The Multifaceted Mike Seal

Alan Bryson By

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AAJ: Who would you consider some of your earliest influences?

MS: In terms of guitar, my first guitar heroes, that didn't really start until high school. But in those early years, certainly Kurt Cobain, I wanted to play guitar like he did when I was in 4th through 7th grade.

High School & Jazz

AAJ: High school?

MS: That's when I started studying with Mark Wetsel and every week when I'd come in he would feed me records, or turn me on to records to buy. Then it became Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Bill Frisell, John McLaughlin, Wayne Krantz—he introduced me to all of those guys in a brief period of months, and I just became obsessed with that music.

AAJ: He was probably able to show you what they were doing to some extent right?

MS: Absolutely, he's a really gifted technician. So I went in knowing how to read music, and that was about it. A friend had played me some music by a band called Dream Theater, I was about 13 or 14. I knew he was a great jazz player, but I wanted to learn to play like (metal guitarist) John Petrucci, so I told him that and he kind of laughed. The next week when I went in, he handed me all these great CDs and exposed me to jazz. So it became a love right from the start.

AAJ: That's a tremendous bit of luck when you get a teacher like that early on.

MS: Absolutely, I probably wouldn't have gone as deeply into music as a career choice if I hadn't had that exposure.

No Picks

AAJ: Here's the thing that's interesting to me Mike. When I first saw you play on clips with the Jeff Sipe Trio, I thought, well judging by his technique this guy has got some really serious training, but you play so unusually. Now I understand why. As far as I can tell from watching, you rarely use a pick, you use your thumb, index, and middle finger, is that right?

MS: Yep, that's correct, in fact, I couldn't use a pick to save my own life. That came very much by accident and has a lot to do with that early teacher, Nancy Hackman. We were reading classical music for guitar, we started with Mel Bay and started going into actual pieces, and she would give us Fernando Sor pieces—and those pieces were actually for a higher level of repertoire for a classical player. If it was a single note line, we would just play the entire line with our thumb, and she didn't really known enough to tell us what proper technique was.

So it largely came from that, and from listening to rock songs, I realized that I could use my first finger and fingernail to imitate a pick, and I realized I could do up and down strokes like that. That worked for me at the time, and I kind of stuck with that for strumming. Even when I went to my teacher, Mark Wetsel, who was really knowledgeable, he tried right away to get me to switch over to using a pick. I tried and I worked a couple of lessons with it, and I was making headway, but I was stuck on playing with my fingers. And granted, the tone was really bad, really thin at that time, and it's something that's been a lifelong pursuit to get a better tone with just playing fingers—flesh and not using picks or thumb picks. But eventually my teacher embraced it and now he even does a lot of finger style playing in the same way. So there was never really any technique written down for me to study. I didn't adopt the classical PIMA, I just kind of bastardized my own way, and it's been good for me, and bad for me in other ways. So it's still a lifelong study.

AAJ: The thing that I like about guys who play like you do, another person who comes to mind is Derek Trucks, you both have your own truly unique sound.

MS: Sure, and there's so many great finger style players out there, and you're right, the variety of tone is pretty amazing—let's say from someone like Derek Trucks to Kevin Eubanks on the other hand, and Mark Knopfler is somewhere in between.

AAJ: I want to ask you about a solo you did on a jazz album for Keith Brown. It's interesting, you never use a pick, but you were able to get a pick-like sound on that solo.

MS: It's something I've been working on a lot the last couple of years, and it's something I should have been working on years before. It became really important to me to be able to articulate every note, and it sounds like a super basic fundamental thing, but honestly I had cheated a lot growing up. I think I put a lot of focus on my left hand and not on my right hand. At some point I realized I wasn't able to articulate lines super clearly, and that's one of the cool aspects of a pick, such clear articulation. So it's just something I've been slowing down, and as a finger-style player you can pick up a lot from watching people like Bela Fleck (banjo) and finger-style guitar players, and bass players too, like Oteil Burbridge and Matthew Garrison. Just watching their right hand and hearing how clearly they articulate. It's something I've been working on a lot, but it's also something I continue to work on.

Slide Guitar

AAJ: Have you ever played slide guitar?

