Soloist, Sideman & Steely Dan’s Guitarist of Choice
One unexpected pleasure of my recent Marianne Faithful mini-tour was getting to hear guitarist Jon Herington at the Kate Wolf Music Festival.
Since 1999, Herington has been best known to audiences as Steely Dan’s touring and recording guitarist. He also performs with The Dukes of September Rhythm Review, an all-star band featuring Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs. And when he’s home in New York, he sings and plays with his trio, the Jon Herington Band, whose material blend bluesy raunch with sly, jazz-informed harmonies in a way that Steely Dan fans are likely to love. (Their latest release is Time on My Hands.) He’s also worked with many other jazz and pop luminaries (partial discography here).
Angel-voiced Madeleine Peyroux was onstage when out van pulled up at the festival. She was performing a set of intimate chamber jazz, complete with strings and a whisper-quiet rhythm section. We couldn’t see the band, but man, could we hear them! When the guitarist took flight with a ravishingly lyrical slide solo — in standard tuning, no less — my bandmate Rob Burger and I turned to each other. “Who is that?” I mouthed. More lovely guitar work wafted from the stage: a fluent bop solo. Sublimely understated rhythm guitar work straight out of a 1940s session. “Seriously,” I muttered. “Who is that?”
It was Jon, of course. As he left the stage, I plied him with as many questions as the quick set change permitted. How did he get those tones? How did he wring such a great slide sound from that Gibson ES-336 using conventional tuning and a standard setup? I was also curious about the demands of the Steely Dan gig, and not merely the challenge of performing a vast catalog of complex guitar parts for the notoriously demanding duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. How, I wondered, would a player approach those oh-so-varied riffs and solos? How would a guitarist honor those beloved solos without making them sound canned?
I didn’t have time to ask half those questions. But Jon, a charming, articulate fellow, agreed to an email interrogation upon his return home, even though he’s busy with Steely Dan rehearsals in advance of the band’s summer tour.
Thanks, Jon — you rule!
Your style straddles rock and jazz. How does your solo style reconcile “linear” concepts (diatonic and pentatonic scales, say) with “chordal” ones (a more harmonically oriented, arpeggio-based approach)?
While the analytical side of my brain is usually “at the ready,” I try to play “ear first,” or “head first.” In other words, I try to play what I hear in my head, and play what comes naturally to me in the moment. So I don’t typically have that kind of orientation to my playing.
However, I have spent and still do spend a lot of time analyzing, studying, and preparing to solo on any piece of music I know I’m going to have to play on, and it’s then that I discover what kinds of approaches are going to work for me on a song. So I don’t find myself thinking consciously about soloing when I’m doing it, but I certainly do when I’m preparing.
In short, my preparation often involves composing what I wish I could improvise multiple times on the solo section of a song. I find that once I’ve done that, I’ve learned a lot about what works in that context, the ideas start to blend and mix themselves up, and in effect I’ve taught myself how to improvise at a higher level than I would have been able to do without having done that work.
What’s the appeal of the ES-336? How does its sound and feel differ from those of its better-known Gibson cousins?
The 336 appeals to me because it’s a great particular guitar in every sense for me. I played several before I bought this one, and it was by far the most alive and bright-sounding one. I think the fact that it was a custom shop, high-end guitar appealed to me, and I liked the way it had a powerful rock and blues sonic potential (especially on the bridge pickup), yet it was also capable of a very convincing jazz tone (on the neck pickup).
Sound-wise, it’s a little closer to a 335 than a Les Paul, but it has qualities of both to my ear. But I’m as much a fan of the sound of good Les Pauls and good 335s as I am of the 336. So I think it was the playability and the size that drew me to it.
I’ve always been more comfortable playing Gibsons, probably because I grew up playing a Les Paul Deluxe, but this one feels better to me than most. It’s more comfortable than a Les Paul — it’s lighter, it sits a little higher up on my lap if I’m sitting down playing without a strap, and the higher register is easier to reach. It’s a little smaller than a 335, so it feels a little easier switching to other similarly sized guitars I play, like the SG and the Tele.
But mostly it feels better because I’ve customized it for my taste: It’s had many fret jobs over the years, and now has Dunlop 6100 frets (pretty big ones) that Norio Imai recently put in for me; I replaced the tuning gears; it has a master volume and two tones (instead of independent volume controls for each pickup), and the master volume was moved to where the pickup selector used to be so that it’s closer to my hand; it has pickups that Jim Rolph designed and built for me which are less hot than the original pickups, and seem to let me hear more of the tone of the guitar and a little less of the pickup than before, and it has some kind of electronic modification (a capacitor and maybe a resistor) that keeps the tone bright as the volume is lowered on the guitar and improves the taper of the volume pot. So it’s a far cry from an “off the shelf” guitar (though it was a good sounding box from the beginning), and, like most of the guitars I enjoy playing, that’s probably why it works for me.
Your site mentions your love of Guytron amps. What’s great about them?
