The Unlikely Guitar Hero

Marnie Stern was waiting for her rhythm guitar player. She stood in a cramped practice room near Penn Station, stacks of amps, keyboards, microphones, a drum kit, the other two members of her touring band and four walls closing in around her. Her eight-week tour of Europe and America approaching fast, only four practices left after today. Ms. Stern fumbled with the reverb and delay pedals for her guitar.

“So the ‘out’ goes into SansAmp and the ‘in’ goes into reverb?”

The drummer, Vincent Rogers, skinny, with a patchy beard, buzzed head and arms covered in tattoos, laughed.

“Maybe we should get you a pedal board so you don’t have to deal with setting up?”

Nithin Kalvakota, the bassist, was hunched over a red Squire–a “clunker,” he called it, and he was right: It was missing a string, and one of the tuning knobs was coming loose.

“Where is Joe?” Ms. Stern asked him, though the question was almost rhetorical at this point.

“Maybe he’s having an existential crisis,” Mr. Kalvakota said. “Do you remember when I had my existential crisis?” She nodded knowingly.

“So are we just starting at the beginning and playing through?” Ms. Stern asked.


They struggled through “For Ash,” the first song on Ms. Stern’s self-titled album. On the record, the song, loud and immediate, begins as if it has already been going on for an hour. Ms. Stern, as usual, plays a frighteningly fast guitar fill, somewhere between Eddie Van Halen and Tony Iommi. Her regular drummer, Zach Hill, pounds out five beats, the rhythm difficult to place. Then the song takes off with a change in tempo. The fast riff, strange now because of the new time signature, continues in the background but is overtaken by thick chords. Mr. Hill’s playing becomes relentlessly frenetic. Ms. Stern’s voice comes in, screeching and weird–Yoko Ono from hell. Other fast guitar fills are piled on top while Mr. Hill plays along with the vocal melody, everything nearly overwhelmed by noise. The tempo changes once more. The song sounds like it might collapse under all the energy. That is only the first minute.

Today, however, something was missing. The band was playing at the same time but not together. Ms. Stern can’t do all of those guitar parts by herself. She doesn’t have enough hands. The practice space shook with noise. A coffee cup fell off an amp, spilling some of its contents. Ms. Stern crossed the room, picked the cup up off the floor and drank whatever was left in it, then continued playing, half-invested. The room was loud and cranky, and the song never really arrived.

“It is what it is,” Mr. Rogers shrugged.

Ms. Stern sighed. “What are we gonna do?”

Marnie Stern is Ms. Stern’s third album. In the past, she has sacrificed songwriting for guitar wizardry, but here she focuses on performing 10 compulsively listenable songs, without losing any of her abrasiveness. The album shows her at her most comfortable place musically, but it was written and recorded out of turmoil. The songs came sporadically during a “songwriting rut,” a writer’s block that Ms. Stern falls in and out of periodically. “For Ash” is about an ex-boyfriend who recently killed himself. He was the reason, Ms. Stern says, she started playing music seriously in the first place. His presence fills Marnie Stern, a record both nostalgic and terrifying.

Thirty-four years old, Ms. Stern was born and raised in New York. She began playing the guitar at age 15. She took two lessons and toyed with the instrument halfheartedly until she graduated from N.Y.U. She began playing eight hours a day, practicing until she mastered the six-string, but never–even now–feeling satisfied. She plays predominantly in a style called tapping, which you probably recognize from Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” Both hands are synchronized on the fret board, the right hand tapping the strings instead of plucking or strumming while the left, in turn, pulls off and hammers-on to the strings, creating a harmonized sequence of notes with no breaks or silences. The way Ms. Stern does this creates the effect of two guitars playing together at once. At times she does so in fast-forward, as in the opening measures of “For Ash,” her hands a blur of movement; at others, slow and graceful, filled with restraint like the album’s closing song, “The Things You Notice.” To see the way her fingers move in person is more like watching someone play a grand piano dangling from the neck, her hands delicately pressing the strings as if they were keys. The critical discussions about Ms. Stern mainly focused on her gender when she released her debut, 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm (a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s “sculpture” of the same name, but more related to the fact that Ms. Stern sounded like her arm might break if she kept playing so fast). Certainly, Ms. Stern doesn’t look like a guitar hero. She’s pretty, petite and blond. She has a soft voice but a dirty mouth, cursing every other word. Her touring band calls her “diva, with a little ‘d.'”

