest, but sometimes one note can do so much. Santana was/is the master of long tasteful notes.


Dan McAvinchey: Bands like Arrested Development, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have, in recent years, given away their music, with only donations accepted (known as the "Free Music Donation Business Model") to defray costs. What went into the decision to give away your debut album?

Strat A. Kat: Wow, when I saw you gave me this question it really made me go, "Wow!" I had no idea that anybody else had given their whole album work away for free.

So, even in doing this interview, I learned something about what is my main approach to guitar. I take the opportunity to learn something every day. Not just in music or guitar, but in life.

The decision was actually made because of the intent of what I wanted to do with the project.

My intent was to try to open the ears of unsuspecting listeners to this style of music. To reach as many listeners as I possibly can, bringing focus to a style of music that is so expressive and so much fun to listen to but yet so under marketed. And because of that it has been in the underground, so to speak, forever. I’m mostly impressed about the twenty-somethings that hear this CD and tell me that they can’t stop listening to it. That is a huge complement.

And if I were to make it only possible to get this music by paying for it, whatever song they chose to listen to might not be the right one for them to say, “Okay, let me listen to the rest of it.” If I tried to make people pay for this, it would fall under the same category as every other fusion work and get buried along with all the other fusion works of the past, and would not get enjoyed to it’s fullest.

As people who know me would agree, I put the guitar down to raise a family, and the universe put me in a situation where I learned how to write software. So it wasn't that I needed the money. It’s honestly that I wanted my love of music and pure instrumental guitar music to be able to go out to as many people as possible. If I could get one more person to buy a Greg Howe album, or an Allan Holdsworth or Scott Henderson album, then I've done what I set out to do.

I’d like to introduce as many people to this style of music as possible, so that we can start to see an appreciation for the thousands of musicians that spend their whole lives learning how to do what I do, and never get any real recognition, or any real monetary gain. It’s a labor of love, and that’s all well and fine, but it has broken my heart that an 18-year-old with a few dance moves and a three year investment of his time learning to sing or play a few chords can earn twenty million a year, when you have guys like Scott Henderson, and Frank Gambale, that have invested their whole lives perfecting their craft, and are lucky to earn enough to survive. We need to start appreciating the masters of their craft, instead of the results of clever marketing.

So if I can bring just a teeny bit of insight to help bridge that gap, from the lucky musician, where looks and hype are the draw, to giving the recognition and love to the musicians that spend their whole life becoming masters of their craft, and if this free fusion CD can help, my reward will go far beyond any money or love I might receive.

I encourage everybody to tell everyone they know to go out get this album, and if, after listening to it to three times, you feel like you want to come back and donate, fine, and if not, and it’s not your thing, then even more fine. But at least tell someone you know who loves guitar, “Hey, there is this CD for fee, and I know you like guitar, so you should check it out.”

The day before my birthday in 2009, my 26-year-old daughter got into a car accident and lost her left hand. She's fine and doing great. She didn't get a scratch anywhere else. I’ve spent my whole life training my left hand to make people smile. Being so close to me, my daughter being in that accident was a wakeup call in such a serious way.

A tragic accident like that in my family was a sign from the universe that I need to get this CD out there. Because there's something going on and I'm part of it. What I wanted to do was give everybody the opportunity to hear my life's work. And I didn't want money to be a reason they couldn't hear it. And now money is not the reason.

At www.stratakt.com, I built that website, every line of code, and when I was putting this all together; I had no idea where this work would end up. Now it's getting clearer and clearer every day. Something else is going on!


headline Dan McAvinchey: Why do you think some music fans prefer instrumental music over traditional vocal oriented music?

Strat A. Kat:It's a good question, but I'm not really sure I can give you what you asked me, instead I’ll give you my opinion about why I think some fans like instrumental music over traditional music. I can tell you why I’ve always liked instrument music, “It’s because music transcends language”.

And as soon as you put vocals to music it now becomes restricted to that language. I just got a donation from Brazil, and a donation from Russia, and a donation from Japan. If this were a vocal album, I doubt very seriously that those three people would have been inclined to donate for what they heard.

I was able to speak to them, have a conversation with them, tell their soul something, and I bet if they donated for the Stratakat CD, most likely they have a collection of instrumental music that’s huge. Instrumental music has no boundaries and as I've proved, it also has no rules.

When I created this I didn’t have any idea of how or what I would do with this. I just knew I had to create it. I kind of left it up to the universe. Instrumental music speaks directly to the soul, vocal music speaks to your heart and your mind. Again, that’s just my opinion!


Dan McAvinchey: Are you using any social media sites to promote your CDs and music career?

