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Talkin' Blues

Talkin' Blues with Jimmy Herring

Talkin' Blues with Jimmy Herring
By Published: December 27, 2011
Jimmy Herring is a musician who blurs lines, both in terms of genres and roles. Over the past two decades his work with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Gov't Mule, The Allman Brothers Band
Allman Brothers Band
Allman Brothers Band

band/orchestra
, Frogwings, Phil Lesh & Friends, Project Z, Jazz is Dead, and Widespread Panic has cemented his position as one of the world's premier progressive rock guitarists. He has the uncanny ability to fuse the visceral power of rock with the ingenuity of jazz harmonics without diminishing the essence of either.

He's apt to describe himself as a sideman, yet in reality he's a consummate soloist with dazzling skills who adds star power to any stage or recording on which he appears. His talent is only surpassed by his extraordinary modesty and humility; to speak with Jimmy Herring is to discover that he is refreshingly unaware that his playing elicits the same level of admiration in legions of fans, as players like John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
b.1951
guitar
and Allan Holdsworth
Allan Holdsworth
Allan Holdsworth
b.1948
guitar
evoke in him.

Although he gave an extensive interview to All About Jazz in late 2008, which I highly recommend, given his wide-ranging musical tastes there was no shortage topics for this interview. In fact, his insights into Telecaster chicken-pickers provided me with hours of fun on YouTube—do yourself a favor and check out some of the links.

All About Jazz: Since you've been working so hard this year, I'm curious, what's the longest you've ever gone without playing guitar?

Jimmy Herring: I'm even embarrassed to say this, but when I got back from this last tour there was almost a two week period when I didn't pick it up, and that hasn't happened for a very long time. There was a lot going on, I was going back and forth to visit family in North Carolina and then Thanksgiving, and we had birthdays in the family, and then a family member had to go into the hospital —thankfully everything is fine. But that's the longest, [laughing] and I'm not proud of it.

I'm trying to make up for it this week by playing long hours every day. You know Warren Haynes has this Christmas Jam every year and that's coming up. He invites people from all over, so I'm going to take part and this year he's got Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
and Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
b.1958
banjo
. I've always had Bela and Bill up on a big pedestal, so I'm terrified, but they are really cool and we've been emailing back and forth about the songs and stuff. They're great.

Jeff Sipe will be playing drums, with Neil Fountain on bass; they're scary, too, but at least I know them well.

AAJ: It's been a few years since the release of Lifeboat (Abstract Logix, 2008). Over the past two decades you've been in bands and toured as a hired gun for several bands, how are you getting into the role of Jimmy Herring, solo artist?

JH: Well I would get into it more, if I would just embrace it. I really battle with that whole thing, because I really have always been a sideman and I kind of prefer that. There's so much pressure that comes with being a band leader. When your name is on it, it just changes things. Everybody comes to you and there's just a lot of responsibility. The truth is, I'm really blessed because the phone keeps ringing and I'm offered projects and every one of them seems to be something I really want to do. But that's the dilemma, if I do all of them, I'll never do anything of my own. So Lifeboat has been out a few years and I still haven't found the time to write enough material for a new record.

AAJ: So, we shouldn't be expecting another album in 2012?

JH: Yes, because I'm hoping to do that. Normally, Widespread Panic doesn't play in January and February and that's the perfect time to write; you know it's cold outside, so it's a good time to be inside working on stuff. But this year I've got stuff to do and I won't be free until February 20th, and I was hoping to be recording by then. After that I've got some stuff to do with Phil Lesh, but it's not touring, it's just this one venue he's got up near San Francisco. I love him, he's a great guy and he's been a good friend for a long time, so I'm excited about playing with him again.

Then the next thing you know it's March, then April and then there's this offer to do something in June with some people I really respect. So I'm thinking, when am I going to be able to do this?

AAJ: Yeah that reminds me of how Louie Shelton, the great session guitarist from the L.A. Wrecking Crew, described sticking with session work instead of pursuing a solo career. The money's good, you sleep in our own bed at night, you're playing with great musicians and working with lots of interesting people, and you don't have the stress of maintaining a solo career.

JH: That's true, but it's a whole other animal. I know some guys who do session work, and you need to be able to handle anything that comes your way, and read really well.

