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The Multifaceted Mike Seal

Alan Bryson By

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It was interesting because we took our guitar lessons from our piano teacher, and she did not play guitar. That didn't really bother us – we were so young. Because what she was really skilled at was reading knowledge, and getting us to sight read. She had perfects ears and she could hear when we made a mistake, but she couldn't convey any technique to us. —Mike Seal
He's an extraordinarily talented guitarist whose musical interests range from jazz and bluegrass to classical music. Mike Seal has been active on the Southern music scene for over a decade and is based in Nashville, Tennessee. His grandfather was a gifted self taught gospel guitarist in rural Virginia, and his older brother, Rob Seal, is a multi-instrumentalist (guitar/mandolin/violin/banjo) who is active on the bluegrass music scene. Mike is married to a professional musician who is also a very accomplished lap steel guitarist and dobro player. She fronts a band with her equally talented sister on vocals, guitar and mandolin.

In 2016 he was invited to join the Jerry Douglas Band. Jerry Douglas is a master musician and dobro virtuoso—a three time winner of the CMA Musician of the Year Award. The band's last album won a Grammy in 2018—that's Jerry Douglas' 15th Grammy award. The album fuses jazz, bluegrass, swing, soul, and blues, and explains why Jerry Douglas invited Mike Seal to join his band of outstanding players.

This interview took place shortly after he joined the band and was published at that time here on AllAboutJazz in audio form. This summer Mike Seal released his first solo album, Dogwoods (Seal Club, 2018). Although it is an acoustic guitar album, with five original and three cover tracks, it is remarkably diverse and showcases his wide ranging tastes and mastery of styles—from João Pernambuco's "Sons de Carrilhoes" to Jerry Reed's "The Claw." This debut album reinforces my belief that he is one of the top guitarists of his generation, and definitely a musician to watch. In lieu of an album review it seems like an ideal time to revisit this extended biographical interview —this time in written form.

Musical family

All About Jazz: Usually I ask this question and I don't have any idea what the answer will be. But today, if I had to bet, I'd bet a thousand dollars that at least one of your parents is a musician, or at least someone who loves music and plays an instrument. Would I win that bet?

Mike Seal: Yes, technically you would. My Mom is a musician, not by trade, but she grew up playing piano in church and singing in a choir. Her father, my grandfather, was a fairly gifted folk and gospel guitarist in Southwest Virginia. So I remember hearing him as a kid and being completely blown away, and thinking, how could anyone ever do that on a guitar?

AAJ: What was his style like.

MS: Very much out of the tradition of Doc Watson and players in that vein. He grew up playing gospel, and he was a man who never saw the ocean in his entire life. It was just something he always did.

AAJ: Did he have training, or was it kind of a natural thing for him?

MS: It was just home grown, from playing in churches around where he lived. It was extremely rural, I think he had one opportunity to join a bluegrass band when he was growing up, and turned it down to stay home and have a family. So aside from that, those were the only musicians. Though my older brother is really the guy who got me playing. He's four years older than I am, so he started at a very young age and I wanted to emulate him every step of the way.

AAJ: Is he still playing?

MS: Actually he's a great player, he's very much a bluegrass musician at this point. He grew up with rock & roll and other kinds of music, but yeah he plays banjo, violin, guitar, and mandolin—all fairly equally well.

Musical Training

AAJ: Wow. Well how about you, when did you start out?

MS: I think my parents put me in lessons on piano when I was five, my brother had already been taking lessons for a few years. I continued on piano until my teacher died, she was an elderly lady. Most of the time she didn't get my name right, but we enjoyed the lessons, and she taught us to be proficient at reading at a young age. So that was really a great benefit. I continued with that with a new teacher until I started guitar at about age nine.

AAJ: Did you continue with piano, or did you completely give it up for guitar?

MS: Oh no, I continue to play today, and I took formal lessons through high school. My brother and I continued to study with a lady where we grew up, her name was Nancy Hackman, and she was a conservatory trained classical pianist. So she had a really solid foundation to teach from. Her arthritis was so bad in her old age that she didn't play anymore, but we knew that she was very knowledgeable about what she was doing, so we played a lot of the sonatinas and sonatas, and piano works that you would be presented with as a young student in that vein.

AAJ: How about guitar, was it formal instruction there too, or were you and your brother just picking that up?

