No guitarist working today better exemplifies the cross-pollination between the jam-band and jazz fusion scenes than Jimmy Herring. Equally at home supporting artists as disparate as Grateful Dead legend Phil Lesh and jazz-rock icon Lenny White, Herring's unique style combines a deep harmonic vocabulary with strong blues-rock roots, and jaw-dropping chops. After first gaining attention with Col Bruce Hampton's undefinable Aquarium Rescue Unit in the late 80s, Herring has had several acclaimed sideman and band gigs with groups such as the Allman Brothers, The Dead, and most recently Widespread Panic.
In 2008, Herring released his debut solo album, Lifeboat (Abstract Logix) - a rich and personal recording that illustrated the guitarist's love of jazz, and his skills as a composer. With his new album Subject To Change Without Notice (Abstract Logix), Herring takes a slightly different direction by incorporating a wider variety of textures and styles, while still leaving plenty of room for killer guitar playing and heady improvisation. Featuring a monster line-up that includes Neal Fountain and Etienne Mbappe on Bass, Jeff Sipe and Tyler Greenwell on Drums, Matt Slocum on Keys, and special guests Bela Fleck (Banjo), Bill Evans (Sax), Nicky Sanders (Violin) and Carter Herring (Cello), Subject To Change Without Notice is easily one of the best discs of 2012.
I had an in-depth discussion with Herring recently about a variety of subjects including the new album, his playing, gear, influences, even his old GIT days with fellow students Paul Gilbert and Jeff Buckley. I think you'll find, as I did, that Herring's enthusiasm for music is unwavering, and that he still considers himself a student of his instrument after all these years.
Rich Murray: So I saw your show at Martyrs’ in Chicago this past August. Really a great, amazing show...
Jimmy Herring: Oh thank you man.
RM: You’ve done several tours now with your own band, under your own name since you released your first solo record Lifeboat a few years back. What is like for you to front your own band, versus playing as a member of another band like Widespread Panic or what have you.
JH: Well it’s quite a bit different, because you feel a little more pressure. Just because when you’re working with a group that has a vocalist, your job is basically to play behind the vocalist, and then when it’s time for an instrumental section and they look at you, it’s your turn to say something. But there’s a lot of parts of the night where you’re not doing that. In an instrumental group, or in this instrumental group I should say, the guitar is sort of the voice of the group because there’s no singer.
RM: So you would say it’s more of a challenge?
JH: I don’t know if it’s more of a challenge, it’s just a different challenge, you know? But the pressure of it being your band with your name on it - some people thrive on that kind of pressure, but I think it’s harder. I don’t mean that it’s a harder challenge, there’s just more pressure on you. Plus I’m not a person that really likes that, at all. I would much rather have the band named something else. But you know, for what this is, and the people helping to put it together, they all felt it was really important to have my name on it. I’m not sure exactly why, but they felt that way so I finally just went “Okay.” But really, in a perfect world I’d rather have it be a band name, than actually being my name on the front of the band. Although there’s nothing wrong with that, and I’m getting better at it I guess, but you know, it’s a lot of pressure. I don’t know - some people are just really geared towards that sort of thing, and don’t have any problems with it, but I’m a guy who came up as a side-man. That’s what I’ve always been, so that’s what I’m used to and that’s where I feel the most comfortable; being one guy that’s a side-man in a bigger picture that’s contributing to it rather than trying to be the center of it all. But what makes it easy, is I’m playing with people that I’ve known for a very long time, and I can lean on them. And that’s huge for me. You know man, to me music is a collaborative effort. It’s not about one person; it’s about the group - because you change one member of that group, and suddenly everything is different.
JH: That could be the drummer, or the keyboard player, or the bass player - you change one thing and it’s gonna be different. And it doesn’t mean that it’s gonna be bad, it just means it’s gonna be different. That’s kind of the reason I feel like it should be a band name instead of one person’s name, because one person’s name sort of implies to some people that it’s all about that one person. And in some cases it is all about that person, but in this case, with our group, it’s not all about me, it’s about the “us” - it’s about the sound of those four people playing.
RM: Let me ask about your new album, Subject To Change Without Notice. When I first heard it, I thought it was more textured than Lifeboat - more acoustic textures, more grinding organ sounds. And even stylistically, it seems to have more of a variety than Lifeboat, which was itself a great record.
JH: Well thanks.
RM: Would you agree with that assessment, and if so, was that a conscious decision on your part?
JH: I would agree with that. But in a sense... you know, Todd [Nance] from Panic once said to me “It’s just a snapshot in time.” A record is basically a snapshot in time. Where I was when we were making Lifeboat was, “I want to make a record that is not a guitar record. It’s got to be about music first. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this is some kind of guitar extravaganza.” And I just think I’m drawn to a lot of different styles of music; that’s why I’ll have different styles and stuff. But on this record, I was not at that point where I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a guitar record. If people are going to perceive it as a guitar record, then that’s okay. But on the other album [Lifeboat] we had more saxophone, and we had flute with Kofi Burbridge, I didn’t want any more spotlight time taking solos than anybody else. So a lot of that music is kind of based that way, so there’s no guitar solos that are ten-times longer than anybody else’s solo. There might have been a couple of exceptions on that album to that rule, but that was the rule. But on this record... I’ve been getting more into the guitar being in a vocal-like context. Every song wasn’t like that, but I know that I’m into that and it kind of manifested itself on this record. But it wasn’t anything that was pre-conceived; the different styles were not pre-conceived. It was just an idea of “Let’s go make a record.” And these are the tunes that I had, you know. I think what you said is true, although it wasn’t a conscious direction to go in. It just kind of came out that way.
RM: You had John Keane in as producer on the album. He’s done a lot of Panic records including the last one you were on, Dirty Side Down. How did he get involved, and what did he bring to the table on this project?
