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Jon Herington – Steely Dan, Solo Projects and Advice for Players

Bob Bakert, Editor

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You can google ‘Jon Herington’ and get the story many of you already know –

…guitarist of choice with Steely Dan for both recording and touring since 1999, five solo album releases, guitarist for various iterations of Donald Fagen projects,  leader of the Jon Herington Band, and much more.  Needless to say, Jon is an in-demand guitarist.

 

Cover Issue Photo, Tony Kukulich ; Bio Photo, Courtesy of TrueFire

Intro by Bob Bakert, editor –

I was introduced to Jon several years ago while volunteering at a small acoustic venue in Roswell, Georgia.  We learned an act with “all NYC studio musicians” had booked one of the open performance slots.  Of course, we were excited to have musicians of this caliber perform the venue.

Rob Morsberger (RIP) was the act.  Rob was a classically trained pianist/composer known his work with the popular television program NOVA, as well as many other film and television projects.  Rob indeed brought a killer band.  After I set-up the mics and got an overall mix, I sat right in front of Jon and listened to every note.  Not knowing anything about him, I decided Jon was the best sideman guitar player I had ever heard (I’ve been playing and studying 50+ years).  I was completely “schooled” on how it’s done.

We all know Jon can stretch out – but playing so tastefully over this music was simply the best.  Apparently Donald Fagen and others agree.  Over the years Jon has not only impressed me with his incredible playing style, but also with his humble demeanor and professorial charm.  I am very proud Jon has agreed to this interview…

Jazz Guitar Today:  Does your guitar/amp selection differ from project to project, live to studio.  Example, do you choose different instruments/amps when you are playing on your own projects rather than with others ?

Jon:  My gear changes from project to project, and depends on a couple of things most of the time. The biggest factor is whether I’m carrying the gear myself or not, and the next most important factor is what the music calls for.

With Steely Dan or Boz Scaggs, for example, where there is pretty deep tour support personnel, I can carry the amps and guitars and effects with no concerns about how heavy or numerous the pieces might be. For gigs like those I typically use  my Guytron GT-100 FV heads and accompanying 2×12 cabinets and sometimes my Bludotone amps as well. I have a pedalboard for those gigs which is about the size of a keyboard synth, and is pretty heavy in its case. And since there’s no limit on the number of guitars we carry I can and do bring about six instruments, so I can use guitars that sound right on particular songs, and so I have a spare or two if I need it. The guitars that I typically take are my Gibson CS336, my Gibson SG, my Melancon T-style guitar, my Wysocki Tele, and my Eastman TM84 semi-hollow body.

If I’m on tour with Madeleine Peyroux, I can only bring what I can carry myself, so I’m limited to one guitar (the Gibson 336 or Eastman TM84 or Melancon T-style, depending on what music we expect to play) and a small multi effects unit made by Digitech. On these gigs we rent amps in each city, usually reissue 1965 Deluxe Reverbs, and it’s a completely different world in terms of gear.

Whenever I’ve worked with my own band I’ve opted to play mostly one guitar on the gig, mostly because I get more comfortable if I’m not switching guitars all the time. I will often bring a second guitar for any songs that require using a capo or a different tuning (for slide, usually), but I like keeping it as simple as possible so I can concentrate on performing. My amp choice on my own gigs has varied – I’m usually carrying the gear myself so weight is a factor, but I do like to bring an amp that has great natural overdrive and an effects loop, since the style of playing really requires those. So I’ll often bring a Guytron or Bludotone head and use a lightweight Bludotone single 12 inch speaker cabinet.

One advantage of the last many years is the ability to send tracks over the internet and as a result I find I do more recording sessions in my own studio than I do going to a commercial studio to record. Since I have all my guitars, amps, and effects at my studio, I don’t have to guess in advance about what gear I’m going to need. That was always difficult in New York – for a lot of sessions at commercial studios I’d have to pick the right one or two guitars and fill a bag with effects I might need, and I’d often guess wrong and have to make do with whatever I had with me. Once in awhile there would be a big budget for cartage and I could send everything I might need, but often that wasn’t the case.

