Widespread Chaos! Uncovering Jimmy Herring's Outside Playing Secrets

By David Brewster ,

If there’s one name synonymous with bridging the gap between modern rock, blues, and jazz, it’s Jimmy Herring. Being able to pinpoint where you first heard his name or music has become a challenge, as his lengthy career includes being a founding member of the late Colonel Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit and the instrumental Grateful Dead tribute supergroup, Jazz Is Dead. Additionally, Herring has worked and toured with Widespread Panic, the Allman Brothers Band, the Derek Trucks Band, the Dead, Project Z, and various other side-projects, and has released two outstanding solo albums under his own name. Herring’s career has continued to flourish with the recent assembly of his own group, Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip, in addition to the monumental opportunity of touring and performing alongside the legendary John McLaughlin during the fusion pioneer’s 2017 “Meeting of the Spirits” farewell tour.

Herring’s command of improvisation and melodic soloing have helped him become a first-call session and touring musician. These abilities, combined with a mastery of blues-rock technique, applied jazz theory, and a daring, adventurous approach to musical choices and chance taking, prove that Herring is a unique musical force. You’ll discover plenty of things you can learn from this diverse and inspiring fretboard magician.

To study some of Herring’s sleight-of-hand playing concepts, let’s begin with an analysis of how he mutates and arranges standard blues licks and phrases. Uncovering this realm of Herring’s playing reveals how he creates outside lines. After listening to some of the guitarist’s music, you’ll discover that he’s very skilled and comfortable combining multiple concepts borrowed from jazz, rock, and blues into cohesive musical expressions. This includes his frequent use of harmonic tension, which he builds by adding dissonant sounds and chromatic movements to his licks and phrases. While there are a number of ways you can approach adding dissonance and passing tones to your playing, there are a few things you should know before attempting to do this. First, it’s important to know that when a musician skillfully employs dissonance, there’s usually an underlying method to the musical madness. Playing “outside” means you’re using information from a tonal center that radically differs from the chords or key in which you’re playing overall. As you begin adding these outside sounds, you’ll ultimately have two choices: either build more tension and dissonance by continuing to avoid the original key or tonality, or resolve the tension by returning to the home key in a smooth, tasteful way.

As we begin studying what Herring chooses when he mixes things up, be aware that stepping outside the key requires that you’re fully aware of the chord progression and overall tonality. It’s still a matter of respecting the original key and related information, but you’ll want to purposely avoid conventional diatonic movements and regular phrasing when you’re putting these kinds of outside ideas together. Once you’re comfortable using this altered melodic concept, you can blend different keys, scales, arpeggios, and other harmonic destinations, which will move your music into the outer limits of what the listener is expecting when you solo.

We’ll start by modifying a common scale that every electric guitarist reading this lesson should be familiar with, the trusty five-note minor pentatonic, which is intervallically spelled 1, b3, 4, 5, b7. The examples presented herein will loosely revolve around the key of D major, with a D dominant-seven modality. Remaining in a single key like this will help you hear the subtle differences between what we’re altering and adding to the sound and formula of the minor pentatonic scale. In beginning this kind of study, it can be difficult to hear these alterations accurately if you were to move through an assortment of keys and tonalities, so it’s best to focus on a single key at first and get an earful of what you’re adding and altering before moving forward with this concept. After you become comfortable playing altered and mutated phrases based around dominant-seven sounds and the general flavor of D7, I highly recommended that you try transposing these same concepts to other keys, while exploring different chord types, progressions, and tonalities.

The first area of this lesson blends the D minor pentatonic scale (D, F, G, A, C) with the eight-note D half-whole diminished scale (D, Eb, F, F#, Ab, A, B, C), played in the same fretboard position. Ex. 1a shows a one-octave D minor pentatonic scale run played in a rhythm of steady 16th notes and centered around tenth position. Most of you are probably familiar with the sound and fingering of this common scale.

Once you have the sound ringing in your head, play through Ex. 1b, a D half-whole diminished scale run played in the same position. Notice that the five-note D minor pentatonic scale resides within the octatonic (eight-note) D half-whole diminished scale, which is intervallically spelled 1, b2, b3, 3, b5, 5, 6, b7, with the b2 and b3 alternatively being reckoned as the b9 and #9, respectively.

Combining the minor pentatonic and half-whole diminished scales is one of Herring’s favorite musical strategies, so if you aspire to emulate his brilliant style, invest some time acquainting yourself with the feel and sound of blending these two scalar entities. The dissonant flavor heard over a D7 chord (D, F#, A, C) is created by combining and using the D minor pentatonic and the D half-whole diminished scale—which we’ll simply refer to hereafter as the D diminished scale—over the dominant-seven-based tonality of this chord type. This kind of “mix-and-match” phrasing, by the way, is very common in blues, rock, jazz, and fusion styles.

In music theory, the D7 chord belongs to the major-key family and would normally signal the use of the seven-note D Mixolydian mode (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C), but in this lesson we’re taking the minor pentatonic and diminished scales and finding ways of using these sounds over a dominant- seven tonality. The concept of playing minor scales over major chords is nothing new, especially in blues, but the inclusion of adding the diminished scale to the mix can really spice things up. In some ways, this is the musical equivalent of cramming a square peg into a round hole, but you should notice that the sound produced by the D minor pentatonic and D diminished scales over the D7 chord is interesting. Needless to say, the amount fresh-sounding licks and phrases you can generate from blending these two resources together is immense!

