by Brian D. Holland
Jimmy Herring, lead guitarist for Widespread Panic and The Jimmy Herring Band, considers himself fortunate to have worked alongside many of the musicians he’s respected and adored for years, and that includes situations in which he had to assume the duties of a few of the more esteemed guitarists in history. But along with being fortunate, the 47-year-old Fayetteville, North Carolina, born and bred guitarist has had the skill and the aptitude to do so.
Herring has a huge amount of respect for both the music being made and for the musicians making it, a viable trait for someone who needs to play the instrument in a manner that befits everyone involved. This includes an adaptable persona and the capacity to adjust to each situation. It’s not that this hasn’t been done before, as other guitarists have accomplished it successfully, but to subsist prominently within the circle of players who possess such a high level of diversity in character and skill is no small achievement. It fulfills the meaning of the word “musician” in every way.
Through determination, hard work, and the support of caring parents who understood his aspiration since the beginning, Herring eventually acquired the tools of a diverse guitarist. He likes to stress the point that parental support was an essential component of his early musical education, and is astounded by the thought of players having to reach their goals without it.
Hearing the music of The Dixie Dregs for the first time when he was young, especially the guitar playing of Steve Morse, opened the doors of his mind to the potential of diversity in modern music. In laying the ground work to what would transpire into a serious musical career, Jimmy’s stints at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and especially GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology), in Los Angeles, eventually led to a position as lead guitarist in Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit. Known for their jazz fusion direction and improvisational flavoring, the band also included bassist Oteil Burbridge, who would later become a member of The Allman Brothers Band. Consequently, the developmental seeds for Jimmy’s contributions to the jamband community began to cultivate and flourish.
Today, Jimmy Herring is known for his diverse guitar playing approach; a talent that includes astonishing improvisational skills, assorted tones, and an incredible knack to fit in and play whatever style the music calls for, yet with the amazing corresponding capacity to be uniquely creative as well. He’s known for his appearances with The Allman Brothers Band, where he filled in for Dickey Betts back when the guitar icon departed the band of which he was an original member for over thirty years.
Reluctant at first to attempt to fill the shoes of one of his favorite guitarists, Jimmy endured the awkward situation by utilizing his extraordinary talent within the music he adored, through the camaraderie that transpired between him and the rest of the band as well. He experienced the same situation as a member of The Dead, where his position was to learn an incredible amount of songs and stand onstage in the spot once occupied by Jerry Garcia.
Besides the bands in which he was/is an original member (Jazz Is Dead, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Frogwings, Project Z, The Jimmy Herring Band, and more), Jimmy had been involved with The Allman Brothers Band, The Dead, The Other Ones, and Phil Lesh and Friends. He has been onstage and on record with countless acts, including Gov’t Mule and The Derek Trucks Band. A member of Widespread Panic since replacing George McConnell in 2006, it’s a gig that satisfies his taste for tone and sound.
Jimmy Herring has been keeping busy in 2009, to put it lightly. Following a tour with his namesake fusion assembly, The Jimmy Herring Band, he’s been touring throughout the summer and fall with Widespread Panic, opening for the Allman Brothers Band in most places. They’re highlighting “Free Somehow”, Panic’s latest release and the first studio CD to feature Herring’s amazing guitar chops and tone. The Jimmy Herring Band recently released Lifeboat as well, a collection of intricate jazz and rock flavored arrangements. Derek Trucks appears on the album, as well as other special guests.
Below is my recent interview with guitarist Jimmy Herring, in which he talks about his adoration for the Allman Brothers Band, falling into place in Widespread Panic, musical parameters, his heavily driven guitar comfort zone, gear, and much more.
Brian D Holland: Jimmy, you’re considered one of the more prolific, dynamic, and diverse guitarists on the scene today, one who can play with the likes of The Dead one day, The Allman Brothers another day, jammers Widespread Panic next, and end up recording a solo CD of amazing rock and largely intricate fusion material. Though I agree with that assessment of your playing, do you agree with it?
