Here’s How Mike Stern Creates Killer Solos [With Video]



When I was younger, I loved Mike Stern. I loved his solos, his chords, his subs, his tone, everyone he did, I loved. 


I grew up in a small town with only a few small record shops, remember those?!, and one of those was a Sam the Record Man that had a jazz CD collection. 


Most of the CD’s weren’t in my wheelhouse, but one day I went in and they had the Mike Stern Standards album sitting right upfront. 


I bought that record, took it home, and listened to it so many times I wore grooves into the CD…


And, since I was a budding young jazz guitarist, I transcribed almost half the record and learned to play along with Mike on my guitar. 


One of the biggest lessons I learned from transcribing Mike’s solos was how he used subs to create those Wow! moments in his playing. 


Subs are where the band plays one set of chords and you, soloing or comping, play a different set of chords to create tension. 


Then you and the band come back together to resolve that tension. 


Not only did I figure out that Mike used subs in his solos and comping to create moments that I literally rewound and listened to 100 times in a row, I figured out the exact chord subs he was using in those moments. 


In this guitar lesson, I show you one of the most common subs, with exercises, that Mike used in his playing. 


Mike Stern is a monster player with a ton of sub vocabulary under his fingers. 


Pull back the curtains as you learn how to use the half-step subs in this lesson and add them to your comping and soloing in that cool Mike Stern way.


Mike Stern Soloing 


To get started with this sub, you add it to your soloing over both progressions in Pent Up House, the ii-V-I and iii-VI-ii-V changes. 


Here’s how the subs are added to the major ii-V-I to get you started. 


Check out these subs, then work on the arpeggio exercises below to get them on the fretboard and into your solos over this progression and later full tune.


Here’s a variation of the arpeggios you can play over the backing tracks. 


Once you get these arps down over the tracks, use any arpeggio shapes you prefer over these changes to take this exercise further in your studies.


Backing Track Am7 Dm7 Gmaj7 Trio

Here’s another set of arpeggios you can check out and add to your solos with using this Mike Stern sub over ii-V-I chords. 


Once you get these arps down over the tracks, use any arpeggio shapes you prefer over these changes to take this exercise further in your studies. 


And, remember, when improvising you can change the rhythms of the arpeggios, leave some notes out, add chromatic notes in, etc. to create interest.

Backing Track Am7 Dm7 Gmaj7 Trio

You can also add the Mike Stern subs in your soloing over the Dm7-G7-Cm7-F7 chords in Pent Up House, or any jazz standard you’re studying. 


Here’s how those subs work over that four-bar phrase. Memorize these subs and then head down to the playing exercises when ready. 


To help you get started with these Mike Stern subs over a turnaround, here are arpeggios you can play over the backing tracks. 


Learn these arpeggios as written, then change the rhythms, add in notes, take notes away, and really personalize these shapes in your solos when ready.

Backing Track Dm7 G7 Cm7 F7 Trio

This arpeggio exercise borrows from both Mike Stern and John Coltrane as you play 8-3-5-7 over every chord in the subs. 


By mixing up the arpeggio shape, you outline the subs in your lines while creating melodic interest at the same time. 


If you like this arpeggio pattern make sure to take it to other keys, other positions, and other tunes in your studies.

Backing Track Dm7 G7 Cm7 F7 Trio

Soloing Creative Challenge


You’re now ready to test your Mike Stern sub soloing chops with a creative challenge. 


In this progression you solo over four ii-V-I’s, in different keys, that you apply the Mike Stern subs to in your improvisation. 


Work out or write out the subs if needed at first, then put on the backing tracks and go for it. 


Have fun as you solo over this progression with these new subs as you expand your harmonic knowledge of ii-V-I subs. 

Creative Challenge #1 Trio Backing Track

Creative Challenge #1 No Piano Backing Track

Mike Stern Chord Subs


As well as solo with the Mike Stern ii-V-I subs, you can also add them to your comping and chord soloing, which you do in this section. 


The rules are the same, but the shapes and application is different, so take your time as you expand your jazz guitar comping with these shapes and subs. 


To begin, here’s a review of how to apply the subs to a ii-V-I in the key of G major. 

To help you get started with these comping subs, here are chord shapes that you can play over the backing tracks in your studies. 


Learn these chords as written and get them over the backing track to hear these subs in action. 


From there, change the picking and rhythms for each chord to make them your own. 


Lastly, as an extra challenge, practice these chord shapes in 12 keys to get them around the entire fretboard in your workout.

Backing Track Am7 D7 Gmaj7 No Piano

You can also add the Mike Stern subs in your comping over the Dm7-G7-Cm7-F7 chords in Pent Up House, and any tune, as you did in the previous soloing section. 


Here’s how those subs work over that four-bar phrase, which is the same as you learned previously, only here you’re going to comp rather than solo over the subs.

Here’s an example of how to play those chord subs using drop 2 chords in your comping. 


Start with the given chords, take them to the track and alter the rhythms and picking, then when ready comp with your own chord shapes over these changes. 


Go slow, listen to the tension and resolution in your comping, and have fun taking these shapes and subs to the fretboard today.

Backing Track Dm7 G7 Cm7 F7 No Piano

Comping Creative Challenge


To finish this intro to Mike Stern subs, you test your skills with a comping creative challenge. 


Below is a chord progression, it’s your challenge to comp over these chords, using the backing track, and add in the Stern subs where appropriate. 


Start by adding one group of subs in every chorus, alternating every time the track comes back to the top. 


From there, try using 2 or more subs in your comping as you explore and expand this sound over a jazz chord progression. 


Creative Challenge #2 Trio Backing Track

Creative Challenge #2 No Piano Backing Track