Since her first album was released on Kill Rock Stars in 2007, New York-based guitar player Marnie Stern has garnered loads of attention for her playing style, consisting mostly of finger tapping.
No longer just for Eddie Van Halen wannabes, Stern has adopted the style for the texture and rhythm it incorporates. Her music fuses pop, experimental and math rock – something few artists can boast – but Stern sums it up best: "It’s spazzy!"
Guitar World caught up with Stern while she was down in Florida writing material for her upcoming fourth album.
How did you get into finger tapping?
It was by accident, really. I was listening to a lot of math rock-y type bands do lots of complex stuff and I couldn't figure out how they were doing it. Then I realized that sometimes they were finger tapping, so I started messing around doing it. I didn't really know what I was doing, so I do it in a weird way but I like the way it sounds.
Are you a big Eddie Van Halen fan?
Actually, no! I mean, not when I started doing that. I really didn't even put those two together. [I got into tapping] more for texture and the sound itself, and the tone. Lightning Bolt and Hella are two bands I listen to, and there's a lot of finger tapping going on there. But texturally it's cool and I'm really into different rhythmic feelings, and the tapping really helps to find the pockets that I normally wouldn't hear in my head.
Do you feel that tapping is a style that goes with your songwriting better than just say, soloing or shredding?
Yeah, because I try to use it in a way that adds texture to the song and that helps the song. It's for the song, not away from the song. I don't do it just to do it; it's always to add the melody.
You’ve said in interviews that you find it pretty easy to play that way. Do you really find that it's easier than traditional playing?
Yeah, I mean you use both hands. It's much easier! I guess it's coordination, but it's kind of like typing on a computer.
It's hard to find bands that are doing something new. Your sound is really unique.
I'm working on my fourth record, and for the past bunch of months, I was trying to write and I was just so stuck. I was blaming it on other stuff: ‘I don't have that many influences right now, I don't really like much music right now’ - but the truth was, my brain was just stuck in my familiar zone of what I know how to do, and so as soon as I started letting go, not worrying or focusing on what style it was, then it became more fun because it was interesting.
Where do you see your guitar playing going? Is there a next level that you're trying to take your playing to, or another style you'd like to embrace more, going forward?
There are a million different things I would like to explore. More arpeggiating, more dissonance and notes, but with melody. Most of my playing style is very on point - the tapping, just by nature of being rhythmic, is tight - so I'd like to explore something looser and less precise.
Talk about your songwriting process.
Talk about a mystery. That's what I've been doing. I'm in Florida. I got off tour and I came here where my parents live. I work all night outside. When it comes, it just comes out of nowhere and it happens relatively quickly. You find something that was your intention in the back of your head but maybe there’s a surprise that directed you in a different way.
But I never want it to be formulaic. That surprise element is just so important. I just have to sit there forever and ever and ever until something happens where I think, ‘whoa, what's that?’ And then I just go from that point. But for each record, I have a bunch of different ideas in the back of my head.
For this next record I'm kind of getting into a ‘50s Chuck Berry style and trying to see if I can mix that with my style. I've been trying to break away from tap, power chord, tap, power chord. I’m trying to find more melody [singing] but it's hard with the tapping to find melody on top of those parts because they just don't naturally lend themselves to melody. That’s why for so long I was doing a chanting-like singing, because everything was so busy underneath that I wanted to keep something static and concrete.
When you started playing out, how were you received?
Ugh, it was a disaster for many years [Laughs]. From when I was 23 to 30 I played out twice a week to my best friend and the bartender. Sometimes maybe it was ten people. It was crickets chirping, or just people walking away or telling me how terrible I was, and it was really hard to keep going. I had this best friend and she just kept saying, "Don't worry about it, keep going," and so that's why it was so strange when the first record came out and people liked it. It just was very confusing, but really cool (laughs).
How did you hook up with your label, Kill Rock Stars?
Every year I would send in my demo to them and a couple other labels. I did it for three years in a row, and then the final year I was like, ‘Forget it, I'm not doing it.’ My friend said, ‘You send that goddamn demo!’ She's really bossy (laughs). So I sent it and the head of the label called and said, ‘Hey, I'm gonna be in New York, do you wanna meet? I heard your demo.’ I was like, ‘Whaaaat?’ And so then we met and that was it. It was crazy.
Where have you gotten the best reception so far?
The last tour in Europe, it was winter and there were crazy snowstorms there - like the most in 20 years. We had a van that had no heat, and it was so cold, I'd have to put my hands underneath the bass player's armpits before we played to warm them up because my fingers weren’t working (laughs).
We were playing in the Czech Republic and we got to what looked like barracks in the middle of nowhere, and the van got stuck in the middle of the snow and the sun was going down. It took a long time to get the van out of the snow and then we go down shivering into the venue that's this tiny place and we think, "Ugh, no one's gonna come here."
Not only did it get totally packed, but all the kids are singing every word. It was so weird and great! We were looking at each other while we were playing, like, "What the hell?" The happiness from that can last forever, so when I'm feeling annoyed with other stuff I gotta remember those little moments. And then we played with the Flaming Lips for five shows, which were the coolest shows I've ever played in my life.
What advice would you give to girls picking up the guitar?
I had been wanting to give guitar lessons to girls because I feel like women tend to use their voice as the starting point for a song and learn a few chords, and then it ends there because then they just use their voice to flesh out a song. I think you should look at the guitar differently instead of just something to help the voice. It’s its own amazing crazy thing that can bring about different ideas. At least for me it has been, so I'm just so appreciative.
With songwriting, you get stuck with all these judgments like, that sounds too much like this, that sounds too much like this, and as soon as I stopped putting labels and judging and just got weird then I stopped caring. But also, I didn't really think anyone was really ever gonna hear it. I never thought I'd get a record deal. It had just been so many years, and then I thought, ‘well, I'm as good as all these people I'm listening to, so I'm just gonna do whatever the hell I want.’ And ironically, that's when someone took notice.
Anna Blumenthal is the advertising coordinator for Guitar World, Guitar Aficionado and Revolver. She’s been playing guitar and singing in rock 'n' roll bands for the past 12 years and currently fronts the New York City-based all-girl garage band Party Lights. More at facebook.com/partylightsband.