Jimmy Herring: Well, I have diverse taste in music, Brian. I’ll admit that. I just know that I love all kinds of music. We were lucky to have had the music we had when we were young. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Allman Brothers. Rock and roll couldn’t get any better than that.
Brian: It must have been quite a demanding upbringing for you, being the son of an English teacher and a superior court judge. Were your parents supportive in your career choice as a musician?
Jimmy: Absolutely, and I think about that every day. My father has since passed away, but they were the most supportive parents anybody could have. I was talking to somebody about this last night. I’ve met musicians, world-class virtuosos, who didn’t have that support system at home. I was like, my God, how did you ever get so great? They’d tell me that their parents were always yelling at them, and saying things like, “This music thing is fine for a hobby.” And as good as these people are, I won’t mention any names, but one of them got to meet my mom at one time. She was at a show. Another musician on the bill came up and started talking to her. He asked her, “Were you real supportive of Jimmy when he was younger and wanted to play music?”
My mom said, “Well, he was real serious about it, and he spent a lot of time with the instrument. Instead of going out partying, he was in his room practicing.” So, they knew I was serious, and they totally supported that. I can’t imagine the obstacle to overcome if you didn’t have that support system at home.
Brian: You were educated at GIT, the Guitar Institute of Technology, in Hollywood, California, and you also attended the Berklee College of Music summer session. Basically, you went on your own after that. Is that correct?
Jimmy: Yeah. I was eighteen when I went to Berklee. A friend of mine who was a great drummer, and who was one year older than me, went to Berklee for a summer session when I was graduating [high school]. He came back a different musician. He was even better than he was before he left, and he was good when he left. But he returned with all kinds of new music, and he was talking about all these people he had heard. It made my eyes open wide.
My parents were pro-education, so they sent me to Berklee for a summer session, which is basically an evaluation. You go there for six or seven weeks and they evaluate you to let you know if you’re Berklee material or not. It was wonderful, a great experience. I got accepted to the school, but I didn’t go because I just wasn’t ready for that kind of an academic commitment at that time. I still wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll at that time and they were so heavy on the jazz. The jazz I was leaning toward was still rock oriented fusion, like Mahavishnu Orchestra or the Dixie Dregs, and I was really into that stuff. But, long hair, solid body guitars, and string bending was not a big part of the Berklee program in 1980. It was even frowned upon in some ways, so I felt like I needed to do some shedding before I went back to a place like that. So, I went back home.
But, three years later I saw an ad for GIT, and I noticed that they had a rock department at their school. It wasn’t all about jazz; it was about all kinds of things. Although I thought I should check it out, I didn’t think it was an option because it was so expensive and so far from home. L.A. is a long way from Fayetteville, North Carolina. [Laughing] But, I went to my parents and told them that I really wanted to go to that school. I was serious and ready to buckle down, to work, study, and be really dedicated. I knew that there wasn’t anything in Fayetteville for me. I loved it there, but I couldn’t get any work there.
The music I was into was so fusion oriented, and the only work was in pop music. Those people thought I played too many notes, and I probably did. I was young and had an attitude, not toward other people, but I wanted to play challenging music. So, they said yes, and I couldn’t believe it.
I went out to California, and one of my best friends out there was Jeff Buckley. He was an amazing musician; he had the whole package. We were inseparable when we were in school together. He was younger than me, by about four years. He was eighteen and I was twenty-two or something, but he was just a freak, man! He had the best set of ears of any musician I’ve ever known! We were in the same ear training class, the same theory classes, and we spent a lot of time out of school together, along with a lot of other people, too, who were great musicians. So it was a wonderful environment to be in.
We’d go see Allen Holdsworth and stuff, and Steve Vai came to the school and did a clinic. And the teachers at the school were great also, like Don Mock and Scott Henderson. It was awesome. So that was a great experience, but I knew Hollywood wasn’t for me.
