Solo records by session guitarists
too often hang gobs of great guitar
on flimsy compositional frames, or they
attempt to emphasize the songs by stinting
on the expected guitar fireworks. Jon
Herington’s work with Steely Dan, Boz
Scaggs, and Michael McDonald qualifies
him as a sessioneer extraordinaire, yet he
deftly avoids both traps on his fourth record,
Time on My Hands [Wise Axe], by serving
up clever, tightly constructed tunes shot
through with searing solos and studded
with 6-string ear candy. Here, he explains
how he did it.
How did you get into session work?
After college, I expected to make a living
playing jazz gigs and teaching, but that turned
out to be a grim prospect. There was so little
jazz work around New York, and the gigs that
were happening didn’t pay much. I moved to
Indiana, met a bunch of good musicians, and
ended up doing more jazz gigs there than
back east. There was also room for a session
player in Indiana. In New York I was green
and no one would have given me a chance,
but in Indiana the pool of good musicians
was shallower. They needed someone who
could follow a conductor, play in time, play
a rock solo but understand chord changes,
and play a little classical guitar. I was able
to find a niche that provided great training
with no pressure. I moved back to New York
with a lot more confidence, but by then the
scene had slowed even further and it took
me about 15 years to break in.
You have lasted longer with Steely Dan than
any other guitarist. To what do you attribute that?
Musicality is one thing, because they are
fussy about that. But it is also a personality
thing. Those guys want to be comfortable with
the people that surround them for months
on the road. They prefer people who don’t
talk too much [laughs], and who are an easy
hang. Those things matter, though I would
like to believe it is mostly the musicianship.
How closely do you hew to the original solos
when playing their material?
I play exactly what is on the record on a
few tunes. There is an intro to “Hey Nineteen”
that feels like a melody, though it was
probably improvised on the original session. It
would feel wrong not to play it. “Third World
Man” is such a gorgeously composed solo that
I want to play it as is. In general, however,
the fun of the gig—and the challenge—is to
find a way to honor what is great about the
parts, while also finding ways to keep them
alive and open-ended. There is no need to
make the band a cover band. Donald and
Walter have given me free rein to play the way
I want. Sometimes all I take from the original
is a sound, and sometimes it is the general
style. I might also change my approach
to particular solos as the tour goes on.
After a couple of power-pop solo records, Time
on My Hands mixes pop, blues, jazz, and funk, often
within a single tune. How do you make it work?
I have an affinity for Cream and Hendrix,
but I spent so much time studying jazz it
would feel wrong to slight that side of my
playing. I like playing on changes, and not
just in one key, so I make room for that in
my songs. The difference with this record
was a decision to put the guitar in the spotlight.
I made sure there was room for longer
guitar solos, rather than just eight-bar breaks,
which made the songwriting process more
complicated. I decided each song had to have
this kind of groove, or those kinds of chord
changes. I was worried that might compromise
the song quality, but we worked hard to
ensure that they all held up as songs.
What is the fuzz effect on the main lick at the
start of “Shine, Shine, Shine”?
That is the Keeley Fuzz Head. I wanted
its “baritone sax” sound during the body of
the song. But I wanted the intro to sound
cheap and cheesy, so I plugged the fuzz into
the input of an old Sony boombox and miked
it with a Shure SM57. The tune starts as lo-fi
as possible, then I have the full tone kick in
by adding other guitars.
The solos on that tune and the one on “Egirl”
are relatively clean, but still have a little grit and
give. What did you use for that tone?
That is a Gibson 1954 Les Paul Goldtop
reissue with P-90s, set on the neck pickup,
through either a Bludotone Bludo-Drive
with Jensen speakers or a Guytron GT-100 or
GT100-FV amp with Celestions. That guitar
gets close to a Strat tone without having to
play one, as I am more comfortable playing
Gibsons. That particular tone is the amp
overdriving just a little.
What did you use for the tanpura [a.k.a. tambura]
drone and sitar effects on “Sweet Ginny Rose?”
That’s an iPhone app called iTanpura,
which is a stereo sample of someone playing
a tanpura. There are also some droning
harmonicas looped on there—their reeds
make them sound similar to a harmonium.
I doubled what was probably a cranked-up
Gibson Custom Shop SG playing the opening
line, with a Jerry Jones version of the
Coral Sitar guitar.
Was the more aggressive tone on “Caroline
Yes” the SG as well?
I think so, but if I can’t tell by listening it
makes you wonder how much that matters.
Well, you use a variety of guitars live, including
a Hamer Newport, a Gibson SG, a Fender Telecaster,
and a Gibson ES-336. Do you use them for
different tones, or do you find that you can get
“your” sound out of all of them?
I am on the fence about this. When I am
recording, I will look for a certain guitar to
sit in the track properly, though often I take
whatever guitar I am playing and make it
sound like what I am hearing in my head,
especially when I solo. Then it matters less
which guitar it is. If it’s a bright guitar I will
just turn down the treble on the amp, and if
it is dark I will turn the treble up—then the
amp seems like the more important factor.
When I play live, I like a certain sound. If it’s
wrong, it’s hard for me to play well.
On the Dukes of September [Donald Fagan,
Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs] tour I
have about five guitars. At the beginning of
the tour, I picked the one that sounded the
most appropriate for each tune we were covering.
That became a nuisance, so I tried to
do it with fewer changes. I realized it made
a bigger difference than I had thought and
went back to using all five. The biggest problem
comes when it is the right guitar for the
rhythm sound but not for the solo—you just
have to compromise.
How did you get that almost infinite sustaining
sliding part on “I’ll Fix Your Wagon”?
Those are slide guitars with an EBow.
Even with a clean sound, the EBow makes
them sound distorted.
The guitar on that song’s solo sounds more
Fender-ish than on some of the other solos.
It is the Gibson SG, but you might be
hearing the different attack of playing with
fingers instead of a pick. It gives a different
pop to the note, and there are overtones that
you get with fingers that don’t appear with
a pick. I am less proficient technically with
my fingers, which forces me to make different,
A double-time run on “I Hear They Shoot
Horses” demonstrates your considerable chops
with a pick, yet your style is more often melodic
and restrained. How do you keep up those chops
without using them all the time?
The benefit of overdubbing is that you can
do it until you get it right [laughs]. Still, there
are things I use to keep my hands in shape. I
have a couple of Bach violin pieces that are
very difficult to play but fun, because they
sound great. I use them as warm-up exercises
every day. They help synchronize the
hands. I try to keep the right-hand picking as
efficient as possible, using only the motion
needed to get the sound.
How do you record your guitars?
I do the overdubs in my Pro Tools studio
with Shure SM57s and a Royer R-121 ribbon
microphone through an AvalonVT-737sp mic
preamp. The DAW is clocked to Mytek converters.
I might monitor with some reverb
or delay because it is more forgiving.
How do you juggle touring with Steely Dan and
the Dukes while also promoting a solo career?
It is a challenge. I try to do as much work
with my band as I can between the tours, but
it is hard to plan because I don’t know the
dates of the tours very far in advance, and
I don’t want to schedule a gig I can’t make.
At this point, however, my daughter has two
more years of college left to pay for—so the
tours are welcome!