To begin building some mix-and-match licks, Examples 2a and 2b present an idea performed and written two different ways. In Herring’s unique world of building inventive musical variations, a run like that shown in Ex. 2a uses legato phrasing (hammer-ons and pull-offs) to give the notes a smooth and connected sound, while Ex. 2b recycles the phrase and introduces a series of legato finger slides, or glissandos. While comparing the two examples, notice how the variance in the way they’re performed makes a subtle but noticeable impact on the sound of the phrase. The concept of creating variations in music is something Herring employs very effectively in many of his extended solo excursions. Historically, you’ll find plenty of other musicians who’ve mastered the concept of building variations in their music. One of the biggest names in this musical territory is Jeff Beck, who firmly cemented his status as a master of building melodic variations during his inspired instrumental cover of the Stevie Wonder classic, “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” featured on Beck’s landmark 1975 album, Blow by Blow.

Ex. 3 offers an interesting, Herring-worthy lick built from the D diminished scale. As you play through this example, you’ll notice that we’re skipping around the strings using lots of wide intervals, which create the kind of modern and unique sound heard frequently in Herring’s music. Injecting wide leaps or gaps between the notes of a melody, scale, or arpeggio instantly creates a dramatic, compelling sound, one that can be found in various musical styles.

Thanks to players like Ritchie Blackmore, Randy Rhoads, and Yngwie Malmsteen, most rock players are familiar with the sound of the four-note diminished seven arpeggio, which is intervallically spelled 1, b3, b5, 6, but many aren’t nearly as familiar with the eight-note diminished scale that we’re using here. If your fingers and ears are confused by this finger-twisting scale, play through the challenging four-bar legato run found in Ex. 4, which will help you become acquainted with it and serve as a superb warm-up exercise. The benefit is created from incorporating all four fret-hand fingers to navigate through the challenging note pattern. This example also gives you a birds-eye-view of how Herring likes to combine picked and slurred (legato) phrasing in his playing. This “semi-legato” articulation approach produces a smooth, yet accented sound, one that you’ll also hear in the playing of great improvising guitarists like Pat Metheny, Paul Gilbert, and Joe Satriani.

The next area of this lesson focuses on the concept of adding passing tones from the 12-note chromatic scale to pentatonic licks and phrases. Ex. 5 depicts a one-octave chromatic scale run centered around tenth position and beginning and ending on a D note. As you play through the example, notice the fingering challenge of performing the scale gracefully, as you’ll need to use every fret-hand finger in succession and a couple of slides to play the note sequence smoothly. This four-fingered chromatic movement makes this scale a popular choice as a warm-up and technique-building exercise for many guitarists.

For a demonstration of how to add chromatic passing tones to a pentatonic-based lick, play around with Ex. 6, a slippery-sounding line featuring some expressive legato finger slides and bluesy twists. Notice that we’re only hinting at the chromatic scale here, by sprinkling a few targeted chromatic notes into the phrase. In his playing, Herring skillfully and tastefully weaves between pentatonic and chromatic notes, and you’ll find him connecting boundless streams of chromatic lines punctuated with bluesy “pit stops” all the time.

Ex. 7 gives you an idea of how Herring approaches adding passing tones to enhance the flavor of basic blues licks. The example presents two versions of the same phrase, as we’re taking the lick from the first bar and moving it up an octave in bar 2. The idea of relocating a lick to another octave, string group, or fretboard location is common in all styles of guitar music, and you’ll find Herring doing this kind of thing all the time. This example demonstrates how an octave transposition of a phrase can create an entirely new sound and flavor. As you practice the second version of the lick (in bar 2), notice the wide two-whole-step bend that’s applied to the final note. This seemingly random “overbend” is a common expressive device that Herring loves to employ, and you’ll hear him meticulously altering and twisting string-bending phrases in his solos all the time. This is especially true after the guitarist started collaborating with slide guitar wunderkind Derek Trucks, as Herring has proudly admitted the positive influence Trucks’ slide playing has had on his own playing. This is understandable, as the two brilliant guitarists have recorded, performed, and toured together for years, and the quirky, non-slide slide guitar emulation that Herring has embraced and refined in recent years is very creative and inspiring.

Ex. 8 demonstrates another way in which Herring will add passing tones to his licks and solos. The busy blues sound emanating from this passage should give you plenty to experiment with, as we’re weaving and shifting between chromatic and pentatonic movements to create this swinging little jazz-blues phrase. The idea is similar to a number of phrases found in songs like “Scapegoat Blues,” from Subject to Change Without Notice, or “Albright Special,” from the self-titled Project Z album. Experimenting with this type of phrasing will no doubt lead your fingers toward new and exciting musical areas and directions.

Our final example features a combination of several things we’ve explored in this lesson. Ex. 9 reveals a demanding Herring-inspired lick, and you can hear a number of different versions of this idea in songs such as “No Ego’s Underwater” by the Aquarium Rescue Unit or Herring’s take on the Billy Cobham fusion classic “Red Baron,” from Jazz Is Dead’s self-titled debut album. The final bar of this example features a common sextuplet legato phrase that Herring has employed for a long time now. You can hear multiple incarnations of this blurry-sounding lick coming from his fingers on various recordings and live performances. These flowing legato runs are very similar to the rapid-fire pivot licks you’ll hear coming from rock players such as Gary Moore, Nuno Bettencourt, and Steve Vai, but Herring has always found a way to put his own identity and sonic fingerprint on these types of busy runs.

Once you’ve experimented with the examples and concepts presented in this lesson, you should continue your awareness and discovery of Jimmy Herring’s music, and this includes applying outside scale sounds and chromatic passing tones to your own licks. As you become more familiar and comfortable with these kinds of ideas, I highly recommend studying the music of the other jazz and fusion guitar masters mentioned earlier who thrive in this musically-altered underworld, all of whom happened to be among Herring’s biggest influences and helped him make the connection to these outside flavors, movements, and sounds.

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