Brian: One of your biggest influences was Steve Morse. What was it about Morse’s playing that you found to be so inspirational?
Jimmy: Yeah, man. Everything! Well, I was from the south and I was an Allman Brothers fan. It was the music that shook the early part of my playing and everything. When the [Dixie] Dregs came along, it immediately changed my life. I mean, that day! It’s a funny story, but to just cut to the chase, my mother somehow ended up with this Dregs album. She brought it to me and said that she thought I might like it, probably because the guy on the back had long hair.
It was a joke almost, because I had long hair, so you’ll probably like the music. We laughed about it! And the name of the band was Dixie Dregs! I assumed it was some kind of southern rock band, and I wasn’t into that. In my stupid, young mind, I had moved forward from that. I didn’t listen to the record for months probably. It just sat there.
And then, one day when I was sweeping the basement, I thought of putting it on. The first song was “Take It Off The Top”, one of their hard rocking instrumental extravaganzas. It knocked me right off my seat. The next song was this supercharged bluegrass tune. And that knocked me off my seat. And then there was a classical duet! You know what I mean. Then there was a funk tune and then an electronic chamber music tune! So, from the first time I heard the Dregs it immediately changed my life. Then I realized that they toured all the time, and that they played close to where I grew up almost quite regularly.
So I turned into a Dreghead. I’d get into my car and travel two or three hundred miles, wherever I had to drive to see them. I became known to their crew as North Carolina. I was at so many shows that they called me that because it was the state we were in when they saw me. Every gig in North Carolina; Greenville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, or Wilmington, you know. Wherever they played was that redheaded kid. [Laughing] I got to know the road crew, and I started helping them load the equipment in. They started to trust me and would let me set up amps and stuff. They liked it, because they could just point, and go, “Hey, Red, grab that. Put this here and that there.” Sooner or later, some of my friends started telling the crew guys that I play, and that I was into the Dregs. I was like, “Shut up! Don’t say anything to those guys. They work for Steve Morse.” [Laughing]
Brian: You’re known for your sporadic appearances with the Allman Brothers Band over the years. Though you’re also good friends with them, you declined membership after being asked to join. I had read somewhere that it was because you felt limited in the musical spectrum. Is that the real reason?
Jimmy: The reason I couldn’t stay with them was because I’m a fan foremost, and I couldn’t imagine them without Dickey. You know what I mean? Don’t get me wrong; I love what they’re doing now. With Warren they have a history, and he’s a song writer and singer, too. He and Gregg have an incredible writing rapport. So that makes sense. With me there, we were playing vibrant music and it was great, and I was enjoying every note of it.
Brian: Dickey Betts and Great Southern is a great band, too.
Jimmy: They’re a great band! Dickey’s like royalty to me, man. But so are all of them. It’d be the same thing in my mind if Keith Richards left the Rolling Stones. I’m not as interested in them as I am the Allman Brothers, but it’s the only analogy I can think of. But you know what I’m saying. I love those guys, and I’ve told them that I love them more than I can ever convey in words. I said I was enjoying it so much, but you’re going to go a lot further if I step down.
I really thought that they’d work it out with Dickey; that’s what I really thought. I thought they’d eventually work things out and things would be right.
Warren and I were playing together with Phil Lesh. I was talking to Warren the whole time this was going on. I called him almost immediately when they first offered me the job. And I was like, “Warren, what the hell! They’re offering me the job.” He was like, “Jimmy, you’ve got to do it.” I said, “I want to, Warren, but the Allman Brothers without Dickey?” He goes, “I know. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
But, then he told me to follow my heart. And I did. I followed my heart and did the gig for a while and enjoyed every note of it. Two of my best friends in the world that I feel totally comfortable around were in the band, Oteil [Burbridge] and Derek [Trucks]. And Warren is also a very close friend. So that made it easy, and I love Butch and Jaimoe, and I love Gregg. I’m star struck by Gregg! He’s the coolest rock star in the world! He’s one of those icons that I feel greatness when I’m around, and I don’t even know what to say to him. But I am friends with them and I love them to death. But it just didn’t feel right. I felt like I was holding the band back. Anyway, that’s it.
