Scott Henderson on How He Keeps the Fun in Fusion

Fusion veteran Scott Henderson discusses his new album, 'People Mover,' and offers some picking and whammy bar tips.
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You need only to check out the music of Scott Henderson to recall why the guitar style known as fusion was so exciting at its inception, back when it was a fresh stew of raw rock and jazz sophistication. Over three decades and almost two dozen recordings, Henderson’s work has preserved all that made fusion great - the sounds, the energy, the harmonic and rhythmic interest - while never descending into the smooth jazz or pointless pyrotechnics that sometimes gave the genre a bad name.

With 2015’s Vibe Station, Henderson shifted toward the more complex music he created with the band Tribal Tech. On his new album, People Mover (CD Baby), the guitarist continues in that vein while creating a different texture, thanks in part to his trio’s new rhythm section of bassist Romain Labaye and drummer Archibald Ligonnière. 

“The feel on People Mover is lighter, because Romain and Archibald have a bit more jazz vocabulary than [Vibe Station’s] Travis [Carlton] and Alan [Hertz],” he says. “Also, Romain is playing a four-string bass, whereas Travis played a five-string, so there are fewer low frequencies in the music.”

As with Vibe Station, the guitarist was unhappy with his guitar sound while tracking with his trio. “I don’t know if there’s a studio in L.A. where you can crank a 100-watt Marshall and not have it bleed all over the drum mics,” he explains. 

“On Vibe Station, I had the amp four rooms away and could still hear it. I ended up having to turn it down to where the tubes stop working hard, so it sounded anemic. This time, I used the Suhr Reactive Load box and some Celestion IRs, so I could turn it up. I thought it sounded pretty good, but when I got home and compared it to the tone I get with my actual Kerry Wright 4x12, I decided to redo the guitars. It may be that my room is tuned to a sound I’m used to. Anything else sounds broken to me.”

When redoing his guitar, it was important to Henderson to retain the rhythmic interplay with the bass and drums, who were responding to him on the track. Matching long, complex solos would seem to be a monumental job, but the guitarist remained unruffled.

“Our goal as jazz musicians is to always play new stuff,” he says. “There are moments where you stumble on something you’ve never played before, but most of the time it’s a reorganization of the vocabulary rather than a brand-new one. When I play a set of changes on tour, I discover the best leading notes between those chords and often play similar things, so it’s not that big of a deal for me to listen to a solo and do that again with better tone. I do it a few phrases at a time, and even a whole chorus sometimes.”

The problematically loud Marshall is his ’71 Plexi. Henderson also used a ’64 Fender Bandmaster. In the studio, the pedals included either the single-channel Xotic RC Booster or the newer two-channel version. “I also used a Klon clone made by Parts Pipe,” he says. “To my ears, it sounds better than my original. Also on this record, I rediscovered the Roger Mayer Voodoo-1 fuzz into the Fender Bandmaster. I haven’t used that combination since [1997’s] Tore Down House.

Henderson uses modulation, delay and reverbs for the synth-like swells that cushion “Primary Location” and “Transatlantic.” He tends to add these tones to the tracks later, using the Soundtoys plug-in suite. “They come with hundreds of presets,” he says of the effects. “It’s like buying thousands of pedals. Their EchoBoy is my go-to echo. If you want crazy effects, you can send a dummy guitar track to feed their PhaseMistress plug-in, set it to 100 percent wet and only record that. The sample-and-hold sound on ‘People Mover’ was me just playing some rhythmic nonsense into the plug-in.”

Not all the pads are from plug-ins. “Happy Fun Sing” features an Electro-Harmonix C9 organ pedal. “You never know when it’s going to glitch out and sound absolutely nothing like an organ,” Henderson says. “But that’s the fun of it.” Other effects, like an envelope filter or wah, are an integral part of the performance and must go down in the initial recording or overdub. 

