John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring Hail the Glories of Improvisation

On the surface, guitarists John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring couldn’t be more different.
By Jude Gold,

On the surface, guitarists John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring couldn’t be more different.

McLaughlin, who is British by birth, has lived for decades in Monaco, and has a distinctly European air about him. Herring—who is based in Atlanta, Georgia—is as American as baseball, apple pie, and RCA 7025/12AX7A preamp tubes, and he rarely plays outside of the United States.

“John gives me a tough time for not having a fly rig and playing all over the world,” says Herring, “but I just wouldn’t be able to rent the stuff I need in most countries.”

And that’s another point of departure—their approach to gear. Although 20 years Herring’s senior, McLaughlin takes a decidedly new-school strategy at times. For example, during the recording of his latest album, Live @ Ronnie Scott’s [Abstract Logix], McLaughlin performed amp-less, running his guitar direct into the P.A. system.

“If I tried to go direct like that,” says Herring, “I’d simply fall apart.”

There’s also no denying the guitarists forged careers in different genres. McLaughlin elevated the role of guitar in jazz, fusion, and world music through his influential tenures with Miles Davis, Tony Williams, and, of course, Mahavishnu Orchestra. Herring, on the other hand, expanded the psychedelic rock, southern rock, and jam-band genres via his transcendent contributions to the music of Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Phil Lesh, the Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, Jazz Is Dead, and Widespread Panic.

But in their hearts, souls, and musical trajectories, McLaughlin and Herring are both on a shared, lifelong mission to create improvised music that transcends the guitar—eternally trying to tap into an energy a million times more powerful than themselves, and have it pour out of their pickups.

While their adventures started out in different corners of the musical universe, for the first time, McLaughlin and Herring’s individual odysseys will intersect for an expansive American tour billed as the “Meeting of the Spirits.” Kicking off November 1, the tour will feature separate sets by John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension and Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip. Then, as if that wasn’t enough guitar excitement for jam-jazz fans, each night will close with a third set featuring both bands on stage.

There is one more thing about this tour you may find particularly poignant: John McLaughlin has declared it will be his last.

The Who announced their farewell tour in 1982, and they’re still touring. Is this really your farewell tour, John, or are you going to “pull a Who” and be back next year?

McLaughlin: There are elements in life we’re unable to control. You can fight everything except old age. While I have never felt better musically, arthritis is gradually creeping in. Though you can slow it down, there’s no real cure. So this really is goodbye. I won’t stop playing and accepting concerts now and again—the day I stop working will be the day I keel over and never get up again—but full-on touring requires a certain athleticism, and it brings with it a paramount obligation to be in your best form every night. I’ve never performed in anything less than my best form, and I won’t start doing it at the end. So it’s a “quit while you’re ahead” situation. Look at Usain Bolt, whom I have the great fortune to know. He is about to run his last race, and he’s still the fastest man in the world.

We all think we’re going to live forever, but as I grow older, I realize there’s no guarantee for tomorrow—not for any living being. So we have to live today as fully as possible. I have to assure you, I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve had the greatest things ever. I just give thanks to God, and all the great musicians and great men and women I’ve had the opportunity to know, work, and play with. I’m a happy guy.

How are you feeling about the upcoming tour, Jimmy?

Herring: It has got me up at night, but in a good way [laughs]. I have so much to work on, because John’s music is so near and dear to me. It changed my life. I was a kid wanting to play rock and roll, but I couldn’t find any singers, so one day my older brother said, “Why don’t you play instrumental music?” Then, he put on Inner Mounting Flame [Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1971]. I was stunned. I had no idea a musician could have that kind of discipline, and I went down a John McLaughlin rabbit hole for years. I had to put a lot of time in just to get enough chops to be able to play the melodies. It was the same thing when I heard Steve Morse and the Dixie Dregs. It made me realize that if you want to play that kind of music, you have to make a commitment and really start practicing.

