Jimmy Herring has an amazing career that includes performances with The Dead and Widespread Panic. He is currently on tour with a solo project and plays Variety Playhouse Saturday September 22.
Interview by Russell Eldridge
When I was told I could interview Jimmy Herring, flashes of clinics and classes at the Atlanta Institute of Music went off in my head. Herring is greatly admired and respected by the faculty and the students at A.I.M. and I was truly excited to pick the brain of an amazing guitarist. As suspected, his interview was very informative and friendly. To date, talking with Herring has been the most in-depth interview I have done, musically. The main goal of Target Audience Magazine is to be a resource for all independent artists. This interview should inspire and inform all artists, especially guitar players.
I attended the Atlanta Institute of Music a while back, and, during one of the classes you taught, you said something that has been bugging me since. You were talking about blues and playing out of your butt. When I am teaching my guitar students about the blues I’ll tell them “Jimmy Herring said something about playing out of your butt. I don’t know what that means, but one day I’ll find out.”
Well, you know man, I was just kidding around, but that expression comes from Bruce Hampton. Bruce is an Atlanta icon and I started playing with him in ’89, a little bit of ’88. In ’89 I was in a band with him and Jeff Sipe, Oteil, Matt Mundy and Jeff Mosier and all these other Atlanta fixtures.
Basically, Bruce wanted to hear your butt not your brain. So basically, it’s just a metaphor for playing with something else besides your brain. I think what he was talking about was not necessarily your heart. You heart comes into it, but it’s just another little metaphor for playing with soul. It comes from living in the trenches and it comes from what you listen to. If you listen to nice clean showered blues all the time, in his opinion, you’re not going to play from your ass. You’ll play from your brain or from books. You know what I mean. It’s the opposite of playing from books. I think the only way you’re ever going to reach that point is you’re going to have to live in the trenches. Sleep on some floors. Sleep in the Van. You gotta listen to a lot of Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Skip James, Otis Rush, B.B. King, Freddie King and Albert King. The point being: you’re not going to get it listening to new stuff. You have to go back to the beginning with Delta blues, then Chicago blues and the transition they made when they went from the Delta to Chicago. I think that is basically what he’s talking about.
I mean Oteil, Jeff Mosier, those kind of guys can explain it a lot better than I can. They really understand it on every level. To me, it was just funny and it was just another way of pointing out that there has got to be something else more than your brain involved. You kind of have to live it. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to be poor or have to pick cotton in a cotton field, but that would help. Bruce just kind of showed us a whole other way of looking at things and it was really good for us. It was like going through another school.
I went to G.I.T. and studied harmony and theory and all kinds of things that are unrelated to Bruce’s kick, but going through his band was like going through another school. It was really the yin and yang of the academic part of school. I think both of them are equally important.
One of the first things A.I.M. taught me was adding the major third to the blues scale over the I chord in a major 12 bar blues. I do the same thing for the IV Chord, but when I asked about it, you said you hated it. Why?
I don’t hate that sound, but I may have been trying to make a point. You don’t want to play the D blues scale when you go to the IV chord like if you’re in A because it’s really parallel sounding. If you listen to the greatest blues players in the world, they never do that. When they play the IV chord they still play the same scale, but sometimes they’ll change the flat 7 of A down a half step and, what that does is, it makes it the 3rd of the IV chord. So, basically, you’re looking at changing one note, but what that does is changes it to the dominant pentatonic scale on the IV chord. You can still stay in the same box, but now you change all G’s to F#, and what that does is it turns it to a D dominant pentatonic from the IV chord.
That’s what I was talking about. I wasn’t talking about playing the D blues scale. I was talking about adding F# to the A blues scale while over the IV chord.
Yeah, but you want to take the G out. If you don’t, then you end up playing like a diatonic sounding scale and that’s more notes than you really need. The 3rd is a key tone of the chord and what I am talking about is still abiding by the scale. Literally, all you’re doing is changing that one note. So, if you’re in A, the G note is the flat 7 of the blues scale. Then, when you hit that IV chord you can just drop that G down to F# replacing the G with the F#. So, now the scale would be A, C, D, and E except for now instead of G you would have F#. Of course, D would be the root of the chord and, if you thought of it from D, you would have D, E, F#, A and then C. What that does is it changes two key notes. You know how you were putting the major 3rd as well as the minor 3rd on the I chord?
