“I DIDN'T OWN ANY GRATEFUL DEAD RECORDS when I was growing up, and I never would have imagined I’d get a chance to play with them,” says the unassuming Jimmy Herring. Although he fashioned his playing by studying jazz-fusion monsters such as Steve Morse and Allan Holdsworth, Herring eventually landed in the very center of the jam-band universe. He is an original member of Aquarium Rescue Unit, has toured with the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead, and has been a member of Widespread Panic since 2006. A first-call sideman who possesses remarkable versatility, a searing humbucker-driven tone, and endlessly creative improvisational abilities, Herring has also played key roles in Jazz Is Dead (with Dixie Dregs keyboardist T. Lavitz), Project Z, and Frogwings (with Derek Trucks).
One might expect that Herring’s long-overdue debut as a bandleader would be loaded with Bonnaroo-approved grooves, and bogged down with a gang of guests from the festival scene. Well, not exactly. Lifeboat [Abstract Logix] does feature Aquarium/Allman bassist Oteil Burbridge, Aquarium/Project Z drummer Jeff Sipe, and two stellar slide cameos by Trucks, but the album’s primary cargo is jazz. Herring’s horn-like tone and effortlessly expressive soloing on Wayne Shorter’s “Lost” demonstrate his straight-ahead fluency, and the adventurous chord choices for tunes such as “Scapegoat Blues,” and “Transients” are proof of Herring’s unique compositional voice.
Oteil Burbridge said that you called him before the Lifeboat sessions, because you were excited about a breakthrough. What was it?
It concerned simple chord-scale stuff, but I guess it’s what you do with the information that counts. I’ve been mapping out scales on fretboard diagrams as a way to discover new chord voicings. You start by choosing a scale, and then you simply put a dot on the diagram wherever a note from that scale appears on the fretboard. Then, you choose one scale tone on each string and fret them together to make an interesting chord voicing. Three- and four-note voicings are generally the most useful.
Once you have your new chord, you can move each note in it up or down one scale tone on each string to find other practical voicings all over the neck that you might never have thought of without the diagram. Next, you can change one note, and repeat the process on another diagram to discover a new group of chords. It works with any scale. For example, there are some beautiful chords sitting right within the pentatonic scale. And you can change the bass note to any other scale tone—or even one outside of the scale—to get even more interesting voicings.
How did you use this epiphany to create the music for Lifeboat?
I found the head and bridge chord progressions to “Transients” that way. I took the G major scale to the next level by charting out the melodic and harmonic scales of the relative minor—E minor—and I started seeing a lot of common chord tones. On “Scapegoat Blues,” the head chord changes after the intro vamp are all derived from the diminished scale. It’s a symmetrical scale of repeating whole and half steps, so you’ll get two chords, and then the same two chords a minor third higher. I would do that, and then devote the next part of the neck to a different chord by changing one note of the voicing, or just looking for the next logical thing to alter. I eventually found a whole bunch of voicings that I never realized were sitting right inside that scale I’d been playing for so many years.
Derek Trucks plays some haunting slide on “New Moon.”
That tune also came about from studying chord scales. It’s based on the Phrygian mode, and Derek is so great at that b9 thing he has picked up from listening to Indian music. The tune was written with him in mind. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make the original session, but the song wasn’t complete until I took it down to his place in Jacksonville, where he cut his part masterfully.
His only other credit is on “Lifeboat Serenade,” but there are times throughout the CD when it sounds as if he’s added a lick out of the blue. Are you playing slide in those places, or have you developed a convincing Trucks-style slide emulation complete with microtonal bends?
I’m so glad when people notice! I don’t play slide, but I love that sound, and it’s something I’ve been actively pursuing. Slide players will typically bend up to the major third, and then start dropping it before resolving on the root in a blues phrase. Most non-slide players will simply fret from the minor third to the major third, or, bend up without letting it come back down. It’s important to bend the note before you hit it, and then let it fall down again before interrupting the bend to land on the resolution note. During my solo at the end of “Lifeboat” I played some phrases that were definitely influenced by Derek—as well as by a pedalsteel master he hipped me to named Aubrey Ghent. His phrases sound like a woman singing gospel music.
You did a stint with the Allman Brothers after they parted ways with Dickey Betts, and you’ve also filled Jerry Garcia’s spot in the Dead and Michael Houser’s in Widespread Panic. How did you approach those gigs?
It’s all about respect for the original player. The Allmans’ music was very much in my roots, so playing it was relatively easy. The hard part was drawing the line between copying and paying homage. They encouraged me to do my own thing, but playing in Dickey’s spot was tough because he didn’t retire or pass away—he was still out there playing. I did it for about six wonderful months, and then I just couldn’t do it anymore. I felt that Dickey should be there, and I honestly thought they would work it out with him after I left.
I had been playing with [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh for three years when they put the Dead back together—first as the Other Ones. I told them that I thought they’d be better off with someone who played more like Jerry to appease the fans, but they told me I was the guy, and I was faced with filling in for another icon. In that case, I delved all the way into the Dead’s catalogue, and I didn’t play the way I normally do, because it really wasn’t appropriate. I always try to do whatever the gig requires.
Playing with Panic was a different story, because I’ve known them since they first had Aquarium Rescue Unit open for some tour dates in 1989, but I approached all three gigs in the same basic way. First, I just listened to the catalog without touching the guitar. You want to get the material into your head, and try to pick out some of the key melodies. I’d listen to multiple live tapes of the same song, and learn to play the fragments that showed up the same way in each version—figuring they were integral to the song, and not just part of the improvisation. I don’t write melodies out, and it’s a challenge to remember them all. I just write out chord charts and make arrangement notes with a Sharpie on a piece of paper that’s big enough to see on the floor.
Have you ever worried that taking on these high-profile gigs would cloud your own identity?
Sure, but I realized a long time ago that I’m better at working for other people than being a bandleader. I’ve never wanted that responsibility. I originally wanted this to be a band record, but Derek was too busy to play on the whole thing, and everybody eventually talked me into making it my album.
What was your workhorse gear for recording?
We cut basic tracks together, but I had to re-cut my parts because we discovered that the Fender Deluxe I borrowed for the session had cone cry—meaning that certain notes sounded really bad. I wound up using my ’64 Fender Super Reverb and my Fuchs TripleDrive Supreme through a 4x12 cabinet. Both are loaded with Tone Tubby Hempcone speakers, which make the amps sound louder and better—there are more nuances and no cone cry. I also went direct through a variety of microphone preamps on a lot of the chordal stuff, and we re-amped many of those tracks through a Leslie rotating- speaker cabinet. Also, the solo on “Gray Day” was direct. I did all the orchestration with a DigiTech XP-300 Space Station. This was the first time I’ve been able to orchestrate with my guitar voicings.
Did you make a conscious effort to step outside the comfort of the jam world to make a jazz statement?
Absolutely. That’s where my musical taste lies, and it’s something I’ve wanted to explore outside the world of roots music. I’m so excited about all the new chord voicings I’m finding. That’s what I love about music, man. I’ve seen the door, and I’m just peeking through it now, but over the next 20 years, I can go through that door and never run out of things to try. It’s infinite and incredible.