To play John’s music, though, it’s not all about technique. Those guys are way past the technique. They’ve transcended technique. John is way beyond the math and the rhythm. It’s so natural for him, and he doesn’t have to think about all that. It’s just wonderful to hear him go.

You could have had just about any guitar-playing partner with you on this final U.S. tour, John. Why did you choose Jimmy Herring?

McLaughlin: Well, I’ve played with many marvelous guitar players in my life, and it has been a joy every time. But if you’re looking for a logical reason why I chose Jimmy, well, logic doesn’t really exist in art. I could list off everything I like about Jimmy’s playing, but that becomes kind of a compliment, and I don’t have to compliment Jimmy because he’s such a fine musician. His rapport with the guitar is so lovely. What I can say is that in certain musicians, all their influences and everything they have learned become integrated into the person. This is what I love about Jimmy. It’s true of all great musicians, whether it’s Coltrane or Miles or Hendrix or Tony Williams, and it’s also true of great thinkers and philosophers. They have discovered their great individuality and cultivated it. This is the greatest of all spiritual, enlightened questions—“Who am I? What is ‘I’?” In a way, this question can never be answered. We can only strive for our own perfect individuality, and to be ourselves without compromise. This is, I think, the greatest thing we can do, and Jimmy has succeeded in that, and it comes out in his playing.

When I heard a recording Jimmy made of a Mahavishnu piece of mine called “Hope,” I was amazed. He played a solo on his rendition, and when I heard it, I thought, “Dang, if I could have played a solo like that, I would have been a happy guy.” So he took a piece of music from me, and he transformed it into something extraordinary. We instantly had a deep connection, and we have been friends for years.

Herring: “Hope” is a song I’ve always loved. It’s like a mantra. It doesn’t have a B section, and John didn’t take a solo on it. Nobody did. It was just a beautiful statement. The violin played the melody, with John joining in sometimes. The bass line was doubled with a big guitar tone, and it was just wicked sounding. And the way John plays pentatonics is very interesting. For example, the way he might use G minor pentatonic over E7#9. The scale is a minor third above the root, but somehow it sounds super cool. You’ll hear Scofield doing that a lot. But on “Hope,” you only have a second to do that before the progression moves on. That’s just one of many things I’ve learned from John—things I have to be in a zone to access. If I play long enough and can get comfortable and loose and I’m not nervous—in other words, if I can get out of my own way—then I can get in that zone.

What do you mean by “get out of your own way”?

Herring: Well, Col. Bruce Hampton was a huge help in that regard. The idea is to do all of your thinking and practicing when you’re not on stage. The philosophy is when you are on stage and you’re creating something, you’re not the one doing it. In other words, you’re out of the way of it, so it can come through you. Have you ever had one of those magical nights where a year or two later you hear a tape of the show, and you don’t even recognize yourself playing? That doesn’t happen all the time for me, but that’s the goal, and that’s one of the things I learned from Bruce. It’s a headspace.

McLaughlin: Yes! The whole point is that when you finally get to play, your rational mind gets out of the way so that the irrational, intuitive, inspirational part of you can come through in the music. You have to forget yourself and let the music through, because the music has sewed its roots into your very being. Being able to do that requires a lot of training, work, and self-knowledge. It’s fun to talk about this stuff, but trying to interpret the irrational in rational terms is kind of an exercise in futility [laughs]. Art—like life itself—is, in a way, irrational, and that’s why I love it, because you cannot be creative while being logical. If you do it for logical reasons, you’ll be frustrated in the end. If you’re doing it from the ego—trying to impress people, or looking to make money—well, in my personal opinion, that doesn’t belong in art.

When it comes to “getting out of your own way,” I can only imagine how great a teacher Miles Davis was to you, John.

McLaughlin: I learned so much from Miles. I don’t think I’ll ever be able repay that debt. I would classify Miles as a guru, which is an even better name for a teacher. A guru is somebody you revere. I still have a number of gurus—not just musicians, but thinkers and human beings—in my life. With your guru, see how they carry themselves. How they perceive the world. How they perceive their art. Because, in simple conversation, gurus can say things you’ll never forget.