Brian: Is it an easy mindset adjustment between being Jimmy Herring the solo artist and going between bands like the Allman Brothers, Phil Lesh, the Dead, Aquarium Rescue Unit, and Widespread Panic? In other words, do essentials and specifics exist to become the required guitarist in each situation?
Jimmy: Yeah, man. Definitely. They’re completely different. The one thing that ties it all together is that’s it’s all interesting music that I really love. But yes, musically they are quite different. In the Allman Brothers, it’s my roots, and it feels so natural. I can kind of play the way I play, within the parameters of that band.
That’s where it starts to get tricky. Where are the parameters? You know. I’ve gotten into free jazz, too. But I don’t want to be out there playing free jazz on “Stand Back”. You see what I’m saying? So, I have to know where the lines are, the unwritten lines. And with Phil Lesh, I can’t really play in the same aggressive manner in which I’ll play with Aquarium Rescue Unit, because it’s not that kind of music. It has parameters.
But, the parameters are huge; it’s really free! But you still have to know what’s appropriate and what’s not. And I struggle with it at times. Even the sound of the amplifier I might use might vary from one gig to the other. Like with Phil, he doesn’t want anyone to try and play like Jerry. That’s not what his goal was. He’s not looking for that. But I try to be in that kingdom, because if I play with a Marshall, all rigged up as if I was playing with Guns ‘n Roses or something, that would’ve been inappropriate. It took me a while to find what felt comfortable in the parameters of that gig, but it ended up being a Fender Twin, a clean Fender type sound with single coil pickups. And that’s what Jerry was into, you know. It’s a beautiful sound; I mean, his sound was absolutely gorgeous. His touch was so sensitive and delicate, and he was really amazing.
When playing with them [the Dead], I threw myself into it wholeheartedly and pretty much lived it. I had to surround myself in a Grateful Dead cocoon to try and get in that vibe. With the Dead, there are three hundred songs. [Laughing] Well, I’m exaggerating a little.
To be more specific, it’s upwards of two hundred songs, maybe around the two fifty mark, you know, that they’re drawing from. They’re not all originals, but if you’ve got to play it then you’ve got to play it. That means you’ve got to learn it. There’s a huge catalog of music with them. That’s the muscle they flex. And I don’t normally play the way I had to play doing that music. I had to find a new way to play. So it was a major education, and I loved it, man. I absolutely loved it. The tunes were so special, and the people were so special that I got to work with. And not only that, but it was a total challenge to learn all those tunes, and to not approach them the way I’d normally play, with a more overdriven guitar sound. I couldn’t play like that; it didn’t fit the music.
But with the music I’m playing with this group, the Jimmy Herring Band, we don’t have that many songs, not even close. But then with [Widespread] Panic, they also have big muscle when it comes to songs. They have a lot of tunes.
So, it’s also a bunch of tunes to learn. But they’re really into a heavily driven guitar sound. So I can go back to that, and that’s really my comfort zone anyway, an overdriven guitar sound. You can be more expressive. You can play notes that’ll sustain more; you can bend notes and they’ll sustain while you’re holding them. You don’t have quite as many options with the clean sound.
Brian: You’re also known for your improvisational skills and for forming intricate solos without repeating phrases. Is that something that’s typically on your mind when soloing?
Jimmy: I try not to repeat phrases unless it’s a theme I’m trying to emphasize. But I repeat stuff all night long. It’s very nice that people say that, if their saying that, but I struggle with that. I feel like I play the same solo every time a lot. Hopefully I’m not, but I’m conscious of it, and I’m always trying to work toward developing more ideas.
