ProgSheet - Daryl Stuermer Interview

A Few Words With...Daryl Stuermer

Interview by John A. Wilcox

This guy knows his guitars! From his early days in Sweetbottom, to his work with Jean-Luc Ponty on albums like Imaginary Voyage and Enigmatic Ocean. Solo works like Waiting In The Wings and GO!, and of course his live guitar and bass work in Genesis, most recently featured on the Genesis DVD When In Rome. Daryl Stuermer is, at heart, a self-effacing Milwaukee boy who just happens to be able to burn up the frets with confidence and a strong melodic grounding. Sit back and join us in a nice little conversation about guitars, guitars, and guitars...

PS: To the best of your recollection, what's the first guitar you've ever owned?

DS: It was called the Del Ray.

PS: And who made those?

DS: I think there was a company that made the thing called Kingston guitars. I think it's the same people, because they made the same guitar also. That was my very very first electric guitar. My first acoustic guitar was an Epiphone. But that was my first electric for sure. My first - if you want to call it - 'real' guitar was a Fender Strat.

PS: How old were you when you got that first Strat?

DS: I would've been 14. So I was playing 11, 12, 13, then I got the Strat at 14.

PS: What made you want to play guitar?

DS: Basically my brother. Because my brother was already playing guitar. My brother was a professional bassist, even today, and he used to play in a group with me called Sweetbottom. But my brother was a guitar player at that point, and a singer. So he sang, played guitar, and he was 2 years older than me. You always kind of admire your brother. He kind of looked like Elvis Presley. Everybody liked my brother and I thought this was a way of getting out of my shell because I was a very quiet kid, and always under the shadow of my brother. I really liked my brother a lot, I admired him. So he kind of got me involved with the guitar and that's what got me going. 

PS: It's funny how similar our backgrounds are in that sense. My brother is 7 years older than me. He was playing in bands in his teens and I would play his guitar when he left it at home. The first one I ever had, I inherited from him - it was either a Gretsch or a Hagstrom. I wish I still had it!

DS: I bought a Hagstrom too, eventually. I did even as a professional when I was working with Jean-Luc Ponty. I had a Hagstrom Swede, it was called, kind of like a Les Paul. Larry Coryell was playing a Hagstrom Swede at the time. When I was with Jean-Luc Ponty, we were out on tour with Larry Coryell and a guy named Philippe Katrine - he's from Belgium. Either they were opening for us or we were opening for them through Europe. Larry Coryell was playing the Hagstrom Swede and we even have pictures of ourselves visiting the Hagstrom plant in Sweden.

PS: What was your first band?

DS: We had a band called the Sultans. It was a local thing. Songs by Eric Burdon & the Animals, the Rolling Stones - even older than that - some Buddy Holly. That was pretty much the kind of music we were doing. We were doing songs like My Girl by the Temptations. The Sultans was probably my first rock band.

PS: And how many years from that to Sweetbottom?

DS: Oh my God, when I was doing that I probably like 12 -13 years old. I had another band in between, but Sweetbottom was probably the first what you call 'real professional' band. I would've been 18 or 19 when we started Sweetbottom. We were playing most of the time 3 or 4 nights a week. Then we got into a club and we ended up there for 3 years. 5 nights a week in one club playing whatever we wanted to play. That was really the stomping grounds. That was really where everything came together and that's where I was discovered in a sense. Because a lot of bands would come into town and people would say "Oh where should we go?" And a promoter would say "Oh go down to this nightclub called the Bull Ring. There's this band called Sweetbottom and they might even let you sit in." And we would let people sit in with us. You'd have Chuck Mangione come in with his guys, Cannonball Adderly's band came in... But the main thing was when Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention all came in. We all kind of jammed together and the keyboard player named George Duke - who is now a producer - he's the guy who brought my name forward to Jean-Luc Ponty. I was about 21 years old and he liked my playing, so he gave my name to Jean-Luc Ponty. I got a call from Jean-Luc Ponty, and I auditioned for him after that in California. I was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

PS: So that had to be about 1973-74?

DS: I auditioned for him in '74, and then in '75 I actually joined his group. It took a while before that actually kind of got off the ground. 

PS: How was it playing with Jean-Luc? What was he like to work with?