MS: It was formal in that we were reading the Mel Bay method of guitar. It was a little bit interesting because we took our guitar lessons from our piano teacher, and she did not play guitar. That didn't really bother us—we were so young. Because what she was really skilled at was reading knowledge, and getting us to sight read. She had perfects ears and she could hear when we made a mistake, but she couldn't convey any technique to us. So we weren't learning how to hold the instrument, or properly hit the string, how to hold our hand, or the angle of how the neck sits. So we were basically playing classical music on steel string bluegrass guitars. But we learned to read at a fairly high level at a young age because she was such a profound teacher in that way.

AAJ: That's a really unusual approach, I mean being taught guitar by a piano teacher with arthritis—you can't make that stuff up!

MS: She used to fall asleep during the lessons, and we have a lot of stories about Miss Hackman. She had a dog that barked incessantly, it was in a small cage in the kitchen, so that was always a background noise. She had so many students, maybe 40. So we would get in there in the evening, about 7:30, so a lot of times she would just take a nap during the lessons. She was a rotund lady, and she could set her chin on her bosom and nod off, and you wouldn't notice that she wasn't with you anymore until you finished a song and she didn't correct you.

AAJ: Were you and your brother in there together, or did you do it separately?

MS: We would go together and he would have the first 45 minutes and I would have the second, and we would split that between guitar and piano, so it was a fairly time consuming trip for us every week because we were young kids.

Early Exposure to Music

AAJ: What kind of music were you hearing at home, and what are some of your early musical memories?

MS: My parents filled the house with music, they had a pretty solid record collection. My dad, who doesn't play, is a lover of all things guitar, especially old blues players and classic rock. So he was playing anything from early blues stuff, all the way through to what he still kind of listens to now, which is the Allman Brothers—a lot of Duane Allman playing around the house. He was a major fan of Jerry Garcia, although he didn't call himself a Dead Head, he just loved Jerry Garcia's guitar playing. He referenced how it reminded him of jazz and different styles of music. So there was a lot of that going on, he was a big Eric Clapton fan too. So there was a lot of blues stuff, but we didn't really take to that early on. My Mom too, she played the radio for us all the time, so we were constantly hearing music. She was still playing piano, and she can read fairly well, so she'd read through classical music and we were exposed to that as well.

Big Brother

AAJ: How about your brother, was he teaching you, or were you basically on the same level?

MS: He's four years older, so I was pretty much just trying to imitate him. There wasn't a whole lot of interaction early on. He was working on things that were much more advanced, I remember him playing (Beethoven's) "For Elise" on a steel string guitar. I remember having the same reaction that I had listening to my grandfather, I couldn't believe someone being able to do that. So I was pretty inspired at a young age by that. But as we got older, I remember he got his first electric guitar when he was in high school. I was so obsessed with that guitar! I would get home from school earlier than he would, just because of the bus route, and would go into his room and play it in secret.

And I remember breaking a string when he had only just had it for a few weeks, and I left a dollar bill, it was probably the only dollar I had, and I left it in the strings and put it back in its case, I was so terrified. Of course he was mad when he got home. Later on when he went off to college, I started studying with a guy in Harrisonburg, Virginia—Mark Wetsel. He was a really profound teacher, and still is today. He had publications online, and he's a really great technician and he understands theory, and mainly he turned me on to all kinds of music. So my brother heard that I would going through a pretty stark period of improvement from where I was at, so ever since then we've had a great musical relationship, and we play every time I go home. He's so steeped in bluegrass, that's something that he can share with me. Feeding me records and teaching me about the tradition, and teaching a lot of songs on different instruments.

AAJ: What a great thing to have an older brother like that, and you can turn each other on to things as you grow older. Was he in band in his teenage years?

MS: Yeah, he went through a kind of classic angry teenager phase, and he was playing both in hard rock and metal bands, with giant stacks that we had never really seen before. At the same time he was doing a heavy metal show at the local radio station, while he was still in high school. So I really looked up to him for all that. But yeah he was very much into hard rock and metal at that time, and he kind of went full circle into bluegrass now.

Grunge & Beyond

AAJ: How about you in those early years, what were you listening to for your own edification, or things that you were trying to learn, or things that really captured your imagination? Maybe from 10 through 14.

MS: I had my first electric guitar, and that was sort of the grunge era and I was really into Nirvana and Soundgarden and any kind of band in that genre and stuff I was hearing on the radio. We were still going down and buying tape cassettes, this was probably 1995. So a lot of that AC/DC, Weezer, and those kinds of rock bands, and that was really my first experience of trying to pick out music by hear. Then that turned into Led Zeppelin and some of those early bands.
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