You might have a lot of songs that are in a certain tonality, like say the minor scale. There are a lot of songs in minor keys. You have a certain vocabulary when playing in a minor key. Another song might be in a different minor key, but instead of A minor it’s E minor. Well, it’s still the same vocabulary because it’s minors. So, you start to realize, “God, man, I’ve got to find a bigger vocabulary,” because we’ve got a lot of songs that are minor. That’s where you run the risk of repeating solos every song. One of the interesting things about Panic is that they have a lot of different tunes in different tonalities, the Dead even more so. The Allman Brothers tend to have songs in either a minor tonality or a major pentatonic tonality.
Brian: Because of the blues, of course.
Jimmy: Right, because of the blues. But, then there’s “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica” that tend to be in the major pentatonic tonality. And they’re all wonderful, but it’s a style, you know. That’s Dickey’s style.
In Panic you have a few more different tonalities to draw from. Some of the exotic tonalities like a harmonic minor scale, the Lydian mode, the Phrygian mode, and things like that. And with my group, the band we’re out with right now, it’s not about little songs. That’s not what it’s all about in this particular outfit. It’s the challenging tunes. The tunes are super hard to play. It’s not that the melodies are hard to play; the melodies might be simple, but when you have to solo through the chord changes.
You see, when the chord changes are changing keys all over the place, you can’t just pick one scale and play at that scale over the whole chord progression like you can in a lot of music. Every time the chord changes, you have to change the scale you’re playing. And, you know, it’s a constant challenge. Some songs go through a different chord change every measure, and some with two chords for every measure. It’s quite a challenge, so rather than a hundred songs, we might only have twenty-five. But every night is a major challenge just to approach all the sets of chord changes in a different way.
Brian: You started your musical education as a saxophonist, correct?
Jimmy: Yeah, but that was just sixth grade, and I didn’t even know about real music at that point. And I was just playing the written music that the school band played.
Brian: The reason I brought it up was that other guitarists have mentioned to me about the benefits of being a horn player turned guitarist, guys like Robben Ford (saxophone) and Sonny Landreth (trumpet). The idea of having to take a breath and how it relates to proper phrasing are good lessons that can also be applied to other instruments, especially those where a breath isn’t needed, like in the case of soloing on the guitar. Young guitarists have a tendency to play too many notes without knowing how to properly start and end phrases.
Jimmy: That didn’t necessarily come into play with me, but I believe it’s absolutely true.
Brian: I listened to your new solo release, “Lifeboat”, and your phrasing is incredible. This point came to me as the saxophonist thing came to mind as well.
Jimmy: Well, thanks for noticing that, man. You’re noticing the little stuff, the stuff that a lot of people don’t pick up. I appreciate that you’ve been lisetning that intently. But I think it comes from listening to saxophone players. It wasn’t because I played the saxophone. Because when I played I was just a sixth grader. I didn’t even know about real music at the time. When I started listening to sax players, and the way they phrase things and take a breath, and Bruce Hampton was really the one who made me start thinking about that. He was like, “You never take a breath! You just play note after note after note, and you never take a breath!” You know what I mean.
He was busting my balls. But he was right. It was tongue in cheek. A lot of his lessons were under the façade of just kidding with you. But as they say, there’s truth in jest. So, he got me really conscious about that because he was absolutely right. I was not taking a breath; I wasn’t playing phrases. I just played the whole time. I had to make a conscious effort to stop listening to guitar players. I love guitar players; I love Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Steve Morse, Allan Holdsworth, Scott Henderson, and the list goes on and on. Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian, and Django, you know what I mean.
But, if you only listen to guitar players, and that’s the only inspiration you’re bringing, then you’re going to sound like guitar players. And I know I already do. Holdsworth, Scott Henderson, and Steve Morse are so hardwired into my subconscious that I can’t get away from it. I love those guys, and even though I haven’t listened to them for a pretty long time, it’s in there. But there are a lot of sax players I love to listen to.