AAJ: Well, I hope if you do tour again for a solo project you think about doing what Susan [Tedeschi] and Derek [Trucks] did last month with that concert on iclips. That's great, fans from around the world have a chance to catch you in concert.

JH: Derek's younger brother is actually here at the house right now, and he was telling me about that. I haven't seen it yet, but I'd love to. You know, that's something I've been thinking about, I'd really love to tour Europe, Australia and Japan. The problem is that it is really expensive to take your equipment over there. And I've heard horror stories about musicians going without their own equipment, and showing up at a gig where the equipment was provided, but then it doesn't work. What would be a nightmare and I'm terrified of that happening.

I'm going to be fifty in January and I'm at that point in life, where if I can't do it right, I just don't want to do it. I know that it is important to do it, and I want to do, and I want to see the rest of the world and play there. But I don't think I'm ready yet, I don't think I have enough music yet to do it right. So I've still got some things to work out, but it's going to happen. Souvik Dutta, from Abstract Logix, keeps telling me I've got to do this, and he's right, I know I need to do this.

What I need is a three to five month period when I can put my energy into getting ready for something like that. Writing music, doing another record, and assembling enough songs so I feel like I can go on the road for a month in another country without getting bored playing the same ten songs every night. And I don't want to do all covers either. I've gotten into that before.

On my last record there was a lot of orchestration and a lot of people playing: flutes, saxophones, keyboards and overdubs that were a part of the orchestration. So without that part of the picture those songs just don't come off the same. So with a four piece band you really can't pull off some of that stuff, yeah you can do it, but it sounds half empty.

AAJ: Right, like the "Jungle Book Overture."

JH: We did that a couple of times as a four piece band and I just didn't think it came off very well. So that's the secret, write some music that can come off as a four-piece band. So that's what it's about right now, trying to write for that situation.

As I was doing that record I wasn't even thinking about trying to recreate that stuff live. So what we went out there with, was really only about half of what we could do live.

AAJ: Yet it is nice to have a studio album like that. There was a time when people were hesitant to take advantage of the studio and do overdubs. I thought you used the studio very creatively for that album and made some great music.

JH: Thank you very much. I feel the same way. All the years I've been doing this, most everything has been live, and as a result I never got to try some of the things I wanted to do with overdubs. So when Souvik allowed me to make the record I wanted to make, I thought of the studio itself an instrument, and I wanted to see what it was capable of and not worry about doing it live.

And of course I could recreate it if I could add a few more people to the band. But to tour with even two more people in the band would be nearly impossible because of the cost of everything. I have to be ready to sacrifice, and I did do that when we toured as a five-piece band with Greg Osby
Greg Osby
Greg Osby
b.1960
saxophone
. And I was glad to have him there, but when we went to the West Coast we had to have a bus. And Souvik had warned me, but I thought the music was more important to me right now than the money. I just wanted it to come off the way I wanted to hear it. In the end I learned that Souvik was right, there wasn't enough money.

You know, even as a four piece I can't afford to tour the way I want to tour. I want to have a Hammond B3 organ. You know, touring with a B3 is a whole new situation, it's so big and heavy. You've got to have enough space to carry that thing, and it's expensive.

AAJ: Especially if you're flying around with it.

JH: Yeah, flying around with it isn't even an option unless people have really deep pockets. The only option would be to rent it, and then you never know what you're going to get.

And with a B3 you've got to bring someone along who can fix it if it breaks, and that person gets paid a lot of money.

AAJ: And that's the sticker, that sound; you can't replace it.

JH: That right, you can't, and that's hung me up for quite a while. That's kept me from touring because I need that, you know that sound, it's "earth"—a fake B3 sound just doesn't cut it, it's not earthy enough. And I know plenty of great players, so that's not the issue; the issue is being able to tour with that big thing. It's so frustrating.

AAJ: You were born in '62 and had two older brothers, so you must have become conscious of music right around the summer of love in 1967—The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
' Sgt. Pepper's (Parlaphone), Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, the Young Rascals, the Spencer Davis Group, and of course all the hits from Stax and Motown. What are some of your first and most intense childhood memories of music, I mean very early, what grabbed you?