In general I try to pick the instruments that feel like the best fit for the music that I’m going to play. Sometimes I’ll be asked to play a particular instrument, like a steel string acoustic or a nylon string guitar, but if it calls for electric guitar I often get to choose which instrument feels like the right one for a track or a project, and most of the time I’ll choose a guitar that sounds right and that feels good to play.

Jazz Guitar Today:  When you are playing with Steely Dan, you are playing guitar styles and solos of some really great iconic players.  Many of those solos are iconic.  Has there been a solo or part that was more challenging or that you get more feedback on from SD fans?

Jon:  There are many challenging solos on Steely Dan records, and though I will often quote a section of a recorded solo, I generally don’t set out to play the solos note for note. Once in awhile, just for fun, I’ll play Larry Carlton’s Kid Charlemagne solo like it is on the record (and I always try to do that with his incomparable Third World Man solo), but most of the time I’m trying to capture something about the essence of the solo, maybe a kind of guitar sound or a particular stylistic approach, and I’m improvising, trying to balance the character of the original with some open-ended room for me to bring something of my own to the song.

I suppose I find the most iconic songs the most challenging, not for any technical reasons or inherent degree of difficulty, but because I can’t help remembering how classic those solos are and how everyone knows them so well – that sets a very high bar which is hard to ignore, and can sometimes be distracting. But it’s a pretty luxurious challenge to face, and it’s been very good for my playing over the last 18 years.

Jazz Guitar Today:  What is your favorite format to play in for your own music?  Quartet, trio, quintet, vocals etc… instrument line up etc….

Jon:  I prefer a trio format for my own solo work, and it’s a band where we all sing, not an instrumental band. We play songs from my several records, and though it would help to have more band members to flesh the music out more like it is on the recordings, the trio allows me great freedom when I’m improvising. Because there are no other chordal instruments, I’m free to manipulate the harmony in any way I like, which I really enjoy. I think that would be more problematic with a keyboard or another guitar.

Jazz Guitar Today:  How do you prepare material for your own album projects – and what is your songwriting process?

Jon:  Though I have done quite a bit of writing by myself, in the last many years I’ve had great luck co-writing with the bass player in my band, my dear friend Dennis Espantman. Over the years we’ve developed a process that usually starts with an idea for a song, often a title or a key line for a chorus section. From there I’ll usually start inventing various ways that lyric could be put to a melody and experiment with some different musical contexts – a series of chord changes, a rhythmic groove, etc. I’ll bounce those ideas off of Dennis, he’ll respond and contribute, and usually before our session that day is done we have a basic song form outlined, and often a melody idea for each section.

But then we go our separate ways and each take cracks at coming up with lyrics. It’s common for us to write a lot more than we end up using or needing, so there’s a lot of editing and whittling down that often happens with a prolonged email exchange. After that we’ll usually get together again with our instruments, and we’ll work on adjusting the music to put the lyric in the best possible light. Sometimes that’s just tweaking the melody or cutting a bar here and there, and sometimes it’s a more complete rewrite. But I have great confidence in Dennis’s gut reactions, and that’s a huge help, because though I don’t find lyric writing easy, I do find I can keep coming up with alternate approaches to the music for a song, and I can easily lose track of which approach is the strongest and most natural for the song. Dennis has saved the day for me many times that way.

Jazz Guitar Today: There has been lots of discussion about the ability read music and study music in the colleges and universities… How important or at what level is reading important?   How have you learned your art and what recommendations would you make to aspiring jazz guitarist?

Jon: I got serious about music study in college, and studied classical music and then jazz deeply for many years. I took courses in harmony and counterpoint, conducting, composition, jazz improvisation, etc. School was important for me, and learning what made music “tick” and learning how to articulate it always gave me the confidence I needed to make music. But I’m not so naive to believe that it’s necessary for everyone. There are too many amazing cases of players who were entirely self-taught and not readers at all, and some of them were serious trailblazers.

