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Joe Stump: The Authentic Unit

By Peter Gerstenzang '77

  Andy McGhee
  Assistant Professor Joe Stump

In a world where hard rockers can disappoint, every so often you come into contact with a musician who is custom-made for that romantic gig. A case in point: Assistant Professor of Guitar Joe Stump, Berklee's metal maven. He has the perfect hard-rock-guitar-player name, of course. It's not important to know whether it's real or adopted; it just screams "Metal god." Stump also has a waterfall of black hair, cloaks himself in black leather, is signed to the Leviathan label, plays in a band called Holy Hell, and talks a lot about shredding on his guitar. He also loves Paganini, bebop, and teaching. Stump is the real deal: the authentic unit and a well-rounded rocker.

Growing up in Queens, New York, Stump started playing professionally during the 1970s. "I played clubs and shows all over Long Island from the time I was 15 or 16," he says. "I had my 100-watt Marshall amp, and I played all the hard-rock tunes of the day: stuff by Zeppelin, Queen, and others. One of the things in my life that I'm proudest of is that since I started playing, I've never had a 'real' job."

Not long after his professional career began, Stump had two life-changing experiences. The first was hearing the guitar playing of Ritchie Blackmore (formerly of Deep Purple); the second was coming to Berklee. "I loved a lot of players like Brian May and Johnny Winter, but when I heard Blackmore, it really affected my playing. Blackmore is the guy who really should get the credit for bringing in all the elements of metal that we now take for granted. I'm talking about the arpeggios, the whammy-bar abuse, and the use of weird modes like phrygian. I learned so much listening to Ritchie."

Knowing that there was more to learn, Stump came to Berklee in 1979. At first, he says, he felt a bit of culture shock. "Back then," Stump says, "the school was all about jazz and fusion, and I was this hard-rock kid. It was like landing on some weird jazz planet. Everybody talked in bebop lingo. I didn't know what anyone was saying at first," he says, laughing. "I'm a quick study, though. So in no time flat, I learned to be a 'cat.' I also learned a lot about the music of guys like Bach and Prokofiev, and classical scales and riffs that have helped my playing right up 'til today. There are a lot of classical riffs in heavy metal."

Then it was off to the metal wars of the 1980s. Stump's band Trash Broadway toured with Quiet Riot and Extreme. (Trash Broadway's self-titled vinyl album can still fetch more than $40 on e-Bay or's U.K. site.) Stump has released a flurry of solo records since then on the Leviathan label; Speed Metal Messiah is the most recent. Additionally, Stump has produced three instructional videos, including Chop Builder for Rock Guitar published by Berklee Press. (Visit for a complete listing of his output.)

Stump is also in great demand on the live circuit in Europe, where he says metal has never gone out of vogue. "I love the States, but my kind of music goes in and out of favor here," he says. "European audiences are so much more loyal. I might play in the U.S. to 50 or 100 people in a club. When I go to Europe with one of my bands [to tour with Holy Hell or Manowar], we can draw up to 10,000 people in a big sports venue. It's always been like that over there."

Stump is just as passionate about his teaching at Berklee as he is about performing. "Teaching is great," he says without hesitation. "Unlike the way things were in the seventies, we have a ton of guitar players here now who are into hard rock and metal. What's nice is that most of my students seek me out because they like my playing. The guitar program here is still very jazz oriented, but it's becoming much more diverse, which is great."

If the proof of the teacher's effectiveness is in the enthusiasm of the student, Stump is doing well. Berklee student Jon Monter has been studying with Stump for three semesters and glows with praise for his heavy-metal mentor. "The best aspect of studying with Joe," says Monter, "is that we just play during the lessons. We shred over jam tracks. That really helps with the flow in my playing. If I have a question-let's say I'm having trouble with my arpeggios-we'll go over the problems until I see how to improve or speed up." Monter plays with a progressive shred-metal band called String Theory where he can apply Stump's techniques and, ahem, test his mettle, so to speak.

Stump is optimistic about the future of the music he favors and the Berklee students who seek him out. "I think part of it is that the grunge days are over-at least for a while," he says. "There was a real reaction against virtuosity back in the early nineties. But kids today are back into learning how to play the guitar well. Whether it's during my lessons, or when I'm on the road, I like to think I might be playing a small part in some of these changes."