Exclusive Interview with Jimmy Herring
Earlier this month Jimmy Herring stepped on stage alongside his bandmates in the Ringers to deliver a menacing two and half hour set at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC. A set so great that Souvik Dutta (Manager and founder of Abstract Logix) says they are not willing to cut down in length because they are having so much fun this tour.
The group moved flawlessly through a wide assortment of pieces ranging from bluegrass to heavy jazz fusion in the intimate listening-room type setting of the Howard. Armed with three of the best guitarists in the game, the set highlighted not just their individual skills, but more importantly they displayed an interconnectedness and chemistry on levels that was unlike any I have witnessed to date.
The group features an all-star cast of musicians, each of the artists accomplishments are so extensive this break-down only touches the surface; Wayne Krantz on guitar (has played with Randy Brecker, Leni Stern and Steely Dan), Michael Landau on guitar (recorded sessions with Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, James Taylor), Etienne Mbappe on bass (Zawinul Syndicate, John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension), and Gary Novak on drums (Chick Corea, Allan Holdsworth) . In a band full of all-stars ego can sometimes be an overbearing norm and get in the way of the music, luckily this is certainly not the case for the Ringers. These humbled and seasoned vets are grinding it out on the road this tour for one purpose, the music.
Before embarking on the drive to up NYC for their show at B.B. Kings the following night Jimmy Herring spoke with Andrew of LiveMusicDaily. The interview follows a rather casual format with the focus being simple, letting Jimmy share his thoughts briefly after the show. Jimmy shares his approach to guitar, Derek Trucks’ ability to make a guitar talk like none other, his current guitar rig, jambands, the benefits of returning to the club scene, and more.
Jimmy Herring is a legend in the live music community particularly amongst jazz fusion enthusiasts as well as the jamband community. Herring has toured and performed the role of lead guitar with the Allman Brothers, The Dead, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Project Z, Jazz is Dead, serves as the lead guitarist with Widespread Panic, and is currently on tour with the Ringers.
You have struck nearly a perfect balance in your playing. You have the soul of a blues guitarist. You can make your guitar speak, you make it talk. You’ve mastered the technical aspect of the guitar. How do you manage to have that authenticity of feel based playing and technical performance and can it be tricky at times to balance the two? In what ways have you found that niche, that good balance between the two?
Jimmy: Thank you for one thing. But I mean you can never think like that you know. It is an ongoing struggle and search for more. At this point in my life I don’t really try to do anything anymore except sound good and if you have a good sound you know the rest of the stuff seems to fall into place. It took me a long time to find that.
It took me a long time to discover that really that was the thing that can be a deal-breaker for me, whether or not you play well. If it sounds good you will be inspired you know, and if you are inspired then things can happen that you did not practice…and if you are in a band that gives you an outlet for that kind of a thing. This band definitely gives you that kind of outlet. You can try things you have never tried in the practice room. I think if it sounds good, that is the first step and it took me forever to figure that out.
I’m fifty two years old I have been playing since I was probably twelve, but not seriously until I was about seventeen where I started practicing, really trying to learn the instrument. I think it is an ongoing thing that is infinite and you can never know it all, nobody does. Even the greatest people I can think of, Allan Holdsworth… I read an interview with him, the most recent one I have seen, and it is still a few years old. He was on the cover of Guitar Player Magazine not all that long ago again, in his 60s. To me he is probably one of the greatest modern improvisers alive…Total master of the instrument in every way possible. They asked him something kind of similar and he said well I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I’m never going to know anything about music and that is ok. In other words through all of his intensive study and his work on what he was doing and his practicing over the years and his insane approach to playing the instrument. The Albert Einstein of the instrument, he finally said I’m never going to know anything about music, if that guy does not know anything about music then what does that mean to the rest of us.
I love blues, I think being around Derek Trucks it teaches you the power of a simple phrase, the power of one note and the way you can speak through an instrument. He is the best at it I’ve ever seen and I have known him for so long, it is finally starting to rub off on me. I was focused on more technical type things for so long and then through hanging around with him it got me really interested into, like you said, speaking through the instrument, playing in phrases.
Cause you had studied a lot of that technical aspect…
Jimmy: Yea you know I mean I studied music, I practiced a lot, and I listened to the guys I liked and tried to emulate what they were doing. A lot of it you did not learn in school you learned it from listening. You listen to horn players and you listen to guitar players
Following up on that thought, would you say saxophonists would fit into that category as well?
Jimmy: Oh yea there are a lot of great guitar players I lifted a lot of shit from, but also a lot of great horn players. Like you go through different phases. Right now I’m in the phase of the simpliest approach that I can find. I think finding good sounding equipment that inspires you really helps.
Yes, in your case you really have the tone down, perfected your sound, one that is unique and very distinct in any setting you perform in.
Jimmy: Thanks that is critical now, at my age if that is off I can not play, and that is why I am so freaky about it and I pay special attention to the small stuff. The fewer things you plug into…
I noticed you’re playing through somewhat of a stripped down rig compared to say your setup with Widespread Panic, what kind of rig are you playing through right now?
Jimmy: It is real simple, it is the same kind of rig I almost always play through it is just it is a different amplifier then when I play with Panic or somebody, but the idea is you get a good sounding amp you plug your guitar into.
