For many guitarists, melodically soloing over specified chord changes can seem as daunting a task as navigating the backstreets of an unfamiliar metropolis. Thankfully, we’ve enlisted the aid of a skilled guide to help plot a route through tricky harmonic territory—ace NYC axeman Jon Herington. For the past decade-plus, Herington has been Steely Dan’s guitarist, replicating the band’s rich heritage of 6-string work (originally forged by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Larry Carlton, Elliot Randall, Lee Ritenour, and Denny Dias, among others) while adding his own name to the royal tenure via his playing on Everything Must Go and the Grammy-nominated Two Against Nature. Herington has also toured and/or recorded with Bette Midler, the Brecker Brothers, Madeleine Peyroux, and Dennis Chambers, and recently released the solo recording shine (shine shine) [Decorator] showcasing his smoky vocals and pop craftsmanship alongside visceral yet sophisticated guitar work.
During a visit to his midtown Manhattan studio, Herington noted, “Students often come to me believing that improvisation is about learning what scales to play over what chords. As a teacher, I feel it’s my duty to dispel this myth. Approaching improvisation this way can be counterproductive to making good music, because it ignores the reality that each note sounds unique over each chord and you could miss some of the most beautiful melodic opportunities that way.”
“Take a song like Steely Dan’s ‘Black Friday,’” he elaborates. “For most of the song’s E blues vamp, you can stick to an E minor pentatonic scale, but for the A-Em/GF# 7-Em/G-Ebm7-Dmaj9-A/B turnaround sequence (shown in Ex.1) the chords go by so fast that running up and down scales just isn’t gonna work.”
In these (and most) cases, Herington advocates taking a cue from the song’s vocal melody to nail the changes. “This would mean playing an E note against the first four chords, then moving up a whole-step to F# (spelled enharmonically as a Gb for the Ebm7) for the last three. Essentially, you can play melodically over that whole sequence by thinking about two notes,” he explains.
Herington then suggests deconstructing things further by playing each chord individually and seeing what other notes will ring true. “You’ve got 12 to choose from obviously, but in most cases only a handful— often the root, third, and fifth of the chord—are going to sound good to you,” he says. “Doing this for each chord will force you to think about what notes, not what scales, work over a particular chord. I believe it’s the most effective strategy for learning to improvise well on any unique set of changes since it allows you to discover what each note really sounds like over each chord and teaches you to make better note choices.”
A “shining” example of Herington’s melodic mastery can be found during the last eight bars of the achingly beautiful solo on shine (shine shine)’s “Thirteen Feet of Rain.” First play the sparsely voiced chord sequence in Ex.2 a few times to get the sound of the harmony in your head.
Then dig the descending offset unison bends in the first two bars of Ex. 3, noting how Herington’s note choices—an E over the A chord, a D# over the B(11)/A, and a C# over the second A— are all chord tones that sound as right as rain. Even the series of rapid-fire pull-offs in bar four culminate with an E major triad, spelled out G#, B, E, on beat three. (Hint: Herington grabs the open-B string with the ring finger of his picking hand here.)
In bars 5-6, Herington returns to the descending E, D#, C# melodic sequence, now articulating it on the second string an octave lower, and interspersing some sprightly pull-offs on the first string. Bars 7-8 again delineate an E triad, peaking with an E harmonic on the 5th fret of the first string. Confesses Herington, “This is my tip of the hat to George Harrison’s “Nowhere Man” solo, one of the most beautifully melodic chord-tone-based guitar breaks ever.”
Vinnie DeMasi is a NYC-based guitarist and regular GP contributor. He teaches at the NYC Guitar School and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.