JH: That's easy because I had two older brothers, one seven years and the other four years older, and luckily for me they were into some really great music. So I can remember being very young, and it was Hendrix, Santana, and the Allman Brothers in my early childhood, those three things. My brother was always playing Hendrix and the Allman Brothers. And then Santana's Abraxas (Columbia, 1970) album, it had that incredible percussion section, just amazing. So those would have been the earliest ones that really grabbed me, things that I wanted to hear again and again.

And that will lead you to other interesting music, and luckily for me my brothers had lots of stuff. My oldest brother wasn't a musician, but he was really a good listener. He had things like Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra
b.1971
band/orchestra
and Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
. I was really young and some of that music didn't grab me right away, but I was exposed to it. Of course the power of Hendrix was enthralling. He also had lots of instrumental music and things like Sly and the Family Stone. It was great because that stuff was always playing at the house.

Then the middle brother was into Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The Beatles, and the Who were also in big rotation, and other British bands, and they were playing some amazing stuff.

AAJ: I saw a clip of you on YouTube and you were playing this great version of George Harrison's "Within You and Without You." So that made me wonder if you remember Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, from when you were a little kid? You know, like "A Day in the Life" when the orchestra starts climbing and that big crescendo?

JH: Oh yeah, that was incredible! I remember that as a young kid and I loved it, but Sgt. Pepper's didn't fully grab me until I got to about the seventh grade—then I really got it. "Within You and Without You" was one of my favorite tunes on the record, obviously very different from the other music. Later in life I realized people like Akbar Ali Khan and Ravi Shankar were involved—it was fascinating to hear them play in that setting.

AAJ: Did you happen to see that new Martin Scorsese documentary about George Harrison?

JH: Yes! I saw it on the tour bus, it was fascinating. I actually watched it twice all the way through. On the bus they had a satellite setup. It was in two parts, so it was long, and it was an easy way to spend a long time. I'm fascinated with George Harrison and have been for years. You know, he was so far past the instrument, and really the music was more important than the instrument, and I loved that about him. The way he brought those other cats from India into the music; that just knocked me out.

AAJ: Even though they weren't really a guitar band, when you think about it, they did some pretty cool guitar things. Take the opening chord on "A Hard Days Night" and the feedback on "I Feel Fine." It's indelible, you heard those first two seconds and you know it. That's not as easy as it might seem.

JH: It's really not, and they pioneered so much. You know their music is intelligent; you can go back and pick out a song every week. It's pop music, but for some reason it's got a lot of depth.

I miss those days, you know some much of the popular music was actually good music, you could hear great stuff on the radio back then. When I was a kid, most people I knew liked the same music. Of course once I started getting into instrumental music some of my friends didn't get it, but for the most part, most of the rock and roll of the time was just great.

AAJ: Scofield covered the Beatles "I Will" on his latest, A Moment's Peace (EmArcy, 2011.) It's funny, I can hardly think of "And Your Bird Can Sing," without imagining you and Scofield having fun with the harmonies on that.

JH: Oh man, he's always been one of my favorites, ever since I heard Marc Johnson's Bass Desires (ECM, 1985), and also the Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
b.1944
drums
George Duke
George Duke
George Duke
1946 - 2013
piano
Band with Alphonso Johnson
Alphonso Johnson
Alphonso Johnson
b.1951
bass
—I was just immediately blown away, and then that whole string of albums he did in the 80s, where he had a different band every year. His music just kept evolving and evolving, and his music was just so infectious to me.

I had to stop listening to him, because you know how it is, you'll end up sounding like other guitar players. Of course I know that's already there with me anyway; even without picking apart what Scofield was doing, some of it leaks into your playing anyway. I don't think it's unhealthy, I think it's a good thing, I could pick his brain for a year!

I met him one time through Warren Haynes
Warren Haynes
Warren Haynes

guitar
. He came out and played some shows with Govt. Mule and it might have even been a Christmas Jam thing. But I remember standing there talking to him, and he was so personable and warm. And I remember thinking, "I've got to give him some space, because I'd been sitting around talking to him for about thirty minutes and he probably thinks I'm a psycho fan or something, so I need to leave the guy alone for a minute." So there were a few people around talking with him at the same time, so I just took a few steps and slowly walked away. I remember thinking, "It would be really easy to follow him around and shadow him and ask him too many stupid questions." So I walked away from the gathering, and when I turned around, he was right there behind me [laughing].

