Scott Henderson Joyfully Flies the Fusion Flag

Few players have joined the spirit of jazz and rock as successfully as Scott Henderson.

Few players have joined the spirit of jazz and rock as successfully as Scott Henderson. The Los Angeles-based guitarist certified his jazz qualifications in gigs with Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, while his menu of fuzz and distortion flavors—combined with a repertoire of blues licks—make his rock cred unimpeachable as well. Through recordings with Tribal Tech and HBC (his self-proclaimed “fusion Top 40 band”), Henderson consistently cranks out masterpieces of harmonic sophistication, overdriven energy, and tonal beauty.

His latest outing, the self-released Vibe Station, is rife with enough massive and varied guitar textures to satisfy the pickiest sound hound and plenty of spectacular soloing for shred heads. And, for those that would like to try their hand at duplicating the Henderson magic, a play-along version of VibeStation is available on his website, featuring tracks and PDF charts.

In a free-ranging conversation with Guitar Player, Henderson was kind enough to not only talk about his latest record but also to detail the gear he used on his latest project and live, as well as his thoughts on keyboard players.

After over a dozen records, was there something new you were trying to bring to this one?

When Dog Party was well received, I thought I’d love to do more blues records. But when Tribal Tech broke up, they became jazz records. Tore Down House was a little more harmonically sophisticated thanDog Partyand Well to the Bone even more so. Vibe Station is even more advanced because it’s hard for me to make a record without putting the jazz harmony that I love into it.

Did you record the basics on Vibe Station live?

We played live as a trio. I didn’t keep a lot of my original guitar tracks, though I kept the original ideas. In the studio, I’m always hearing missing parts in my head, but I don’t want to put in so many that the audience will miss them when we play live. The main guitar track is what you hear when you see us live. Everything else is color, or to create interest under the surface. Joe Zawinul told me, “Always have something hard to hear on the record. It draws listeners in. Have something buried in the mix so they don’t hear it the first time.”

On the record there is almost a sense of two guitar players playing off each other.

That’s to keep it sonically interesting. Just like live, if I’m going to do two solos, I’ll play one with a distortion pedal and one with a wah or an Octavia so there’s a sonic change going on.

What guitars and amps did you use?

My guitar for the main track was a Suhr Classic. For overdubs, I would grab a Les Paul or Danelectro, or use a different pedal. There were mostly John Suhr Michael Landau pickups on the guitars. A few times I used Suhr V60s. The Mike Landau pickups have more mids and are wound a little hotter. The V60s are more scooped and sound like old vintage pickups. It helped make layering easier. When you use a more scooped pickup to play a part, it’s going to be more in the background. Most of the solos are with the Landau pickups, and most of the rhythm parts are the V60s.

I used either a ’71 Marshall or a Fender Bandmaster modified by John Suhr, through two Kerry Wright cabinets. One has the Chinese Celestion Greenbacks. I also like the Heritage Greenbacks, which are made in England. They don’t have quite as much bass as the Chinese ones, but still sound really nice. Some of the rhythm guitar parts are done with a 2x12 cabinet with the Heritage G12-65s in it.

What strings are you using these days?

I use D’Addario .010s. I made an interesting discovery. The Tribal Tech and HBC records were recorded with .011s tuned to Eb, but on this album, I used guitars strung with .010s tuned to E. I found that with high-gain, .010s sound better than .011s. You get a full-range sound: a big bottom and a nice high-end. With .011s, you get mostly mids. The guitar doesn’t sound as massive, because you miss that low-end. I still keep a guitar tuned to Eb with .011s, because it is really good for the Stevie Ray, barely broken-up, clean blues sound.

What were the sci-fi sounds in the background on the title tune?

That was pure luck. I tried the Xotic Robotalk, because I thought an envelope filter effect would work, but it didn’t. While I was trying it out, I noticed a Mexican radio station coming through the pedal. I put a distortion pedal in front of it, turned up the gain on the amp, and then set the tempo of the Robotalk pedal to the tempo of the song. The luck part was, it started out in one key, modulated to the key of the song by itself, and then the song started. I didn’t do that—it just happened.

Do you have any tips for complex chords with distortion?

I’m still playing through my Xotic RC Booster pedal when I play chords. All I’m doing is turning my guitar down to about five or six. One trick is using a really short cable—no more than four and a half feet—going to the pedal. That way when you turn the guitar down you don’t lose any high end. If you use a long cable, you need one of those “treble bleed” systems across the volume pot. I think that sounds tinny and weird. I use a very short cable and turn the guitar down. It sounds more musical.

How did you get the sitar sounds on “Manic Carpet”?

That’s a Jerry Jones Master Sitar. It’s got six regular strings and a bunch of harp [sympathetic] strings. The harp strings tune with a little lug wrench and if you barely move the wrench, the pitch goes up a whole step. They’re not easy to intonate with the other six strings either. It took hours to tune them from an E alt down to an Amaj7, so when I went from top to bottom it morphed those two chords together. On that track, it’s just the guitar straight into the Fender Bandmaster with no pedal.

On “Festival of Ghosts,” it sounds like there are synth pads.

There are no synthesizers of any kind on the record. Those pads are delays with the volume pedal. You take ten to a dozen random delay taps and you roll up the volume with the pedal.

What delay do you use?

I used Waves plugins for overdubs, but I can do that live. It’s a patch on my Boss SE-70.

Which pedal were you using for the subtle fuzz on “Calhoun”?

For the beginning, I used the RC Booster. For the solos, I used an interesting 12AX72 tube boost pedal Richard DeJohn gave me in Holland, called an R1. It offers a bit more low mids than an RC Booster and a little fatter sound. It doesn’t work for everything, but it worked perfectly for that solo.

You seem to be using a lot of fuzz these days, over distortion. Do you have any tips for getting good tone with fuzz?

They’re all so different. I use the Analogman’s Sunface sometimes. If you dial the distortion and the pedal volume all the way up and use your guitar volume to adjust the gain, you get better results.

The solo on “Festival of Ghosts” is the Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. It reacts wildly to the way you adjust your volume knob. If you have a high-note going and you turn down the volume, you get lower octaves coming in. You can oscillate those octaves by turning the volume knob on your guitar. That is a very melodic solo through pretty chord changes, yet I’m using this pedal that sounds like Satan.

What is the distortion tone on “The Covered Head”?

It’s a Trombetta Rotobone. One great thing about that pedal is, when you pick medium hard, it sounds like a nice distortion pedal. But when you pick harder, a weird modulation happens—it’s meant to sound like a trombone. A lot of the really cool delay effects on that tune come from the Sound-toys EchoBoy plugin.

What are you using live these days?

My main distortion pedal is the Maxon SD-9. It is one of the few distortion pedals that sounds as good on the neck pickup as it does on the bridge pickup. Plenty of pedals are great for the bridge pickup, but as soon as you put it on the rhythm pickup they’re muddy. The pedals I found that work well with both the neck and treble pickup are the Klon Centaur and the Maxon SD-9. I used the Klon more on this album because I used the SD-9 so much on the past two albums.

You’re entering your fourth decade of playing. What do you see for your future?

I just want to do what I’m doing, but make more money at it. I’m very satisfied with the direction of the music. I have nothing against keyboard players, but I don’t ever want to work with one again. I spent a good part of my career either being bossed around or ignored by keyboard players and I do not want to continue on that path. Playing trio is more fun.