DS: Well, the guitar became sort of like the second instrument to the violin. Whenever there was another solo usually the guitar and the violin played together. So I was pretty close with him because he had to kind of look at me as the guy who plays the melodies with him. I actually worked with him really well. I admired him so much because I thought he was a real veteran. The guy was 32 - 33 years old and here I was 22 years old and working with a veteran that had played not only in Frank Zappa's band but Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was pretty much amazed by him and the guy always played great. I can only say good things because I learned so much from the guy. I ended up doing three albums with him plus I even played on a couple of songs on another album with him. The first album I did with him was Aurora, then Imaginary Voyage, then Enigmatic Ocean. Maybe a couple of years later he asked me to play on a couple of songs on an album called Civilized Evil. Anyway, it was great working with him. It makes you play differently when you have to play violin lines, it's a whole different approach.

PS: Different in terms of scale? Different in how you come into a note?

DS: The scales are very different because the way strings are laid out on a violin makes the violin play certain things certain ways, as the guitar does. But when you have to play what a violinist plays, the intervals are much wider, so you have to learn the technique to get those things. He writes songs for the violin so I had to learn how to play those songs the way he did it. The lines were a little more complicated and more challenging than maybe something I would've written on my own because it didn't lay on the guitar as well as maybe it did on the violin. You just have to force yourself to learn how to do it.

Even Mike Rutherford of Genesis - his high E string is always a D. So he's just learned how to play everything with that D because he writes songs with that. It makes you write a certain way.

PS: I'm pretty sure Squonk was written that way.

DS: I'm sure it was, that's the way he does it. It's funny - you don't think that it sounds that unusual, but actually you might not have written that if you wouldn't have done that tuning. Now that's the way it is. They do this song Turn It On Again, and that's a whole different tuning as well. The A string is a B, because he has to keep using that as the anchor. Plus the E is tuned to D. So whatever you do, you'll create something maybe a little bit unusual. That's a very creative way of approaching a song. But then again then you always have to have all these different guitars all tuned differently. I love just having like 1 or 2 guitars, but Mike has, you know, 5 or 6 guitars all with different tunings. And then you have to have a spare of that guitar as well, so you might be seeing him with 12 guitars.

PS: About three minutes into the song The Archer from the GO! album, there's this really cool high riff with a lot of really squeaky high notes. What are you using on the guitar there, effect-wise?

DS: It could be either one of two things. What I used on the song when I was playing the melody sometimes, I had this thing called the Harmonist, which gives you an octave higher harmonic sound. Or it could be a thing called the Whammy - it's a pedal. The Whammy pedal, which also gives you a high - an octave higher - you can set it to give you an octave higher than you're actually playing. The Harmonist does the same kind of thing except that with the Whammy pedal, when it's up it's your normal sound and when you press the pedal down it goes an octave higher, or whatever you decide to make it, so it goes 'weeeeee.' It's like that kind of... it's like an old mini-moog. 

PS: What I was hearing sounded like harmonics with some kind of distortion on them and ultra high.

DS: That's probably a Boss Harmonist and that is just a small pedal. What it does is, it lets your note come out an octave higher. That's the way I have it set up. You could set it to do 3rds or 4ths - whatever you want. I set it for a higher note just because a lot of times when I'm playing live, I'm playing a melody and I want another note in there to strengthen the melody.

PS: It really perked up the ear. It's not a sound you hear very often.

DS: Also there's a solo in the middle of that song. After you hear a normal kind of solo, it sounds like a synthesizer and that's the Whammy. That's a guitar too - it's my guitar playing, but I'm able to make it sound like an old minimoog. It sounds like a keyboard player's playing a minimoog solo.  The Archer is the oldest song on GO!. I wrote that in 1974 right before I joined Jean-Luc Ponty's band, and I remember Jean-Luc Ponty liked the song. But I never did an official recording.

PS: You have a great melodic sensibility in your approach to solos. It seems like they're actually saying something rather than just lightning fast scales that are the feature of so many solo albums by guitarists.

DS: Well thank you. I think of these guys as really excellent guitar players but what I find missing in a lot of guitar solo records are songs. What I do is I write the song first and then I think about what I'm going to play over top of it. A lot of these songs are written first, I write them on a keyboard, or on a guitar - sort of depends on the song. My more melodic stuff is probably written on a keyboard. Then the guitar is not an afterthought but my second thought. I feel like solo sections shouldn't be just wild whacking off solos, they should actually mean something, they should be part of the song. I try to be as melodic as I can and make it as part of the melody. You have a melody there and you have a solo, but don't make it like it's night and day.

