Double-Edged Sword, The Dangerous Jazz-Rock Attack of Scott Henderson

A good jazz-rock guitarist impresses dyed-in-thewool rockers with his ability to swing, and jazzbos with his ability to “bring the rock.”
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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.

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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 it later.

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 on “Footprints.”

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 SH-100 head.

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 model guitar?

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

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.