JH: Well now that was a conscious decision. [Laughs] I’ve always loved John. John is a sonic genius. The guy just knows how to get great sounds, and he knows how to put it together in a way that I really like. I’d learned music from records he’d made with Panic when I got the gig with them, and I’d heard those records back when they were making them. I’m friends with them, and I knew them back then. I would hear their newest record and go “God who produced this thing?” John Keane. “God, who produced this record?” John Keane. I’ve known him a long time but I’ve never actually made a record with him until we did the Dirty Side Down record with Panic. And I just thought the guy had so many good ideas, and he gets good, organic sounds; I just like what he does. He’s like the 5th Beatle - he’s sort of like Panic’s George Martin in a way. He’s the Ying to the Yang. Guys like us are more street, and a guy like him is a good balance to keep it from being too reckless, you know? But at the same time, still making it sound presentable. I needed to make a record like that, I wanted to make a record like that, with a producer who really knows what he’s doing, but also someone who’s not going to tell me no every time I want to do something different. So I went to him and said “John, do you ever co-produce records with people?” He said “Yeah.” I said “Well the truth is, I want you to produce this record I want to do, but I want the final say about my own performances.” I’ve worked with producers where I did some terrible solo, and I’d be like “Oh my God, you gotta give me another shot at that. That’s just not any good.” And they go “No no, this is fine. It’s fine.”
JH: That’s the worst thing anyone can say to me - “It sounds fine, what are you worried about?” “I don’t want it to sound fine.” Damnit. You know?
RM: [Laughs] Right
JH: I want it to be better than “fine.” You know what I mean. But it’s a subjective thing; everybody’s idea of fine, and something really good, is different. So when John said “Yeah man, I’ll make a record with you where I produce it but you get the final say on your performances.” I said okay, well then that’s it. I didn’t think we’d be able to afford him, but we could - he worked with us. You know man, I have so much respect for him.
RM: You’ve got a lot of really great players on the album. Some of whom you’ve worked with in the past like Jeff Sipe, Neal Fountain, Matt Slocum, and a lot of great guests. I was surprised though that you had Etienne Mbappe from John McLaughlin’s band playing bass on several tunes. How did he get involved?
JH: Well I was as surprised as anybody. I barely know Etienne, but we did a few gigs together where we were on the same bill as McLaughlin’s band, and we did the New Universe Music Festival a few years ago. And Etienne - he’s from Africa, but he lives in Paris; he’s all over the globe. The guy plays with McLaughlin everywhere in the world, he plays with a lot of people man. He plays with Bill Evans, he plays with Robben Ford... he’s made a lot of impressions all over the world with different people. And I’m completely blown away by the guy. And I don’t know why, but he was interested in what we were doing. I think for him, it’s like it is for me when I hear African musicians. I’m really intrigued by their take, and their different sense of rhythm, their different sense of placement. It’s intriguing to me in the same way that Indian music is intriguing to me. The Bulgarian wedding band is intriguing to me! Just because it’s another take from another culture. And I guess our redneck take on whatever it is we’re doing - this Atlanta-based, jazz fusion funk blues thing that we do, or whatever it is, I guess he found it curious, you know? And he wanted to play with us! Man, he got on a plane in Poland and flew to Atlanta to make that session.
JH: I was blown away. I couldn’t believe that he would want to do that but he did. And I was so glad that he wanted to play because I love the guy’s playing. His sound... Etienne is special - he doesn’t sound like anyone else. And I was really thrilled that he wanted to be a part of this. So we got him to play on about 5 or 6 tunes, and Neal was there to play on about 5 tunes. You know it’s like Todd said a long time ago, it’s a snapshot in time. It can’t be absolutely recreated in a live context without those same people. But that’s okay. We can at least make a record. He and Souvik [Dutta. Abstract Logix Founder and President] are real good friends. You know, Souvik, I can’t say enough about him. None of this would have been possible without him. It’s because of him I was able to make the first record. Because of him I got to meet all these great people like John McLaughlin, and Wayne Krantz. Michael Landau, Etienne, Gary Husband. It’s just insane. Lenny White, and then later Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke - this was all a trickle-down effect from being friends with Souvik. So I can’t say enough about him, and how grateful I am to him for making this happen. He’s the one who introduced me to Etienne. It was all done through him. He’s like “Etienne is coming.”
JH: “He’s leaving Poland tomorrow.” “He’s on a plane.” And I’m just like “Oh my God he’s coming here!” He’s getting on a plane in Poland, he’s coming to Atlanta, to play with us in Athens. That’s amazing to me. But I was so thrilled to have him.
RM: Sure. Your son Carter plays cello on a couple of tunes as well.
RM: What was that like? Having him in the session.
JH: It was awesome. He started playing cello around sixth grade. He was 17 when that recording was made, so he’d been playing it for awhile but it’s not his main instrument. Guitar is his main instrument, but he took to the cello really naturally when he started at a very young age. You know, he had good tone, and good vibrato and I was like “One of these days man, we’ve got to record something.” So the John McLaughlin tune “Hope” came up, and that was the first thing I thought about getting him to play on. Then I thought well, “Within You Without You” has all these cello lines, so I got him to play on that too. He’s like a sponge, he picks things up real fast, although cello may not be his main instrument. You know, to be honest I don’t even know that he’s picked it up since that day.
JH: But he’s a musician. He’s the real deal - he’s not just my son. He’s taking things into his own hands. He never comes to me and says “He dad will you show me this. Will you give me a shortcut.” I would show him anything; I would love to show him everything I know. But he doesn’t want to know, he want’s to do it himself, you know what I mean? So I really respect that. He’s really into blues and funk, and he loves James Brown, Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin; he loves all the old cats. He’s really coming into his own. He’s 18 now. They grow up quick!