And he said, "Where are you going!" and I told him, "Nowhere, I was just trying to give you some space." And he says, "What do you mean man, this is a cool hang." He was so cool, but I could never tell him how much his music has really meant to me—and not just a little, but everything he's ever done.

AAJ: And his Piety Street Band stuff is great.

JH: Oh man yeah, that's just incredible. He's just the deepest well and he never runs out of ideas and ways to present what he's doing. He's really inspiring. And the same is true of Allan Holdsworth. When I get around those people I just want to ask them questions all the time.

AAJ: Right, that's the great thing about music lovers, on some level everybody is a fan. You know, there was a time when Miles Davis stood wide-eyed in front of the bandstand looking up at Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
. That's the beauty of it all.

JH: Holy crap yes! And that thing Souvik Dutta put together: Ranjit Barot
Ranjit Barot
Ranjit Barot

drums
, John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
b.1942
guitar
, Wayne Krantz
Wayne Krantz
Wayne Krantz
b.1956
guitar
, Lenny White
Lenny White
Lenny White
b.1949
drums
, Anthony Jackson
Anthony Jackson
Anthony Jackson

bass, electric
, Scott Kinsey
Scott Kinsey
Scott Kinsey

keyboard
and Alex Machacek
Alex Machacek
Alex Machacek

guitar
were there. You know, all these brilliant musicians were in one place at one time, it was just sensory overload. I was so overwhelmed that I almost couldn't speak.

AAJ: It's fascinating how it all seems to tie together. Chuck Leavell told me that he was really surprised when he did some work with country musicians in Nashville, that they grew up listening to the Allman Brothers. I've got a few Brad Paisley CDs and that guy has got some serious guitar skills, he even did a duet with B.B. King.

JH: No doubt about it, he can play. I haven't met him, but I know a lot of people who know him, and I've always thought he was really a good player. I've actually gone on YouTube because I love that twangy country Tele sound. I love those Telemasters like Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan. I went on a Roy Buchanan binge a while back, and I found some things that were just devastating.

AAJ: Did you ever get into some of those early country players like Jimmy Bryant, Neil LeVang, and Buddy Merrill? Like you, those guys were real speed demons.

JH: Absolutely, I love those guys, and they were on a whole other level, Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West—it was just terrifying. That kind of playing is very hard to do, there's not an overdriven sustaining kind of sound where you can get a break. You have to make everything happen, you can't hit a note hold it for two bars and let it feedback. It's all about picking, and those guys have picking techniques that are stupefying.

Anyway, that's what led me to check Brad [Paisley] out, because I got fascinated with the Telecaster, so I started looking at all these Telecats, like Brent Mason from Nashville, he's just an amazing talent. There's Johnny Hiland and guys like that, they just play that chicken pickin' thing so well. Albert Lee, Vince Gil, you know, all those guys, there's no shortage of guys to check out.

AAJ: I was curious about your introduction to the blues. Was it through the Led Zeppelin and British bands, or did your brothers have some authentic hardcore blues too?

JH: My brother had some B.B. King
B.B. King
B.B. King
b.1925
guitar, electric
and Bobby Blue Bland
Bobby Blue Bland
Bobby Blue Bland
1930 - 2013
vocalist
records, so I'd heard Wayne Bennett, B.B. King, and Freddie King and I loved it, but being twelve years old, it didn't grab me like Led Zeppelin did. But that changed later in life. You know, when you like someone and you start tracing back their influences. For example, Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck
b.1944
guitar
, you start tracing his influences and you find out he was into Hubert Sumlin who just died the other day.

He was 80 and just passed, I think it was two days ago. I love B.B. and I love Hubert — he was the sleeper of all time, he's one of my favorites of all those cats.

AAJ: For sure, there's a reason Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters
1915 - 1983
guitar
and Howlin' Wolf
Howlin' Wolf
Howlin' Wolf
1910 - 1976
vocalist
were fighting over him.

JH: Hell, yeah; you could see why. There a couple of tracks in particular where Hubert just wrote the book, like "300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy." I could listen to that stuff all day long.