A lot of records that I hear, a guy will play this riff, and it's almost like the riff is just there so they can start soloing again, and I don't like that. I think they're excellent players but I don't think it's good writing, and its not good concept. I feel like the riff and the solo are all one, I feel like it's part of the composition, so I try to even solo with that in mind. I'm glad that you say that because that's what I'm trying to succeed in. Like I said, a lot of guys that I really respect in playing, I'm not crazy about their albums. Guys like Eric Johnson do it really wonderfully, because he writes a good song and he plays a good solo. You're trying to think melodic, melodic. It's all about the sound, its all about the phrasing and it builds and builds. You don't just start playing fast right away. You just don't. It's not about acrobatic playing.

PS: I can't help but wonder if someone like, say, Jeff Beck benefited from having played in a pop band like the Yardbirds in terms of his approach to writing strongly melodic, easily definable guitar instrumentals.

DS: I think so, I think that's what helped to me too. Playing in a band like Genesis is all about the sound, it's all about the music. It's not about the flashy playing. It makes you think about those things. It makes you think the composition is actually important here.

PS: Speaking of Genesis, I've been curious to ask for years - You and Chester Thompson have been in the live band for years, decades at this point. When live sets have been put together, are Phil, Mike, and Tony open to suggestions from you and Chester as to what songs should go in the set?

DS: Oh sure. I've known these guys a long time. Even though we're not members. They don't want any more members in their band. As soon as Peter left and Steve left, they came down to 3. A lot of people ask why they didn't let us become members. Basically they didn't want any more writers. It's really kind of down to that, because when they finally bought it down to the 3 guys, that's the most comfortable they felt. Then it became every song that they write is written now by 3 of them. They decided at one point to say "Let's not have a song by Phil Collins, or have a separate song by Mike or Tony - let's just do everything together." That's how Genesis works.

We never became members but we've always been treated very equally in every other aspect of the band. When it come to us, like when we're at rehearsal, I could come up to them and say "What do you think about Domino?" They would take that to suggestion for sure. I might give a suggestion - "How do we get into this song from this song if we want to connect the songs?" So they all look at me for that too. I've never had a problem with that and I never feel like I can't say something. When we got together it felt more like a family reunion than a band reunion, cause I've known these guys for a long time and I've never had a problem with them.

When we got together in NY, I think it was October or November of 2006, it was the first time we had gotten together since 1992. They wanted to see if the magic was still there, so they wanted to get together for 2 weeks, just rehearse & see if they could come up with songs to do on the tour and just to see if it's gonna work at all. So me, Mike, Tony and Chester Thompson got together that night we all flew in, sat at this restaurant in the hotel and realized it had been 14 years since we'd actually been all together. Phil couldn't do it because he wasn't in NY, he was doing something else. I said to them "It feels like 14 months" because it did; it felt like we hadn't been together in a year or 14 months, and everybody felt the same way. We sat there for about 5 or 10 minutes and we all came back to our old conversations and the jokes or whatever it was and it felt good again.

I think I've been one of the most fortunate people to be in a band. I never thought a band would be this great to work with as far as us as human beings. This is the greatest band I've ever worked with on all levels. As people, I wouldn't just do this anymore if there weren't great people to work with. I've made good money over the years, I could not do this and I'd be fine but I like these guys and as soon as I heard they were gonna do this again, I thought "This is gonna be great." These are people who I actually love and all of our families grew up together, all of our kids grew up together. It's pretty amazing when you see the kids. I saw Simon Collins, that's his son, I said to Simon when he came to our rehearsal in NY for the first time I thought he looked like Phil when he walked in. Like the first time I met him. I said "Simon how old are you now?" And he says "I just turned 30." I said "When I met your father the first rehearsal I did with Genesis, he was 27 years old and I was 25. You're older than we were when we first met each other." That's when Phil and I met. It's amazing when you see that. The whole history come before you.

PS: Can you tell me 6 CDs you never get tired of listening to?

Steely Dan - Aja
Jeff Beck - Wired
Bruce Hornsby - Intersections
Jimi Hendrix - Greatest Hits
Annie Lennox - Diva
Peter Gabriel - Security
Blood Sweat & Tears - Child Is Father To The Man


Special thanks to Roz for transcription help!

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