JON HERRINGTONJune 2011 By Greg Phillips
For the last decade, New York based musician Jon Herington has been the permanent touring and recording guitarist for Steely Dan. It’s a gig which comes with as much pressure as it does prestige. After all, each time he takes the stage he is knee deep in a pool of some of the most cherished guitar licks in recording history. However, like every musician on a Steely Dan stage, he’s there for a reason. Not only does he easily appease the fans with his respectful and tasteful versions of the guitar parts to classic Dan tunes, but he also brings much of himself to blend and in doing so, keeps the music fresh and vibrant. It’s Jon’s professionalism, versatility and amazing talent which has also landed him work with Boz Scaggs, Phoebe Snow, sax great Bill Evans , The Blue Nile and broadway shows like Hairspray. He has also released three critically acclaimed solo albums. Herington will soon be back in Australia when Steely Dan tours here in October, along with UK legend Steve Winwood. Jon had just got home from a short tour with Madeline Peyroux when Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke with him.
How important is it for you to break away from the Steely Dan sound and explore different genres and tones?
Well I was a New York based freelance musician for many years before the Steely Dan gig came up. I mean the gig is kind to me in so many ways and it’s the gig that changed a lot for me, but I never felt like it was the only thing I did. Most of the time with Steely Dan it consists of a tour then a couple of years off. It’s what I am most noted for because it is such a high profile gig, but I have been working on my own music in earnest for a good 30 years. It gets interrupted for work I have to do or the other guys in the band have to do, but is has been a pretty consistent genre for me as well. It’s just not in the spotlight like Steely Dan, but we’re trying to change that!
You play acoustic guitar on your current solo album Shine (Shine, Shine), but we don’t see you playing acoustic so much. Do you enjoy it?
I do. I don’t really get to do it as much as I’d like. Even though there is some acoustic guitar on a few Steely Dan tracks, they have never expressed any interest in having any acoustic guitars up there. The live thing we tend to approach in a simple and consistent way. I love playing acoustic. I spent a lot of my early college days working out those wild Joni Mitchell tunings and Crosby, Stills, Nash, James Taylor’s style. I love all of that stuff. I guess the electric guitar is the first instrument I really fell in love with the sound of. I love the acoustic and I love the jazz guitar sound too, but they are three really different sounds and approaches. My favourite acoustic guitar that I own is a Guild D40, a dreadnaught shaped, pretty solid, heavy guitar, late 60s vintage. It sounds really woody and old. I have a Martin D28 too, but I have never been as enamoured with it. The Guild is pretty much my go-to guitar for recording.
There’s a lot of information on the internet about your gear, but like most things … posts from ten years ago are still there. Could you bring us up to speed with what you’ll be using on the upcoming Steely Dan tour?
I can guess. We haven’t started rehearsing yet so it may change. In general I can tell you with confidence about a few of the guitars and amps that I will be bringing. Guitar wise, I will be relying on my work-horse guitar, my Gibson CS336, a slightly shrunken 335. A slightly higher end guitar and it’s a good one … already had a couple of fret jobs at least, but I play it a lot and it is the most comfortable guitar I have to play. It seems to complement Walter’s sound which is partly why I use it a lot. Walter is typically playing the Sadowsky Strat-style guitar. So the Gibson seems like a good call, not just because it complements Walter’s sound but there is a history of a lot of those sounds on the Steely Dan records. I also tend to use an old Fender Tele that I have, too. I have modified it a little. It has a middle pickup added and a different pickup in the rhythm position but essentially it’s a Tele and pretty much stock otherwise. It’s my favourite Fender guitar to play. For some reason I have never been comfortable playing Stratocasters. I love the sounds you can get out of them, but they just don’t feel right for me. I actually got a gift recently of an early 70s Les Paul Custom and I had a fret job done on it, because those guitars had really low frets and I can’t play a guitar like that. I had some taller frets put in and the thing plays beautifully, so I think it is something I might bring with me. Unfortunately it’s as heavy as a boat anchor, so I am not sure I’ll be using it all night long. I may just have to go to the gym some more! The first two guitars will cover me, always have.
