This interview was originally published in 2011.
Since resuming recording and touring activities in 1993 after a 19-year hiatus from the road, Steely Dan has turned to Jon Herington to handle guitar duties for the band. Though Walter Becker still contributes tasty chord coloration and occasional solos, Herington has now been performing the lion’s share of the guitar work for the group’s live and studio work longer than any other guitarist before him in the band’s 40-year career. (He also plays on Becker and Fagen’s solo records.) Before delving into a single syllable of fawning and flowery adjectives to describe his sound and technique, it is this fact alone that stands as serious testament to Herington’s stature and style. Suffice to say he is a master of clever chord phrasings and lyrical solos as well, often blending the two into a silky seamless whole.
This writer had the good fortune to meet Herington backstage after a Steely Dan concert this past summer and our conversation quickly lead to the idea of an interview for guitar.com. With the fresh memory of an amazing concert still ringing in my ears, I was soon submerged in Herington’s latest solo disc, shine (shine shine). Full of the sparkling, razor sharp guitar work I’d expected, I was pleasantly surprised to find Herington a gifted songwriter as well. The following interview was conducted via e-mail while Steely Dan was on one of the longest, most far-reaching tours they have ever undertaken. As of this writing they are still out there, performing dates in New Zealand and Australia. Sometime in November they will finally conclude the Shuffle Diplomacy 2011 Tour that began some months ago. This being one of the busiest times in the entire history of the Steely Dan touring entourage, it is an ocean-size measure of gratitude that I would like to extend to Mr. Herington for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. Please note: Jon’s website (www.jonherington.com) features an extensive FAQs section that tackles a huge amount of inquiries regarding his guitars and gear. I didn’t want to double up or rehash any of the information included there, and it is for that reason I felt our purposes would be better served by focusing on more current issues like Jon’s new solo CD and the tour.
Guitar.com: I’ve read that you started out studying piano and sax. Tell me about your initial discovery of the guitar, if you would, and I’d also be curious to know: what was your Eureka Moment when you realized that this instrument above all others was going to be your true musical voice.
Herington: Well, in the beginning there was the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 with the Beatles – I began buying all the Beatle singles I loved, glued together a cardboard and construction paper replica of John Lennon’s Rickenbacker guitar, and developed a habit of jumping up and down on a discarded couch in the basement of my parents’ home strumming along to the 45’s playing on my little record player. Looking back, that feels like a formative moment, though it would be another four years before I began to play a real guitar in earnest.
I had taken some piano lessons as a youngster, and I was playing saxophone at the time, but the music I was listening to and falling in love with began to feature the sound of an amplified electric guitar more and more during those years (64-68), and my attraction to those sounds and my hunger to understand what made that music ‘tick’ meant that it was inevitable that I learn to play the guitar. In the early days of my guitar playing, I didn’t think at all about a personal ‘voice,’ but spent countless hours dropping the needle on any songs I loved but hadn’t learned, in order to figure out how they were making those sounds I loved so much. I was a musical sponge, and all I wanted was to absorb all I could.
Guitar began to preempt the other two instruments when I went to college. There I met some fantastically disciplined players and quickly realized I had never really learned how to practice, had never acquired much technique, and that it was a very big world out there, and I had better focus on one instrument and really learn how to play it well. I chose guitar because it was the preeminent instrument in so much of the music I loved, and because it was the instrument I played the most intuitively – it felt more like my personality came through in my guitar playing much more than on the other instruments.
Actually, though, I don’t really think I thought seriously about developing a personal ‘voice’ on the guitar until many years later, after I had spent years studying jazz. I was so struck by the individuality and originality of so many of the great jazz players I listened to, that I began to long for a signature sound of my own. I don’t think I realized at the time that the only way to discover that is to go ‘inside’ rather than to listen to other players and try to emulate them. Of course it’s necessary to have models when learning to play an instrument and learning to master a genre, but original voices seem to be the result of a more personal search: the discovery of how you alone hear and feel things; the discovery of what is natural to you and unique to you; your own path. I feel like I was a little late to join the game that way, and that it’s only been in the last 20 years that I’ve begun to feel like I understand all of that and am able to let go of my habit of being ‘external’ and instead focus on the ‘internal,’ or my own way of doing music. It’s an ever-evolving process, but it seems clear to me that a commitment to one’s own musical ideas and personality does yield the most original rewards over time.
So I’m not sure I ever had that ‘Eureka’ moment. Time and maturity was what it took for me to realize that I knew enough about the guitar, and was comfortable enough playing it so that the development of an original voice was the next natural step in my musical journey, I think.
Guitar.com: You’ve been playing with Steely Dan for over a decade now. How did you first hear about auditions and what was your audition experience like?
