Bay Area guitar great Will Bernard says Carlos Santana and Joe Satriani are tough to beat

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 23, 2003

By Steve Newton

Will Bernard may be one of the best guitarists you’ve never heard of, but they sure know about him down in San Francisco. He was nominated for outstanding guitarist at the California Music Awards the past two years running, and the competition was pretty fierce.

“Usually I’m up against Carlos Santana and Joe Satriani,” notes the jazzy picker from his Bay Area home, “and those guys are tough to beat. But it’s a popular contest, you know. I’m always just surprised that they remember who I am.”

Bernard’s name will soon be making the rounds among the Vancouver jam-band crowd: he’s scheduled to play two back-to-back gigs at the Fairview Pub on Thursday (October 30). His own instrumental trio, Motherbug, will open for Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, in which he also plays guitar.

“My band is probably gonna be a little more jazz-oriented and a little less dance-oriented,” he explains. “I mean, we keep the groove going most of the time with Robert, so with Motherbug we can do a little more stretching out.”

Although he admits it’s going to be tough pulling off the double shift, the 44-year-old Bernard is used to lots of work. Since 1990 he’s performed and recorded with Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble, Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra, Don Cherry, Spearhead, Beth Custer, the Coup, Pothole, Midnight Voices, the Will Bernard 4-Tet, the Baguette Quartet, and T. J. Kirk, the Grammy-nominated band that also featured eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter.

A T. J. Kirk reunion show is set for December, and Bernard is doing a gig this month with Frequinox, a side project with 20th Congress leader Robert Walter and Galactic’s Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio. Then there’s the upcoming Motherbug CD, as yet untitled, which local fans will get a taste of at the Fairview. “I’m keepin’ pretty busy,” he says, “so I enjoy my time off more these days. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is great not working!’ ”

When Bernard does get a rare night off, he enjoys seeing other musicians sweat, though not necessarily those in the same groove-jam genre as he. “I’d usually rather go to a classical-music concert,” he relates, “or jazz, or maybe some Indian music. But to be honest, I think the last show I went to was the John Scofield Band. A buddy of mine from Oakland, Avi Bortnick, has been playing rhythm guitar with him.”

Hanging out with primo players like Bortnick—who shines big time on Scofield’s latest CD, Up All Night—can’t help but rub off on Bernard. And who knows? Maybe one day he’ll beat out his famous Bay Area rivals for that coveted outstanding-guitarist prize. Over the years, he’s been inspired to excel at his craft by some of the world’s greatest players but finds it hard to pinpoint one particular fave. “Boy, that’s rough,” he says. “I’d probably say Wes Montgomery—him or Jimi Hendrix. I always try to pick the guy who I don’t get sick of too fast. I think Django Reinhardt might have been the best guitarist that ever lived, but I don’t know how long I could listen to him.”

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