A GOOD JAZZ-ROCK GUITARIST IMPRESSES DYED-IN-THE-WOOL rockers with his ability to swing, and jazzbos with his ability to
“bring the rock.” A great jazz-rock player, though, also impresses rockers
with his rock chops and jazzers with his jazz playing. Such is the
case with Scott Henderson. The Los Angeles-based fusion hero is fully
steeped in both traditions, and has woven them together to create one
of the most powerful voices in fusion guitar.
On the rock side of things, Henderson can masterfully tame a set of
single-coils cranked through an overdriven tube head to deliver soaring,
visceral, and lyrical leads, like one of his early heroes, Ritchie Blackmore.
Also, he can ride the whammy bar with great finesse, much like
another of his influences, Jeff Beck. And like many world-class rockers,
Henderson is obsessive about gear and how it relates to great tone.
Simultaneously, like a straight-ahead jazz player, Henderson ’sheds
on tunes religiously, plays solos that magically morph time and rhythm
as well as melody and harmony, and is able to infuse his improvisations
with harmonic “sheets of sound” à la John Coltrane. And, having
played with everyone from fusion icons such as Joe Zawinul and Chick
Corea to his own group Tribal Tech, which includes keyboardist Scott
Kinsey, bassist Gary Willis, and drummer Kirk Covington (and who
recently celebrated the release of X, their tenth album), Henderson’s
jazz pedigree gets more impressive every year.
Henderson’s latest musical adventure is HBC—a trio comprising
himself, bassist Jeff Berlin, and drummer Dennis Chambers—and they
have already toured Europe, South America, and Asia in support of
their debut album, HBC [Tone Center]. Many of the record’s songs pay
tribute to Weather Report and the influential band’s chief composers,
saxophonist Wayne Shorter and late, great keyboardist Joe Zawinul.
“Jeff, Dennis, and I hold Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra
up as the forefathers of the music we’re into. It didn’t make much sense
to cover Mahavishnu, because I certainly can’t play John McLaughlin’s
music any better than he did. But the Weather Report approach is great
because we love reworking the music into a trio format. Plus, I had the
privilege of working with Joe in the Zawinul Syndicate for four years
in the ’90s, right after Weather Report broke up. That was one of the
greatest honors of my career, because
What musical approaches did you learn from Joe Zawinul?
Honestly, not many while working directly with him, but tons of stuff while transcribing his records. I remember
one day hearing him spontaneously re-harmonize
a standard in this intergalactic way,
so I asked him what chords he was using.
He said, “You know better than to ask me
that. I don’t know what these chords are,
but they’re badass.” He didn’t think the
way we do—he didn’t have to. It was all
just colors to him. He was on such a high
level that the technical aspects of music just
didn’t apply. If you wanted to learn what
he was doing, you had to tape it and transcribe
For HBC, how did you decide on which
Weather Report songs to cover?
First, I had to find tunes that laid out
nicely on the fretboard, because some of
those keyboard parts are impossible for a
guitarist to play. The chords are moving
way too fast. On the solo sections of the
tunes we usually just took off and improvised,
but being a huge fan of the music, I
often did try to reproduce everything Joe and Wayne played in those sections, too.
Weather Report has become like classical
music to me at this point. Change one note
and it’s just wrong.
How did you keep the guitar layers distinct?
It would have been a lot easier with synths.
With guitar, you can process, pan, and EQ
all day but it still pretty much sounds like
guitar, so you have to be more careful about
keeping parts clear in the mix. Of course,
using different guitars helps. One thing I
have started doing is backing the mic off the
amp for certain parts. Listen to Led Zeppelin,
and you can hear how Jimmy Page did
that to give some guitars separation from
the main, close-miked guitars. Also, if a part
was low in the original Weather Report mix,
I made it soft in our mix, too, so it would
be truer to Joe’s vision.
Effects can help, too. That weird little part
you might notice on the intro to “Mysterious
Traveler” is a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. Great
pedal. I know how to dial it so that when I
turn my volume knob while playing a note,
it just flutters up and down. In fact, there’s
one really cool phrase near the beginning
of the solo where the pedal actually played
a musical phrase. I thought, “Well, that’s a
keeper because that’s never going to happen
again in a million years.”
You get a more straight-ahead jazz tone
That’s a Line 6 Variax guitar on the rhythm
pickup of the hollowbody setting. I played the track for a couple of my jazz box friends
and said, “Am I an idiot for thinking this
sounds legit?” They said, “No, I wouldn’t
know it wasn’t a jazz box unless you told
me.” I found that comforting. I ran it into
an 18-watt Suhr Badger combo set clean.
That amp came in really handy for recording
low-volume overdubs at home at 5:00
a.m. when my daughter was asleep.
I also used a Dumble-modded Fender
Bandmaster, though most of album was done
with my four-input ’71 Marshall, which John
Suhr modded to be a single-input head with
a nice master volume circuit. It still shakes
the house, but it’s not as loud as my old
Plexi was. You can run it through just one
4x12 because the sweet spot is just below
the point where the speakers are pushed into
giving you that awful cone cry.
You also gig a lot with your signature Suhr
Yes, I love that amp. It’s my main live
amp, but now that airlines are charging $300-$400 extra per flight to transport an
amp, I rely more and more on backline gear
provided by promoters—usually a Marshall
JCM 2000 DSL 100 and two 4x12s. If that
amp is good enough for Jeff Beck, it’s good
enough for me. I run it with the green channel
set to Crunch, pushing it with my signature
model Xotic RC Booster, or maybe
a Maxon SD-9. On HBC, my main booster
was actually the Fulltone PlimSoul, because
for some reason it’s a little bit fatter on the
high notes, which helps you in a trio situation
without a keyboard player.
What’s unique about the Suhr Scott Henderson
It isn’t much different than a Suhr Classic
S, except that it has a D-shaped neck—more
wood on the sides of the neck and less on the
back—and tone controls that are bypassed
for positions 2 and 4. I like those two positions
to remain bright for funk rhythm playing
while being able to leave the tone knob
rolled down a bit on the bridge pickup. I set the guitar up so that the bridge plate floats
high enough that the G string goes up a major
third when I yank the bar all the way up. Suhr
has some nice tricks for keeping classic Stratocaster-
style bridges in tune—such as drilling
bigger holes for the plate’s six mounting
screws. I’ve been getting into all this stuff in
depth for years on my online message board,
accessible from scotthenderson.net.
You have been teaching at Musicians Institute
in Hollywood for more than 20 years.
What general advice do you give students on
how to sound better?
I remind them that they have to constantly
work on three things: their time,
their phrasing, and their tone. Anyone can
tell if you don’t have one of those things
together. You don’t have to be a musician
to notice that someone has a bad sound,
can’t deliver a melody effectively, or has no
groove. I try to get my students to understand
that it’s not how much you know—
it’s how you present what you do know.