RM: Yeah I’ve got a couple of my own. They shoot up like weeds.
JH: They do!
RM: Some of the tunes on the record are songs you’ve played live with your group before, and you also have some new stuff that you wrote. For the new stuff that you brought in, was that all written specifically for this record? Or was some it based on ideas you had kicking around for awhile.
JH: Most of them were pieces that were coming together over a period of time. There was no sense of “I’m writing for this record.” until the last two songs came to me literally a couple of days before the session. I wasn’t really trying to write. I was just down there in my basement. I’d just put these awesome speakers in a 4x10 cabinet. I had my ‘66 Pro Reverb, and I wanted to hear it through the 4 10s. So I wired it up, and I had the baritone guitar, the Jerry Jones baritone with the lipstick pickups - like a Danelectro-type guitar. And I plugged it into that Pro Reverb through those new speakers and I was like “Holy crap!” It was so inspiring to play. Within 10 minutes the riff from “Bilgewater Blues” came. It was just there. The whole song just wrote itself basically. And then I was messing around with a Telecaster, later that day, and the tune “Aberdeen” came to me. The chord progression came. So I was like “Jeez there’s two new tunes.” I didn’t have the whole tune [“Aberdeen”], I had the framework for the tune, the sketch, the outline. But the melodies weren’t there yet - it was just chord progressions and riffs. That’s the way we recorded it, then I added the melodies later. And John was there for that, and played a big part in working with me through that part of writing the tune.
RM: I was going to ask about that too - if you have a particular process that you go through when you write, or is it just different every time.
JH: I don’t know if it’s different every time, but there’s no thought process that I go through, there’s no formula that I would use. I just go play man. See I have a distinct advantage over a lot of people because I get to play my guitar for a living. And man, you just can’t be thankful and grateful enough for that. So any day I feel like it, I can go play for 10 hours. And when I’m off the road, I do that quite a bit. Because this is what I do; I don’t do it because I have to, I love doing it. So it’s easy to go play for 6 or 10 hours. You know, you put a dinner break in between.
JH: You drink some water while you’re doing it. And you get up to take a leak a few times. [Laughs] But it’s not even hard to do. I just go down there and play. Sometimes it’s uneventful, and it’s more like I’m just staying in touch with my instrument. I wouldn’t call it practicing, but it kind of is. Sometimes that’s what it ends up being, but I never go down there and say “I’m going to go practice now.” or “I’m going to go write now.” I might think in my mind that I need to write something, or I need to practice this or that. A lot of times, tunes come when you’re not even thinking about writing. Other times when you’re trying to write, nothing happens except practicing. [Laughs] So I don’t really make a distinction between the two. I get real frustrated - I’m not a prolific writer. Things come to me slow as far as writing goes, and I’ve never understood why because it’s like “I can play all songs that I work with with other people - why can’t I write something.” Part of it is I throw away a lot of stuff because "Oh that sounds like a Led Zeppelin riff, oh that sounds like John Scofield, oh that sounds like Steve Morse." Or "Oh I can’t do that, that sounds like Allan Holdsworth." So a lot of stuff gets thrown away, so it’s kind of frustrating. And then some people go “Don’t throw that away man, that’s great.” No it isn’t - not if the first thing someone hears is someone else. Sometimes you have to make that kind of a decision and say “I can’t put my name on that.” We can play it, but I can’t say I wrote it because it sounds like something else. I’m starting to get better about that - that’s the way it’s been for a lot of years, and on this album I let go of that a little bit. Because I can listen to any one of those tunes, and I can spot the influences.
RM: When you have some new songs that you’re bringing in, how much direction do you give the other musicians in the studio as far as what you want them to play?
JH: Well, I think it depends on the song, and what they play when they are presented with the song. Sometimes they want some direction, and sometimes I don’t want to say anything because I want an honest reaction to what they hear. And sometimes I’ll hear what they hear, but there’s something I might want specifically that I haven’t pointed out yet. These musicians are such pros, that most of the time you don’t have to say anything. But yeah there are some things, like on “Kaleidoscope Carousel” - it’s a super simple tune, and I just wanted to make sure the groove was king in that one. And that song is not a fusion tune or anything; it doesn’t need any kind of pyrotechnics. It was just basically a groove oriented song, so that’s one of the things I said to the musicians on that. But they just jumped right on it man. [Laughs] It’s simple, you know? To me, there’s something really beautiful in simplicity. You know man, I’m 50 now, and I’m starting to come back around to those things. The fundamentals mean more to me now than they did 15 years ago. Not that they weren’t always important, because they were. But I love the Meters, you know? I love a simple groove that feels really good. So I think that’s a good place to start. On some of the more complicated stuff, I didn’t have to say a word because that’s just right up their alley. Ka-bam! You just start playing. With something like “12 Keys” or “Hope” - I’m not saying that’s complicated but it’s the kind of thing where I barely had to say anything. With “Hope” the only thing we had to do was structure the tune with dynamics. When that mantra kept repeating, each time through that cycle needed to be a little more intense, a little bit louder, you know? A little bit more energy. Because you didn’t want it to be a flat dynamic; when that part repeats four times you want each time to be a little bit more intense. But for the most part, with these guys you don’t have to say anything to them man. They just know. They know instinctively what’s right and what the tune needs. I mean yeah, we went through some things where we talked about it, but it was more or less just conversing about it and trying different things until we felt like it was right.
RM: You mentioned “Kaleidoscope Carousel” - one thing I noticed on that tune was the really great whammy bar work, especially near the end. It seems to me that that’s something you just picked up recently - within the last few years or so.
JH: It is.
RM: What was your inspiration there, for getting into the whammy stuff?
RM: Jeff Beck?
