Interview with Jon Stickley (Part of a series that will be in my book on how to practice)
Asheville, North Carolina has no shortage of great flat pickers. If you show up to a bluegrass jam you can expect to find at least 3 or more guitar players who will blow you mind with feats of dazzling runs and hot licks. Perhaps its being so close to the home place of the grandfather of flatpicking, Doc Watson. Its hard to stand out in such a crowd but Jon Stickley has managed to stand out not just in Asheville but on a national level.
There’s a lot of people who have copied the style of guitar legend Tony Rice but very few who have moved beyond it into a style all their own. Stickley’s guitar playing has so fully absorbed the style of Rice that he’s not trying to speak a new language. It is his language now and he’s learned to speak that language in an entirely new way. Stickley’s compositions are on one hand firmly rooted in the traditions of bluegrass but incorporate elements of rock, jazz, and at times even far out genres such as ambient or electronic music. The sound is something entirely new. Jon Stickley is helping to move bluegrass into the future while respecting and understanding its traditions.
You should go buy some of his music right now.
BC: How did you get started playing music?
JS: I started playing really early on. I was always involved with singing and choir in church in Durham, NC. I started out in children’s choir and I was always pretty into it. Most of my friends weren’t but I liked reading the music of pop songs and all the stuff we sang. We did Rocky Top and some Christian stuff and some gospel. That’s when I learned about harmony and reading a part and singing with other people.
BC: What age was that?
JS: I probably started doing it when I was 6 or something like that. And so that was probably the first place I learned or experienced music. You know we would do church performances or things like that.
BC: Did you have a good teacher at that point?
JS: Yeah just the choir director. I did that all the way through high school when we had youth group and I was always in the church plays and stuff like that. It was regular. Wednesday night we would have music practice and that’s how I first started with music and then I was in a boys choir. The North Carolina boys choir and we toured and things like that. We went on a tour all the way to Toronto and back. That’s when I was in 5th or 6th, 7th grade. That was pretty intense and serious. Straight up boys choir playing some classical. Bach and stuff like that.
BC: How did your choir director teach people to sing parts?
JS: He’d look at each group. You’d have alto, tenor, bass. Each one in their own group and he would go along to each group and he would demonstrate the melody and then we would sing it back. Kind of repetition and stuff like that. This is early on for kids and we had no formal musical education, just learning in a church environment.
BC: At that point you would practice your parts by singing the separate part and you would come back and sing it all together?
JS: Yeah and he’d say let’s hear the sopranos, let’s hear the tenors and make sure it’s right.
BC: Was there any music theory involved?
JS: Not a lot. I didn’t put much of that together until later on.
BC: He didn’t talk about that?
JS: No, he would say this is the lead, this is the harmony. It came naturally when you’d learn how to stack a harmony. You’d hear it and see how it works and when it was written you’d see the notes and you see them move together. You’d follow your note. Later on when I got into bluegrass it came really naturally. I could understand harmony.
BC: It was probably pretty easy for you.
BC: At what point did you go from singing to playing guitar?
JS: Well I did the boys choir thing and that was a conscious decision. It was like you can do this choir or you can do the “Select Soccer” League. The more intense competitive soccer team and I consciously choose music. I really liked music. I’ve always liked it a lot. That was my decision and it was one of the earliest decisions I remember making. Most people my age would have done the opposite. They weren’t into being in a choir. They wanted to play soccer. That was one of the earliest periods that I knew music was going to be an important part of my life.
BC: Did you start playing guitar in high school?
JS: When I stopped boys choir, around 7th grade, I got my first guitar. I remember sitting in 7th grade in math class and I had got my guitar for Christmas. My dad had showed me the A, D, and E chords for Twist and Shout. That was the first chords I ever learned and I remember sitting in school doing those chord motions with my hand. Imagining playing and how cool it felt.
BC: That’s the real deal right there.
JS: A D E. A D E. Yes! And I would go home and play A D E.
BC: And your brother plays too. Did he start at the same time?
JS: Yeah, by default. He’s two years younger. So he ended up doing everything I did. We didn’t actually become friends until he got to high school.
BC: So you weren’t picking together until high school?
JS: Yeah were into separate things. We didn’t even like each other till then. Now we’re best friends. He’s my favorite in the world. So because of that reason we grew up playing all the stuff together. We had the same musical upbringing.
