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Exclusive Interview: Jon Herington Talks About Playing Solo Guitar



JGT contributor Joe Barth interviews guitarist Jon Herington – discusses playing solo guitar on his latest album, “(quiet) encore.”

Steely Dan’s guitarist, Jon Herington, has just released a wonderful follow-up to his two solo guitar albums, (quiet) and (quiet) holiday.  The new album, (quiet) encorecontains twenty new solo guitar arrangements of classic American Songbook, songs from AM radio of the 1960s, as well as newer songs.  I asked him about some of the dynamics of making this new album.

JB:  What is it about solo guitar playing that you personally enjoy?

JH:  I enjoy hearing a musically complete statement of a song coming from a single guitar all by itself. This is the rule, not the exception, with most classical guitar pieces, of course, but in the world of jazz, folk and pop guitar it’s a much rarer thing, since in those contexts the guitar is usually one part of a larger group of instruments. The guitar is particularly useful that way, and maybe more naturally suited for that kind of role, but once I discovered that a single guitar was capable of making a complete musical statement, I couldn’t resist trying to learn how to create arrangements like that and to try to learn how to play that way. 

Jon Herington

JB:  What are two or three solo guitar recordings that have impacted your approach to solo guitar arrangements?  

JH:  I’m not so sure that any particular solo guitar recordings have had a big impact on my approach to arranging for solo guitar, because I got started mostly by listening live to my teacher Harry Leahey, both on gigs of his and in lessons with him. Once Harry had taught me how to get into the style, though, I went looking for all the recorded solo guitar stuff I could find. Recordings that resonate most deeply for me would have to include Johnny Smith’s full album of solo guitar pieces, The Man with the Blue Guitar (Johnny was one of Harry’s teachers!); Wes Montgomery’s “While We’re Young” from So Much Guitar and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from Full House (even though a rhythm section joins him on the latter); and Ted Greene’s album Solo Guitar. 

JB:  I can’t ask you about every song on the (quiet) encore album but let me start with the songs that first caught my attention.  You open with Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.”  Jimmy’s songs can be harder to perform than they may first appear.  What drew you to that song and what did you find there that is so rewarding?

JH:  Well, “Wichita Lineman” is just a great song, and at the time I was trying to find songs to arrange that were from a later era than most of the songs I had arranged before that, which were from what people tend to call the classic American Songbook – Richard Rogers, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, etc. What’s rewarding about the song is everything it delivers – a great melody with great (and unusual) chord changes, but maybe most of all, the compelling emotional atmosphere I get lost in every time I hear it. Jimmy Webb’s tunes can be quite grand and complex, it’s true, but this arrangement of mine isn’t one of the most difficult ones to play, probably because I found a good key for it and that gave me a lot of open strings I could use to help make it easier on the fretting hand. 

JB:  The only Donald Fagen song that you’ve done as a solo is “Maxine” from his Nightfly album.  What drew you to that song over the others of his solo material and the Steely Dan canon?

JH:  “Maxine” is a masterpiece. I’m only inclined to do the hard work of arranging a song if I’ve fallen in love with it, and that usually happens when I hear a particularly great rendering of it. Donald’s is the only version I know, but it was more than enough to make me love it. It’s a sort of updating and one-upping of the Four Freshman or Beach Boys vocal style, and the entire track is exquisitely crafted in every way. I think I picked that song over others in his and Walter’s catalogs because it’s one of the greatest and it’s a ballad, and I thought that might make it work reasonably well on the guitar. A lot of Steely Dan and Donald and Walter songs depend on a great groove and great arranging with lots of layered parts – all of which are difficult to translate to solo guitar for me. 

JB:  Brian Wilson is a wonderful songwriter and you do a magnificent rendition of “In My Room.”  Again, what drew you to that song and what did you find there that is so rewarding?

JH:  I’ve always loved “In My Room,” as so many people have, and while I’m thrilled by the places Jacob Collier can take this relatively simple Brian Wilson song, my approach was to try to grab and play as many of the notes of the original Beach Boys recording as possible, since I thought it would be beautiful to try to capture that and translate it to the guitar alone. I played the vocal parts as literally as I could and it worked well to start the first verse with a single voice, add a second, and then move to full chords. The options are limited with solo guitar, and it can be effective to explore the “small” side of things sometimes – using minimal textures so that you have someplace else to go and the arrangement can have some dynamic range.    

JB:  I love the use of pedal tones in Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and then what sounds like a modulation and more chordal textures in the middle of the song. Talk about how you put that arrangement together.

JH:  I was inspired to tackle that classic when I heard Bill Frisell talking about how he loved playing it. Arranging it eluded me, though, until I listened to Hank Williams’ version again and found it was in E, though Bill had been playing it in G, and so had I. The key of E gave me the moody vibe with the low E string pedal tones, and lots of useful open strings with lots of available harmonics. I added the tremolo, and all those things unlocked it for me. Since the song is simple and gets so much of its power from the lyrics, I felt that I couldn’t just play the simple melody and chords over and over, but when I tried to limit it to a couple of times through the whole thing felt too short. So, I decided to write an interlude to provide another place for the music to go which would help it sound fresh when I returned to the original song. I turned off the tremolo in that section and went for stuff that sounds a bit modern and perhaps a little out of character in a way, but I felt it did the job of going somewhere else while still keeping it appropriately “lonesome” sounding. 