Amp wise, I will certainly have the Guytron 100 watt amp that has a channel switcher and a great effects loop, and it’s the one I have been using mostly in the ten or eleven years I have been doing this gig. It’s a beautiful amp, pretty much voiced like a vintage amp and pretty much a British approach, a bit Marshall and Voxy! It’s a very flexible amp and sounds great at any volume. I’m just a huge fan of that amp. It never lets me down and I use it on my own gigs too. I tend not to like too complicated a rig, so I am not going to set something up where I am switching amplifiers, but I always have an extra amp as a back up because tube amps can be temperamental … tubes can fail. So I always have a back up and in this case, I will probably have a fairly new Bludotone amp that I have. There’s a guy in Colorado who makes these. They are kind of clones of Dumble amps, which are the holy grail for a lot of guitar players. It has really gorgeous clean tones and beautiful overdrive. It’s a little more difficult for me to use than the Guytron because of the way it is designed. It’s a little tougher to match the levels on the channels, a little less linear. The Guytron, you can set it one way, and the design of the amp is so good, you can set the volume anywhere you want for your overall listening level, and it doesn’t feel much different at all. The Bludotone is a different design and feels and sounds its best when you really turn it up. That can be problematic sometimes, so I have a power attenuator in the line, so it’s a little trickier. There’s a few more bells and whistles that I have to put it through to tame it and make it really work on the gig. I may spend a little more time with it and see if I can get a little more comfortable with it. So those two amps will be there.
I have a pedal board which doesn’t have too much on it. The way I use the effects is pretty subtle, I think. I have a little reverb that you probably can’t hear out front but I can hear a little in the amp. It’s just a little sweeter and easier to play and kind of makes me relax. Typically, I will have a short delay but with a very low mix level on it, so you can’t hear it so much … really subtle. It just enhances and fattens the tone a little bit. Occasionally I will step on something like an overdrive pedal, but the amps I am using are where I am almost always getting the distortion tones, the overdrive tones. I tend to like the sounds that come straight out of the amp rather than from pedals, but occasionally I will step on a tremolo or wah-wah. The pedals I use the most on the board are the tuner, a reverb pedal and a delay. That’s it.
Are you still using a wireless transmitter?
No, I haven’t been using wireless for a long time. You may have seen an old posting. That’s one thing about the internet, I’ve been around a while so there is a lot of stuff that is out of date!
The reason I ask is that I wondered if you can hear a difference between wireless and using a lead?
I can. I’m not sure I could tell you in a blindfold test but it does feel different. Number one, I did occasionally get drop outs when I was in a position where the antenna wasn’t where it needed to be to get a signal. So that was a drag. Also, often there is some noise which seems to creep into the signal somehow. I’m not sure where it comes from, whether it’s RF or what, but it doesn’t sound quite as direct or crisp or clean. One of them I had, you could boost the input level from the wireless, there was a little volume control or something. It just seemed like an unnecessary stage to go through. Plus, you know it’s Steely Dan … we’re not running around the stage or anything. We basically stay where we are and play music and let the light designer make us look good, or you know, the girls are over there dancing and singing. So there’s no real need for a wireless. The best thing about wireless would probably be to go out and hear the sound of the guitar at the front of house. I’ve always just trusted the front of house guys because you are at their mercy anyway. You sound as good as they can make you sound. Using a regular guitar cable works well and is consistent. I dunno, the wireless was kind of fun for a while but I prefer to go straight in with a cable.
On a Steely Dan YouTube clip that I saw, you’re playing the song ‘Kid Charlemagne’ and the tone sounds different to what I’ve heard you play before. Do you vary the guitar tones of solos from tour to tour?
I wouldn’t say too much but with that one, I have always tried to play that in a way which feels comfortable to me. I remember struggling with that one for a little bit. It’s a funny one. If I am not mistaken, the sound that Larry (Carlton) got on the original recording sounds very much like he is using the neck pick up on the guitar, but it’s an amp that doesn’t have a lot of low end. I don’t know if it is a (Mesa) Boogie or what? I think there was a time when I was trying to use the neck pickup for that tune and tried to get a little closer to that tone. It went against the grain of my instincts. I think more often over the years, I have settled on the treble pickup for most of that. Over the years I have tried to let go basically, of what Larry did on that. With the solo, over the years I have worked out what I can be comfortable playing. But yeah, there was a time when I was playing with different sounds and trying different distortion pedals on the rhythm pickup to see if I could get something close to that. I ultimately gave up because it wasn’t working for me. I just had to please myself rather than imitate someone else.
Have you met many of the other famous Steely Dan guitarists and traded war stories?
Not traded too many stories but I have met Larry. I see him every once in a while. I became friends with Jay Graydon when I first started doing this gig because every time we’d go to LA, he’d be at the gigs and we’d get to hang out, which has always been a treat for me. I met Elliot Randall. He sat in with us and played ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ when we were in London last time. I’m sure there would a be a YouTube video of that somewhere.
