When a rock ’n’ roll icon like Lou Gramm sings the praises of an extraordinary session guitarist like Michael Staertow, you better pay attention.
Michael spent years working the northeastern pocket of the United States as an in-demand player who also taught lessons at a private music school in the Rochester, N.Y., area. Then along came Lou, Rochester’s native son and the original singer for Foreigner, in search of a touring guitarist for the Lou Gramm Band.
“You know, we’ve had a few guitar players in the years I’ve had my own band,” Lou announced during a recent gig. “Michael’s breathed some new life into the instrumental part of these songs, and he sings really well!”
Michael is one of only a few guitar players to work with Lou Gramm, the voice of “Hot Blooded,” “Head Games,” “Juke Box Hero,” “I Want to Know to What Love Is” and other signature songs of the classic-rock era. That makes him a full-fledged member of a significant guitar-playing fraternity that also includes Foreigner founder Mick Jones, Nils Lofgren and Vivian Campbell.
“Lou allows me the latitude to insert some of my personality into the songs,” Michael says. “But I still respect this music, which has stood the test of time.”
In addition to playing venues around the world, Michael has performed with Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Whitesnake), Gene Cornish (The Rascals), Carmine and Vinny Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Black Sabbath) and original Foreigner drummer Dennis Elliott. He also shared the stage with Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers and former Heart guitarist Howard Leese at the “Pandora Unforgettable Moments on Ice” show in 2014, which was broadcast on ABC-TV and On Demand.
In 2015, Michael fulfilled a dream by sharing the stage with one of his own guitar heroes, Neal Schon, when Lou Gramm’s band joined Journey in Puerto Rico. Influences from Neal and other legendary guitarists such as Ace Frehley and the late Randy Rhoads can be heard in Michael’s melodic playing, as well as in his compelling interpretation of Foreigner smashes and the Lou Gramm solo classic “Midnight Blue.”
Michael’s work with Lou has boosted his status in the guitar community. He’s been the focus of articles in Guitar World, Guitar One and Vintage Guitar magazines, and he was featured in Gbase.com’s Gearhead Gazette as well as being the featured guest on many different podcasts. Michael has become an aspiring vlogger, too, capturing short scenes from life on the road with Lou Gramm and artists like Dennis Elliot and Deen Castronovo. (Look for the videos on social media.) Michael has also added Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp “Rock Star Counselor” to his pedigree.
“I really appreciate where I am,” Staertow says. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world getting to do what I love most.”
Currently I’m entering my sixth touring season with Lou Gramm (Original Vocalist of Foreigner), as well as working on finishing an instrumental EP of cover songs where I replaced the vocal melodies with guitar versions of them. The first single is looking like it’ll be Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”. I’m super happy with how it’s turning out too!
2) What is your musical background and influences?
I come from a musical family, where everyone at least sings as well as plays an instrument. Whether it’s guitar or piano, there was always music happening. The guitar wasn’t my first instrument, it was actually the drums at the early age of five. That led to a short stint with violin, then trumpet, until I got braces. Switched to Saxophone, but only for a short time... ultimately the guitar was chosen as an elective class in middle school. It was either that or the piano. The guitar just seemed cooler at the time. So glad I made that choice! My musical influences guitar-wise range from players like Ace Frehley, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Neal Schon. Even the likes of Angus and Malcolm Young. Taking little bits from each to devolop my own style. Playing in cover bands from the age of 15, slugging it out in clubs, led to opportunities along the way. Eventually getting “the call” from Lou to fill in for the guitarist he then had, turned into a permanent gig playing a catalog that had sold 100 million records. Almost like a scene from the movie “Rock Star”. Having grown up in the same town as him, I always admired his success - now I get to stand on stage, every night and deliver hit after hit! His influence on my career has been substantial, and I’m grateful for the opportunity and his confidence in me as a guitarist. Ever show I get to literally be his “right hand man”.
3) What is the role of education in music?
I believe the role of education in music to be big! Understanding the rules and parameters you have to work with, then being able to creatively “break” the rules artistically is a pretty powerful tool. Having said that though, there are some incredibly talented, successful musicians and songwriters that have little to no educational background. But their innate ability is incredible. So, I support whichever yeilds the most beautiful fruit. You can never go wrong with some basic theory to stir up your creative juices. I also taught guitar privately to fifty plus students a week regularly, before I started touring. I always encouraged an understanding of the language of music. Tossing around the idea of a Skype/Facetime Master Class for guitar has been in consideration as of late. Details will be on my website soon!
4) How do you feel about the current ‘state of the music industry’?
It’s in an interesting state that’s not necessarily beneficial to the artist.
5) Why do you play Mooer pedals?
I absolutely love the Mooer product line, especially the mini pedals! There built well, reliable and sound absolutely amazing. We do primarily “fly dates”, so the convenience of their size really makes it quite a simple choice for saving space in an overhead bin, or under the plane. They sound amazing, and can really bring a lame back line to life. A lot of times, the back line we rely on for “fly dates” is not maintained well. Having the ability to plug your Mooer equipped pedal board into these amps makes all the difference in an inspired performance versus the "so so" alternative. I’m looking forward to further exploring all the cool things Mooer currently has to offer, as well what’s up their sleeve!