JH: Well... okay. Yes! [Laughs]
JH: Yes. I was gonna say - in two words it would be Jeff and Derek [Trucks]. Derek doesn’t use a whammy bar, of course he plays with a slide. And I’m not a slide player. With a guy like him hanging around, why would I even think about picking up a slide. [Laughs] You know what I mean? I don’t know how to play slide, man. But there are certain things that can be done with one that I just envy so much. So for that past... maybe 15 years, I’ve envied slide players, and I still do of course. And I’ve tried to do as much of it as I can without the bar. But Jeff Beck was the real reason I never picked up a twang bar. Because if I did, all I’d want to be is Jeff Beck Jr.
JH: And Jeff Beck Jr. is just not going to cut it. Everything he does with that bar is very addictive, and it’s something I would love to learn to do. But I didn’t because he’s always been one of my favorites, he’s somebody I’ve always admired and loved, so I stayed away from it. Well about 3 years ago, Dave Schools from Widespread Panic had been given this big spindle of DVDs with a bunch of Jeff Beck live footage. And there was this Jeff Beck footage from the Crossroads Guitar Festival with Clapton, and they were just playing outside of their skin. It was devastating. It messed me up so bad I couldn’t sleep at night.
JH: And I knew then that I had to at least learn a little about what this [the whammy bar] was about. So I started researching a little bit. Then I came across this guy who could keep the damn guitar in tune. He’s working with Panic now, his name is Joel Byron. And he knew how to keep the guitar in tune with the nut sauce, and putting 3-in-1 oil by the bridge, and he knew how to set the tremolo which I didn’t know anything about. So we started working together. I guess I had started messing with it before he came into the picture, but it was always going out of tune, so I didn’t do it in a live context very much. But then he came in and I started using it alot. And then I got really addicted to it, and I’m sure I did it way too much just like any new thing. But I was baffled by the things I started to find. There were slide licks I started to find, harmonica-type emulations. It’s a work in progress. Then I got away from it for a while. I just started going telecaster crazy again, and they don’t have the bar. But I miss the bar when it’s not there. The bar is like a commitment. You have to make a commitment because it’s hard to bend strings the same way. If you set the bar loose enough to do the things I want to be able to do, when you bend a note...
RM: It fights against you.
JH: Yeah! You have to fight that sucker. And I got tendinitis because of that. I can’t let go of the old way that I play to the point where I just don’t bend notes anymore except for occasionally. As a result, I’m either bending flat, or I’m wrenching my arm to bend in tune. Then when I pick up a telecaster it’s a completely different deal, because it’s a hard tail and you’re not fighting the bends. When you’re switching back and forth between guitars with trems and guitars without, it becomes troublesome. So I kind of put it down for a bit but now I’ve picked it back up again. [Laughs] It’s really hard to stay away from man. Because when you think about the human voice, when singers vibrato, they don’t just hit the note and go above the pitch then back to the pitch. And that’s basically what you do on the guitar. If you hit a 5th fret, 2nd string E note and you vibrato it, no matter how good your vibrato is, you’re still just going above the pitch and coming back to it. Unless you bend a note up to the note you want to target, then you can vibrato on both sides of the pitch. I got to the point where I was doing that all the time, and trying to emulate say a slide, or a voice. But with the bar, I found it was so much easier. There’s no way you can get the nuances you can get with the bar without it. I mean you can fake it - you can get pretty close to it, the way you can get pretty close to a harmonica or a slide. But all the harmonica-sounding stuff on the end of Carousel is the bar. It was improvised. I made a couple of passes through the solo and John said “That sounds like a harmonica crossed with a slide.” There’s no pick being used on any of that - I’ve got the bar in my hand and I’m using my thumb to pick the notes. It’s like slide, to me, sounds better with no pick. If you watch Derek play, he doesn’t use a pick. The flesh of the finger or the thumb just sounds better. I usually hold the pick in another finger out of the way when I use the bar. When we listened back to the takes I did [on Carousel], there would be like one note that sounded exactly like a harmonica. Then on another track I’d try a similar idea and it wouldn’t sound like a harmonica. There’s overtones and stuff that occur depending on where you hit the note, and when you grab the bar, how long the note has been ringing when you hit the bar - It’s real subtle stuff but it makes a difference. On a couple of those things, Keane would say “I like that idea right there.” And I’d say “Yeah but it doesn’t have it. Let me do it again.” Because it didn’t have the harmonica sound for some reason. There’s some kind of weird overtone that happens only sometimes, and I don’t know how to do it. So I just have to get lucky. But that’s part of what this is all about, improvising. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. [Laughs]
RM: You have Bela Fleck on the song “Curfew.” Did you have him in mind when you wrote it?
JH: No, but I had him in mind before we recorded it. I didn’t happen right away. I wasn’t sure when I was writing it if it would be a fiddle player, or a banjo, or what. But his name popped into my head nearly immediately after the idea of recording it came into my mind. I had gotten to play with him in December  at Warren [Haynes]’s Christmas Jam, and also Bill Evans who I got to meet through Bela - he and Bela are friends. So I got to play with those two cats in December, then I started recording the record in May - it was a few months later so I had time to think about it. I had the initial idea for the song already but it wasn’t finished yet. But then he came into mind right away. Pretty much when it was like “We’re gonna make a record, and this is going to be one of the songs.” I said oh, well I gotta call Bela Fleck.
RM: Tell me about Bill Evans too, having him on the record. What was that like?
