Jimmy Herring: Many Tones, Many Changes
There are times on the Frogwings album [2000 release featuring Jimmy, Derek and Butch Trucks, Kofi and Oteil Burbridge, Marc Quinones, and John Popper] when it’s hard to tell the difference between what you’re doing with your fingers and Derek’s slide playing.
(laughs) Like I said, Derek’s had a profound influence on my playing. He’s the one who showed me the power of one note. But I could only get so far without using a slide – and I’ve always figured, “Why would I bother picking up a slide with this guy around?” (laughter) I mean, I don’t dare to even go to that place. (laughter)
But I would still pick up little things from Derek, even without the slide … I would get ideas that I would hear him play a lot; sometimes they would leak into my subconscious. I never picked his brain – “Would you show me this; would you show me that?” – but when you’re around someone like Derek, their influence is lasting. I’m still drawing on things I heard him play when he was 12 years old. (laughter)
So when I picked up the twang bar and started messing with it, I started to find little slide guitar-type things – and the vibrato was much more vocal-like. And I started to find these harmonica-style licks.
You mentioned the harmonica sound earlier. Can you give me an example?
Like on “Kaleidoscope Carousel”: there’s a solo at the end of that song that fades out and I was going for different ideas that I’d heard harmonica players play. The twang bar allows you to do things that you just couldn’t do without it.
“Kaleidoscope Carousel” has a definite melody, but it keeps shape-shifting as you go along – a very fluid feel.
Yeah, actually, it was sort of a collage. The idea was to just create a trance-like state – not have a definitive melody, but create a groove-oriented mood kind of thing. It was sort of an experiment. There are definitely melodies in it, but some of it is just what you said: sort of a shape-shifting thing.
John had me go into the room with my amp at one point to play some long, sustained notes. He’d had me do the same kind of thing on “This Cruel Thing” on Dirty Side Down. I told John I’d really like to try it on this album and he thought that it would work.
So I went and did a track of these long, sustained notes that had very little movement and a lot of feedback. After I did it once, John told me to do it again. I think I did six or eight tracks of these long notes – they were all different; I started at a different place each time. And then John played all of them back at the same time – I didn’t know he was going to do that – and it just sounded freaky! (laughter)
That’s where the “kaleidoscope” thing came in: it was kind of like looking through something and then turning it, changing it – like a kaleidoscope. The chords were changing, but not at the same time as one another. There was no plan to it whatsoever; it was totally spontaneous and totally improvised. The intro is that same part I was just describing, only we edited it down and ran it backwards.
The tune lives up to its title, for sure.
Yeah! (laughs) Thank you.
My take on “Aberdeen” was a theme song just waiting for the movie to be made behind it. What was the inspiration there?
Well … it was two days before the sessions and I knew I didn’t have enough songs … (laughter)
I was just downstairs in my basement, just playing guitar. I didn’t have a plan; I wasn’t trying to write anything; but I knew in the back of my mind I didn’t have enough tunes. That chord progression just came to me out of nowhere – that gospel kind of 3/4 or 6/8 deal – and I grabbed a piece of paper. That first chord progression came all at one time; then I knew I needed a bridge and a chorus so I started messing with it. It probably didn’t even take an hour to write – it just came out.
I didn’t have a melody to go over the chord progression when we recorded it, but I had to do the rhythm guitar part anyway, you know? I mean, I could hear things bouncing around in my head, but I did the improvised solo in the middle before I had the melody.
Which came from …?
Sitting on John Keane’s couch bouncing ideas off each other. I’d play something and he’d say, “That’s pretty cool”; or he’d sing something, sing a phrase and I’d play it back to him … that’s how it came about.
I was wondering if you had Ike Stubblefield in mind when you wrote “Aberdeen”. His playing is … whew!
Yeah, he’s fantastic, man. I knew from the beginning that we wanted him to play on it, but you know what? He wasn’t available when we laid the track down. (laughs) Yeah – we left him a place to play and he came in and did it.
If I had my choice, of course, I’d have everybody together and play it live … but unfortunately it doesn’t always work out that way. Everybody’s busy.
That’s the problem with being talented, Jimmy – you’re all wanted.
(laughs) I’m just lucky to have so many good friends, man! A lot of great people.
We should also mention Matt Slocum, who does some killer keyboard work of his own on this album. The cover of Jimmy McGriff’s “Miss Poopie” is a natural for two keyboard monsters like Ike and Matt.
Absolutely! Matt is one of the best players I’ve ever had the honor to work with. Yeah they kill “Poopie” … and that jazz tune on the record – “12 Keys”? Matt nails that. His solo is amazing; he learned that head and played it with me … he’s a mother – a real mother. (laughter)
“12 Keys” feels like you wrote it to challenge yourself. You can listen to it with one set of ears and it’s this easy thing that just flows; but if you really listen to it, you realize that there’s some serious shit happening.
Yeah, “12 Keys” is a tough one. It started out as a sketch: we were playing it live and you know the part where the organ and the guitar play that melody together? We were just using that as a solo section – before I wrote the actual melody for it in the studio. What happened was, I recorded a couple of solos over that section and then played them back. A lot of it wasn’t good, but there are a couple moments to it that I thought could be worked into a melody and I refined them from there. On one hand it’s not that complicated, but it is challenging because it does go through all 12 keys and it’s moving at a good pace.
But I’m glad to hear you say that it flows and it’s not hard to listen to. It might be harder than it sounds … which is better than sounding harder than it is! (laughter)
What are you playing for an acoustic guitar on “Emerald Garden” – is that your Baxendale?
Oh, man – I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Scott last year. What a sweet, talented soul.
Oh, he’s incredible, man. Joel Byron introduced me to Scott – Joel works in Scott’s shop when Panic isn’t on the road. I went over to Baxendale Guitar, saw some of the instruments, and said, “Holy crap!” (laughter)
I mean, this guy is world class – and he’s right here in Athens, GA, you know? How lucky are we to have a world-class luthier right here in our back yard? Acoustics, electrics … everything Scott does is amazing. You should see what he does with these old guitars like Harmonys and Kays.
Ah! The first one that caught my eye was a Harmony that he rebuilt for Jason Isbell. I saw a clip of Jason with Justin Townes Earle on Letterman last year playing this beautiful old archtop – great sound. When I asked Jason about it, he told me how Scott had rebuilt the guitar and brought its soul to life.
Oh, no doubt about it, man. He turns them into incredible instruments. And these little teenie parlor guitars – he handed me one when I was there once that already belonged to somebody else – they were coming to pick it up that day. I was blown away: “How much do you want for it?” “Somebody already bought it,” he told me. “Well, call ‘em up and see how much they want for it!” (laughter)
But yeah – he and Joel both do incredible work. I never had a custom-made acoustic before. In fact, I never really played much acoustic, I’m ashamed to say. Part of the reason is, when you’re in the studio, you can put a microphone on an acoustic and get the sound of the guitar – but when you’re playing live it gets harder and harder to do that; you’ve got drums, you’ve got other instruments that will bleed into those condenser mics … the audience, too. Those mics will pick up everything that’s on stage.
So you tend to use a pickup when you’re playing live … and to me, somehow, that’s not acoustic, you know? You’re not hearing the guitar – you’re hearing the pickup. Of course, they have come a long way and the technology is a lot better now … but what you heard on the record is a microphone.