BC: When you started playing guitar? Was it basic book stuff or was it anything specific you were into?
JS: Nirvana. Rock. Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
BC: Did you learn all that stuff by ear? Did you have lessons? Tab?
JS: I started taking lessons during sophomore year of high school. So between 7th grade and 10th there was a 4 year period where we were just messing around. And in my neighborhood I was lucky again because I had 4 or 5 neighborhood friends and were into making movies and having bands. So in 7th grade we made a band. I played drums just cause I was the only kid that had a drum set. My parents got me a drum set. We started the band Bistro Illegal. And we had the band Strunken White and I played drums. You can actually find that band’s music on ITunes or Spotify. I had that band all the way through high school. All the way through my freshman year of college I was in a pretty decent indie rock band.
BC: Drums? Did you take lessons for drums?
JS: I never took any lessons for drums at all. I played sax in band in middle school. All sorts of stuff.
BC: Well let’s take a step back. Did you ever at any point have anybody tell you, you should practice like this? Or maybe you should do that? Or did you seek out that information or did anybody say, when you practice you should do this?
JS: When I started taking guitar lessons I had a really good guitar teacher. And I liked rock and all that but I didn’t really have anything real specific things I needed to learn. I wasn’t trying to learn bluegrass. I didn’t even know what bluegrass was until senior year of high school. My teacher was good. He was kind of like a Mr. Miyagi. A pretty disciplinarian type teacher. I took lessons with him once a week after school.
BC: What kind of stuff would he teach you?
JS: I some learned fingerstyle folk guitar. Kind of like Mississippi John Hurt kind of things. Some classical fingerstyle. Bouree in Em. Romanza, all these beginner classical tunes.
BC: That’s pretty high tech. Was he teaching how to break things down?
JS: Yeah. We mainly worked with tab but he taught me how to learn songs. Start with a phrase. The 1st phrase and get it down. Learn the 2nd phrase get that down. Add those 2 phrases together. Work through the whole song like that.
BC: That’s it.
JS: And he made me count and say different words for different beats. Quarter notes were cat, cat, cat. Pelican for triplets. So we worked through that stuff really slow. That was huge as far as learning an instrument, that’s where I first learned how to learn a song.
BC: That’s a fantastic teacher right there.
JS: I already had a lot of it on my own since I was playing in bands. I knew power chords. I was really good with rhythm and harmony from growing up. His name was Hawkseye Pope. He was a blues musician/teacher. Folk musician kind of guy in Durham. He was an awesome teacher. Strict, but a really great teacher.
BC: How many years did you take lessons?
JS: I took for 3 years. Sophomore year till senior year in high school. Once a week. 30 minutes.
BC: That’s great. That sounds like he really laid down a good foundation in terms of basic guitar knowledge.
JS: Yeah, that was cool. My brother took lessons from him and so did our friend Andy Thorn who is a really great banjo player now. We learned from Hawkseye and one of the things he was big on was getting you out in front of people performing. My brother was actually playing with Andy and they were backing each other up. He got them together and out to an open mic in Chapel Hill and performed. So they did that once without me and then Andy was like we need mandolin. They were going with guitar and banjo. And it was like Jon you need to play this mandolin with us next time we go. Here’s 3 chords. Here’s the chords for Minor Swing. And some other really easy songs and they gave me the David Grisman album. Andy’s dad had showed him bluegrass music and that’s when I was like Oh my God! I had never heard bluegrass but I was like this is so cool. I had the Grisman book and started learning all this mandolin. Picked it up really fast.
BC: You had some chops.
JS: Yeah I had some dexterity and I could read tab. And I could hear on mandolin what he was doing and I could copy it. And then from learning that music on mandolin I started hearing a guitar player, Tony Rice on the album. I’m like, I think I even like this more than the mandolin part.
BC: When you first started taking lessons did he have any kind of technique exercises? Did he have you do scales or work with a metronome, drilling you with that stuff?
JS: We did a lot of that. One thing I remember him doing was chromatic stuff on the guitar. You know you have 4 fingers and you can do combinations like 1 2 3 4, chromatic. He had me write out every combination of that so it’d be like. 1 2 3 4. 1 2 4 3. 1 3 4 2. And I’d go through the whole thing on each different string. And it wasn’t even musical. It was just every combination your fingers could play. I would go through the whole thing with him sitting there counting, Even, even, even, even. There were times when he was pretty critical and I remember getting teary eyed a couple of times. I was sensitive and he was like. Wrong! Wrong, you know. He was pretty tough. I had a whole bunch of exercises like that.