The Guytron GT100 FV is still my “go to” amp. It was designed by musician and electronics wizard Guy Hedrick. It was a forward-thinking design when it was conceived, and it still trumps all the competition in terms of the range of attributes it has: vintage tone as well as plenty of usable, more modern-sounding gain; simple channel switching capability; independent control over the channels; a great effects loop; two power amp stages, one for tone shaping, one for volume, yielding the best sounding master volume design I’ve heard. Most of all it’s an amp that does everything I need an amp to do, it has great musical sounds in it, it’s simple and intuitive to use, and it’s the right amp for any playing situation, from a bedroom to an arena.
You’ve said you prefer generating distortion from the amp rather than via pedals. Why?
I guess that’s just a matter of taste. There are a lot of interesting sounds available from pedals, and I find myself taking advantage of those when I’m recording and looking for a particular effect, but when I’m playing music of my own I tend to go for a sound I imagine in my head, and that’s the sound of a good amp turned up. If I don’t have an amp that will overdrive in the way I like I’ll use a pedal to try to imitate that sound, but it almost never sounds as rich or natural to me.
Any other particularly crucial guitars and amps? And do you have any especially interesting/unusual observations about any of them?
I bought a Custom Shop SG a couple of years ago that I’ve been playing a lot with my own band that I’ve really enjoyed, though I have some issues with its flimsiness. It’s a real rocker, and the treble pickup just sounds fantastic on it. I did a bit of my usual customizing — new tuners, a master volume, the volume pot mod — and except for the way in which the guitar neck is like a whammy bar (which I sometimes like, actually!), it’s comfortable and fun to play.
I also have a brand new Tele-style guitar made by Larry Wysocki which sounds pretty remarkable. I’m still getting used to playing it, as I’m more comfy on a Gibson, but it’s a rare guitar, that’s for sure.
I’m also a huge fan of Brandon Montgomery’s amp work. He’s a master, and I have a Bludotone Bludo-Drive he made for me which is a beautiful-sounding amp.
Your slide playing is fab. Am I correct in assuming you use a lot of standard tuning? Any special setup tricks? Do you have a dedicated slide instrument? What sort of slide? Which finger? Any unusual techniques?
The reason I play slide in standard tuning is one of sheer practicality. In New York, I almost never take more than one guitar to a gig, and to retune between songs would take so long that I’ve just had to go for it in standard tuning all these years. So it turns out that even though I like what’s possible in slide tunings like E or G, and I wish I had really gotten those tunings together, I’ve spent so much more time in standard tuning that it’s more comfortable for me.
I wear the slide on my ring finger, and I like those blue ceramic ones made by Moonshine the best. They certainly sound different from glass, fatter and warmer, with less scratchy noise than glass. I think that material works for me because I’m often on the treble pickup. Glass can give you a lot of character on the neck pickup, and I like that, but I’ve gotten comfortable with the Moonshine.
I don’t think I have any very unusual techniques, I’m just struggling every second to make it in-tune and musical-sounding. With my left hand, I mute the unplayed portion of the string so it doesn’t make any extra noise. With my right hand, I strike the strings with my thumb and the rest of my fingers while I’m holding (and hiding) the pick with my first finger, and though I would never recommend that to anybody, it’s the only way I can do it after all these years. Using the fingers of the right hand, I almost always mute the two strings adjacent to the sounding string. It’s a lot of work, and difficult to get used to, but it sure sounds better and cleaner to me. It’s not easy for me to do anything technically challenging, but in a funny way that’s what I like about slide playing: It forces me to think more in terms of simple melody, more like a singer.
I can use any of my electrics for slide without changing the setup, because I don’t play with extremely low action. The SG is my favorite for slide because of the easy access to the higher range. I have a Collings double cutaway guitar (which also has easy access to the high notes) that I kept set up for slide in E tuning on the Dukes of September tour where Boz sang a blues and the song called for that, and it worked beautifully.
Can you say a few words about the teachers who influenced you most? Do you teach yourself?
I taught myself for the first five years I played guitar, and then I went away to college and realized it was a big world out there, there were a lot of amazing players, and I decided it was time to do some serious practicing and studying. I was incredibly lucky to find Harry Leahey, a jazz guitar master who had studied with Johnny Smith and Dennis Sandole, and I studied with him for many years until I switched to study with Dennis Sandole in Philadelphia. From Harry I learned almost everything I know about what is possible on the instrument, and from Dennis I learned how to practice in a focused, disciplined way. I do limited teaching, mostly when I’m not on the road, and I enjoy it, especially when I feel like the student is at a point where he can benefit from what I can offer. I think teaching may have helped me become a slightly better practicer. The two things I find myself repeating most often to students are: 1) always practice at a tempo you can control (courtesy of Dennis Sandole), and 2) compose what you wish you could improvise, then do it again, and again, and again…
I’ve tried to take my own advice on both those counts, and I think it’s done me good.
The Steely Dan songbook includes a ridiculous amount of memorable guitar work. Which bits are your absolute favorites? What are your musical observations about some of the great players who’ve worked with the group?
Right away Larry Carlton’s solo on “Third World Man” comes to mind. It’s always been one if my favorite pop guitar solo recordings. Larry’s work on the Steely Dan records and particularly on Donald Fagen’s Nightfly record is just stellar.