“Well, when you’re on tour with a bunch of dudes who are so not ‘d,'” she said in defense, “it’s easy to look like a ‘d’ when you want scented shampoo.”

Based on her skill with a guitar alone, Ms. Stern has earned the right to call herself a Diva, but she is humble (accounting for the lower-case “d”). She worries about being “mainstream” and “unoriginal,” which is laughable; her music bursts with confidence and strange energy. Her modesty verges on flat-out dishonesty.

“I do a couple things that are flashy and seemingly intricate,” Ms. Stern said. “Ninety percent of the people I know play guitar just as well as me. And that is fucking true. I can play pretty well. But so can most people. I want to be judged equally. Really place me where I am as a person, not as a fucking girl.”

Once the novelty of a female shredder wears off–and at this point, after three excellent albums, it has–it is obvious Ms. Stern is abnormally gifted technically. She is self-taught, and her style, besides certain touchstones like Television, Frank Zappa and ’80s hard rock, is difficult to place: the precision of heavy metal with, at times, the gaudiness of blues; the restraint of early R&B with the menace of punk.

“I don’t know how I’m going to play this fucking song,” Ms. Stern said after a rough run-through of “The Things You Notice.” The song is about another ex-boyfriend, Matt Flegel, of the band Women. Mr. Flegel played bass on Ms. Stern’s record. They were dating at the time.

“You could change the words,” Mr. Rogers said. “Make it a ‘fuck you’ song.”

Ms. Stern’s eyes lit up. It seemed a viable option.

The question of how to play any of the new songs live loomed over the room. In the remaining days of practice, Ms. Stern must teach her touring band the new album’s arrangements, relearn her guitar parts, coordinate her hands so that the movements are second nature and then sing on top of all that. Her entire body goes into performing a song. Everyone looked a little nervous. Finally, the rhythm guitar player, Joseph Tirabassi, arrived. He carried a small notebook filled with notes about Ms. Stern’s songs.

“I’m really sorry,” he said.

“It’s O.K., it’s O.K.,” Ms. Stern said. “Is it smoke time?” Mr. Kalvakota jumped up excitedly. The band, filled out at four members, headed downstairs for a cigarette.

“Did you get Courtney’s email?” Ms. Stern asked them. Courtney is their tour manager. A venue wanted them to play a 90-minute set. They all scoffed in disbelief. “I told her when people ask if we can do an hour-and-a-half set to tell them, ‘No.’ I like to play for 30 minutes, but you can’t do that anymore.”

“You’re not the opener anymore,” Mr. Kalvakota said. Ms. Stern did not respond, but she knew it was true.

Time was running out. They only had the practice space for another hour, and there was still a great deal of work to be done. It was time to try “For Ash” again. Back in the room, Ms. Stern took a seat and slung her guitar around her neck.

“You know it’s Ash’s birthday?” she said to no one in particular. She tapped the strings of her guitar, loud and fast, but she missed the timing, starting a half-beat too soon. The whole song was thrown off. She cut off the band, and they tried again.

“Hey, play the downbeat on that,” she told the drummer. “You two play for a minute.” She bounced her head gently with the music, eyes closed. Then she began playing, in time now. The fan was on, but the band started to sweat almost immediately. The drums and bass kept time like clockwork, the rhythm keeping Ms. Stern in control while her fingers moved along the strings of her guitar. They got it right this time.

“O.K.,” she said. “What’s next?” The Unlikely Guitar Hero