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Play Like Jimmy Herring

January 30, 2014

A native of Fayetteville , North Carolina, a player’s player, and a true gentleman, Jimmy Herring can be as chameleonic as necessary when that’s what the gig calls for—he’s filled the shoes of both Jerry Garcia and Dickey Betts—but give him his own musical space, à la the Jimmy Herring Band, and his true colors really shine through. It’s not that Herring “saves” his best stuff for his own band, it just happens to be where he can stretch out and where some of his most advanced ideas work best. Herring is a veteran of the seminal jam band Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Derek Trucks Band, Jazz Is Dead (with Billy Cobham, Alphonso Johnson, and the late T. Lavitz), Frogwings, and the Other Ones (featuring four Dead members), and a current member of Widespread Panic. His influences range from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the John Coltrane- and Miles Davis-led quartets and quintets of the ’50s and ’60s, to Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, and Alice Cooper (Herring’s first concert), as well as his studies at G.I.T. Herring has developed a serious, singular style informed by all of the above, but with his own voice intact and soaring over the top.

You can catch Herring in action on A.R.U.’s self-titled 1992 album and 1993’s Mirrors of Embarrassment, the Derek Trucks Band’s Out of the Madness (1998), Jazz Is Dead’s Blue Light Rain (1998), Laughing Water (1999), and Great Sky River (2001), Frogwings’ Croakin’ at Toad’s (2000), Phil Lesh and Friends’ There and Back Again (2002), Widespread Panic’s Free Somehow (2008) and Dirty Side Down (2010), as well as his solo albums Lifeboat (2008) and New Universe (2010), or by checking out the seemingly zillions of complete and excerpted live shows currently available for listening and/or viewing on the internet.

Because he possesses the heart and soul of a rocker, the chops and harmonic awareness of a jazz virtuoso, and the simpatico personality of a jam-band player, it’s difficult to nail down exactly how to play like someone as adaptable and mercurial as Herring. What we can do, however, is get a grasp on portions of the vast arsenal of musical concepts and devices he regularly employs, and make them our own. But first, you’ve gotta...

Essentially a bare-bones gear guy, Herring has long kept his rig almost stupid-simple with two exceptions: First, he prefers to split his dry and wet signals between separate speaker cabs, and second, his ’board features six Ernie Ball VPJR volume pedals that allow him to tweak the individual levels of all the other instruments onstage in his monitor. He also controls his own onstage wet-to-dry ratio, with a T.C. Electronic M-One XL digital processor controlling reverbs and delays that are sent to a pair of 2x12 Hard Trucker speaker cabinets completely independent from his dry rig. “This self-mixing monitor system came about when Jimmy was touring with the Dead, because as the band went up and down in dynamics through different phases of improvisation, Jimmy found he needed a monitor mix that constantly changed to react to who was playing what when,” Herring’s long-time tech Eric Pretto explained to GP in 2008. Herring’s current main stage ax with Widespread Panic has been a Fender Stratocaster Custom Shop model built by Gene Baker in 1989, sporting two Seymour Duncan ’59 humbuckers. (Other faves include an American Standard Strat equipped with two Lollar humbuckers, various PRS models, and a 1970 Gibson SG gifted by Derek Trucks.) He strings up with D’Addario XLs gauged .010-.046, and uses Dunlop Tortex .73mm picks. His guitar feeds an Ernie Ball volume pedal and a Hughes & Kettner Tube Factory overdrive into his fave amps—’64 and ’66 Fender Super Reverbs in the studio, and Fuchs Overdrive Supreme and Tripledrive Supreme heads run dry into a single 4x12 Tone Tubby cab for recent live work with Panic. Enough tech talk—are you ready to have your mind blown? Okay, now you’ve gotta...

Herring documented many of his pentatonic scale strategies in an excellent series of GP Jam Guru columns that ran between March 2005 and August 2006. These are certainly worth tracking down, but for those without access, let’s recap some of his key concepts. For instance, intervallic sequences of all types often find their way into Herring’s melodic lines and improvisations. The cool thing about sequencing a pentatonic scale is how the intervals shift due to its five-note structure (except when sequencing octaves). Ex. 1a shows how a mix of perfect fourth and major third intervals emerges when a “two-down-plustwo- up” sequential scheme is applied to a fifth-position, A pentatonic minor “blues box.” Cool enough, but here comes the gravy.

You can play this and each following sequence four ways: as written, reversing the last two sixteenth-notes in each beat, reversing the first two sixteenths in each beat, and reversing both the first and last sixteenths in each beat. Of course, these can be mixed and matched at will to produce even more melodic variations. Practice them in as many keys and positions as possible, and then follow suit with the mix of pentatonic sixths and fifths, sevenths and sixths, and octaves demonstrated in Examples 1b-1d.

Need more gravy? Dig this: Each sequence has two basic rhythmic identities-- one starting on a downbeat as written, and another starting on the previous or following sixteenth-note upbeat.