“For ‘Primary Location,’ the first solo was with an envelope filter, the Emma DiscomBOBulator,” Henderson explains. “I used my Chase Tone Script Wah for the second solo. Sometimes when you put a wah after a distortion pedal you lose the sweep, but this one works well there.” Henderson maintains the grit in his tone by keeping his amps set “permanently on crunch.” “When playing chords with a totally clean sound, you usually need a compressor to help with sustain and evenness,” he explains. “When the amp is mildly distorted, it’s doing the compression for you instead.”

People Mover was largely recorded with Suhr S-type guitars sporting Suhr pickups: either the hotter-wound Mike Landau models or the vintage-sounding V60s. But for “Satellite,” Henderson rented a new D’Angelico archtop and paired it with the Bandmaster and an RC booster. “Sometimes the bass on a hollowbody can be out of control,” he says. “If you run it through a boost pedal with the gain turned off, it only tightens the bass and thickens the high notes.”

“Satellite” features the guitarist playing through changes with a harmonic approach derived more from Wayne Shorter than Barney Kessel. “With bebop players, everything is chromatic,” he says. “I want to be able to play from C to D without putting a C# in there. I’m into melodies and trying to tell a story, rather than playing licks.”

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Back on the Suhr for “Blue Heron Boulevard,” Henderson’s tone is on the lower-gain side of grit. “That’s the one-channel RC booster through the Marshall,” he reveals. “The difference is I’m using my Suhr’s neck pickup, whereas for most of the record I’m using the bridge pickup.” 

“Syringe” swings the other way with a Fulltone Octafuzz sound. “That’s been my go-to Octavia style pedal for years, because it’s less bright than the Tycobrahe type,” he says. Another fuzz employed is the Paul Trombetta Design Rotobone. “If you turn your guitar down to about seven or eight, it sounds like a very good distortion or overdrive pedal,” Henderson explains. “But when you crank it up and hit the strings hard, it goes into an exploding type of sound.”

Larivée acoustics, including a 12-string, make appearances on the record as well. The six-string has a direct-recorded pickup panned right, while a mic placed near its neck is panned left. The 12-string is usually miked with a Neumann U 87 or another vocal mic.

Henderson’s current live rig consists of a Suhr SH100 head that clones his favorite Marshall, and a modest pedalboard sporting an Xotic RC booster, Ibanez SD9, Octafuzz, Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, Arion chorus and his wah. The Marshall sends one signal to the cabinet speakers, while another exits its extension speaker jack into a John Suhr ISO Line Out box. That signal goes to his trusty Boss SE-70 multi-effects, and then 100 percent wet into a Fender Deluxe. 

The 20-watt Deluxe may seem a mismatch for the 100-watt Suhr, but such is not the case. “You don’t need a big amp for reverb and delay because it is a small part of the sound,” Henderson explains. “I only turn the Deluxe up to three or four. It’s like using a mixer. The main amp works so much better when the effects loop isn’t loaded down, and the pickups communicate better with the cabinet speakers when there’s no delay and reverb running through them.”

Henderson is known for a level of vibrato-arm expressiveness surpassed only by Jeff Beck, so it comes as no surprise that he has tips for whammy bar wigglers. “The D’Addario EXL .010s I use have soldered ball ends, so the strings don’t break,” he says. “One of the best things you can do is make the holes that hold the bridge plate to the guitar one drill bit size bigger. You need some play so the bridge doesn’t get hung up.

“Another trick is to drive the two end screws in until the bottom of the head barely touches the plate, and drive the other four screws down to about a 16th of an inch from the bridge. That makes it more like a two-post bridge. Also, the more it floats, the better it stays in tune. You lose tone because the guitar sounds best when the bridge is flat against the body, making a better connection, but I’m willing to give up a little tone for the fun of using the bar.”

Henderson also offers a pick trick. “I use the big end of the Fender Heavy pick for a fatter tone that sounds almost like using your fingers,” he says. “If I’m playing slow, I’m more likely playing with my fingers. I only use a pick because I find it makes it easier to swing when playing jazz lines.”

And of course, with a new record comes a new round of touring. “I’ve got a lot of gigs lined up, which is great for the promotion of this CD,” Henderson notes. “And because I love to play.”

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