Actually my introduction to most of that stuff was through Bruce Hampton, when I played with him in the early 90s. Of course I knew about Albert King
Albert King
Albert King
1923 - 1992
guitar, electric
, who doesn't know about Albert King? His style is so infectious.

You know, when Stevie Ray [Vaughan] came out, and you could hear all the Albert King influence, the Lonnie Mack influence, and it was great.

AAJ: Wasn't that amazing how he could take all the Albert King and Jimi Hendrix influences and still end up with something that was still his own?

JH: It was freaky, and if you hear Stevie play with Albert, the influence is huge, but hearing them together it's clear he wasn't just a carbon copy, he's got his own essence. I love that stuff, I love the blues.

AAJ: Who are some of your favorite blues singers?

JH: Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker
1917 - 2001
guitar
would be at the top, and of course Howlin' Wolf—those are the big three and I can't put them in any specific order.

As far as later generations of blues, I've always considered Gregg Allman the greatest white blues singer, if there is such a thing, he's the greatest. When you listen to his stuff, especially the first four or five albums they did.

And as far as what's happening right now, you know Susan Tedeschi, I just don't think it gets any better than that. I love Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt

guitar, slide
too. But as far as what's happening right now, I have to put Susan at the top.

AAJ: I finally got a chance to see her live this summer, she and Derek did a show with Gregg Allman here in Germany. There was also another treat, blues guitarists get a lot of the glory, but Jerry Jemmott was playing bass with Gregg Allman—Derek and Susan also sat in with them. Man what a great player, and his sound is amazingly good. I know you played at the Beacon show for the Allman's 40th anniversary the same night Jerry did the King Curtis tribute. Have you ever had a chance to play with him?


From left: Richie Goods, Tom Guarna and Jimmy Herring


JH: Oh he's legendary. No, I've never had a chance to play with him, I was scared to even talk to him, but I did. He's a genius, there's just nobody like him. He's the sound that defined an entire generation. I love Jerry Jemmott, it doesn't get any better than that.

AAJ: Speaking of the Allman's 40th anniversary, you were there a couple of nights after Clapton's last guest appearance. I was curious if you were in New York early and happened to be backstage for that?

JH: No, and I wish I could have, but I had other commitments and I think I didn't fly in until the actual day of the show. So sadly I missed all that great stuff. I've got to check that out on Moogis.

AAJ: That second night was pretty amazing, Derek and Oteil formed this intense pocket around Clapton when they did "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," and focused in like lasers on what he was doing. You know how Oteil is when he picks up on what people are doing.

JH: Oteil has always had that gift, he always makes whomever he's playing with sound better. He hears where people go almost immediately, he figures out peoples' styles, and he almost knows instinctively what to do. He can mess with the harmony, for example, he'll change the bass note of a chord and make it a different chord. He knows how to do it so that it doesn't trip the soloist up, they can keep playing the same basic tonality they were playing, but because he changed the chord, as a soloist you suddenly hear yourself in a whole different light. He's a master of harmony, and he knows all kinds of little things he can do that will bring you to another place.

AAJ: I understand you got a Fender Telecaster when you were 13. Did you have any formal musical training on guitar before you attended that summer session at Berklee?

JH: No, it was all by ear, and really, it still is. I played alto sax in the school band, so I learned how to read single notes. So until many years later I couldn't read for a guitar, and it still isn't something that I'm very good at. For me it's always been easier to just learn it by ear. So if someone sends me the music, I'll usually still learn it from the CD, and then check it against the music to make sure I got it right. But no, I didn't have formal training.

Then, when I was 22, I went to G.I.T. [Guitar Institute of Technology] in Los Angeles and I got to meet some amazing people. I had some great teachers, but I didn't take guitar lessons because I didn't want to be told how to hold a pick or anything like that. I just wanted to study music, and it was a great place to do that.

There were all kinds of great guitar players around, but there were also great bass players, drummers, piano players—and also, any night of the week you could go and see great musicians who were playing around L.A.

AAJ: Several musicians I've interviewed made very rapid progress once they got right instrument in their hands. What was your development like, did guitar come easily to you?