JH: Incredible man. He’d devastatingly good. He always has been, ever since I first heard his name. I heard him with Miles Davis, I heard him with John McLaughlin back in the day, and was just blown away by everything about the way he plays. And then when I met him and got to play with him live at Warren’s Christmas Jam, I was just blown away at the diversity of what he likes. He likes all kinds of music that you wouldn’t think he’d be into. He’s a big bluegrass fan. He even has a band called Soulgrass that uses bluegrass instrumentation and takes in a different territory, which I find very interesting. I love shit like that. It’s like what we wanted to do with this record was put pedal steel in a different context. John Keane played pedal steel on John McLaughlin’s tune “Hope,” and “Emerald Garden,” and I think he played on “Utensil Oceans” [Bonus track]. It adds a texture - you’re hearing that instrument in another different context, and I found that really interesting in Bill’s music. Plus he love to fish, and he loves the outdoors. I’m really into that too so we had a lot to talk about.
RM: Cool. Let me ask about your playing a little bit. Obviously you have a lot of rock and blues influences in your playing, but you have a deep jazz vocabulary as well. There’s a lot of deep harmony in what you do. “12 Keys” from this record is a good example; it’s got some real tough changes. Where did your jazz chops come from? How did you learn to play over changes?
JH: It’s a work-in-progress man [Laughs]. I feel like I’m a baby in that department. But I love it. It’s so funny because Bill can play any set of changes - he plays over changes like we play over one chord. It’s all about your background I think, because I’ve met jazz musicians who if they don’t have changes, they can’t play. Basically I’m talking about, in a lot of cases, piano players and horn players. Because their background is playing changes. Especially sax players because they can’t play chords on their instrument, so what they tend to do is they learn harmony through playing lines. They play lines that spell the chord changes. To me that’s extremely intriguing, and that’s where my love of saxophone players comes from. You listen to Johnny Griffin, or Bird, or Coltrane, Cannonball, these kind of people - you could take the chord changes away, and just listen to their lines, and you can hear the chord changes. See to me, that’s very intriguing. That’s what I set out to do when I’m trying to play these changes; I want to spell the changes. Now sure, Coltrane hit a point where he ingested that and was done with it, and was ready to move on to vamps and modal playing. Miles Davis did it too. Bill is kind of in that place. He really enjoys exploring on these one-chord things because you can imply any harmony you want. You can play II V I cycles against a static chord, and it sounds like you’re going in and out of a harmony. You’ll be sounding normal for a minute, then you’ll be playing out. Or some people call it that; I mean that’s all subjective too - what is "out," and all that. For me that’s the big challenge but for Bill, the tunes that have changes are too easy for him. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but basically that’s the difference, in some ways, between guys with a jazz background and guys with a rock background. And you can even zero in on it a little more and say sax players and guitar players. Because guitar players generally, the first thing they learn... and of course we’re generalizing here and there’s always exceptions - it’s not the same for everybody. But in general guitar players learn the blues scale first, and what drew them to the guitar - in my age group at least, I’m 50 years old - were people like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, David Gilmour. These kind of people drew them to want to play the guitar, and most of their music is based on playing solos over one chord, or a group of chords that you can play one scale over. But in a jazz background, you’re playing standards. You’re playing tunes like “Seven Steps To Heaven” or “All The Things You Are,” “Autumn Leaves” and these kind of songs. They’re not super difficult songs, but they do require some knowledge of playing in different keys. When you’re soloing over those chord changes you can’t just pick a scale and go the way you could if you were playing an AC/DC song. So it’s normal in the evolution of a rock guitar player, if they keep wanting to evolve, they’re gonna get interested eventually in jazz harmony because it’s harder to do for us. It’s harder to play changes then it is to play in one key. But some people with jazz backgrounds feel the opposite and I just find that really interesting.
RM: You mentioned outside playing, which is something you do quite a bit and do really well. It’s kind of a broad topic I guess, but how do you approach playing outside, and how did you develop that?
JH: Well, I was in this band Aquarium Rescue Unit years ago. The songs were super simple, it was all based on blues, and sometimes we would just jump on a G7 chord, and play. And because of the nature of the harmony’s simplicity, it became possible to leave the key and play something outside of that key. In my mind, the goal was.. and this is after years of it finally evolving into what I guess I sound like now - the idea was, I want to play something familiar and then leave the key, kind of like you’re just falling through the air from a high branch of a tree to a lower branch of a tree. Instead of just dropping straight down to that next branch, anything can happen between this familiar-sounding place, and that familiar-sounding place. So I was in this band [ARU] where if you played the same shit every night, you would get crucified by the guys in the band. Like “Hey man I heard that last night.” You know what I mean? Or “Is that all you’ve got man? I’ve heard that every night this week.” So we were all on a quest to become fearless with the idea of “Don’t be afraid to play any note.” You know Bruce [Hampton], our bandleader, was really hugely influential in that. He doesn’t have formulas like Coltrane formulas, and Michael Brecker formulas for playing out, whatever that means. See, playing out is real subjective; it means different things to different people. I feel like I was better at it back during that time then I am now just because that’s what we did every night. My approach is basically... sure I learned some of these formulas that are very helpful, but I don’t consider that “out.” I don’t think it’s really out unless you’re completely flying by the seat of your pants. Out can mean different things man. I know there are people out there who think I’m playing out, and other people who really know what that is, they just start laughing. And they are like “What are you talking about? He’s not playing out. He’s just playing a diminished scale.” Well sometimes that’s true; some of these other scales might sound out to people. I got into these cycles that I heard Michael Brecker doing, Scott Henderson doing, Coltrane. You know, where you can take major triads, play a major triad arpeggio, and move it up a minor third and play another major triad arpeggio, then move it up another minor third, you do that four times before you get back to the one you started with. So if you were in G, you’d play a G triad, then a Bb triad, a Db triad, and an E triad. And the next minor third up from that would be G again. But the idea isn’t to play two-octave arpeggios on each one of those. And you don’t want to take the same fingering and move it up three frets each time. There are times when that might work, but see that gives away your formula - that’s the formula in its most elementary application. But if you can learn to play through these triad shapes and maybe use just 2 or 3 notes of each one before you switch to the next one, and you’re not moving it up and doing the exact same pattern each time, you can really come up with some interesting lines. But these lines are all part of the diminished scale; those triads all belong to the diminished scale. So it’s not really out in my mind because it’s part of an actual scale. Now, it might sound out because of the context you’re putting it in. That’s the other thing - in order to use this stuff you have to be playing with people who hear you do it and know how to react to it. You see, Oteil [Burbridge] and I, and Matt Mundy, we were all discovering this stuff around the same time. I knew what that was, but I didn’t know how to use it. So it became a work-in-progress. So that was one thing - the triad cycles, the diminished scale, and all the arpeggios that exist within that, the chordal things that exist within that. And then sometimes, there’s no plan at all. I’ll just be playing in a key - like a G7 or something, I’ll be playing a G Mixolydian or a G Blues-type idea, and then I’ll just start falling off the log, kind of falling through the air chromatically, just kinda trying things, you know? To me, what makes people have their own voice in these types of things is how they get in and out of it. What did they do before they did that, and what did they do after it. So for me it kind of became this thing of playing something totally familiar, and then just start falling, and you don’t know where you’re going really. And it starts to bend a person’s ear to where they’re starting to get that look on their face like “What is that?” And before they can be disgusted and get up and walk out you land back on a note that’s in the key. This is like the elementary approach to what we’re talking about, you know? But it’s kind of where I’m coming from. And I try not to do it on everything - sometimes it’s appropriate and sometimes it’s not. That’s another thing that makes people’s style. Where they do it and where they don’t do it makes them unique.