Well, when you hit the IV chord you’re not going to play major 3rd of A which would be a C#. You would just play the C natural. When the IV chord comes you don’t play the C#. That’s one change. Then, you replace G with F#. That’s another change.
In jazz blues you hear guys playing lines with what we were just talking about, but in gut-bucket blues you don’t hear those guys doing that kind of stuff. That must have been what I was talking about. We all change. We have different things happen in our lives. We’re into something then we’re into something else.
If I said I hated that, I shouldn’t have said that. I was talking to Derek [Trucks] about it and he can’t stand to hear people telegraph the IV chord, he never does that. He knows how to play over the IV chord without changing that note down a half step, but he knows how to make it work.
I’m the kind of player where before I forget something I want to know what it is before I forget it and never think about it again. For me, I like to be able to spell out the chords with lines that I am playing. That’s what I am searching to be able to do. Saxophone players might consider that elementary because when they learn to play changes they don’t play chords, so they’re very in depth at spelling chords with arpeggiated ideas.
Scales can have a melodic approach. When you hear a saxophone player, you can take the chords away and you still can hear what they’re playing, and that’s what I’m really into. Of course, eventually, that will probably change if you keep learning and changing and trying new things.
In the gut bucket blues I still do that a lot. I still do what we’re talking about by changing the flat seven down a half step when going to the IV chord. It’s a very common move. People like Robben Ford are masters of it. It’s just a dominant pentatonic which works great on the IV chord, but, on the V, I wouldn’t use it because it would have that parallel sound.
Well, on the V chord there are two notes that aren’t in the blues scale. Would you take another two and replace them with the two that are missing?
Well, I don’t think of it like that. There might have been a point where I thought of it, but that’s another one those things that we were just talking about. Playing from your ass. If you listen to Son House or Hubert Sumlin that played with Howlin’ Wolf or if you listen to Wayne Bennett that played with Bobby Blue Bland or listen to Muddy… listen to how Muddy played over the V Chord. That’s what I would say. That’s what I try to do. I just listen to my heroes and how they approach playing over the V chord and it’s crazy how much information and music and come from those three chords.
It’s truly astounding all the different approaches people have come up with playing over simple blues, but see that’s part of the reason why it’s hard to lie when you’re doing it. People are exposed and they’re naked when they’re playing the blues because there’s so little to work with. You don’t have a lot to lean on.
If you have a lot of changes and you finally become adept at playing over them, you have more to lean on. You have more melodic information that you can use. On a blues, you don’t have a lot of information that you can you use. Isn’t it crazy how you can take the same three chords and you hear B.B.’s approach and then you might hear Buddy Guy’s approach or Albert King’s approach? They’re all so different. As far as playing the V chord, it’s a little more elusive to me. I would listen to those guys. That’s the way I would approach it.
You mentioned saxophone players and how they play changes. I am still trying to get to the point where someone could throw any progression at me and I would be able to make the changes. It’s still difficult for me. What would you suggest for someone to do to learn how to play the change so no matter what chords are thrown out there you can still catch it?
I would say that’s hard for me too. I would say that’s a life study. I am not any good at playing traditional jazz. I certainly would never say that’s what I do. I believe that’s a lifestyle. If you ever going to be good at it, you have to freaking live it. The older I get the more I am drawn to simple music, but coming from rock and roll in the beginning.
Jazz was something that I found out about later. You can hear it when you a guy who picked up the instrument because of jazz. It’s a lifestyle and these people are living it, but there is so much Hendrix and Jimmy Page in my subconscious, and of course blues.
Blues was a natural thing for me to be attracted to because of the rock I listened to was all based off the blues, so basically I was hearing second generation blues where the British guys took the formulas of the guys they were listening to from Chicago and also from The Delta.
I would say that’s a lifetime study to be able to play great over any changes you see coming your way. There’s also a big transition from seeing the changes with your eyes on a piece of paper and then playing things that you worked on over those types of chords, because that’s not true improvising in my view.