For instance, there is this well-known moment during the recording of In a Silent Way [1969] when Miles was not happy with how a tune was going. He stopped everything and looked at me. I had only arrived in the U.S. the day before, and here I was in the studio with Miles, nervous and sweating blood. He tells me, “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar.” This was like a Zen koan [a statement used to provoke “the great doubt” in Zen practice]. It’s completely irrational, but very effective in blowing your mind. So your rational mind gets out of the way. I saw him do this a number of times in the studio with other musicians. He would knock out that rational side of their minds.

Herring: We view Bruce as our Atlanta version of Miles Davis. Bruce thought of himself as a minor league coach of sorts, grooming musicians for the future. He was a father figure, best friend, and musical mentor all rolled into one. He was my muse. He was the thing that kept Aquarium Rescue Unit from being just another fusion band, for lack of a better word. Every day was a new lesson with Bruce. He never showed you how or what to play—he just gave you an outlet to where you could be free to search, and free to try things you’d normally get fired for. I mean, he might fire someone for being too loud, but not because because they were searching for new music. He gave you freedom to fail, and you can’t put a price on that.

I don’t want to put words in Bruce’s mouth, but his philosophy was sort of, “You’d better not play what you played last night!” That forced you do new stuff. Our mandolin player, Matt Mundy, was incredible at that. Every night he would do something we hadn’t heard him do before. For the ’92 live album [Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit], someone handed him a custom electric mandolin made by Jim Bickerstaff with an extra string—a low C—right before the show. Even though Matt had never played it before, he played his butt off on it. Matt is fearless, and that’s the kind of thing Bruce was after. He wasn’t interested in your skill set. He wanted to hear your essence. Bruce would rather listen to a five-year-old hitting a piano than listen to a good musician.

Yet, he hired only the most skilled musicians.

Herring: You know, I’ve thought about that, too. I think some of the reason for that is because those were the people who were drawn to him like a magnet—people who were very skilled, but also willing to learn how to lose that scholastic sound.

John, why did you choose Ronnie Scott’s as the venue to record your new live album?

McLaughlin: Playing Ronnie’s is probably very different for me from how it might be for somebody else, because I spent a lot of time in the ’60s playing there in one particular band, the Mike Carr Trio. It was a great little organ/drums/guitar trio. It was the most prestigious club in London, so I was thrilled to be working there at that point. All these years later, I have this very strong nostalgic feeling about it, so it was nice to record the new album there.

Or let me put it this way: When I arrived in New York in January of ’69 to play with Tony Williams Lifetime at the Village Vanguard, I was in heaven. I could practically hear Coltrane’s music coming out of the walls. Bill Evans, Miles, Monk—all of my heroes—were all playing at the Vanguard. So, for me coming into America as a European, that was the greatest club in the world. I see Ronnie Scott’s in the same light.

Herring: There’s always something magical about a truly live album—even if it’s done live in the studio. Parts of my last two solo records were done over the Web, and while I love that it’s possible to do that—to, say, play with Béla Fleck, even though he wasn’t in the studio with us—there’s something cold about it. I think I’m done doing tracks by email.

Jimmy, it’s interesting that you’re so devoted to vintage amplifiers, yet you play a very modern guitar, relatively speaking.

Herring: Yes—the Paul Reed Smith NF3. I love these things. First of all, they have a scale length that’s 1/4" longer than normal PRS guitars, making them 25-1/4"—right between PRS and Fender scales, which is great. They also have the Narrowfield pickups, which kind of land between a P90 and a full-blown humbucker, sound-wise. They clean up really nicely, but, man, they have a really distinctive thing if you’re lucky enough to be able to push some air with an amp—like a Super Reverb run wide open.