Additionally, any sequence can start on any note or beat, and all of these examples will also work with any triad or seventh chord diatonic to the key of C major or A minor: C(maj7), Dm(7), Em(7), F(maj7), G(7), Am(7), and Bdim (Bm7b5), opening up hundreds of melodic and harmonic options. And oh yeah, they work just as well ascending as they do descending. See you in a month!

While Herring also applies intervallic sequencing to major and minor scales, he doesn’t tend to lean heavily on lengthy diatonic sequences. Instead, Herring is more apt to incorporate fragments of them into his solo improvisations. Unlike pentatonics, diatonic major- and minor-scale sequences produce the same type of intervals (both major and minor) throughout. Ex. 2a sets up the drill with a sequence of diatonic thirds structured the same as our previous “two-down/ two-up” pentatonic scheme. Again, there are four ways to play each four-sixteenthnote grouping, and this and the following sequences may be used with any chord diatonic to C major/A minor. Things get a bit trickier as the melodic intervals gradually grow wider in Examples 2b through 2f (you know the drill), but the melodic rewards are well worth the effort. Play ’em up and down in all keys and positions and discover which ones work best for you. And sequencing aside, it’s also worthwhile to practice and internalize all the harmonic intervals (i.e., both notes sounded simultaneously) inherent to each scale, including pentatonics.

Ex. 2g
illustrates a simple rhythmic motif applied to a selection of diatonic thirds, and then presents diatonic fourths, fifths, sixths, and sevenths ideal for the same treatment. Apply this concept to melodic lines and who needs a harmonizer?!

Herring’s gamut of singlenote styles also incorporates a healthy slathering of finger grease into his sequential moves in the form of slides, slurs, and all kinds of bends.

Ex. 3a
fragments a diatonic sixths sequence embellished with slides, while Examples 3b and 3c replace the slides with melodic gracenote bends and pre-bends, respectively.


Be sure to work this technique into other intervallic sequences.



Of course, as Herring is quick to point out, it’s what you do with this pile of information that counts, so let’s dig into a few heat-of-battle moves that reveal how he puts it all together. Shifting to the key of G, Ex. 4a utilizes a combination of scale-wise, arpeggiated, and intervallic melodic motion to outline a very Lydian-sounding Gmaj7- Cmaj7 progression, but it also sounds great over Bm7, Em7, or any other chord diatonic to the key of G.

The Gmaj7 run in Ex. 4b is built from G pentatonic major lines that surround a partial descending sequence of fourths.

Switching to D minor, Herring gives the blues scale and the Dorian mode a cool twist in the chromatics-infused run shown in Ex. 4c. The second half of bar 2 features half-step approaches to each Dm chord tone—another Herring trademark. Since we’re heading for chordsville, this would be a good time to point out some of Herring’s favorite pentatonic substitution tricks, which include playing pentatonic minor and major lines, sequences, etc., a fifth, or 7 frets higher, than the root position (i.e., E pentatonic minor over Am7) for alternative “inside” sounds, and up a whole step or down a half step for more “outside” sounds.


Herring’s river of harmonic awareness already runs deep, but that hasn’t stopped him from dredging even deeper. He enthusiastically described one particular breakthrough to GP back in 2009: “I’ve been mapping out scales on fretboard diagrams as a way to discover new chord voicings. You start by choosing a scale, and then you simply put a dot on the diagram wherever a note from that scale appears on the fretboard. Then, you choose one scale tone on each string and fret them together to make an interesting chord voicing.

Once you have your new chord, you can move each note in it up or down one scale tone on each string to find other voicings.” Keep in mind that this can be done with any scale, but we’ll begin by mapping out the C major and A minor scales on a pair of 15-fret fingerboard diagrams in Examples 5a and 5b. The scale steps in both have been labeled to illustrate how the same notes function differently in relative major and minor contexts, and to provide a master reference grid for the chord scales we’re about to construct. As Herring said, the idea is to pick a group of three or four notes on any strings, and then move each note up to its next diatonic scale tone to form the next chord, continuing through the entire scale to produce an entire “chord scale” ideal for modal vamping, arpeggiations, etc.

Many of you will recognize the simple diatonic triad voicings derived from an open-position 5-R-3 C chord inversion shown in Ex. 5c. If not, get to know them because this is just the tip of the iceberg.


Here’s where the fun really begins. Herring went on to describe how this device yields “practical voicings all over the neck that you might never have thought of without the diagram. You can change one note and repeat the process on another diagram to discover a new group of chords. Three- and four-note voicings are generally the most useful.” That said, let’s dig in. Once you grok the concept, feel free to go crazy transferring the slew of voicings and inversions diagrammed (quite spiffily, I might add) in Ex. 6a.