This record [Lifeboat], in particular, is the first record I ever made where I was really conscious of phrasing. Every song and every solo has places where a saxophone player could’ve played all the phrases, because there are places to take breaths and stuff. I thought about it and made sure that it was not just some guitar bullshit, you know, that it was music and not just guitar.
Brian: It’s incredible music!
Jimmy: Man, thank you so much.
Brian: Now, in going between largely improvisational and jamband style music like the Allman Brothers and the Dead to the more structured technique of Lifeboat and fusion, is one more agreeable to you than the other?
Jimmy: It’s hard to say, man. I just think it’s all music and I like it all. They both have different challenging aspects about them, but it’s really the same thing. The chord changes in fusion are more difficult to solo over, and this is more of a general kind of blanket statement, because what is fusion anyway?
To me fusion is music that encompasses more than one genre. It could be blues and funk, or it could be jazz and rock. Lifeboat is the fusion of jazz, rock, blues, and some classical. I think about music in all those terms. I guess I would say that in a jamband, for the most part, improvisations are based on one chord. You have that same thing in fusion sometimes also.
Miles Davis did that a long time ago. He did it before the word fusion was born. It could also be two chords from the same key. Like in the Mahavishnu Orchestra song “Meeting of the Spirits”, there are two chord changes from the same key. You can play the same scale over both of those chords. But you can play that solo for as long as a jamband improvises on one chord, twenty minutes, fifteen minutes. But in some fusion music, or most of the music on Lifeboat, the chord changes change keys a lot. So, it becomes more of a challenge, at least for me.
Real jazz players would be laughing their butts off, because they wouldn’t find those songs to be that challenging. But I’m a rock guy who’s intrigued by jazz. The word fusion can be such a broad term, just like rock ‘n’ roll.
Some people call the music of Michael Jackson rock ‘n’ roll. To me, Led Zeppelin is rock ‘n’ roll. To Bruce Hampton, Little Richard is rock ‘n’ roll. So it really depends upon your age and generation, and the music you grew up listening to. I love Little Richard, don’t get me wrong. He is rock ‘n’ roll. But you know what I’m saying, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. That’s the rock of my generation. But the structured music of this record [Lifeboat] and certain fusion music are very challenging. You have a head that plays with another instrument, whether it be a flute or a saxophone. In the Dregs case it was violin and guitar playing the melodies together. They go over a certain set of chord changes, and then you might have a bridge and a melody over the bridge. Then you solo over the form. As the chord changes, you try to use the melody to guide your solo. The head is kind of looming in your improvisation. That’s what I shoot for.
Like the “Jungle Book Overture” piece, man, that’s a challenge to solo over. It’s not super hard. It wouldn’t be hard for a real jazz player, but for someone like me to say something important over those chord changes is a challenge. I have to work at it, whereas playing with a jamband and playing over one chord, you could say, “Hey, it’s in the key of A minor.” You can play freely without having to think that much.
Something funny that I should point out is that I know some jazz players who’re like, “Man, how do you play over one chord for five minutes straight?” They need a set of chord changes to weave their web.
Brian: [Laughing] I love a drone sometimes, nice and simple.
Jimmy: I love a drone! A drone is one of the most powerful things in music, in Indian classical music especially; like Ali Akbar Khan, or John McLaughlin’s “Shakti” period, when he played with a lot of Indian musicians. The thing that’s so cool about a drone is that there’s no chord, so you can imply. You can play a Major 7th on the way up and a Minor 7th on the way down. If there were a whole chord there then you’d have to kind of play off that chord. But with a drone, it’s wide open because it’s just a center. Any note can work with it.
Brian: Since replacing George McConnell in Widespread Panic in 2006, how has that situation been working for you? Will it be a lasting affair?