JH: I remember when I started getting into Mahavishnu and Dixie Dregs. The Dixie Dregs just floored me; it had a classical dimension to it that intrigued me. I remember my brothers being really encouraging. I remember them playing some Return to Forever
Return to Forever
Return to Forever

band/orchestra
and asking me if I could play that. I said, "Are you insane!" They played me some Mahavishnu and asked me if I could play that. I said, "Are you kiddin' me! I'll never be able to play that. Nobody but that guy can play that."

It just seemed completely and utterly out of reach, but I was listening to Dixie Dregs, Mahavishnu, and Return to Forever constantly. I think I listened to that music constantly for about two years before I ever played any significant portion of it. I think during that time there was a pretty rapid growth in my abilities thanks to my brothers' encouragement. I didn't think I could do it, but they seemed to think I could.

Eventually I started hearing the melodies in my head even when the record wasn't playing. With time I would learn to play some of the easier passages of the music, and slowly and surely I'd start filling in the blanks. Eventually, I was playing almost an entire song. With time I got into improvising and not just trying to copy the records. That was then another area where I would work at getting better.

The biggest growth came from playing with Bruce Hampton, Oteil Burbridge
Oteil Burbridge
Oteil Burbridge
b.1967
bass
, Matt Mundy and Jeff Sipe. I was already 28 years old at that point—but the period from 1989 to 1993 was probably the biggest time of growth and progression for me.

AAJ: I was watching an interview with the classical composer Webster Young, and he was talking about the different types of musical ears. He was saying there are people with great technical ears, and people with great "evaluative" ears—those who have a special gift for finding the values in tones, he mentioned Tchaikovsky as an example. Of course, musicians are a combination of technical and evaluative gifts, but it got me to thinking about the blues vs jazz.

To me it seems guys like Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman were all about the sound and didn't give much thought to sophistication or complexity for complexity's sake. On the other hand, it seems that jazz players, of necessity, often have strong technical skills and ears, and their musical choices seek to balance "sound" with an attraction to complexity. To me, it seems that the balancing of head and heart makes playing the blues a challenge for them. I'm guessing you can identify with that?

JH: Oh God, yes, big time. When I first moved to Atlanta I was, as I said, really into Dixie Dregs, Mahavishnu, and Return to Forever, even though that music was old by the time I got into it. So when I got to Atlanta and started playing with Bruce Hampton, he wanted simplicity, and here's what really blew me away about it.

I was fixated on the technical end of it. If I couldn't get the right "sound" with the ambiance I was searching for around it, it locked me up—my right hand just wouldn't pick right. I couldn't deliver what needed to come out. So at first I began looking for the right amp and stuff, and Bruce was like, "Sound? Sound don't matter. If you play you'll find your sound. You gotta play. Forget about all the technique and just play."

He was right. We were playing a lot of what we called Bruce's greatest hits, basically covers. His versions of Bobby Bland songs and stuff like that. And what I discovered, and what ARU was into, the simpler the music is, the more you can take liberties with it. I'd been fixated on playing things just like the record, you know, being able to play those heads that John McLaughlin and Steve Morse had in their music—it was so hard just to play the melody. And I was so fixated on getting it note for note, that the improvisational part hadn't happened for me yet. But that all happened with Bruce.

He would have a song where we would just play on one chord. Of course I was also really into John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, and I was into what he did later in life when he got away from all the chord changes, and just started playing over one chord. So I discovered all these different approaches he had to playing over just one chord—and a lot of people think that's when his sound really came to be. It's because you strip everything away, and all that's left is: you.

In a way, it's like playing blues. Basically, there are only five notes in a blues scale. Sometimes you add one or two notes around that, and some people think that makes it easier. Some people who aren't into the blues, think, "Anybody can play the blues scale." Well yeah, anybody can play the blues scale, but not just anybody can find a voice in those five notes. Like Albert King, he could make that thing sing. He found his voice own voice—if he played two notes you knew who it was.

So Oteil discovered the half step diminutive scale, and he started moving these chord shapes around. Like I'd be taking a solo over a chord thing in D minor on a Bruce Hampton song, and Oteil would start moving these chord shapes around my solo. At first I was like, "Uh oh, what's that?" And you could hear that motion of a half step, then a whole step, then a half step, then a whole step. They call it the diminished scale.