BC: That sounds like an amazing teacher.
JS: Yep, he really was. And if you didn’t do your work for the week you knew he was going to get on you. Sometimes I didn’t look forward to going.
BC: So even at that age you were driven enough to take those lessons and practice. Your parents did not tell you to do this?
JS: No, I found it exciting to be able to learn songs. Like when I learned Bouree in Em. To be able to play that and hear myself do it was enough to keep going.
BC: So back to bluegrass. That was senior year of high school?
JS: Yep. They needed a mandolin player in the band we started doing open mic. I remember being nervous as shit and we had a setlist and went and played and people liked it. Having someone like your music when you do it on stage is pretty big buzz at a young age.
BC: That was just a trio with your brother and Andy Thorn.
JS: We got a bass player and started a band called Crawdad PA and we made a CD. That was senior year of high school with those guys and bass player named Ian Thompson.
BC: Were you writing music at that point?
JS: Not a lot. Not really.
BC: Was that CD all original?
JS: It was a lot of Andy’s songs. He’s always been great songwriter. But then we played minor swing on there and foggy mountain breakdown. Maybe one or two punk songs. A Dead Milkmen cover.
BC: You were blending genre’s right from the beginning?
JS: Right. I wasn’t raised with bluegrass at all. I had my own taste in music that blended things right from the get go. But then around senior year I started being like, bluegrass! We went to Merlefest. We went to a couple of bluegrass jams called Banjo in the Hollow. It’s the Durham area picking scene. Kind of like the bluegrass association of Durham and that’s when I went to my first jam. A real jam. I was like this is awesome! It blew me away. Ok I’ve got a new goal. My new goal is to be able to play at this jam and play songs I don’t know and to be able to take a solo when it comes to me. I couldn’t do it. I could only play the songs I knew. That was 1999 and I was a senior in High School. That’s when I really started working on bluegrass.
BC: So were you focused on guitar or mandolin?
JS: I was focused on mandolin at first but as soon as I got to college I got interested in flatpicking more. The band Big Fat Gap that I ended up joining in Chapel Hill through Andy. He went to Chapel Hill and I went to NC State. He instantly started with this band Big Fat Gap and they had all the instruments already but they figured they could add a lead guitar. They had a rhythm guitar so I was like I’m IN! I can do it! That’s when I became a guitarist. I started playing gigs and working on guitar.
BC: What year was that?
JS: That was 2001.
BC: Were you working out of a book or anything?
JS: Mainly listening and playing along. I’ve always played along with recordings for playing bluegrass. That’s kind of my main thing.
BC: Was it Tony Rice mainly you were listening to or were you listening to other people too.
JS: I was a total Tony Rice clone. For a long time. Pretty much all through college even after. After I graduated college I went to Colorado and started a band, Broke Mountain, and did that for two years in Durango and that was when I was still a Tony Rice clone. I had my own style but I mostly played Tony licks in that style. That’s what I loved. I know lots of Tony solo’s note for note. And because of the way I grew up it was always easy for me to hear.
I had the Tone Poems tab book. And as soon as I learned one of his solos I could figure out every single other one. My ear was always good.
BC: How would you work to figure out some of those solos. Would you slow it down?
JS: I could do it usually full speed. I never used a slow down machine. I couldn’t always play it up to speed. But I could hear it. Work it up and eventually do it. Pretty quick.
BC: That’s impressive.
JS: That’s something I knew I had a natural ability for. I know that comes easier to me than a lot people I know.
BC: Tony Rice’s breaks are weird too. They don’t fall under your fingers real naturally.
JS: It’s funny because now I would not tell someone to emulate Tony Rice first. I would start with more George Shuffler if you want to learn bluegrass guitar, learn his solos and get a really good handle on basic melody. You know learn Scruggs style banjo first before you learn Bela Fleck. But at the same time because I dove into Tony Rice first you learn the most advanced thing first it gave me kind of a leg up on understanding it all. I didn’t learn how to play a basic bluegrass break until a few years ago. I always played a Tony Rice style solo over any chord change. That was based on the chords and the licks for those chords.