Jimmy: Yes! Oh yes, man. They’ve been good friends of mine since 1989. I felt really bad for George and his situation, you know. George is a good guy, and he was asked to come into that situation in a very tough set of circumstances. Mike [Houser] had just passed away, and he was loved by everyone. So, I can relate on some level to what he must have been going through. You find yourself standing in a place where someone before you was very much loved. It was kind of tough for him, man, because Mike had just passed, and it was a very tough time for everybody.
I know it wasn’t easy for George. They had called me before they called him, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to do it then. I was working with Phil. It’s not unfortunate that I was working for Phil, but that I couldn’t be there for them when they needed me. I went to Mike’s funeral. I knew him pretty well. We had played together a lot over the years. Panic took Aquarium Rescue Unit out on the road and treated us like family. They were some of the best people we’ve ever met. So I would’ve done anything for those guys. They had done everything for us on numerous occasions.
So, I was free when they called the second time. I didn’t know if it was intended to be a full time thing. I really kind of played it by ear. We all played it by ear, to see if I was a good fit and would work. If everyone felt like it was working then we’d just keep doing it. The plan is to keep doing it now. I love them; they’re wonderful people and they’re a wonderful band. I have no plans to stop playing with them.
Brian: February 7th, 2009, you, along with Steve Gorman (The Black Crowes), guitarist Audley Freed (Jakob Dylan, ex-Crowes, Blue Floyd) and bassist-singer Nick Govrik, made your live debut as Trigger Hippy at the Cox Capitol Theater in Macon, Ga. What got that ball rolling, and will there be more?
Jimmy: Yeah! We’d love to do more of it, but it’s a question of time. We’re all so busy. Steve and I have been friends for a long time. I’m friends with Chris and Rich [Robinson] and all the guys from the Black Crowes. Steve and I were talking for like three years, wondering when we were going to do something together.
He called one day, and I happened to be at home. He asked me what I was doing on Wednesday. I told him that we were at home and off the road for a little while. He said that he was coming into Atlanta and that he was bringing a friend as well. We went and got a room of rehearsal space and just jammed and had fun. We didn’t really play any songs; we just played for fun. We only ended up playing one show. It was a trip. We had so much fun. We had an opportunity to play a show, but I had Panic coming back very soon. I also had this tour coming up with my band. So, I told Steve that I loved it and that I’d love to do more, but I can’t do but one thing at a time. He knows how it is. He was facing the same deal with the Black Crowes. We have to get the logistics together and the time to do it, and still have a life at home with our families.
Brian: So, for you, this spring and summer, it’ll be the “Lifeboat Tour” with the Jimmy Herring Band and the “Free Somehow Tour” with Widespread Panic. You must be pretty excited about it all, and as you were saying, you’ll be pretty busy.
Jimmy: Yeah, and I don’t usually stay this busy. There wasn’t supposed to be a tour with this record, but when Panic decided to take some time off it created an opening and made it possible. We took it, you know.
Brian: Do you utilize a system when in the recording studio, like mic placement, amp volume, and the like?
Jimmy: Well, yeah, but when working with producer I use their system. If left up to me, it’s pretty much a (Shure SM) 57 and a (Sennheiser) 421. You put them on the same speaker. Move the mic around until you get the sound you’re looking for. If you put them on the same speaker, you don’t run into the phase problems that can happen if you try to put them on different speakers. You can put them right next to each other on the same speaker and then listen to one and then the other and keep moving them.
But, what I like to do is get the combination of both. But it’s really subjective. You can get great sounds in any number of ways, with any number of microphones, you know. Ribbon mics are great. A 57 is hard to beat; that should be in there somewhere. The tried and true are the 57 and the 421, with the engineer mixing them together until you get what you like.
Brian: I realize that you change gear depending upon the bands you play with and the sound the music requires. What are the gear specifics between the Jimmy Herring Band and the Widespread Panic tours?
Jimmy: Basically, with Panic I’m using these Fuchs Audio Technology amplifiers. They’re very high end amps made in New Jersey by a guy named Andy Fuchs. You know who he is, super gear, well built and very versatile amplifiers. They seem to be what’s called for in Panic. Panic is demanding. They have a sound that’s almost heavy metal in some songs.