So once I discovered that scale, I realized it was symmetrical. If you learn to play it on one place on the neck, you can move it three frets higher—or, more specifically, you can move it a minor third in either direction—and play the same fingerings. That's not the same on a saxophone, or a piano—but that's one of the real advantages of a guitar. There are other disadvantages, but that's one of the advantages.

So you can play an idea, and then maybe move it up a minor third and change the phrasing a little bit and you're still in the same key with that diminished scale. So it ended up being that we would start out with the blues over this one chord vamp, and then the minute I would hear Oteil start to do those half steps / whole step motions with chord voicings, I knew I could fall into the diminished scale patterns. And then we would go back to the blues, and there was this ebb and flow. You know it wasn't something new, millions of people had done it before we discovered it, but it kind helped us find our own sound.

Of course saxophone players are famously the most adept at that type of approach. So we were really into Coltrane. As far as contemporary cats, Greg Osby just floored me, and Steve Coleman, they were into a lot things that were kind of like that. And Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
, of course. So there were plenty of people to draw from, but mostly we were going back in time to get inspiration. We were really into Cannonball, Coltrane, and Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1928 - 2008
sax, tenor
.

I've always envied saxophone players for their smooth flow, at least in the last 25 years. That's why Allan Holdsworth just really kills me, he's got that kind of flow like a saxophonist. You never hear the frets when he plays, not like he's playin' slide or something, you just never hear the frets. His lines just don't seem guitar-like. Obviously he was into saxophone players and people know that about him.

So I just love that, but guitar is a percussive instrument and it isn't conducive to that sound. It's hard, I focused on picking for so long, but then for me it became more about focusing on the flow. So back to Bruce, he wasn't into technical stuff; he hated it when we got too "note-ie," [laughing] although we did it anyway. But he was looking for more essence than anything else. He showed me a new way to look at things.

AAJ: He seems to have been a really important influence for you, and for Derek.

JH: Oh big time! Bruce doesn't tell you what to play, but what he does in offers you a path you've never been down before. And if you really embrace it, and you go down that path, and you mix that with what you already know, then you're going to find your voice.



For some it takes time, but for Derek, I've know him since he was 11 years old, he had his own voice from the first minute we heard him play. But he's a very special case. For me, it just took a lot longer to find a voice and to feel like I'm on the verge of finding a sound. You know it's so tempting to copy everybody. And I guess that's a good place to start, you know, if you copy enough people, eventually you're going to find your own voice.

AAJ: Final thing, it seems like Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith
1925 - 2005
organ, Hammond B3
shared that blues vs. complexity dilemma with you. He seemed to really master the difficulty of playing some pretty abstract lines with great speed in a blues framework in a way that even appealed to rock fans.

JH: He reached everybody! I guess I was about 21 when I got into him. John Sutton, the drummer I was playing with then could really swing, and he was able to play real jazz, which I wasn't because I'm coming from all this rock stuff. So my friend got a call from this artist in residence at the Technical Institute in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His name was Clarence Palmer, and he was brilliant; he used to play with George Benson.

So John got this gig with him because they would do duo stuff, he was playing the bass himself without a bassist, and my God, they sounded like a whole band playing. So after getting to know him and hanging out with him and his family I got exposed to Jimmy Smith. So when I heard Jimmy Smith, I thought, "Oh my God, this is it!" I love him, he's the quintessential guy when it comes to playing Hammond.

Selected Discography

Various Artists, The New Universe Music Festival 2010: Abstract Logix Live! (Abstract Logix, 2011)
Widespread Panic, Dirty Side Down (ATO, 2010)
Jimmy Herring, Lifeboat (Abstract Logix, 2008)

Widespread Panic, Free Somehow (Widesprea, 2008)

Project Z, Lincoln Memorial (Abstract Logix, 2005)

Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Calling (Innio, 2003)

Phil Lesh & Friends, There and Back Again (Columbia, 2002)

Project Z, Project Z (Terminus, 2001)

Jazz is Dead, Great Sky River (Zebra, 2001)

Gov't Mule, Live...With a Little Help From Our Friends (Capricorn, 1998)

The Derek Trucks Band, Out of the Madness (House of Blues, 1998)

T Lavitz, Gossip (Wild Cat, 1996)

Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit, Mirrors of Embarrassment (Capricorn, 1993)


Photo Credits
Page 1: Unknown

All Others: John Kelman


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