A bunch of these interviews have been with friends.
All of them are Granville Guitars customers.
Mr Michael Stratton is both.
Mike is a fine guitarist and performer.
He also builds the best pedalboards (Pedal Pad) money can buy.
Who or what compelled you to pick up guitar?
Well, honesty is the best policy, so here goes; John Denver. I was seven when I started playing and John Denver was probably the most famous man in the world. He was repeatedly guest hosting the Tonight Show, had numerous television specials and was basically teaching us all how to speak a new language with “Far Out” and “Dynamite.” I wanted to be like that guy. And it turns out that he really was a pretty good guitar player. I know that because some of his tunes I forced my guitar player to teach me have stuck in my head and I still think there are some pretty cool riffs in his playing. I remember being a third grader and my dad landing third row tickets for John Denver in Kemper Arena. My guitar teacher had told me to really watch his fingers, which is something that has stuck with me all my life. Pretty sure every guitar player has a tendency to do this when they’re watching other players, but it got me started at an early age.
Who was your main guitar influence?
My guitar life has been broken up into so many areas, that I really struggle to name one, but I know the influences pretty diverse from each other. I didn’t play a lot of electric guitar until I was 18 and I was only prompted to buy one, when I was asked to join a band during my freshmen year of college. Mostly, I was a finger style acoustic player, which I still love to this day. I was fascinated with vocalists who could weave interesting guitar parts with their voices and make you glad there wasn’t another musician on the stage. Seemed to me, James Taylor could do this better than everyone else. When I’m listening to a guitar/vocalist, I’m most impressed with those who can syncopate the beat or play with the rhythm outside of the vocal part. Those same guys can usually do the same thing with their vocals apart from a straightforward guitar part. Leo Kottke was someone I was listening to from an early age, because both my older brother and sister had his albums playing in our house. Leo sent me down the road of having to play a 12 string, which became my second real guitar. When I finally started playing electric guitar, I discovered that flat picking was pretty foreign to me, so I kind of gravitated to sounds rather than technique. Once I saw Adrian Belew, with the Bears, I felt like this is what the electric was meant to do, which was really strange considering my acoustic background. Belew’s playing seemed so inventive to me and I figured that the electric guitar, by its very nature, is unnatural, so what the hell?
Have you ever been influenced by non-guitar music or players?
Absolutely. My oldest brother got me interested in Jazz at an early age and, around the age of 13, I worked one summer to buy a high quality receiver and speakers which allowed me to fall asleep every night listening to Dick Wright’s “Jazz in the night” on KANU. Sax players were my focus then. John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Phil Woods, the Bird. I ended up getting an alto sax, should have been a tenor, and signed up for band at my Jr. high school, which really was not my scene. I wanted to jump straight into Yardbird Suite and my patience couldn’t keep up with the work it required.
Describe the local music scene where you came up
Full of talent for sure. I live in the town that spawned the band Kansas, which may be the reason so many players felt like “making it” was within reach. Lawrence, KS is a twenty five minute drive and still offers a vibrant music scene. 18 to 24 year-old Guys really worked hard learning their instruments back then and quite a few are making a living just playing. I’ll mention another notable; Scott Davis, some may know him as “Scooter”, came from Topeka. The guy had a voice capable of reproducing Rush songs and the bass chops to match. To a large degree and like a lot of places, Topeka has lost its live music scene to (tries to hold down vomit) karaoke. DJ’s, video gaming, cell phones and who knows what else, has distracted people away from live music. Rant over, next question.
Discuss some highlights of your playing career.
Probably the most notable was taking second place in the state finger picking contest. Of course with my luck, Andy McKee had to show up to be the competition. If any of you have not checked out Andy McKee, he is a master who plays all over the world. Yep, another Topeka guy who routinely shares the stage with Tommy Emmanuel amongst others. So I choose to call it first place with an asterisk. There have been some notable gigs along the way, but competition is a unique experience. The total silence, which most acoustic players have wished for at one time in their playing careers, is pretty freaky and it was interesting to see some guys pick-up and walk off the stage due to nerves. I was proud to have gotten through it successfully.
Are you proficient on any other instruments?
This should go pretty quick: nope.
Talk about a turning point at anytime during your career.
