Jon Herington Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

Jon Herington

“…I wasn’t thinking at all about making a living; I was only thinking about making music.”

Jon Herington

I first found out about Jon Herington when I happened upon a one off album by a group called CHROMA. That band featured an all-star cast of players including co-guitarist Mike Stern and other notable cats! Later on I was pleasantly surprised to see him in the Steely Dan guitar chair.

In this interview Jon shares with us his early days on the instrument and how he made his way into Steely Dan. He also discusses his new – at the time of this interview – album and the one musical gaff he made early on that he’d like to go back in time to correct – if all was possible!

Enjoy this entertaining and insightful interview from Jon Herington, and to find out more about him, pay him a visit over at http://jonherington.com/!

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JGL: Hey Jon and thanks for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. Let’s get to know you a little shall we? How old are you?

JH: I’m 60.

JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

JH: I live on Manhattan island, in New York City.

JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?

JH: I’ve been playing guitar for about 46 years. I think I was 14 when I started to play in earnest, and I think it was 1968.

JGL: Some folks might lump you in the Jazz Guitar player category, while others might call you more of a MOR pop and blues player. Are such labels fair and how do you see your role as a guitar player?

JH: I don’t worry about the labels. My role as a guitar player is defined by my musical responses to whatever gig I’m doing. If it’s jazz music I sound more like a jazz guitar player; if it’s blues I sound more like a blues guitar player; and if it’s pop I sound more like a pop guitar player. Most gigs I do tend to have a bit of a blend of styles, though, and then you’d probably hear a mix of those in the guitar playing, too.

JGL: Similarly, is there one genre of music you are attracted to over another?

JH: No. I’m a fan of very good music, and I find that to be a very small percentage of all the music made no matter what the style.

JGL: Since you do have an extensive background in Jazz, could you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”.

JH: I don’t think there was a particular moment like that for me with jazz or jazz guitar, and that’s probably because it wasn’t really my first musical language, so to speak. I basically grew up loving and playing a lot of ‘British Invasion’ rock, pop, and blues plus a lot of what was on the radio in the sixties. When I did start to listen to jazz I grew to love it more and more as I got deeper into it. But it was a gradual process for me. I did have a few musical epiphanies, though, once I began to listen to a lot of jazz, and without a doubt the sources that provided them were Miles Davis and John Coltrane records. And when I began to check out guitar players I certainly had my early favorites.

JGL: Similarly, Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar – or guitar in general – would/could be your career path?

JH: Not exactly. When I began to get into jazz guitar I was looking to grow as a musician and a guitarist, and I recognized that the world of jazz guitar held many treasures for me. Though I also recognized that the world of classical music held even more treasures, I felt that my musical experience up to that point had equipped me to learn more through a study of jazz, and I was more drawn to it as a player, if not necessarily as a listener or a student. So it felt like a natural choice. Once I had studied for awhile I became pretty obsessed with the goal of mastering the instrument (I was young and naive and didn’t know how elusive a goal that would turn out to be!). But I never thought about a career at all. I was too busy and involved with the day to day study, which I really took to and loved. I think I sensed the incredible depth of the whole jazz guitar endeavour – I knew it could be a lifelong pursuit – but I wasn’t thinking at all about making a living; I was only thinking about making music.

JGL: You took lessons from the wonderful Jazz Guitarist Harry Leahey. What was that experience like and what did you end up taking away from your time with Harry?

JH: Harry was a godsend for me. He was the most generous and encouraging teacher imaginable, and the depth of his knowledge of the guitar and his accomplishment on it was (and still is!) an absolute inspiration. I learned more from Harry than from anyone or anywhere else.

JGL: Similarly, you also took lessons from the great Philly music teacher Dennis Sandole who seems to have taught anyone who is anyone in this business. What was studying with him like?

JH: Studying with Dennis was entirely different from studying with Harry (though Harry had been a student of his). Whereas Harry treated me (prematurely, for sure) as a colleague, Dennis was always the ‘Maestro.’ He was brilliant, funny, eccentric, and somehow demanding, managing to get serious results from his students. It was under Dennis’s instruction that I first began to get serious about developing my technique. Where Harry had just piled on more and more stuff for me to absorb each week, Dennis strictly limited the weekly material, and expected me to put a lot of time in every day on that small amount of material. Though I was a little young at the time, musically speaking, for the material he gave me, over the course of a couple of years his lesson plan and my self discipline worked wonders for my technique.

JGL: When you were younger and living in Indiana, you got to play with some players who played with Wes Montgomery, including Wes’ brother Buddy. What was that experience like and were you a hard-core Wes fan prior to these associations?

