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Published: 2012/09/07
by Brian Robbins

Jimmy Herring: Many Tones, Many Changes

How structured were the arrangements going in?

It’s probably about what you would guess: like on the first song – “Red Wing Special” – we just had a simple form that we followed. In the middle we gave the drums and bass a chance to solo over the same form as the fiddle player and I were soloing over. It was pretty regimented, but not in a way that was confining. In jazz, that’s kind of a standard thing to do. And then there are songs like “Miss Poopie” – that section in the middle where the guitar solo is? That was free-form, live in the studio. I just played a solo, you know?

I was looking at the studio as a different kind of entity than what a live gig would be. It’s already got me thinking about how to approach the next record – more from a live perspective.

It’s hard to go into the studio and play live unless you put everybody in the same room with their amps and everything … but the downside of that is, your guitar amp will bleed into the drum mics or whatever. People will do it and put the amps in different rooms, but then you have to wear headphones to hear yourself …

And it changes things.

It does, man – it changes things greatly. Most of the time, that’s why I end up re-doing my solos: I can’t get into the spirit with headphones on.

But I learned a lot during this process and I think next time we’re going to set everybody up in the same room- a big room – and set up like we do on stage. We might even set up on a stage; bring the studio equipment there and play live. Not necessarily in front of an audience, but live as far as we’re concerned. And then if there’s anything that I want to overdub on it, it could be added later.

I love orchestration and, unfortunately, in a 4-piece band, there’s only so far you can go with it. As a result, I write all these songs that need orchestration and we end up overdubbing. On this record, we had John Keane’s pedal steel which added a nice texture to the music on some songs. It sort of takes the place of having a string section or a horn section holding long notes behind the music, you know?

Maybe for the next album, we’ll pare it down a little, but that might change … who knows? (laughter)

You mentioned “Red Wing” – the notes from my first listen to the album were “Django Reinhardt! Stéphane Grappelli!”

(laughs) I’ve always loved Django, but I couldn’t possibly delude myself into thinking that I could ever play anything along that level … really man, there’s a whole sub-culture of people who are brilliant at playing Gypsy jazz. To me, it was just an influence, but it is the first thing people say when they hear the tune. It does have that kind of swing to it.

To me, the song is about a train – (chugs out a train-like rhythm) – in my mind, the Red Wing Special is a train; it wasn’t an on-purpose attempt to play a Gypsy jazz tune. I wanted to play a blues that had some interesting chords in it where you could play some scales other than a typical blues scale. We talked about the minor 6 scale earlier – that’s what this is. And playing the melody line with the fiddle player.

Were you thinking about a fiddle being there when you wrote it?

I was thinking about somebody playing the melody with me, and I discussed it with my son. He’s going to be 18 this month and he’s really into music; he has a neat perspective and I consult with him on a lot of things. I was thinking about a saxophone, but I’m not sure it would’ve sounded right unless you tongued every single note – rather than play it like most sax players would. I’m not sure the melody would’ve come off the way I needed it to.

It was my son who said, “Dad, what about a violin?” and that was the first time I thought of it – when he brought it up. And he was right: the violin has a bow, and he can bow every note that I pick … you see what I mean? Every bow stroke for him is like a pick stroke for me. It was the perfect solution.

I’d just seen this great fiddle player, Nicky Sanders, play a show with The Steep Canton Rangers the week before and he blew me away. I thought, “That’s the guy!” Jeff Sipe knew him and thought he’d be interested in playing on the record. I called Nicky up and we worked it out … he played his ass off, man.

And your son who provided the guidance … that’s Carter, who plays cello on the album?

Yeah, that’s right.

Oh, what beautiful weaving you two do on “Within You Without You”.

(laughs) Thank you – thank you so much, man!

It has to be a hoot to have him on the album with you.

Oh, yeah – it was incredible. Carter started playing the cello in – what? – 6th grade, I think. He took to it really fast. But then he kind of lost interest in it and started playing the guitar.

Uh-oh. (laughter)

Yeah – we’re real proud of him. He’s down in Atlanta with a lot of really good young players: Duane Trucks and his buddies are sort of taking Carter under their wing.

Duane – who is Derek’s little brother – and Carter are real tight. Duane’s going to marry my daughter Cameron, so that’s pretty exciting.

Well, congratulations!

Yeah, that’s going to happen next September. They’ve been together a long time – they didn’t rush into it.

That’s cool, Jimmy – I’ve always thought of the circle of players you’re in as family … it’s neat to see the closeness outside of the music, as well.

Yeah, the families are real tight. Duane moved to Atlanta and he’s connected with some really incredible musicians in that scene. They invite Carter to come and play guitar all the time … it’s really awesome to see him doing it.

But on this album, Carter’s on the cello, correct?

That’s right: when we needed a cello part for a couple of things, he was up for it and I was really happy with what he did. It was great to have him involved.

There’s something you’re doing during “Within You Without You” that reminds me of your solo on “Shut Up And Drive” on Panic’s Dirty Side Down. Once again, it’s another horn-like effect – this time, in terms of tone. Are you tickling the whammy bar?

Yeah, that’s it – you got it. It’s long notes and the bar, like you said. The thing about the twang bar is, I never used it until I was like … I don’t know … until I was 46 or 47! (laughter)

I never wanted to mess with one because, well … Jeff Beck, you know? Man, I’m just a Jeff Beck freak and he creates the most beautiful things with the twang bar. I mean, sure, he makes all those crazy noises, too – those guttural sounds – but he’s also able to emulate the human voice in a way that just freaks me out.

So I stayed away from the twang bar only because I knew if I got into it I’d want to be “Jeff Beck Jr.” (laughter) About three years ago Dave Schools had been given a bunch of live Jeff Beck performances and we started listening to them. I was so bowled over that I said, “Okay, that’s it – I’ve got to find out what this is all about.” And that’s when I started messing with the twang bar.

The biggest issue with those things is keeping them in tune, but Joel Byron – who is Panic’s guitar guy – knows how to do it. Joel does certain things to the bridge and to the nut that make all the difference. Of course, I’m not dive-bombing it or anything … the idea behind what I’m doing is to try to have a vocal-ish kind of thing.

When you’re playing straight-on guitar and you hit a note – say, like the E note on the second string at the fifth fret – and you do a vibrato with your fretting hand, you can only go above the note and back down to it. You can’t go below the note. But when a singer sings, they can vibrato above and below the pitch. In other words, they surround the central note with their vibrato.

If you bend a string before you pick it, you can do some of that; I’ve been working on it for years. But the twang bar really allows you to give the guitar a vocalist kind of quality; a slide guitar kind of quality; even a harmonica kind of quality.

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