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The Multifaceted Mike Seal

Alan Bryson By

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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.

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.
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