Strat A. Kat: Just today I was contacted by a guitar site that asked if I minded if they promoted my CD, and of course I'm going to tell them absolutely it's okay to promote my CD. And it was and is an honor to be part of their site.

What I would prefer, more than me trying to use the social media sites to promote myself, or the CD, is for the CD and the fact it’s free, to catch on with the social media sites and promote itself. Something like this going viral would be huge! I really do believe that these songs are timeless and one of my hopes is that at least one of these songs makes it into the real book I don't know, maybe the 33rd Edition!


Dan McAvinchey: OK, let's wrap it up now, what are your plans for the future?

Strat A. Kat: Well one of my very important plans is to learn this CD note for note. Talk about a warm up routine. The CD was recorded at an extremely high level of practice and patience, with a ton of do-overs (did I say tons of do-overs?). I would lay down a solo, thinking it was off the charts, and I’d say to Greg, “What do you think of that one?”, and he would go “Wow Strat, that's really good, but I think you’ve got a better one in you, and a better one, and a better one, I'd be like, "Okay." About 5 takes later and a few tweaks, you have a solo. What I do know is that playing some of these solos, my fingers hurt more than at any time in my entire life of playing guitar.

Greg was the producer from heaven, with the patience of Job. He really just let me play. I know you can hear Greg’s influence, but I don’t sound exactly like him. And that’s due to the 40 years of playing, studying and influences from before we met. He was more of coach, bringing out of me the best I had, never telling me exactly what to play, (OK, maybe a couple times ). I remember the very first solo. It was like pulling teeth to get me to start it. It was that four hours with him explaining what he wanted for me that set the tone for the rest of the songs.

Trust me, Greg has a standard that is far over and above anything I would have done on my own. I remember seeing that Satraini video where he was in the studio playing, and he had a producer with him. I didn’t get it, I thought surly Joe could do this on his own. We live, we learn.

What’s really cool is that the solos were obviously laid down last, which gave my guitar playing time to progress during the 7 years. It was as if I was building up to be able to lay down the level of solo that I do on this CD.

The second thing is getting ready to do the next CD. This CD is going to be 33 songs, so basically it's going to be three CDs in one, and yes, it will be free. And it will be on download only. One part will be jazz standards done in the Stratified style, and I'm hoping that the second group of 11 of the songs, will be live, with a band.

Third, I'm playing live every chance I get. The beauty of the internet is that I can play a live show, five times a week, anytime I feel like it, and that's what I've been doing.

I'm not sure if anybody's familiar with Second Life. It’s an alternate reality, with I’ve heard around 2 million accounts, and they have over 200 nightclubs in there. So far I've played about five of them, and it's the most amazing appreciative audience I've ever played for. I get to play right from the comfort of my home studio, with my set up, my sound, and I hit every style of music I can. The audience gets to hear me from the comfort of their home, and interact with me before, during and after the shows. It’s so cool to be playing to folks in the UK, the US and Australia, from all over, all at the same time. And there are some amazingly talented musicians in the Second Life music community, it’s such a great place to come and hear live music. I’m honored to be just one of them. Pretty sure this is going to be part of the future of live music.

You can search my schedule if you'd like and listen to the live streams anytime I'm playing. Here's the schedule in Google scheduler. And here's my stream number (In Media Player, use Open URL. In iTunes use, Open Stream). And you never know when I might be practicing on this stream any time day or night. It's only fitting that during the time I was learning to write software and I put the guitar down to raise my family, I bought over 800 CDs from Guitar Nine (www.guitar9.com) when G9 used to sell CDs, I bought CDs featuring over 650 different guitar players and I would have those loaded into my computer so that I could listen to them on random while I wrote code. So, Guitar Nine has a lot to do with this CD, way more than any listener or anybody reading this will ever know , and I will forever be in Dan's debt. My biggest outlet to the planet is from Guitar Nine and I think the sky’s the limit.

My dream is to somehow make this CD the most popular instrumental to ever be released. Yet to do that I'm going to have to top Kenny G. I believe he holds that record. Hopefully people will hear a little bit more fire in my playing than in Kenny G‘s.

I have a ton of teaching materials that I've been holding onto for years and years, I have thought of a DVD series, but there are so many out there! A few years back, I actually got to spend some serious time video recording Greg while he was getting ready to do an online guitar school seminar. I know that’s still in the works for Greg, and I can’t wait till he gets that up and going. Right now my biggest anticipation is to hear Greg’s new band “Maragold.” I’ve heard a few songs, and oh my, it’s smoking hot!

I majored in jazz guitar and really thought what I would be doing in my 50's and 60's would be teaching at some college or running a jazz band at a high school. I had no idea that I’d be playing at the level that I'm playing today and I owe it all to a lot of people. Thank you, Dan, for giving me the opportunity to tell people my story.

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