Jimmy Herring's Explosive Mix of Southern Boogie & Modal Jazz

 Had he met Jimmy Herring, the late, great baseball manager Leo Durocher might have thought twice before concluding that nice guys finish last. Unfailingly amiable, soft-spoken (but with a hearty laugh), and a consummate team player, Herring possesses truly fearsome Southern-fried fusion chops and an almost Charlie Parker-like knack for making intricate single-note lines ring as a sweetly as Verdi themes. This huge talent/ego ratio makes this “nice guy” from Fayetteville, North Carolina, the first guitarist to get the call just about anytime a high-profile jam band needs a new lead player.

With dignity and grace, Herring has already stepped into the shoes of such legends as Dickie Betts and Jerry Garcia. In addition to his work with the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead, Herring is known for his tenures with Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jazz Is Dead (which, when Herring was in the band, featured fusion greats Billy Cobham, Alphonso Johnson, and T. Lavitz), Frogwings (with John Popper and Butch Trucks), and additional Grateful Dead carryovers such as the Other Ones and Phil Lesh & Friends. Since the fall of 2006, Herring has been holding down the lead guitar chair for Widespread Panic, replacing the late Michael Houser, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 40. And instead of functioning as a hired gun, Herring has integrated himself into the creative fold as a contributing writer and arranger on the band’s latest CD, Free Somehow [Widespread Records].

“I brought in a couple of ideas that the group took hold of and made their own,” says Herring. “Everybody had their little bits that we connected and jammed on until the songs began to emerge.” To catch this vibe, spin “Three Candles” and dig how the band builds a sprawling arrangement around Herring’s dreamy 7/4, D Mixolydian intro motif.

“To me the first thing to keep in mind when stepping in for someone like Dickey Betts, Jerry Garcia, or Michael Houser,” says Herring, “is to start where they left off. I begin by just listening to the tunes and making bar charts to learn the form. Finally, I go back and shed the chord changes and guitar melodies. Once I’ve absorbed all that, I can begin to bring in my own voice. The great guitarists I’ve succeeded, the other band members, and the fans—none of them would want me to just copy what’s already been done. There’s a fine line between copying someone and tipping your hat to them. I stay within the kingdom of what’s gone before me, but still try to build on the legacy that’s there. Fans of the Dead, the Allmans, and Widespread come back to the shows year after year because they expect to hear the music evolve.”

The precipice of tradition as a jump-off point for new musical exploration was a hallmark of many famous jazz combos of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, including Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the John Coltrane- and Miles Davis-led quartets and quintets. It’s no surprise to find much of Herring’s playing informed by the hard-bop and modal jazz approaches of that era.

Minoring In Jazz

“Here’s an old chromatic leading-tone bebop tactic I’ve appropriated for playing minor arpeggios,” says Herring, tearing into Ex. 1a. “You take the notes of a minor arpeggio—in this case the G, Bb, and D that spell out a Gm triad—and approach them with the note one half-step below [F#, A, and C# respectively]. To keep it from sounding too predictable though, sometimes I’ll re-phrase it as a string skipping lick [Ex. 1b].

“Lately, I’ve been on a melodic minor bender,” explains Herring, citing the impetus for the melodically daring Ex. 2. “The [ascending] melodic minor scale is just the major scale with a b3, and I find it offers a more compelling choice of notes than a plain old minor pentatonic scale.” To facilitate the fretting-hand maneuvers in this phrase, be sure to use your 1st finger to play the first and second notes of the third bar, completing a shift from the fifth to second position.

Mix-Master J

“When improvising over a static minor-key vamp—which is something Widespread Panic does frequently—I won’t always limit my note choices to any one particular scale,” says Herring. “Sometimes mixing two scales together will give your lines interesting and unexpected melodic twists.”

Herring handily demonstrates his scale integration prowess in Ex. 3, adding, “I start this line just playing a four-note sequence up a G Dorian scale, but drop in an F# from the G harmonic minor scale to break the pattern so it doesn’t sound too much like an exercise.”

Expanding on this idea, Herring shares Ex. 4, a lick that works well in several different keys. “Since Gm and C9 both have F major as their parent scale, I can play this lick in either a Dorian or Mixolydian context,” says Herring. “Over Gm, the F# note becomes a natural 7. Over C9, it’s the #11. It’s not in the parent scale [F major], but it sounds good.”

Diatonic Phonics

While playing notes “outside” of the key is a sure-fire way to turn heads, hip sounds can be created without ever leaving the diatonic major scale. “One way I craft lines is by working out the intervallic pairs within a scale,” says Herring, demonstrating the approach with Ex. 5, C Mixolydian harmonized in sixths. “Once you’ve mastered these, try using them to add large melodic leaps to your phrases”—good advice that can be followed by exploring Ex. 6.

“Another approach I like to take with sixths is to play the lower note as a right-hand harp harmonic. This puts it up an octave and inverts the sixths to thirds,” says Herring. To play Ex. 7, sound the harmonic by touching the third string with your index finger exactly 12 frets above the fretted note while plucking the same string with your thumb. Simultaneously, pluck the note on the first string with your ring finger or pinky. (Heads up! Note the fingering shift on the slide on the third beat.)