McLaughlin: Paul’s guitars are the greatest. I got my first guitar from Paul about 20 years ago. One time, I came to see him at the Frankfurt Musikmesse, and I hadn’t seen him in years. He said, “John, I’ve got to make you a new guitar.” I said, “Whenever you want!” And he did—and it was absolutely stunning. It’s the one with the New York skyline inlaid on the fingerboard, which gives you an indication of my affection for New York in particular, and America in general. It even has the World Trade Center on there. I wanted those towers on there, because I used to ride down there on my bike and watch those guys being built. They grew up with me. Paul’s an artist, that’s all I can say. And the sound! I used the New Yorker—as we might call that guitar—a lot on the Now Here This and Black Light records, but sometimes I get nervous about taking it on the road. My other main PRS—a brown Private Stock model I call “Brunette”— is all over Live @ Ronnie Scott’s, and it gets played a lot on the road.

Jimmy is into cranking up old tube amps. Do you still gig with amps?

McLaughlin: For Live @ Ronnie Scott’s, I had a very simple setup—a Mesa V-Twin preamp and an MXR Stereo Chorus going straight into the board with maybe a little delay added. For the tour, though, I will likely incorporate this marvelous combo amp from Paul Reed Smith I’ve been using—especially during the third set, with all the musicians on stage.

Jimmy, you also played for six years with Phil Lesh. I imagine that coming from the Grateful Dead, he had an interesting take on jamming.

Herring: Phil’s approach was completely out of my wheelhouse, and that’s what I love about playing with him. Phil’s philosophy was similar to Bruce’s in that, to him, there are no wrong notes, only opportunities. But the thing with Phil is he doesn’t want solos from people. You don’t go in there and wow him with your bitchin’ guitar solos, because that’s not going to get it done. He wants a group conversation. His analogy is a flock of birds. Sometimes one bird is in the front, but then the flock turns, and that bird is in the middle or in the back. They turn again, and maybe he’s back in the front. It’s almost like Dixieland jazz in a way, but he wanted it improvised.

How will the musical finale for each night of the Meeting of the Spirits tour work? That’s two drummers, two bass players, and so on sharing the stage.

McLaughlin: One reason I wanted to do it this way is because I have such wonderful memories of doing the same thing with Jeff Beck on tours in the ’70s. The happiness and joy it brought to the musicians on stage was amazing. So, when I proposed the idea of combining the two bands to Jimmy, he went for it big time. I figured he would, because what’s better than playing with people you love and admire? That’s as good as it gets.

The obvious next question is, “Which tunes will this huge ensemble perform?”

McLaughlin: Well, Jimmy certainly wants to do Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff—which is an indication of how much he reveres the music from that era, and how can I not respond to that? That music is part of me. So there will be pieces from Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, Visions of the Emerald Beyond, and other records. Even in my set, I want to play some of those tunes, because it has been almost 50 years since I started touring America—the place that embraced Mahavishnu before everybody else. It was born in America, so America is very dear to me. It’s also dear to me, because some of the greatest experiences of my life—including working with Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Jimmy Herring—have all been with Americans. So, I feel an obligation to do this tour in the U.S. If I’m going to say “goodbye,” let me do it like this.

I imagine these farewell dates are going to be emotional shows for you, John.

McLaughlin: Well, I think every show is emotional.

Looking back on your amazing careers, what advice would you give a young person dreaming of having a fulfilling career in music?

Herring: It’s funny how we go through phases in our musical lives. For the longest time, I just wanted to be able to play on the level of someone like McLaughlin, Steve Morse, Allan Holdsworth, or John Scofield. But at some point, you’ve just got to be who you are. I’ve got to play like who I am. I’m a Southern guy from North Carolina, and that should be reflected in the way I play. If you’re from New York or from India, you should sound like it. You know what I’m saying? My point is only that you should get in touch with your roots. That’s probably what I’d say to a young player about how to get out of his or her own way musically. Of course, I’m no expert at doing that, because the whole point is that you’re not the one doing it, so how could you be an expert on it? Maybe a big part of this whole approach is just being open enough that you can let the music come at you whichever way it comes, and not get hung up on whether or not you’re going to make mistakes.