RM: I know you were a student at GIT back in the mid-80s. How much of the jazz theory that you know now did you learn back then?
JH: A lot of it! I mean I studied theory before I went to school - my parents were very education-minded people. They thought it was important that I study music theory. Of course when I was young, I didn’t want to study music theory, I wanted to play Led Zeppelin you know?
JH: And I just couldn’t understand why I needed to know about secondary dominants and all these other things. Although, of course now I know that it’s insane to think that way. But my mom was so adamant about “Look. You want to be a musician? We totally support you but you have to learn your craft.” She didn’t mean playing the guitar. She meant learning music. And I wasn’t real interested in it when I was 17 or 16, but as I got older I started to see that “Wow. All the guys that I really dig, they all studied harmony. They all went to school.” Maybe they didn’t go to an actual school, but they studied harmony on their own. Yeah man I learned a lot of stuff before I went there, but what I learned there was absolutely huge. One of the reasons I wanted to go there was because I knew I was going to meet a lot of people who wanted to play 20 hours a day, just like I did. I’m going to meet people who love to play all the time just like I do. Where I was living, I didn’t know many people who felt like I did. I knew some, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to find more people. And then I did - I went out to GIT and oh my God. We were studying all the time, doing ear training, jamming til 4 in the morning with friends...
RM: Yeah, I went there in ‘92, and it was the same exact experience. You’re immersed in it. It’s crazy.
JH: Wow you went in ‘92! I graduated in ‘85, it wasn’t that long after really. Wow.
RM: Yeah not too much longer.
JH: Yeah so [instructors] Dan Gilbert and Don Mock, Joe Diorio, and these people hanging around man. And Scott Henderson was just... Scott Henderson blew my mind. Because I was really into the Dregs when I went there. I love the Dregs and they were a huge impact on me. But their thing was composition first. Improvisation was a part of it, but it wasn’t like a free-flowing improvisation with all this crazy harmony and stuff. Steve [Morse - Dregs founder] mostly writes out of basic triad harmony, and he knows that stuff cold man. He’s brilliant; he’s like Bach, he’s like the Bach of instrumental rock music. But when I heard Scott Henderson, that opened up a whole... that’s like “Oh shit.”
JH: It’s like Jeff Beck meets MIchael Brecker. So that got me more interested in horn players. Michael Brecker, of course Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, these kind of players. And harmonically where they were going, I found it to be really interesting. And one of my best friends when I was there [GIT] was Jeff Buckley. And Todd Barth, who has his own music school in Austin Texas. This guy is a blistering guitar player. Me and Todd hung out all the time, and Jeff Buckley was with us all the time. Jeff used to sleep on my couch every night man. He had a house, he just didn’t go back to it. He stayed at my apartment all the time. And we all knew that this dude was beyond gifted. Of course the world found out just how gifted he was later on.
RM: I know one of your other classmates there was Paul Gilbert. Did you know Paul back then?
RM: Did you guys ever jam together?
JH: We never really jammed together very much but we knew each other. Paul was devastating when he was 17 years old. He might have been 18. In the first week of school, I remember walking down a hallway and inside this room there was a bunch of people, and they were all standing up. I poked my head in and I see Paul sitting in a chair tapping his foot on the floor, he didn’t even have the guitar plugged in, and he was playing all that Yngwie stuff from the No Parole From Rock ‘n’ Roll album that Alcatrazz did. That record was the first time I had heard Yngwie. And when I saw this kid just ripping that stuff to shreds on an Epiphone guitar that wasn’t even plugged into an amp, I was like “Oh my God!” This guy’s got chops like Paganini. And we all know now, and people have known for many years - there’s nobody like Paul Gilbert.
RM: I wanted to ask about your picking also. You use kind of an unusual twisting motion with your wrist when you pick - almost like a key-turning motion. Why did your picking develop that way, as opposed to what most pickers do which is more of a back-and-forth motion?