Seventh Heaven

While sixths are definitely a handy tool to use, diatonic seventh intervals can take your playing to even further reaches of the improvisational stratosphere. “I visualize sevenths as interval pairs within quartal-voicings—diatonic chords that are built by stacking fourths instead of thirds, and are often associated with modal jazz pianists like Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner,” says Herring. The fourths-based sound is an intriguing one indeed, as we hear with the quartally-harmonized F major scale in Ex. 8a. (Tip: Herring often uses these voicings in a G Dorian mode setting, as G Dorian is the second mode of F major and suits the G minor tonality).

The next step in the process is to visualize the voicings as pairs of notes voiced on the fourth and second, and third and first string, respectively [Ex. 8b]. “Once you can see the pairs of sevenths, it’s just a matter of using the shapes to harmonize melodies,” says Herring. “When I break out this technique in a solo, people inevitably come up to me after shows and ask what kind of harmonizer I have in my rack. They’re usually surprised when I tell them the only harmony I’m generating is from my fingers.”

To trick your friends into thinking you’ve got a Boss Pitch Shifter hidden in your back pocket, try mastering the intricacies of Ex. 9. (Hint: Like Herring, with each harmonized pair, you might want to employ hybrid picking, picking the lower note while plucking the higher note with your ring finger.) A further use of intervallic seventh pairs is playing the notes individually, demonstrated by the digit-twisting Ex. 10. “What I like about this lick is its contrapuntal sound,” says Herring. “You can almost hear two distinct melody lines happening. It’s sort of like Sun Ra meets Bach.”

Coming Attractions

“I spent a lot of time working out all the diatonic chords and arpeggios for the major scale, but it wasn’t until recently that I began doing the same for other scales,” admits Herring, explaining the inspiration for Ex. 11. “This series of chords is the basis for a tune on my upcoming solo record, and it’s derived completely from the notes in the E harmonic minor scale [E, F#, G, A, B, C, D#] starting from the II chord [F#m7b5] and continuing through the VII chord [D#dim7#9].”

Panic Station

“Like the improvisational music he helps create, Jimmy’s rig is always a work in progress, constantly adapting to suit new musical situations and deliver improved sound,” says Jimmy Herring’s longtime tech Eric Pretto, who took time between recent Widespread Panic shows in New York City to take you on a guided tour of Jimmy’s current stage setup. “Jimmy’s main guitar is still his Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster built by Gene Baker in 1989. It has two Seymour Duncan ’59 humbuckers, and is strung with D’Addario XLs gauged .010-.046. Jimmy uses Dunlop Tortex .73mm picks. The guitar goes into an Ernie Ball volume pedal and a Hughes & Kettner Tube Factor overdrive pedal. Jimmy’s favorite amps are his ’64 and ’66 Fender Super Reverbs, which he used on the new Panic CD, Free Somehow. They’re awesome for that clean bell-like tone he favors, but lack the high gain he needs for some of the live Panic stuff, so he recently started using Fuchs Overdrive Supreme and TripleDrive Supreme lead heads, running them dry into a 4x12 Tone Tubby cabinet.

“Jimmy’s a big believer in using your fingers to generate the sounds you need, so there’s really not much in his rack besides a Mesa Simul-Class 2 Ninety power amp, a Furman PL-Plus Series II power conditioner, and a Korg tuner. He prefers the sound of older tank reverbs, but because they often produce loud spring crashes on bouncy stages—and because some of the Michael Houser parts Jimmy plays require slap-back echo and dotted-eighth-note delay settings—we’ve been using T.C. Electronic M-One XL digital processors for reverb and delay. Jimmy’s wet sound is controlled by another Ernie Ball volume pedal, and that sound is routed separately to a pair of Hard Trucker 2x12 speaker cabinets. This setup is helpful, because it allows Jimmy to control his effects mix onstage independent of the house mix. Sometimes Jimmy prefers things wetter in his own playing space than what might be appropriate for the overall house mix.

“The last components of Jimmy’s onstage rig are six Ernie Ball VPJR. volume pedals that allow him to tweak the individual levels of all the other instruments onstage in his monitors—except for Dave Schools’ bass, which has a feed running to an Ampeg BA210 acting as a bass monitor positioned behind Jimmy and to the right. This self-mixing monitor setup came about when Jimmy was touring with the Dead, because as the band went up and down in dynamics through different phases of improvisation, Jimmy found he needed a monitor mix that constantly changed to react to who was playing what when.”

Goin’ Solo!

Jimmy Herring fans should be thrilled to learn that the guitarist will soon be releasing his first-ever solo album. Featuring Derek Trucks, Jeff Sipe, Oteil Burbridge, and other A-list players, the disc will be available in August in stores and online at abstractlogix.com. The album was originally slated to be a band release, but Herring’s esteemed colleagues insisted that the ever-humble guitarist—who wrote nearly every song on the album— finally take well-deserved top billing on a project.