McLaughlin: If I met my 20-year-old self tomorrow, I’d simply say, “Be who you are.” It’s the only way to true happiness. When we can be totally honest, we have a happy mind and we can be real. Of course, to do that we have to accept who we are—which takes a lot of work. I don’t see it as work, though. I see it as the development of the interior life, which I believe is the most important work of all. We are, in a way, invisible and visible at the same time. The music is the visible side of what goes on in the invisible side. So the development of the invisible side is critically important. We’re all magical beings in the end, aren’t we? We’re all living in this universe. Have you seen pictures of the universe? This is home. It’s amazing! We live in this magical, mysterious place, and we ignore it, and then we start not liking people for whatever reason—from ignorance. Ignorance is probably the worst crime you could commit. I don’t know. I guess I’m waxing here a little. I’m getting old [laughs].

I think you’re getting young, actually.

McLaughlin: I’m still 29 inside.

JIMMY HERRING ON HIS “DINOSAUR” TONES

“I am super into things a lot of players don’t care much about,” says Jimmy Herring. “For instance, instead of getting a new pedal, I’d rather buy an old Bugle Boy or RCA preamp tube. I’m into that kind of stuff to an almost unhealthy degree, and I’ve come to rely on certain things. It’s almost a crutch.”

New cabinet, old speakers—Herring’s custom open-back 4x12 from Mojotone.

One such “reliance” is Herring’s $27 guitar pick.

“I’ve been using a Red Bear from the C-II line. That thing is good. That pick has a sound. For strings, I use standard D’Addario .010-.046 sets, but I’ve been thinking of going down to a .015 for the G, because I heard Hendrix did that. They say the G is the loudest string, so a lighter G might balance things, volume-wise.”

Herring’s biggest gear obsession these days, though, seems to be speakers.

“Derek Trucks was playing Duane Allman’s old 50-watt Marshall—the one Duane used on At Fillmore East—through an open-back Marshall cabinet with four JBLs, and that was one of the best sounds I’ve ever heard. I was like, ‘I’ve got to look into this.’ So I recently pulled a pair of JBL D120Fs out of an old Twin and had them re-coned. I did the same thing with two old Altec 417-8Hs—which also have metal dust caps like JBLs—and put both speaker pairs into this beautiful open-back cabinet that Mojotone built for me. Dude, it sounds like Dickey Betts! Crank a Pro Reverb through it, and you don’t even need an overdrive pedal. Or, try an 80-watt blackface Twin through it. There’s a sound you can’t get any other way. It’s loud, though. But you know what? Rock and roll is loud.”

No matter which amp Herring is using, he likes to have pristine reverb available, so a Suhr ISO Line Out box sends a line-level version of his tone to an Eventide digital reverb unit running through a separate power amp and cabinet. Herring controls the reverb level with a volume pedal. And while he appreciates the flexibility channel-switching amps offer (“When I need a two-channel amp, my Fuchs head usually gets the call”), it’s not his favorite way to gig.

“What I really love is the kind of amp you can crank up to 8, and control with your guitar’s volume knob. The beauty of that is when you roll off the volume, you get this sublime clean tone that gets more saturated the more you open it up. I’m so used to this approach that if I’m playing a guitar with two volumes, I set the balance between the two pickups, and then use a volume pedal as a master volume.”

Herring is so in love with cranking old Marshalls and Fenders to their sweet spots that he regularly rents a soundstage at Crossover Entertainment in Atlanta just to practice by himself.

“Yeah, gigging with an amp wide open can be loud, but it’s amazing how much drama you can create when you have that kind of headroom and dynamic range. But what actually kills me the most on big stages is my monitor mixes. They’re loud. I’ve tortured my ears for years, but I don’t like in-ear monitors. I know—I’m doing everything the dinosaur’s way. But until I find something better, this is where I am right now.” —JG

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