JH: Man the truth is, I never consciously tried to pick a certain way. I just tried to do what I heard my heros doing. And I still can’t - I can’t pick like John McLaughlin, I can’t pick like Steve Morse. Those guys are just machines, you know? I don’t know how it came about. I just know that I hold the pick with three fingers. I’ve been told by people who saw me play that that wasn’t going to work, and that I should switch to holding the pick with the thumb and the first finger in the way that you see most people play. And I flirted with the idea of switching my picking method, but everything felt totally wrong except the way I was already doing it. No one showed it to me. When I started playing, I just picked up a pick and started picking. I didn’t make any conscious effort to do it a certain way. I didn’t try to look at people and do it the way they were doing it. I just did it in the way that felt right to me. And it has limitations man. But the thing is, I think it’s a big part of the sound. And the sound inspires you what to play next. When I tried picking with the way most people pick, the sound was way different; the tone was way different. I don’t know why. You know how most people who play with say a Fender Heavy-type pick - if they play with that pick for any stretch of time it gets rounded on the pointed part of the pick, and then they throw it away and they grab a new one. But for some reason with the way I pick, it turns the pick into a knife blade - it gets pointed and really really sharp. I don’t know why, but for some reason it sounds better to my ear. So what ends up happening is I end up playing with a pick for 2 years.
RM: Oh wow!
JH: But it took me a long time - I could only play with the plastic picks. I guess I squeeze the pick kind of hard. And I don’t play with the rounded end like a lot of people, I play with the pointed end. I couldn’t flip it upside down when it was getting uneven wear. I would always put my thumb on the Fender logo-part of the pick. But if I tried to flip the pick upside down after I’d been playing with it for a long time the pick was bent. I was bending the picks over periods of time. But then I found these acrylic things man - the V-Pick. The V-Pick that has the triangle-type shape is really cool. These picks are made of acrylic, and they’re kind of beveled on the edges and that means I have three points on each side. So when one point gets worn a little bit, I can just flip it to the next point. So it’s like having three picks on one side. And they don’t give at all; they’re stiff. But they don’t feel stiff because they’re beveled on the edges. So I can flip it upside down and have three more picks. So having one pick is really like having six. The one I’m playing with now I’ve been playing with for 2 years.
RM: The same pick?
JH: Yeah. It sounds way better than a new one. Because I’ve been playing with it for two years. For me, picks have always been a source of paranoia and just... ADD on steroids.
JH: If I get used to playing with a Fender Heavy that I’ve been playing with for a year, it has a certain sound and its smaller than a normal pick because I’ve worn away some of it right? Then if that pick gets too small and I need to pick up a new pick, I can’t even play. Because it’s so big compared to the other one that I was just using. And then there’s a break-in period, and then I’d have to get used to that pick, and it would take months before it felt normal to me again. So I’ve always been looking for pick alternatives. You know how everybody started using the super super thick picks that were like a Fender Heavy times 2? I went that way for a while, but that didn’t work for me either because that was too thick to play rhythm with - I couldn’t get the wrist action going very good. Then I said forget it, I’m just going back to the Fender Heavy - that’s what I’ve always used, that’s what feels right to me. Then I found these V-Picks man. It’s been a pretty big deal to me. They’re clear, so if you drop one, you can’t see it. So I take fingernail polish and paint a red streak on it so if it falls I can see it. [Laughs]
RM: [Laughs] Wow. Well speaking of picks, let me ask about your other gear a little bit. What guitars did you use on the new record?
JH: I had three Fender Telecasters. Two of them are mine, they’re ‘62 reissues. One is an American made, and the other is a Japanese one. One has a Callaham bridge and Lollar pickups - Lollar ‘52 Telecaster pickups. The other just had the stock Fender bridge on it. It also had the Lollar ‘52s in it, but I got my guy Joel Byron to do this wiring thing he does that makes a weird out-of-phase sound when you combine the two pickups. If you listen to “Carousel” there’s that little melody that happens in the tune where it’s this weird out-of-phase kind of tone; that’s that pickup combination. Then there was a third Telecaster that John Keane has, which is also a ‘62 reissue Japanese. But all of these guitars have been refretted, and the necks have been flattened out. I like a much flatter neck than a lot of people. It’s got to be at least as flat as a Gibson. One of my telecasters has a 12” radius like a Gibson, and the other has a 16” radius which is quite a bit flatter than a Gibson. And John’s guitar probably has about a 12” radius. The same guy refretted all of them, Joel Byron. He’s a great guy to have around. He does amazing things with guitars. Then I have this American Standard Stratocaster that I bought from a friend of mine who had just opened a music store, and I wanted to give him some business. Around the same time, I met this guy that used to do a lot fret work and built guitars for Allan Holdsworth. I was playing some show in Santa Cruz California and he came up and introduced himself; his name is Bill DeLap. Bill builds these headless guitars for Allan Holdsworth and Alex Machacek. He’s just way ahead of his time, this guy. He’s building amazing instruments. He came to me and said “I’ve heard that you want to have a guitar with a flat radius and really really big frets, but nobody wants to do it for you because they think you’re crazy.” And I said “Yes! That’s very true.” You know people don’t understand why I like that, and I don’t understand why they don’t. So Bill says this to me and I said “Ok. I’ve got a guitar that I’ll send you.” And it was that American Standard that I had just bought from my friend. Just a basic off-the-shelf American Standard, though we put Lollar Imperial humbuckers in it. Then he flattened the neck out to a 20” radius, which is real flat. This was more or less an experiment, but this guy’s fret work is to-die-for. Bill DeLap is a genius. So he flattens this cheap American Standard to a 20” radius, puts my favorite frets on, the Dunlop 6000 frets which I think is the biggest fret wire you can get. It’s tremendous fret wire, but I think it make the guitar sound better, I can play it better, it’s easier to bend in tune - You just have to be careful not to push too hard on the notes when you play chords or it will go out of tune. It’s not that different from having a scalloped neck. It is a little bit different but the concept is the same. The frets are big enough and tall enough to where when you press a note down, you’re nowhere near the fingerboard. Your strings never touch the fingerboard. To me what this does is it makes the guitar ring better. You get better sustain, and you get more bell-tone and chime out of the guitar. So as an experiment I had Bill DeLap do that man, and that became my number one guitar for awhile now. It’s just a white strat with Lollar Imperial humbuckers, and the neck’s been flattened to 20”, and it’s got that big fret wire on it, but other than that it’s bone-stock [Laughs]. That’s a lot that’s different though, I’m just kidding. But man I can play that guitar better because of that. Now I know what I like. Now I know I like a flat radius, I like the big frets. Took me a long time to discover that man, and now I’m not fighting the instrument all the time.