Herington: I didn’t audition for SD, per se. My good friend Ted Baker, who was playing keyboards for them at the time, was asked to recommend a guitar player for some overdubs on ‘Two Against Nature,’ and he had a copy of my first record and played it for Donald and Walter. I got my first call to work for them after that, and did a handful of sessions and soon began to do live work with them, too.
Guitar.com: Steely Dan’s classic LPs from the ’70s featured an array of fine guitarists. Including performing on their two most recent studio albums, as well as contributing to solo records by both Becker and Fagen, you have held the position as their guitarist of choice for quite some time now. How do you feel you fit into the lexicon of guitarists that have played with them over the years?
Herington: Well, I think one way that my experience with SD might be different is that most of my experience with their music has been on the stage (though it’s true that I’ve done quite a bit of recording with them, too). Since we play the hits from so many records, and since there were so many great hired guitar players on the records (in addition to the ‘member’ guitar players, all remarkable players, too), I have to find a way to balance honoring the essence of the originals with the practical challenges of keeping all of it simple enough to manage and natural enough so that I feel like it’s a vital playing experience for me, and not just a job of imitating the originals. Only the guys who have done this gig live have to tackle that issue. When recording a new tune, there’s total freedom to bring your own thing to the music, since there are no precedents except the ones that the style of the music dictates. Overall, though, I guess I feel like my training has served me pretty well in preparing me for a job like SD. Theirs is a hybrid style, and to play it well requires a knowledge of a pretty wide range of American music, including soul, R&B, rock, jazz, lots of blues, and even a bit of country. It also requires familiarity with a lot of the sounds of those styles, too: to play this job well it helps to know how to get convincing blues, rock, and jazz guitar sounds.
Guitar.com: You do an excellent job of balancing the spirit of the original guitar solos while at the same time breathing fresh life into them in concert. How would you describe this process of honoring the recorded solos of other players from classic recordings (that many fans know as well as the lyrics) while at the same time expanding on them with your own personal touch?
Herington: Usually I start by trying to figure out what the solo is contributing to the music as a whole, and what is special or unique about it. Then I try to find a way to learn how to improvise a solo that seems both natural for me, appropriate in the way the original was for the music, and where there’s room for me to develop things over time in an open-ended way. Sometimes it’s just a particular sound that can get me there, other times it involves composing several possible solutions to the problem, so that I can learn what really works best, and learning from that how to improvise comfortably on the spot. And in some cases, it seems like the only way to honor the original is to quote it or some portion of it directly. Third World Man comes to mind – even though it might be fun to try to improvise a solo on that tune, I’ve always chosen to play it as much like the record as I can, because it’s just too beautiful to resist.
Guitar.com: Your new album is an excellent collection of intelligent pop songs that are loaded with laconic wisdom and subversive hooks, songs that creep up and warmly envelope the listener. What would you say was your inspiration for the songs on the new record?
Herington: Most of my inspiration for songwriting comes from a deep love for other music and lyrics. I am such a fan of so many great writers, and I’ve been so lucky to have a chance to get to know so much great music over the course of many years, that I just can’t resist the impulse to throw my two cents in, too. I love the process of searching for new musical discoveries, new lyrical ideas, as humble as they may be, and I love the process of solving the ‘puzzle’ of songwriting, where, once you’re convinced you have a worthwhile idea, you work it until you find the best solution you can. I’m a fan of the writers that most of the world seems to love – my taste isn’t all that esoteric. I love the stuff I grew up on, like the Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones, Motown, Cream, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Dylan, Bob Marley, James Brown, Hank Williams, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Ray Charles, and all the jazz artists I grew to love, too, plus so many more. So when I write, I just dive in and see if I can come up with anything that approaches those impossibly high standards. Then, after a whole lot of work and time in some cases, I sort through the mess and try to find the best that I can do, and I go with that!
Guitar.com: In what struck me as an ironic and most likely an unintentional similarity to SD’s classic LPs that often featured different soloists from track to track, there is a diverse range of sound, feel, and attitude to the guitar solos on shine (shine shine). Would you describe the thought process behind choosing specific guitars and effects to suit the individual tracks?
Herington: The way I would choose sounds and create solos on those tracks was definitely one song at a time, and as is my habit, I worked song first, not sound first. By that I mean I was looking to make the solo fit the song rather than just dropping some ‘signature’ sound on top of it. There was no overall plan to any of that, and I had a handful of guitars available, and a couple of amps I like, so the process was pretty intuitive and natural, I think. So whatever seemed to work is what I would go with. Some tunes took a long time to take shape that way, and others came together quickly, but that’s pretty typical, in my experience.