I think that true improvising is when you just play by ear. You just go and start playing. I can’t say I can do what I was just telling you about. I think it takes a lifetime of dedication. I even got tunes in our catalog that were playing that I still work on and I’m still thinking about the changes.
Then, really on a good night, you’re not thinking about it, but if you come with repeated focus on these type of things there will come a day where you are not thinking about it anymore and because you worked on it so much it will start to become your nature. It will become subconscious and you’ll be able to get out of the way and let the music play you instead of you trying to play the music. That’s where I want to be. You can’t always be there, but you can try.
I think Charlie Parker said “Learn everything then forget it.”
I think what he meant by that is learn as many songs as you can. Learn the melodies that go over the changes because the melodies are going to give you sort of a path to follow when you’re improvising. Some people have gotten so good they can superimpose all these other ideas against that set of chords that the melodies based on, but, in their head, they’re probably still hearing that melody being the guiding light. I think that’s a good approach because the melody is king. I continue to work on it myself and it’s never going to stop. You’re going to be eighty and going ah man how do I deal with these changes.
The people that I admire the most just have that stuff so hard-wired it’s like second nature to them. Like Bill Evans, great saxophone player. He played with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin and among many others. The changes, for him, is what he grew up doing and it’s the easiest thing for him. What he wants to do it play out on one chord so you can do anything you want.
You can play a cycle of changes on one chord, which we all know that Coltrane was doing that later on in his career. There was a lot of people doing it. You can get a wealth of ideas from Michael Brecker. He’s a great one to listen to because he took a lot of Coltrane ideas and mixed them with his own fresh ideas. He did a lot of cool stuff and if you want to know someone to check out on static chord progressions where there’s just one chord and here some amazing playing that might sound out other times, but one of things he’s doing is he’s playing changes that aren’t there. That’s a cool approach too.
You learn these formulas for playing maybe for a certain set of changes, but you’re playing it against a static bass note and a static chord that gives it a completely different sound than if the bass was following the changes. If you practice improvising enough you’ll start to find your own voice with that kind of stuff. Brecker did some amazing stuff. Obviously Coltrane, then there’s Johnny Griffin. Bill Evans is one of the guys that we still have here where can pick his brain. Bill played on a couple of tunes on this album and he’s just amazing. He’s a guy that I really want to play more with.
I hear a lot of ideas like taking melodic minor and playing it up a half step. Are there any tricks you like where if you just move these scale it has a really cool sound?
I think, at some point, when you find out about these things it’s going to be your brain that’s going to go “okay I’m on the five chord and it’s altered so I am going to move up a half step and play melodic minor,” which is really what they call the altered scale, which is a mode of the melodic minor scale. Just like any other scale, the melodic minor scale has modes. I think those type of approaches where you use a scale and go up a 5th or up a minor 3rd or a up a half step or whatever it might be they’re very useful for us guitar players because we can see shapes on the neck. To move it down a half step you simply move down a half step. It’s easy on guitar in some ways to think of things like that.
However, there are other things on the guitar that are more difficult. Site reading and things like that. There are many more things that make the guitar harder than certain instruments, but I think it’s a good thing to have that kind of flexibility. It’s also good to base the scale off the root of the chord and figure out what it is. Blues scales are very useful because they can be moved around scale degrees of any given chord and you can use them in that way. It’s quick and it’s simple and it’s something that we can all relate to because most of us learn the blues scale first.
If you know how to move that around different types of chords that can be really useful to you. I would say there are many ways. Like if you’re playing a major 7 you can play a blues scale from the third of the chord. So, if you’re play G Major 7 you play B blues. If you want to create a Lydian type of sound you can move back a half step from a major 7 chord. So, if you had a G Major 7 and you wanted to have Lydian type sounds without playing the entire scale, you can move back a half step and play F# blues against a G Major 7. That will give you chord tones from the chord and it adds the sharp 4 which gives it that Major 7 sharp 11 type of sound. With minor 7 chords you can use it on the root, which everyone knows, but you can move up a whole step which will give you a minor 13 like if you were to add the 6th or the 13 up an octave. So, that’s a cool sound. Then you can go up a 5th and get a minor 9 sound.