RM: Is that the guitar you’re playing on “Kaleidoscope Carousel” with the whammy stuff?
JH: It is, yeah. But really most of that song was all telecasters until the end there where the solo is on the fade. That’s the white strat with the Bill DeLap fret job. But the whammy is completely stock. Joel can keep these things in tune. The guy put a Delrin nut on there. The Delrin seems to be a good combination with the twang bar. Works better than any of the locking nuts I’ve tried anyway.
There were two Paul Reed Smith guitars I used on the record too, and a Jerry Jones Baritone.
RM: What about amps?
JH: Let’s see... a Fender Super Reverb, a 1964, and a 1966 Pro Reverb, and that was pretty much it. I did use a Fuchs ODS on a couple of tunes. But most of the lead voice stuff is the Fender amps and a Hughes & Kettner Tube Factor overdrive pedal.
RM: When I saw you in Chicago I noticed you were using a Fractal Axe-Fx as well. How do you incorporate that into your tone?
JH: I’m just using it for reverb right now. The thing is capable of all kinds of things. The reason I ended up with it is because Souvik and other people were like “Man, you’ve got to go to Europe. You’ve got to go to Japan, and Australia.” And I’m like “I want to go, but I don’t want to go that far to sound terrible, and I can’t take my stuff that I need.” I need my Super Reverb, and these Tone Tubby speakers. I can’t get by without them. I addicted hopelessly to those speakers, the Alnico Tone Tubbys. For some reason, for me, the combination of the old Fender amps and those speakers, and the Hughes & Kettner overdrive pedal, I can’t get by without that, playing this music. Now I could use Fuchs amps, and Two-Rock, they are all wonderful amps. But for this music, for some reason I’m just so addicted to that Fender thing. Something about single channel amps, and then using an overdrive pedal to push them a little further. Twins, and Pro Reverbs, and Super Reverbs - you can crank them up and you’re going to get quite a bit of good overdrive that way. But when you back off, it cleans up nice, you know? And then if you need to push them a little further, you just find the right pedal for you, that works good for you to push the front of the amp a little more. But amps that have channel switching, for some reason I just haven’t found a way to get the other tones that I want to get when the overdrive is off. There’s something about a single channel amp being gagged that I really like. Especially for this type of music, that seems to be what I’m stuck on.
So Souvik said look, they’ve come out with this thing called the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, and he bought one and gave it to me and said if you don’t like it, we can return it within 30 days. And I saw the potential that it had so I went and paid Souvik for the unit and I kept it. And I messed around with it and found some amazing things. But you know man, I’m hopelessly addicted to the pant-legs flapping around my ankles from the air being pushed by a cabinet. The idea of going to a gig without an amp is just really hard. So as of right now it’s just being used for reverb. [Laughs]
RM: You also had this other strat at the Chicago show that had sort of a natural finish with a maple neck, and an unusual pickup configuration. What can you tell me about that guitar?
JH: That guitar belongs to our sound man, and my good friend of 20 something years, Rush Anderson. That’s a one-piece Warmoth body made of Mahogany. A Mahogany stratocaster body, go figure. It’s a one-piece body, not a two or three piece so that gives it a certain something. The neck is an American Standard maple neck that he had. And he likes the same big frets and flat neck that I do. We’ve been friends for 20 something years; we discovered all this stuff together. He had that neck refretted the same way that I like. He brings his guitar on the road so he can play in his hotel room, you know? But it’s not new - I’ve been using his equipment for years. He had a 76 Marshall JPM 100 watt that I used for years back in the ARU days. I used to use his white stratocaster too; he had a white Strat Plus that we but a humbucking pickup in and I used it for years too when he was travelling with us. The pickups in that guitar [the Mahogany strat] are Lollar P90 drop ins that fit in a humbucking pickup slot. So basically they are P90s that are sized to fit in a humbucker slot. So there’s two of those in that guitar, and the middle pickup was a Lollar Special S stratocaster pickup. And the way the guitar is wired is the same way I used to wire strats all the time. Imagine a three-way switch on a guitar, just like a telecaster. When you’re on the bridge you’re on the bridge, in the middle you’re on the outer two pickups together, then when you go to the neck you’re on the neck pickup. Well there’s another switch mounted right under the neck pickup. That switch adds the middle pickup to whatever the three-way is already on. So if I’m on the neck pickup and I hit that switch, it adds the middle pickup to the neck. If you hit the switch again it just turns off the middle pickup. That’s all it is is an on/off switch for the middle pickup. That way the only thing I can’t get is the middle pickup alone. I used to wire strats like that all the time, because I really missed having the outer two pickups together, which you don’t usually get when you use a five-way switch.
RM: Cool. Well Jimmy thanks so much for your time today.
JH: Sure thing man. Thank you.
Be sure to catch Jimmy Herring on the road next month with The Ringers where he'll be joined by Michael Landau, Wayne Krantz, Keith Carlock and Etienne Mbappe.
By Rich Murray. Published 1/23/13
Special thanks to Souvik Dutta.