I feel very fortunate to work for a living producing pedal boards, but playing has never put food on the table. Like all players, you reach plateaus and pray for the next one to come sooner, rather than later. I care deeply about playing, but I’ve never put myself in a position to receive a break or even recognize a place to jump off. I will say that the discovery of hybrid picking, as a technique for electric guitar, was a great relief to me as it felt like I was coming home to my natural way of playing.
Discuss your current gig.
Today, I produce a line of pedal boards known as Pedal Pad. I received a patent in 2002 for some modular features that allows players to customize the board for their individual needs. I have been hanging around the industry ever since and have recently moved my production to a site in Geneva, NE. I still play some shows, maybe six times a year, but we’re rehearsing regular again and hope to play more frequently, here pretty soon.
Discuss your practice regimen.
I woodshed pretty aggressively before shows and I’m working on new material. The band that I play with has always taken a bit of a jam band approach, so the best practice for me is to get together with the other guitar player and bounce parts off of each other. We’ll discuss things we like in the interplay and try to learn them as parts. Other than that, I work on scales and writing licks. Once or twice a year, I’ll try to learn something new and difficult and use the new licks in my own way. Don Mckenzie, the local music store owner in Topeka, used to refer to this as taking the bricks and building your own house. I kind of like that approach.
Tell us about your favorite guitar.
I’ve never been a collector, but I have great guitars. Scooter, again enters into my writing because of a Telecaster design he built for me. Its Cypress body, which was carved from a church altar, is super light weight and full of tone. It has a fat reissued neck that I can really grip. I love this guitar for heavy thrashing. Big chords sound fantastic on this guitar and you can really hear the whole spectrum of tones. I’ve never seen a guitar that changes sounds more dramatically between pick-up positions. Apart from the Granville, I love my Strat Deluxe and concert model acoustic, made for me by my friend and band mate, Les Goering.
Talk a little about your current rig. Preferred strings? Picks? Tuning?
I play through a Dr. Z MAZ 38 with a host of different pedals. A lot of times during a gig, I use quite a lot of compression like Belew does and I avoid too much heavily saturated distortion. I’d rather punch cleaner and get the needed sustain by way of the Xotic compression pedal. I really like to produce large swells with this sound and adding some reverb with the Strymon Blue Sky is the current method. I build pedal boards for a living, so pedals are pretty fascinating to me. That said, I like to have lots of choices, but I’m no fan of too many pedals being used at the same time. Like with the compressor, I look for tonal changes with it and a clean boost, rather than trying to make that my sound all night long. Eventide Time Factor and Pitch Factor are fun toys on my board as well. I also have a Skreddy Little Miss Sunshine phase shifter, and a Xotic Robotalk filter pedal, which is a great tone shaper as well. I have multiple overdrives for everything from a light crunch to Megadeath sounds, if I wanted them, which I don’t. These include, yes you guessed it, a Granville Mr. Neutron, an RC Booster and Jetter Gold. I use Elixir Nanoweb coated light gauge strings, because my sweat can eat a hole to China in 3 seconds and pretty much any pick that feels like a Fender medium gauge is fine with me.
What piece of gear is essential to your playing?
Probably the guitar, but seriously, it is hard to identify one piece. Depending on what types of songs we are playing, I rely on several different effects, most important to me being the compressor. Once you’ve found the amp you’ve been searching for, it’s hard to imagine playing through something else. I am a big fan of my MAZ 38, which has so much punch that it really makes its compressed sound that much better.
Describe your proudest moment as a musician.
Again, doing well in the State Fingerpicking contest was big for me. There’ve been those nights where you feel like you’re venturing into areas you’ve never gone to before and you know it came from a lot of practice and a lot of experience playing with these guys. That’s when it feels like magic. But that kind of memorable moment is washed away by the next bad night, so I’ll stand on the fingerpicking contest.
If given the chance, what non-musical profession would you be interested in?
I would love to try my hand at writing fiction. I am humbled by the great novelists who can develop a story, the characters and the scenes, then tie them all together to paint a picture inside the heads of their readers. With some regularity, I imagine the process of blowing up a story outline into a completed novel and think to myself I have to try this at least once before it’s all over.
What beloved, legendary artist do you just not “get.”
I don’t know if Dave Mathews has reached the status of legendary, but he seems to be loved by many. I need musical phrases to resolve and come to their point a little more effectively than he and his band manage to do. I’m all about the jam, but dammit man, bring that baby home and put a change of clothes on it every once in a while.