JB:  “I Surrender, Dear” was Bing Crosby’s first hit back in 1931.  What drew you to this song?

JH:  Louis Armstrong’s version and Thelonious Monk’s solo piano version drew me to “I Surrender, Dear.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard Bing Crosby’s version. Satchmo is one of my favorite singers of all time, and I love the way the melody in the A section moves slowly up, then so gently falls back down again. I also love the way the lyric fits that same melody so perfectly. There are reasons it became a classic. Another thing that appealed to me was the way the bridge had some room to fill between each of the phrases of the melody. I took advantage of that and let it go to a jazzier sounding place.

JB:  “Girl Talk” has a softer more ‘Wes Montgomery’ sound.  Sounds like you are using your thumb.  Then there is that tapping in the middle.  Talk about how you put this together?

JH:  During the pandemic, I did a series of online workshops on the subject of arranging for solo guitar, and during one of the sessions one participant wondered why a lot of arrangers of solo guitar pieces in a jazz style play so many ballads and play mostly in a rubato style. I’m sure I must have told him that I did that because it’s so hard to do anything else! But I took his question to heart, and from that time on I decided to make an effort to find ways to play some songs in tempo. It’s very difficult to do that with a pick, I find (it can be done, though, as I did on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” from the book (still more!) Arrangements for Guitar). Playing finger style can work much more easily (as I was able to do on “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and as Joe Pass typically did when he was doing solo guitar performances – George Van Eps was a master at this!). I have also found that the thumb can work for some in-tempo arrangements, and that seemed to sound best on “Girl Talk” and on “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.” Particularly with “Girl Talk,” the song seems so much of its time, that the “Wes” sound just felt like a perfect fit. But I was looking for a way to differentiate the melody sections from the instrumental band sections that I loved on the original vocal version of the song, and then I stumbled on that tapping idea. It provides a different texture but still stays gentle enough not to overwhelm the sound of the sections played with the thumb. A pick would probably have been too harsh sounding, and the tapping gives you the percussive effect but also some unpredictable overtones due to the inconsistency of striking the strings with your palm.

JB:  How you perform “When You Wish Upon a Star” sound like a homage to Johnny Smith.  Was this your intention?

JH:  Johnny Smith, along with Harry Leahey, have always set the standard for me when it comes to solo guitar, since they’re my favorite arrangers and players in that genre. So, I think I’m always working with at least the unconscious intention of aiming for that standard. And I hear what you mean there, but I wasn’t thinking about it consciously. At that time, I was trying to come up with arrangements that were much easier to play, thinking that I might do an entire book of them. That one is one of the most playable ones in the style, but it still sounds musical to me and not “dumbed-down.” But I had to abandon the idea of an entire book of easy to play arrangements – the style is inherently difficult, I’m afraid. 

JB:  Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me” was used in the movie Toy Story 2. Talk about putting that arrangement together.

JH:  That one’s a real tear-jerker, and a great example of Randy Newman’s incredible range as a songwriter. It has one of the most beautiful bridge sections I’ve ever encountered – just perfectly voiced, unusual, and effective. That was another one where I tried to get his notes under my fingers as literally as I could – he’s so great at finding the “just right” notes, and never uses more than are needed. I think the original was in F, and I found I could only get a lot of the necessary notes using a capo on the first fret, so I decided to play it in E without the capo.

JB: “Prisoner of Love” was charted by Billy Eckstine, Perry Como, the Ink Spots, and James Brown.  Did you have any of those versions in mind as you put your arrangement together.

JH:  It was Frank Sinatra’s version of “Prisoner of Love” that I first got to know and love. When I decided to try to arrange it for guitar I did listen to a lot of other versions, but only Sinatra’s really did it for me. It’s gorgeous, and I tried to capture as much of that mood as I could by myself. I was even tempted to copy the only instance of a modulation down a half step (!) I’ve ever heard in an arrangement in that classic style, which is truly wild and beautiful sounding on Sinatra’s version, but it didn’t feel right on the guitar alone. That’s another one where I tuned the 6th string down to D to get some of those simple but big and rich sounding chords.

JB:  Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee” is about the tragic murder of a young girl back in 1997.  Why close out your album with that song?

JH:  I’m sure I was drawn in by the terrible, compelling story of Tom Waits’ recording as well as the simple and beautiful music, and I decided to arrange that song when I was looking for great songs to set by more modern writers. Tom Waits, along with Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb, Joni Mitchell and the Beatles are some of my favorite more contemporary (sort of!) songwriters, and the haunting beauty of “Georgia Lee” proved irresistible. The song is a lot simpler harmonically than the rest of the songs on the record, so I felt it might work better a bit isolated from the rest, and because it still has the power to put me under its spell, I like sitting with the feeling it leaves in silence rather than listening to another song right after it.

Jon’s CDs:

  • (quiet)
  • (quiet) holiday
  • (quiet) encore

Jon’s Music books:

  • Arrangements for Guitar
  • (more!) Arrangements for Guitar
  • (still more!) Arrangements for Guitar
  • (even more!) Arrangements for Guitar

CD’s and books can be ordered from his website:

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