Guitar.com: Your vocal style on the new album is casual and conversational, yet it expresses much unforced emotion. This reminded me of Steinbeck’s gift for dialogue and descriptive technique that spoke volumes about the hidden depths of human emotion and experience with few words. Though you are primarily known as a guitarist, this record shows what a gifted songwriter and unique vocal stylist you are as well. Who are your biggest influences when it comes to singers and songwriters?
Herington: Well, that’s high praise, indeed, and I’m grateful to hear it. When it comes to singers, though, I’m afraid I feel like it’s a club I’ll never be allowed to join! It is one of the most enjoyable things I do, but that might be partly because it’s so different from my life as a guitar player – I’ve never been a professional singer for hire the way I have been a guitar player for hire, so I’ve been able to do it pretty un-selfconsciously, without too much stressing about it. In spite of that, it always seems like a challenge to do it well, and I’m generally disappointed in my attempts. I’m forced to work with the limited instrument my voice is, but happy that over the years I’ve gotten better at finding out what kinds of songs and singing work best for me. I was always a fan of untrained pop singers anyway, and I like to do it so much that I can’t resist it.
I’d have to say my favorite singers are Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, but I grew up loving the singing of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, early Bob Dylan, Greg Allman, Van Morrison, Bob Marley, and dozens of other pop singers of the time, all of whom had character to spare. I’ve always loved direct, natural, unaffected, unpretentious singing which allows the individual character of the person to come through the singing, but doesn’t let the singing get in the way of the expression of the lyrics.
Guitar.com: Much of the new album resonates with a vintage ’70s feel, without sounding dated. Was this an intentional nod to your favorite music of that era? Is that an era of pop music that you consider among your favorites and/or biggest influences?
Herington: I think that’s my ‘roots’ showing! The pop music of the FM radio era from around 1968 through 1972 was what formed my musical sensibilities, without a doubt. I’m still a fan of the singing, songwriting, recording quality, arranging conventions, etc., etc. of the music of that time, so my natural choice is to go there, I guess. So, not intentional, exactly, but very natural and I suppose inevitable.
Guitar.com: An unexpected deviation from the record’s predominantly Jazz-Rock vibe, “She Reminded Me Of You” has a Tex-Mex sway to it and a Country & Western vibe too with its spoken verses. Outside the realm of Jazz-Rock that you perform with Steely Dan and with your own band, this tune made me wonder if there are any other styles of music that you find particularly inspiring and/or enjoyable to play?
Herington: Well, that tune probably has its origins in two songs I can think of, one on the Some Girls record by the Rolling Stones – Faraway Eyes, which I used to play, and always loved, and another (whose title I forget) on a record I used to own by Harry Nilsson, each of which has a ‘talking verse’ and a sung chorus. It’s certainly a country music convention, and it just seemed to fit the lyric material so well, that I took that approach.
You will find plenty of Hank Williams, George Jones, and Patsy Cline in my itunes collection, though I’m not a big country music listener in general. I have always found great songwriting a treat, no matter what style it’s done in, and I know there’s a lot more to discover in that genre for me.
I find all genres have the potential to inspire me, but I’m actually trying to narrow my focus in my own work right now to try to create a sound and a style that feels as personal as possible and is as good a vehicle for my writing, my singing, and my guitar playing as possible.
Guitar.com: I understand you’ve been squeezing in some solo shows in between dates with SD. What has that experience been like and what other plans do you have for playing shows with your own band?
Herington: The Jon Herington Band is what I would like to be my main project at some point, but I can’t pass up the touring work I do, since it’s a dream job for me, with lots of great music to play with the most fantastic musicians, and lots of space for my guitar playing. It has been a great thrill to get the band working more than ever, and it feels more comfortable and more fun the more we do it, so it will definitely be a priority for me, even if it means trying to shoehorn the shows into the days off of the major touring work. We have a new record in the works which really reflects what we’ve been doing live lately, too, and I’m looking forward to getting that out there, too.
Guitar.com: The globe-trotting SD tour is keeping you busy until the first week of November, making the 2011 Shuffle Diplomacy Tour one of the longest stretches of live dates the band has performed since regrouping in the 90s. (At its conclusion the entire touring organization will certainly be deserving of a nice long rest!) Do you know what’s next for you after the tour and into the early months of 2012?
Herington: I do look forward to a break, but I’ll be working to finish my new record after I get home, and then in January and February my band will be doing a few weeks worth of work, mostly on the East Coast. My website is the place to find the bookings: jonherington.com
After that, I’m not so sure what the year will bring, but if the last ten years are any indication, there will be some travel and a lot of music making, that’s for sure.