But the choice of whether or not to develop music reading skills will probably depend on the kind of work a player aspires to do and the kind of music involved. Some players get by without learning to read, but my guess is that it limits their opportunities for work and personal growth as musicians. It would certainly be a mistake to neglect your reading training if you wanted to do any work where that was required (some studio work, Broadway show work, and film score and legit concert work, especially, still require players to read and follow a conductor), or if you wanted to play with other musicians who might put a chart in front of you and expect you to be able to read it.

I’m grateful to be able to read and write because it means I can explore new music, I can learn new music faster, I can write something down that I need another player to play, etc. Plus, it’s a great convenience and a time and money saver in rehearsal and recording situations. Musicians and producers in hiring positions are unlikely to want to hire a non-reader if they want things to sound good quickly. If you find yourself in a room full of great readers and you can’t read at all, it probably won’t feel so good. It’s hard to imagine not being a reader, and I’m sure, for me, I would be at a serious disadvantage had I not learned to read.

Jazz Guitar Today: What is your practice schedule, what do you work on, do you still study with a mentor/teacher?

Jon: I don’t have a formal practice schedule, and haven’t for many years, though when I first got serious about playing the guitar I did. In college I remember getting up early to get a minimum of two hours practice before I had breakfast. Things are different now(!). I play the guitar every day, but the time I spend doing any real, private practicing usually depends on whether I’m working that day or not. If it’s a work day I usually won’t do more than a short ten to twenty minute warmup. That’s mostly because I’ve had a lot of trouble with my left hand and arm, and injured it pretty badly almost thirty years ago by playing too much and not taking care of myself. Though I’ve managed to keep playing, I do find if I put in too many hours my symptoms get worse, so I try to be moderate.

When I was younger, my practice approach was a very general one, and I worked on improving a big range of skills with my one great guitar teacher, Harry Leahey, in Plainfield, New Jersey. He had me working on scales, arpeggios, chord inversions, jazz lines, chord melody arranging, pure technique, some classical pieces you can play with a pick – all sorts of stuff. At the time I was interested mostly in learning to play jazz, so I transcribed lots of solos, learned lots of tunes, etc.

After I became a working musician, however, and even more so in recent years, my practice has been much more focused directly on music I have to perform. I find that even a couple of twenty or thirty minute periods a day is enough to keep my hands in reasonably good shape, so when I spend more time with the guitar it’s usually working on something that I feel I could improve that I’m actually going to have a chance to play publicly. I’ll work on learning new songs I have to play if I don’t know them yet, or I’ll practice improvising on a solo section that I feel I could play better, for example. So that’s quite different from the kind of general practice I used to do, though that seemed very necessary back then.

Jazz Guitar TodayIf you’re a player, what are the top 5 tunes every aspiring guitarist should know cold… play the head/comp/improvise

Jon:  I really reject that kind of doctrinaire, dogmatic approach to any artistic endeavor, in spite of the fact that the jazz tradition has at times embraced that kind of attitude. So I can’t recommend a list of required tunes. If you want to play jazz, however, you will probably be doing it with other musicians, and common ground will certainly be necessary. So I would recommend finding compatible players that you have an opportunity to make music with, study and learn the tunes they’re playing, and keep your ears open as you go. I don’t happen to feel like we need every jazz guitar player to play “Stella” and “All the Things You Are,” as time-proven as worthy jazz vehicles in a certain style as they are. Younger players may have more modern tastes and sensibilities, and may be more inclined toward composition, too, so they may have very passionate ideas about what they want to play. The freedom to make choices that feel right to the individual seems more important than a “required songs” list.

Jazz Guitar Today: What do you wish you would have done differently in your music education, whether formal or not, if anything?