I’m also in awe of so much of what Hugh McCracken played for Steely Dan. He had such a beautiful, natural, unassuming way with rhythm guitar, and it wasn’t until I started having to learn the SD catalog that I understood just how original and quietly surprising it is. Working with him on the last Dan record was a real treat, since we got to sit together with a full rhythm section and create our parts and the tracks at the same time.
I’m also drawn to Jeff Baxter’s work on the early SD stuff. He had a bit of a country leaning, though he was a rocker, and I like some of the wild energy and occasional feeling of abandon that I get from him, though it’s clear he was a very accomplished, disciplined player.
How do you strike a balance between replicating beloved Steely Dan solos and creating them anew? How do you honor the classics without letting things sound canned? Are some solos “truer to the original” than others?
I decided long ago when I first joined the band that I didn’t want it to feel like a scripted, cover band experience. Donald and Walter are big jazz fans, and don’t seem to care about reproducing what’s on the records. They care about good musicianship — they want it to be in tune, in time, etc. — but they don’t need it to be the same every night, and in fact have never told me what or how to play.
That being said, however, I’m such a fan of the records and of the choices Donald and Walter made while making them, that there are some guitar parts that, even though they might have been improvised at the session, sound so much like signature, indispensable parts of the composition or arrangement, that I feel like I’d be betraying my sense of the song if I didn’t play them. That’s why I try to play the “Third World Man” solo just like the recording — it’s too beautiful to resist.
But most if all, this job has been an amazing gift to me in terms of developing my own personal solo style. The eclectic, hybrid music that is Steely Dan’s is pretty well suited to my varied musical background. I grew up as a rocker and a blues player, then spent years studying jazz, then tried to work to smooth out the differences between them where my playing was concerned. Having the opportunity year after year to try to refine and improve what I play on these great tunes with a great band to packed houses with great technical help has been incredibly thrilling and satisfying for me in a personal, musical way.
Any observations about Walter as a guitarist?
I’ve always thought Walter sounded like a mischievous bluesman! He has the consistency and poise of a blues player, but an unquenchable thirst for the unusual, and as a result his playing has a way of sounding both appropriate stylistically and fresh in terms of ideas and note choice.
What are some of the things you’re working on these days? Any new skills you’re trying to master, or old ones you’re trying to improve?
Mostly I’m working on writing material for the next recording. I’ve been co-writing with the bass player in my band, Dennis Espantman, and we have ten songs which we think will be keepers so far. I’ll be so busy on the road for the rest of this year, however, that I don’t expect we’ll get started recording the new stuff until early next year.I’m not working on any particular skills at the moment. When I do sit down with the guitar I’m either practicing music I’m going to be performing, or exploring ways to play some of the new music I’ve written. Though I have some things I do to warm up my hands and to stay in shape, most of the time I spend in a kind of loose way, improvising through tunes with some stopping and starting to clarify an idea or explore its possibilities if it feels like a good one.
Tell us about the latest Jon Herington Band album.
My intention with my latest record, Time On My Hands, was to make sure that I put the guitar playing in the spotlight in a way I had never done before. I felt like my playing had developed in a personal way over the years (on the Steely Dan gig, especially) but that somehow that had never been well represented on my own records. The reason for that, I think, was that my habit of songwriting had led me to write songs where the guitar would just play a short solo break but never stretch out too much. I grew up loving lots of pop music, especially music of the Beatles, the Stones, all the Motown stuff, and so much more, and somehow my default songwriting mode leans toward the more pop-oriented singer/songwriter style that makes up most of the first two “songs” records I made. But with this last record, because I knew I wanted to be able to stretch and play longer solos, I quickly found that the style of songwriting had to shift to accommodate that different approach. It seemed to call for a more blues-based approach (though not necessarily a very pure traditional blues style). It was really important to me to avoid making a record that featured the guitar soloing at the expense of the quality of the songs themselves, and I saw that as a potential danger in the project. So I was really careful not to settle for anything about the songs that felt like it could be improved with more work. It was a challenge in the beginning, though. It turned out that the lyrical “tone” that was natural for me was all wrong for the music I was imagining. I found I had to shift gears lyrically and lighten up the tone quite a bit. Irony helped, and some humor, too. But the thing that helped most of all, was the decision to collaborate with a couple of friends on the lyric writing in particular. Not only did I get quicker and better results, but we had a blast doing the writing. It became so much fun to work that way, that Dennis Espantman (the bass player in my trio and on the records) and I have already finished writing ten tunes for the new record. We’re having a lot of fun.
The record features Dennis on on bass, and Frank Pagano on the drums, who are my band on the road. They both sing, as well, and have been co-writers with me for many years. We had a few guests on keyboards, including my good buddy Jim Beard; (my colleague in Steely Dan and a frequent collaborator over the years); Danny Louis, multi-instrumentalist with Gov’t Mule; the late Rob Morsberger, my dear friend and great songwriter; and one of my chief employers of the last 13 years, Donald Fagen.
Anything else you’d care to mention?
I’d just like to say thanks for inviting me to do this blog, and I hope it won’t be too long before we meet again.
Oh, count on it, man! Thanks a zillion. :)