JH: Oh yes, I had been a hard-core Wes fan from my early days of trying to play jazz, and it was a real honor and pleasure to get to play with many of Wes’s friends and contemporaries in Indy. They were incredibly welcoming and laid back, they could tell how I had loved Wes’s music making, and they let me know it. There was a beautiful acceptance and a non-competitive attitude that I really appreciated, but no lack of determination to make the best music possible. It was a great time for me as I was trying to play as much jazz as I could then.

JGL: Who were your influences on guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?

JH: As a beginning guitar player I listened to Cream era Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and the Beatles and the Stones, mostly. To this day I still love most of the music those guys made, and there’s a lot of great guitar playing there.

In the jazz guitar world Wes is a constant for me. I think of him as the Shakespeare of jazz guitar: the standard by which you measure everyone else. And yet it’s funny to think of him as any kind of ‘standard’ because he was so radically unusual – there was no one like him. But that’s genius for you.

I listened to a lot of the well-known, established greats when I was learning jazz guitar, including Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Grant Green, George Benson, and Pat Martino, and many others, too. I often heard Harry play live, whose chord playing always astounded me, and Jimmy Ponder, too, who, all by himself, could swing like a big band.

JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

JH: I’ve recently discovered Billy Bean, and I’m sorry it took so long. In an instant, he became one of my favorite jazz guitarists. There’s wasn’t a lot of him recorded, and you have to dig for what there is, but what a treasure. I think he had the most beautiful phrasing and the most beautiful time feel of any guitar player, ever. More than just an amazing natural, he had incredibly high standards and he sounds like he rarely put the guitar down.

JGL: Definitely worth checking out! Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

JH: Well, I don’t really think of my life as one of a jazz guitarist’s, but the interest is still alive and well, in spite of the fact that my gigs are not jazz gigs. I’d have to give a couple of my most enduring, favorite players, like Wes, George Benson (and now Billy Bean), as well as Harry the credit for making it a lifelong passion for me.

JGL: If you had to come up with two or three personal habits – be they musical or personal – that helped you get to where you are today, what would they be?

JH: Sometimes I find I’m better at these ‘habits’ than at other times, but these seem important to me, especially in the long run.
1) Strive to know who you are, then develop that person (with plenty of self-acceptance).
2) Be self-disciplined, but be patient.
3) Find the right balance of attention to the past, present, and future (in life as well as music-making).

JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?

JH: I’ve had times where it’s felt easy, and times when I’ve struggled. I think it helps to stay in one place where there are a lot of work opportunities and a lot of like-minded musicians, but I found even in a place like that it can take many years to feel confident that the work will continue to come in regularly. Free-lancing is not for the faint-of-heart!

JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?

JH: When I was a kid playing rock and blues my first real guitar was a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. My first real jazz box was a Gibson Johnny Smith guitar. I have a few guitars I use regularly, including a Gibson CS336, a Gibson SG, a Fender Telecaster, and a Wysocki Tele. I have two jazz guitars, a fine blonde Yamaha with a floating pickup, a beautiful guitar that reminds me of a Johnny Smith in a way, and a smaller body Ibanez George Benson model which has a surprisingly ‘woody’ tone.

JGL: You have been in the Steely Dan guitar chair since late 1999. I realize you probably get this question asked a lot, but – for the sake of Jazz Guitar Life readers – how did you end up playing for Steely Dan? Was there an audition process or were you asked to join Steely Dan outright?

JH: I was recommended by Ted Baker, their keyboardist at the time, to play on some recording sessions for the record Two Against Nature. I did a few sessions in late 1999 and early 2000, and somewhere during the course of those they popped the question: “Would I like to go on tour with the band?” You know my answer!

JGL: From what I’ve seen on the live Two Against Nature DVD, you strike a nice balance between what the original solo parts were and your own voice. How challenging was it to find that balance and were you expected to outright copy what Carlton, Diaz and others put down, or you were allowed to be your creative self? How did you choose which original parts to keep and which to bypass so to speak?

JH: That DVD was done very early in my playing career with Steely Dan, and I do think I’ve made a bit of progress since then, particularly in finding a way to make the gig my own. When I first started working with the band it certainly felt like a daunting task to somehow honor what I loved about the records and also find a way to make it all feel natural and personal coming from me. Thankfully my instincts guided me well. Donald and Walter have never told me what to play; I’ve always had free reign to approach the gig the way I wanted to, and over the years I feel like I’ve gotten a handle on it.

JGL: I realize that when you are on stage with Steely Dan, that is usually the result of a very long work day leading up to the gig. What does a day in the life of Jon Herington entail?