MS: I have, and I've done it as requested on certain gigs, if there's a part that needed slide. Actually, I remember being on the road with Jeff Coffin years ago, I think Jeff Sipe was on this gig too, with Felix Pastorius on bass. We were out in Arizona somewhere, and Jeff Coffin really wanted a slide part. It was on this one song, and it was just one note, and it was because there was a trombone on the record. So he wanted it to sound like a trombone, and I said man I'm sorry, I don't have a slide. We were at sound check getting ready for the show, so he had someone go to a music store and buy me a slide. And keep in mind, it was just one note from an entire show. So whenever that note came up I would get the slide out, and he would smile real big at me. I'm not sure if he was laughing at me, or with me. But if the song calls for it, I think it should be there. I've got a ton of slides laying around, but it's not something I pick up all the time.

AAJ: What's that like for someone who plays dobro to play the slide? I imagine Jerry could probably play slide?

MS: Oh I'm sure he could. The mechanics of it are different of course, because a dobro is a horizontal instrument in your lap, and it actually fits very ergonomically with your natural wrist position. It's actually pretty comfortable. On a dobro you're using a heavy steel bar. On a guitar, you're likely using a glass or very light material. With a dobro you let gravity do all the work. The bar is heavy enough that you can just let the bar sit on the strings. Of course you have hand control, but holding a guitar upright your mechanics and technique would be a lot different. I do think there's a lot of translation between the two, the neck is fundamentally the same on both instruments, except a dobro has extremely high action. You can't actually fret those notes. You know I was watching a video the other day of somebody talking about Derek Trucks' slide technique and he was suggesting he actually frets notes with his slide some of the time. That was an eye opener for me, I'd never thought about that.

AAJ: Nor had I. Derek plays in open E all the time, even when he's playing straight guitar. How in the world do you get minor chords and stuff, I guess he must have transcribed all that and figured it out.

MS: Yeah, but even just from a music theory perspective, and it's similar with dobro because they play in open G or D most of the time, but you can find intervals within those strings that will make those minor chords, sometimes parts of the chord and not the whole voicing.

Jeff Healey & Django Reinhardt

AAJ: Did you ever watch videos of Jeff Healey playing guitar?

MS: I've heard more than I've seen. He's someone my wife is really into.

AAJ: The thing that's really fascinating about his approach is that he was blind and played on his lap. But it was fascinating to me because he used his thumb on his left hand. Of course people with good training use four fingers, but he was actually using five fingers. Tapping back and forth between his thumb and his fingers, that's how he was able to do some of the things he was doing. An amazing guy. I don't know if you know this, but he also had a Dixieland band that he was crazy about and he played trumpet in that.

MS: I did not know that. I'm going to have to go find that. You know the first time I saw Jeff Healey was in that Patrick Swayze movie "Roadhouse" where he's a bouncer and they've got chicken wire around the bandstand. And Jeff Healey was the house band in that movie. So at the time I saw it, I was living in a house in Knoxville with a bunch of musicians. I had a roommate who was playing music full time, and he said, "Oh you haven't heard this guy! You've gotta check him out and listen to his music." What a great player. That's cool with the technique that you mentioned. There's so many musicians out there who use totally unique mechanics to play their instruments. Like Django Reinhardt who lost fingers in a caravan fire accident. But how many guys have emulated his technique even though they have all their fingers, but were just so engrossed with his playing that they were playing as though they had lost fingers.

AAJ: I just can't fathom that he was able to play like that.

MS: So clean and precise.

Soloing / Influences

AAJ: Apart from guitarists, in terms of soloing, who are some of the musicians who influenced your approach to soloing?

MS: Oh, absolutely a lot of the jazz players. Now all kinds of instrumentalists, but at that time I was listening to a lot of jazz, post bop, bebop, free jazz—anything I could get my hands on. I felt like I was on a quest to know every record, which of course you can never do, but a lot of horn players, I was going through Charlie Parker's music, and the classic jazz albums from the 40s through the 70s and 80s. People like Chris Potter and Kenny Garrett were a major part of it, doing transcriptions, a lot of piano players, gosh Michel Camilo, who I transcribed a lot, more than I can remember. But a lot of horn players, piano players, and just anything I could get my ears around.

Jerry Douglas Band

AAJ: Now you're with the Jerry Douglas band, in case there is someone out there who is completely into jazz and doesn't know the name, Jerry Douglas is a virtuoso Dobro player, and I think he's got at least a dozen Grammy awards.

MS: It's hard to tell from reading the Internet, but I think the last total I heard him give was 15.



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