So, there’s three blues you can use against that one minor 7 chord. With altered dominants, you can go up a minor third and play the blues and it will give you that John Scofield approach. If you’re playing C7 altered and you play the Eb blues it will give you those altered chord tones from that chord. It’s just another approach. You can also move up a half step and play melodic minor. If you start to run out of ideas using that approach try using a blues scale up a minor 3rd. I use these ideas sometimes.
I also like to know what the chord tones are. I know if I go down a half step from a major 7 chord and play a minor pentatonic scale, I am going to get the 7th the 9th the 3rd the Sharp 4 and the 6th or 13. I know that because there was a time I thought about that, but eventually you wanna forget about all that stuff like Bird said.
You’ve been playing for a long time. Have you ever dealt with any hand injuries like tendonitis and carpel tunnel?
Yeah, I am still dealing with that. I think anybody who plays a lot and plays long enough, at some point, is going to feel it. I’ve never gone to a real doctor about it and it’s never been so bad that I couldn’t play my gig. Right now, I’m using an elbow brace. I don’t really know why. I can put the elbow brace on and it just firms up or squeezes the tendons in the elbow and it helps me.
This is when it really began for me with the problems: I started using tremolo, and what happens when you set the tremelo where it’s loose–like Jeff Beck might use it, of course I don’t go that loose, but what it does is it makes bending notes a lot harder because every time you bend a note the tremelo gives a little bit.
Let’s say you bend a D note at the 15th fret on the second string. If you want to bend that note a whole step up to an E, you’re going to have to push that note farther than you would if you were playing a Telecaster because a Telecaster has a hard tail and it doesn’t have a tremelo on it. When you bend that note the tremelo is going to give, so you have to push it a little farther. If you’re in to doing minor 3rd bends and Major 3rd bends like I like to do, playing with the tremelo you’re fighting it the whole time. The tradeoff is you vibrato the notes on both sides of the pitch and that’s one of the things that drew me to the tremelo.
You know, you can hit a note dead-on like the B note at the 12th fret on the second string? When you hit that note and vibrato it, you’re only going above that note and back to the pitch. You can’t go below the pitch like a singer’s vibrato, unless you bend it a half or whole step below the B. Then, you can vibrato on both sides of the pitch. You can bend to the note from any note below the pitch and vibrato the note on both side, but there are times when you want to hit the note dead-on and vibrato it on both sides of the pitch, and the bar is real useful for that. It’s also used for many other things, but if you like to bend notes, which I can’t stop doing and the bar makes it so you don’t have to bend as much.
If you really get into using the bar and you learn how to do bend with it, then you won’t have to do the bends like the old blues men did. I don’t want to use that, so I am trying to find a middle with setting the tension on the twang bar system where it’s not so loose that I can’t bend notes. In the process, while looking for that magic spot, I kind of hurt myself by bending notes all night even though I am fighting it all night long.
Long scale guitars like Fenders are harder to play. You have to work a little harder to play a Fender because it’s got a half inch longer neck than say a Paul Reed Smith and it’s like an inch and a quarter longer than a Gibson SG or Les Paul. What that does is it makes the string tension tighter and in some ways I think it’s a little more articulate because of that.
For me, it speaks a little more crispy than say a Gibson because of the longer scale length, but the price you pay is when you push a D to an E you have to bend the string farther than you would on a Gibson because the Gibson has a shorter neck and the frets are closer together too, which makes it easier to bend notes on.
There are other things that make the shorter length more difficult. Since the frets are close together I have a hard navigating when I am playing higher on the neck of shorter length guitar. With a Fender, the frets are farther apart. You have the same amount of frets, but a longer neck. So, frets are farther apart on a Fender than say a Gibson or a PRS. It’s taken me years to discover this, but the subtle differences in scale length make a huge deal and I didn’t realize it growing up what that was all about: things like neck radius, finger board radius, the size fret wire you use and the scale length all have a big impact on me as a player.
I’ve kind settled on flat necks that are at least 12 inches, a lot like a Gibson, and I have been experimenting with much flatter necks with a 16-inch radius and even a 20-inch radius on some of these Fender necks. I really like the really big fret wire. A 25 and a half-inch scale and it really helps. It’s made me a better musician I think because I can play it better.
Be sure to head out tomorrow night to Variety Playhouse to see Jimmy Herring live!