I have met Elliot too and actually got to hold the Strat that ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ was recorded on. He told me that he preferred the very first studio take he did of the solo on that track. And that was the one they didn’t use? That’s interesting. I’d like to hear that. I wonder if anyone has a copy of that? But getting back to the question, I met Danny Diaz the first year we toured. He sat in on an LA gig. Who else? I haven’t met Rick Derringer but would like to. I know Mark Knopfler played on a tune or two, but I don’t know Mark. Steve Kahn I know, he’s a New Yorker. Not sure who else, but that’s already a lot.
Do you have a favourite Steely Dan record?
I guess I’d have to say Aja first and Gaucho second. But it’s tough, I love Royal Scam too. There are great tunes on all of their records and I love the two newest ones too. I was also a huge Nightfly fan (Donald’s first solo album). There’s another desert island disc! With Aja, it just seemed that all the stars aligned. There’s not a bad performance from anybody, it has fantastic sound, fantastic songs … performances, recording … everything was working. That’s a synchronicity thing. The timing … everyone was at the top of their game. It’s a very special thing, but they do tend to make a habit of it though!
I have been lucky to speak to musicians who have played with Zappa, Miles Davis and you and Keith who play with Steely Dan. All of those band leaders are, or were thought to be demanding, but the bottom line was/is that the music is extraordinary. Is that part of the enjoyment of playing in this band?
I certainly enjoy the extraordinary quality of the music. It’s one of the greatest song catalogues. The stuff holds up incredibly well. It’s classic music even though it has elements which are quite of its time. Like ‘Glamour Profession’, there really is a disco element to it and it reflects the time and the way the players were playing but that’s more a stylistic detail for me. It’s a brilliant work and holds up forever. That’s the thing that is the most amazing about working with that music. As far as the idea of them being demanding guys to work for, I would have to say I don’t find them extraordinarily demanding. I find they have high standards, which I share. I have never felt that there have ever been inappropriately high expectations of me. In fact they seem extremely grateful to have players of the calibre that we have in this band. They want it to sound great, they want it to feel great and groove. There is certainly nobody in the band that ever felt that they were unduly demanding. Plus they are so open to our own contributions. They never tell anybody what to play! There is so much freedom. They are both jazz buffs from way back and fans of improvisers and they want room for that in a show. They don’t want to just reproduce the records.
I imagine playing with a great groove drummer like Keith Carlock makes your job on stage a lot easier too?
It sure does. He is a great friend and amazing musician, and I really mean musician. The guy has big ears for pitch too, not just rhythm. You should hear him play guitar and bass some time! He’s got some hidden talents. He’s a real pro and has amazing experience, perfect attitude and seriously equipped to copy what’s on the records and bring something of his own to it too. You can count on him. And the whole Steely Dan rhythm section … this bunch we have right now, it’s like this beautiful machine. There’s some serious precision … and I don’t mean machine in a bad way, but a beautiful way. It just feels like all the gears are lubricated and it’s running the right way. It’s humming!
You’re playing a few gigs at wineries when you come to Australia. I believe you’ve done a few of those in California. Do you enjoy those gigs?
We have. I used to do a lot more of those with Boz Scaggs though. Boz is a wine maker himself now.
I am looking forward to that. We will certainly be sampling the wares of your lovely country.
After all these years, what are you most proud of?
That’s a good question. I would probably list a few things. I’d say I am most proud that I have been able to persevere at this whole game of music long enough to have accomplished a couple of things … to have a couple of my own records, particularly the last couple I am proud of, and also the instrumental one I did. The other thing again, is that I persevered as a guitarist to the point where not only was I a candidate for some of these great jobs, like Steely Dan and Boz, but also that I have been able to cultivate a personal approach and I have been able to begin to develop a voice of my own. That to me, is a luxury. I would have felt pretty good just to make a living as a musician. It’s not easy to do. I have seen a lot of people try and fail. I feel really grateful that I have been lucky enough to find employment and some of it is amazing and I don’t take it for granted or take it lightly. I have not only managed that but also in the struggles of trying to make a living, I have some how also managed to keep alive my perspective about the music making and I still do it for the love. That’s rare too, to do it for that long and to not have a cynical attitude about the business is an accomplishment I take some pride in. As I go on, more and more what interests me is finding the music which is within me. What are he songs that I would write? What is the guitar playing that I would play? That’s the final frontier for me. The great challenge is to see if I can make that lucrative, that would be a plus. I’m happy to do it but it would be great to get it out in the world and see if I can share that with people. That would be my last dream come true.
Jon can be heard on Steely Dan’s last two albums, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go. His solos albums include The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, Like So and Shine (Shine Shine). www.jonherington.com