Other songs need to be sweet and warm. The Fuchs is the only amp I’ve found so far that has the teeth to cover the heavy stuff and the warmth for the sweeter stuff, and the volume and the tone to deliver. And with this band, the Lifeboat thing, it’s a Fender Super Reverb. We’re playing in clubs for the most part. I use a Fuchs Clean Machine, too. It’s another Fuchs product that’s really very good. Bu,t the Fender Super Reverb has always been my go-to amplifier. The combination of the Super Reverb and Tone Tubby speakers can’t be beat for a club amp. I can’t find anything that’ll beat it. I know that there’s probably something out there, like Two-Rock makes great stuff. I know Victoria makes great stuff. I haven’t had time to research all of that stuff, so I just grab my ’64 Super Reverb and go.
Brian: And the guitars?
Jimmy: It’s made by Gene Baker, the great luthier, who now has his own company. He used to work for Fender as a master builder in the custom shop. He made me a basic Fender Strat, basically an American Standard, out of spare parts that were lying around. He put some Duncan ’59 pickups in it. It’s kind of like trying to put the Gibson and the Fender thing into one package. Of course it doesn’t sound like a Gibson just because it has PAFs, but it is warmer than your average Stratocaster. I’ve been playing that guitar for a long time. I’m still playing it. But, Fender just made me a really nice Stratocaster. I just got it like a week ago, so I’m playing that, too, on some songs.
Brian: Has it been modified to your specifications?
Jimmy: It has, but it’s stock as far as the pickups go. It’s kind of like a Jeff Beck Strat. It has the noiseless ceramic pickups. The body’s pretty much like a Jeff Beck Strat, but the neck has been built to my specifications, with the flatter radius and bigger frets. It’s got the twelve-inch radius and the 6000 fret wire, which I think is the biggest fret wire made. I like big frets. [Laughing] It has one of those roller nut things, so it doesn’t go out of tune real bad when using the tremolo. I’m really enjoying it.
That’s what I’m using right now. But, I love Paul Reed Smith guitars and Gibson guitars. I don’t have many Gibsons, but I have a 335 that I used on the album on some stuff.
Brian: What about the SG that Derek Trucks gave you?
Jimmy: Yes! My son has that one. He’s got that ’70 SG. It’s pretty much his guitar. Of course, he’ll let me borrow it if I need it. He loves it so much and Derek’s thrilled that he’s playing it.
I used the 335 on “Lifeboat Serenade”. I used it for the solo in the middle of the song. It’s a great guitar. I love Gibsons. But, for me, PRS’s are some of the best guitars I’ve ever touched. There are subtle differences between the scale lengths of Fenders, Gibsons, and PRS’s. That’s what makes them feel and sound different, to me anyway.
Fenders have a 25 and a half inch scale and the frets are far apart from each other when you get high on the neck, so it’s a lot easier to be agile with the Fender in the high register because the frets aren’t so close together. But, the downside is that you have to work a lot harder when bending notes. The necks longer, so you have to push the string further to reach the pitch when bending from a D to an E. It’ll hurt your hand if you’re not used to it.
The Gibsons are super easy to play because of their 24 and three quarter scale length. Their quite a bit shorter, so it’s easier to bend the notes. However, the downside is that higher on the neck the frets are closer together. It’s hard to get my little sausages in there. [Laughing] A PRS is 25 dead even. They’re all very subtle differences in scale length, but it does make a difference.
My recent pilgrimage back to Fender is about the scale length. I think I can play the instrument better because of the frets being further apart in the high register. I kind of dig having to work a little harder. But, then when I pick up a PRS, I go, “Oh my God! This is incredible!” And then, with Gibson, I go, “Why did I ever leave Gibson?” They’re all so wonderful for different reasons. Though I love them all, right now I’m in a Fender frame of mind.