Pretty self-explanatory, right? Simply refer to Ex. 5a to chart out each three- and four-note voicing in the open position or elsewhere, and then continue building your chord scale until you reach an octave above your starting point. The first six voicings comprise two pairs of inversions of the same chord, so each successive inversion will be played higher up the fretboard than the last. The rest are all available in open position.

To get started, Examples 6b and 6c map out 3-note diatonic chord scales based on open-position 7-R-5 and 3-7-R voicings played on two different string groups. Again, you can create modal vamps for any mode relative to the key of C, or take it further and arpeggiate these shapes into single-note lines.

The sky’s the limit in this brand-new view of the fretboard. Ex. 6d combines both previous sets into a four-note chord scale based on the resultant 3-7-R-5 voicing.

Finally, Ex. 6e applies the chord-scale concept to another fave Herring device: quartal harmony. “I love sevenths,” says Herring. “I visualize them as interval pairs within quartal voicings— diatonic chords that are built by stacking fourths instead of thirds, and are often associated with modal jazz pianists like Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner.” Just alternate seventh intervals between the first and third strings with those on the second and fourth strings (or vice versa) and you’ll hear what he means. Part of the beauty of quartal harmony is that you don’t even have to know the names of the ambiguous chords it produces, of which there are many. The first chord alone could function as C6/9, Fmaj13, G6/9, A(m)7sus4(11), or E(m)7sus4(11), the second as Dm6/9, G13, A(m)9/b13, B(m)11b5, or Fmaj7#11, and so on. Just memorize their shapes, vamp it up, and you’re good to go!


Herring also revealed that “this system works with any scale. There are some beautiful chords sitting right within the pentatonic scale.” Sure enough, after diagramming the relative C pentatonic major and A pentatonic minor scales in Examples 7a and 7b (note that they’re simply the major scale with the 4 and 7 removed, and the minor scale minus its 2 and 6),

Ex. 7c
illustrates Herring’s point with five pentatonic voicings derived from an openposition, 5-R-3 C triad inversion. Note how this results in one major triad, one minor triad, and three sus4 quartal voicings. Whip these out during your next static A minoror C-based jam to inspire new directions.


The chart in Ex. 8a offers 25 three-note C major/A minor pentatonic voicings that originate in open position. Use the diagrammed pentatonic scales in Examples 7a and 7b to form chord scales based on each one, and then put them to work in modal vamps or break them up into single- note or harmonized melodic lines.

Ex. 8b
follows suit with 16 four-string pentatonic voicings ripe for picking.

The next four grids reveal the versatility of harmonized pentatonics with groovy chord scales based on four different voicings played on various string groups: 5-2-3 (Ex. 8c); 2-5-R (Ex. 8d); 2-5-R-3 (Ex. 8e); R-3-6-R (Ex. 8f).

Like Herring said, this works with any scale, so what are you waiting for? Sharpen your pencils and get to work diagramming the Melodic Minor scale, the Harmonic Minor scale, the Hungarian Gypsy scale, and what have you.


While perusing recent live recordings by the Jimmy Herring Band in search of a centerpiece for this lesson, I was struck by the title “12 Keys,” which appeared often in his 2010 set lists. Further investigation revealed that the song did indeed traverse all 12 keys in as many bars—kind of like Herring’s own “Giant Steps”—so I thought it would make a great example of how Herring navigates chord changes. When I contacted Herring about confirming the correct chord changes, he graciously replied, “Honestly, the ‘12 Keys’ thing is just a sketch. I want to make it a tune, but I haven’t written a head for it yet! The working title does refer to the chord progression, but ‘12 Keys’ won’t be the name of it when it becomes a tune.

That’s just what we call it for now. I was messing around with the cycle of fourths and started hearing chords, so I ended up with this progression.” So what we have here in Ex. 9 is an exclusive! (Perhaps by no mere coincidence, Herring pairs the changes-heavy “12 Keys” with John Coltrane’s modal jazz standard “Impressions” during his live set, the former of which seems to borrow its intro rhythm motif from Pat Martino’s cover of the latter. I’m just sayin’!) Following a two-bar vamp played four times (Tip: Add roots on sixth and fifth strings), Herring’s progression outlines all 12 keys, at first using I-VIm and then I-IIIm movements, both interspersed with a few IVmaj7- Imaj7 moves. Read through it and witness the cycle of fourths passing by your ears. Herring seems to play a bar ahead of each key, which imparts a definite Lydian quality to his burning, boppish lines. We’re out of room for a play-by-play, but suffice to say that a thorough investigation of this solo, including close scrutiny of note choices, sax-like phrasing, intervallic sequences, and sense of space will buy you much more than a day pass to Jimmy Herring’s world. I hope you haven’t found this over-abundance of diagrams and such too tedious or overwhelming. It’s just that J.H.’s ideas and concepts inspired me to take the ball and run with it, and I hope this lesson does the same for you. Thanks, Jimmy— hope you dig it!!

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