For me I use a volume pedal usually, the guitar goes into a volume pedal, then it goes into an overdrive box that sometimes is not on, sometimes it is on, and then that is it, into the first amp. The first amp is a dry sound it does not have reverb or anything it is a Fender Bassman tonight. It is an old Fender Bassman, like a 64’, and cause it sounds so good with nothing on it, then when you add reverb to it, it creates a sound where it has nuance in it. When you do little slides and things the reverb helps it to hang in the air a little bit instead of being real dry and gone and in your face. The difference hearing somebody play and you are right in front of their speaker cabinet, but if they were at the end of the hallway…
Maybe not hear the nuances of say a vibrato at the end ?
Jimmy: You might hear it but it does not hang in the air the same way. It just creates air around the sound so what I do is I found a device… It is called a line out box and it made by John Shur. All it is, you got your head and you have got your speaker cabinet, you take a speaker cable and go from the head to into this little box and then that goes back to the speaker cabinet. Then it has a line out on it with a level control which means you can then go back into another volume pedal and then go to a digital reverb, and then go to another power amp through a different set of speakers so that you can bring your reverb in and out with this other pedal and so what that does is if you pull the pedal back you just have the dry sound and that is svery useful at times. When you want to play some chords and have some air around it or whatever or even when you are playing leads if you want it to have this sound with air around it that when you play stuff with nuance it kind of hangs in the air, you bring the reverb in, the reverb comes through the second speaker cabinet. So its only reverb in the second cabinet and the first cabinet is dry. You can do that with any amplifier and tonight it was a Fender Bassman, sometimes with Widespread Panic I use the Bassman, sometimes I use a Greg Germino 68’ plexi like a Marshall type of an amp, sometimes use a Fuchs amp. They are great they are amazing. I have had this connection with the older amps for some reason. They just…
Sound better ?
Jimmy: Yea. It is because back in those days… Well they hit on a happy accident in a lot of those cases. I know they were not trying to create an amp that had any kind of distortion sound. Distortion really is like a small amp that you see in a music store with transistors.
If you really turn up those amps you get that natural distortion sound , right?
Jimmy: Yea well with these old amps you do, with a lot of the new amps are not like that. The old ones part of what makes them sound the way they do is you are pushing them to the end of their ability and they do not have anymore so they begin to distort, and then you can push them a little further by using something like an overdrive box. Derek (Derek Trucks) does not need that. In slide his hands are all he needs. I am still where I need an overdrive box just for some things.
The idea is you are trying to fatten up the sound of the guitar and make it sound more vocal-like or more horn like sometimes or more violin-like… Any of those things can apply what to what you are trying to do when you do an amp like that. If it is super thin it just limits how you can play, if you the ability to sustain a note like a vocal, like someone holding a note with their voice, if it sounds good when you play something…play a phrase and you are pausing to play the next phrase, taking a breathe like a singer would or maybe a horn player would, somebody who has to breathe to produce a note, if it sounds good it is going to inspire the next thing you play. If it sounds like shit it is not going to inspire the next thing you play, you see what I mean. If you play a phrase and you are unhappy with a sound and you are like “ughh”, the next thing you play probably is not going to be very good.
Every band member of the Ringers has toured and recorded with some highly notable artists. Do you feel like traveling together in a van or bus and performing at intimate venues is a rewarding experience overall ? Has it helped you as a musician to return to the smaller venues after playing the largers ones and reconnect that energy with the crowd ? Isn’t it sort of a relief ?
Jimmy: Absolutely… It is very necessary, because you can get a false sense of what is real in those big venues. I love them now do not get me wrong, it is really great, but sometimes, it can not be about music, depends, if it gets too big. I am lucky because with Widespread Panic they always put the music first, you know what I mean. They do, they have integrity, the music comes first and I am so lucky to be in a band that is that big that feels that way cause a lot of times when it gets that big it is not about music. A lot of the bands are about that, like Phish is about music, they care about the music, entertainment is a by product of them caring about the music. That is the way it should be, it should not be the other way around, it should not be that you are trying to second guess the audience and “give them what they want”… I think the real music happens in the clubs man, and they would tell you the same thing, they used to play clubs, you have got to come to back into the clubs if you really want to get back to the kind of player I want to be you have to be connected to the clubs. You know what I mean.
You are playing at several intimate venues this tour with two other exceptional lead guitarists. How has it been beneficial to you as a musician to play in a three guitar format with two of the best lead guitarists around ?
Jimmy: I have always loved their playing as a long as I have been aware of them. These two guitarists I’ve been fans of for a long time. When Souvik said to me how would you feel about playing with three guitar players with Mark Landau and Wayne Krantz. I just started laughing, yeah right why would they want to do that, they are trio guys. They play in a band where they are the only guitar player, they do not want to like or want play with another guitar player, well I was wrong. They did want to do it, and I was like are you kidding me ?
Souvik came back to me and told me that they did want to do it and that they are in. I did not know them, I knew of them, but I did not know them as people, I thought there is no way they are going to want to do that, but they did, it freaked me out. I had to do it, I wanted to do it, so I was excited about ti cause I Knew it would not be your typical three guitar band. I knew it would be something very special and I knew it would take awhile for us to grow into it.
Some things happened tonight that had not happened yet… I have been waiting for that to happen, you know where no one took a solo and we were all playing at the same time and it became the three of us having a conservation at the same time, not his solo, his solo, and then his solo, I mean sure that happens too, but it was one of Mike’s new tunes tonight where we just all started playing at the same time and listening to one another and reacting. Stop, listen, react, and hopefully we can go more in that direction, do more stuff like that.