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, interesting choices.
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!