JH: That can depend on how beaten up I feel by the gig and the travel! On a good day, I find a quality cappuccino, do some exercise, maybe do a little bit of work on one of a couple of musical projects I brought with me to try to chip away at while on the road, perhaps do a phone interview, or maybe take my camera out to see if I can find anything to photograph. Then, if it’s a show day, it’s out of the hotel, onto the bus, and over to the venue for sound check. After a dinner break it’s showtime, then there’s a little bit of time to chill before we get back on the soul bus to ride to the next city. That’s a pretty typical day.

JGL: Thanks for sharing that with us Jon. Now…let’s talk a little about your new CD. I’ve enjoyed listening to it and was more than a little surprised – in a good way – how blues/rock based it was. I of course had heard you play with Steely Dan and originally heard you play with a one off group called Chroma (featuring Mike Stern)…so was expecting a little more fusiony type playing. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with your earlier work and wondering if there has been a musical progression leading up to where you are today or have you always played and composed in this style?

JH: Over the years I’ve composed in a variety of styles, starting with a sort of bluesy pop rock when I was quite young, moving through a distinct jazz phase of instrumental tunes, and eventually getting back to a kind of pop rock style of songwriting which also includes some blues and jazz elements.

When I was getting the music together for the latest record, “Time On My Hands,” I had a particular concept in mind. I wanted to make sure I got a certain kind of personal guitar playing on the record without sacrificing the quality of the songs themselves. It was really the first time on a vocal album that I insisted on putting the guitar in the spotlight and stretching out on my solos. It called for a different approach to the writing, because I found I needed a certain tone in the lyrics to match the character of the songs, which were really built to accommodate the soloing. Luckily, I found two great collaborators for the lyric writing, Dennis Espantman, my bassist, and Jim Farmer, who each knew how to nail the character and tone we needed lyrically.

JGL: I’ve noticed that not only are you a songwriter, but also a lyricist. How has this affected your compositional approach and has this ability allowed you to get your music out to a greater number of folks who might be looking for more than just guitar instrumentals, no matter how great a player you are?

JH: Writing a song with words is a quite different job from writing music that’s instrumental only. So I approach each task differently. I find it much easier to come up with music than lyrics, but I’ve always loved songs with words, and I find it impossible to resist writing and singing them. After all, my early influences from that time of the British invasion contained a wealth of great songwriting as well as great guitar playing, and all of that seems to have really stuck with me after all these years.

As far as whether writing songs with words has helped me reach more people, I can’t really say, but certainly there are a lot of people who love songs with words out there.

JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?

JH: Mostly I would like to have enough money to afford a comfortable retirement! I suppose what I might need to get there is a winning lottery ticket!

JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?

JH: I’d like to go back to the recording of a concert I played when I was 16 or 17 years old with a regional ‘all star’ high school orchestra where I flubbed an alto saxophone solo on a Gershwin song. It was the first record I ever recorded, and my shame is everlasting, though thankfully I lost the record somewhere along the line, and I doubt anyone else saved any copies.

JGL: LOL. I think you’ve more than made up for that one musical transgression!! As we near the end of this interview is there anything coming down the pike we should know about?

JH: Yes, absolutely! A new, flub-free record of 12 songs with my band, tentatively titled “Adult Entertainment.” I expect it to be an entertaining record from two standpoints – the lyrics, and a kind of mid-sixties retro musical vibe – all in all I think it will be a lot of fun.

JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar as a career?

JH: Do it only if you have to. It’s not likely to be easy, so you’d better love every minute of it. Loving it is the only thing that will get you through the tough times.

JGL: Jon, I can’t imagine that you have any time to teach, but if so, do you teach privately or through an academic body?

JH: I do teach, mostly when I’m off the road, but occasionally even when I’m on the road, lately sometimes via Skype. It’s all private teaching, and I’m not connected with any academic body. I think with all the touring I do, it would be difficult to work on a strict schedule for a school.

JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

JH: I’ve never had second thoughts about my career path, such as it has been. I think I was extremely lucky, in that I never felt like I chose a career. Somehow I was simply able to do what I loved without having any real long term goals and without having to do any real self promotion. I just tried to play music I loved and play it well (and I also played a lot of music I didn’t love, though I tried to play it well, too), and I stayed interested and engaged in it every day. If it turned into a ‘career,’ well that was never something I thought about, it just sort of happened as all those single days added up to many, many years.

Of course I sometimes wonder what else I might have done if I hadn’t been so involved in music. I think the next most likely thing I might have gotten absorbed in would have been some kind of writing. After that, perhaps some type of visual art. Those are things that interest me, and that I think I might have had some sort of talent for, but I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to devote myself to music making.

JGL: Apart from playing guitar, composing, arranging and producing…if you have any time left in the day, what else do you like to do for fun?

JH: I like to read, and I have a newfound interest in photography (though I’m a total beginner).

JGL: Thank you Jon for taking the time to talk with us on jazzguitarlife.com. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.

JH: Thank you Lyle!

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