Jon:  I suppose I still feel like I wish I could play the piano better than I do, and I still wish I had bothered to really learn how to play classical guitar better, mandolin better, and perhaps lap steel and even pedal steel guitar. I know that would have given me more work opportunities, so I used to have some regrets about those things. On the other hand, I think that mindset was more of a freelance worker’s mindset, and as I’ve gotten older and found a few very satisfying regular job opportunities that have continued for many years, I feel grateful that I’ve been able to focus on my own more personal, artistic side, and it seems like more time just playing electric guitar has allowed me to grow in a way that I find the most rewarding.

Jazz Guitar Today: Do you teach, if you do, where?   Do you have an active gigging schedule and what is the percentage of your time given to each?

Jon: I teach occasionally, usually when I’m not on the road. My work in the last 20 years or so has been mostly on tour, and in a busy year my days away from home can add up to as much as six months, so that makes it difficult to have a regular, formal teaching practice. I do a clinic or master class every once in a while, and some lessons via Skype or FaceTime. But mostly I’ll see students at my studio in SoHo in New York City when I’m in town.

My biggest efforts at “teaching,” lately, however, have been the recent release of two books of arrangements for jazz guitar (available on my website store) and two video courses done for TrueFire, the online (mostly) guitar educational giant. The courses address what many players come to me to study, and I’m grateful that they’re available to all the players all over the world who can’t get to me in person.

JGT:  Jon is currently overseas with Madeleine Peyroux.  Visit online at jonherington.com

BONUS MATERIAL:  Jon Herington Solo Strategies

”Over the years, I’ve discovered there’s A LOT you can do to dramatically improve the way you build a guitar solo. My Soloing Strategies course, will open your ears wide to 10 soloing strategies that I’ve personally found to be most effective. We’ll take an in-depth look at 10 of my solos, and focus on the particular strategy for each one. I’ll also provide tips for working all of the strategies into your solos and improvisations.” –  Jon Herington

Herington’s Soloing Strategies edition of Ear IQ from TrueFire demonstrates 10 proven approaches for crafting engaging, memorable solos for any style, any tune.  Learn more!   Below are a series of video lessons illustrating two of those soloing strategies.  Courtesy of Jon and TrueFire…

Strategy #5: Engage Your Audience

“A time-honored way of creating interesting melody – which is what playing a guitar solo is all about – is to use the technique of theme and variation. Classical composers have used this technique for hundreds of years, and it’s the basis for most jazz improvisation. There’s something about the way it plays with the listener’s expectations, sometimes satisfying them, sometimes surprising them, but in the best cases, always keeping them engaged.

Here’s a solo using that strategy on a song which is pretty advanced harmonically speaking, and typical for its composer, my good friend and Steely Dan bandmate Jim Beard.” 

Quick Overview:

Track Analysis:

Check out the Performance:

Let’s Break It Down:

Strategy #10: Employ “Flash”

“I love to improvise. It can be one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world, but it can also be one of the most terrifying. On this last tune, another Steely Dan classic, “Bodhisattva”, when I first learned it years ago, I struggled with the chord changes and how to approach playing on it. I searched for stuff that sounded good to me, and over the years I began to feel pretty comfortable improvising on it. Then one year at the beginning of a new tour, we played it and I found myself struggling all over again – it was like some weird recurring nightmare. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was really doubting myself and thinking I must be getting old fast or something – I couldn’t play half of what I had been able to play the year before on that tune. And this little horror of mine went on for a while, until I guess I must have been venting my frustration publicly after a show one night backstage, and Keith Carlock, our world class drummer, said something like, “Oh, I changed the tempo of that tune this year – it’s a lot faster than we used to play it.” And you can imagine both my relief and my continued frustration.

Anyway, since it was more challenging at that faster tempo, I needed a new strategy desperately, and I decided to script that solo, for the most part, anyway. Since it’s a sort of big, fast, crowd-pleaser of a song, I tried to come up with some flash – some show-biz. Sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered, and it can be a lot of fun to go there. Here’s what I came up with.

Hey, it’s Showbiz…:

Analyzing the track:

 

Performance (spoiler alert, you are going to like this):

Let’s Break it Down:

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