Jon Herington

Interview by Dennis Morgillo

Madhouse Magazine: I see you're playing in the Masters of the Telecaster this week in New York City. Tell us what that's all about.

Jon Herington: That's right. It's on Thursday night at the City Winery. I'm not sure what time we start, but probably around 8:00 or so. Basically, it's a band that is run by Jim Weider, and G.E. Smith, two pretty well known names in the guitar world. G.E. has a long history of having gigged with Hall and Oates, and way back when on the Saturday Night Live show, and he was the MD for that. He went out on tour with ... I'm spacing on the name. The Pink Floyd writer/composer guy-

Madhouse Magazine: Roger Waters?

Jon Herington: Yeah, he was out on tour with Roger Waters for years. He's a pro, been at it for a long time, and a real vintage gear head. He's got all the great old instruments and knows everything about them. He's a trip. He's a lot of fun, and a beautiful player. Jim Weider has a long history with Levon Helm. He's been a rocker for a long, long time. We do a lot of ... Jim likes to do a lot of Roy Buchanan stuff on this. It's really a tribute to the instrument and its history, I guess. The cool thing for me is that they always work with three guitar players, but the third guitar player is a revolving door, and it's a guest chair, and I'm the guest on Thursday night. I've done it several times before. They keep calling me back, so I guess it's working out. It's a lot of fun. We each pick a handful of tunes, and we learn them real quick at sound check, and we have a blast. It'll be fun, and I hope we get a good turnout.

Madhouse Magazine: All right. Actually, I'm going to be there myself.

Jon Herington: Oh, cool. Good. I didn't know that.

Madhouse Magazine: I'll bring a friend, too. Yes.

Jon Herington: Please do. Bring many.

Madhouse Magazine: You know what you should do? You should show up with a Gibson Les Paul and throw them off and see how they freak out.

Jon Herington: [laughs] That would definitely throw a wrench in the works.

Madhouse Magazine: You've been playing with Steely Dan for quite a while now, and this seems like the dream job for a guitar player, but I can imagine it must've been hard in the beginning, because you have to learn all these iconic solos from these classic, beloved songs, and I'm assuming you learn them note for note, but these guys are some of the best guitar players of all time, so this must've been very challenging in the beginning.

Jon Herington: Well, it's true, it was challenging in the beginning. This will be year number 20 from the first time I worked with Donald and Walter. I did my first session in 1999, but I think it was in October or something, playing on the record Two Against Nature, which was their first studio record, I think, in about 18 years after Gaucho. It really was quite daunting in the beginning, because actually they don't at all require me to learn the solos note for note by any means. They're very free about that. Walter's not with us any more, unfortunately, but whenever I worked with them, and particularly in the beginning, I was ready to do whatever was necessary to make them happy, but I found that they were unbelievably quiet about what they wanted from me. I couldn't really get anything out of them at all. They basically gave me no direction, and I decided quite early that, okay, I'm either going to live or die by the sword here.

Jon Herington:    I said, "I'm never going to forgive myself if I try to guess what they want, and then it turns out they didn't want that and they fire me." I would've thought of that as a missed opportunity. Instead, I just went with my gut feelings about what I thought would be the best approach that I could do on this gig, and it was a combination of trying to balance what I love about the recordings, and the playing on the records, the choices of takes that Donald and Walter would make for the solos. Those are really, really ... As you said, they're iconic solos. A lot of people, I think, know those solos better than they know the lyrics of the songs.

Madhouse Magazine: Right. Exactly.

Jon Herington: That's true. There are times when I just feel like it would just be wrong not to reference either the sound or some part of the solo in a direct way. Sometimes, that involves maybe starting the solo just like the record. In Reelin' in the Years, I just can't imagine doing that song without playing what Elliot Randall played at the beginning of that. It's basically the melody, and I mean, it's what gets everybody out of their chairs as soon as they hear the first line. To deprive them of that would just really feel wrong.

Madhouse Magazine: You might get hit with a tomato, too.

Jon Herington: [laughs] That's right. The other thing is, because Donald and Walter were always such freedom loving jazz fans, they're fussy about musical values. They want things in tune, they want things in time. They appreciate great musicianship. They want things to sound great, but they don't want people locked into doing what was on the records. They were not at all attached to that. Because they're jazz fans, they want people to go for it in the moment in a way. For me, my job was always about balancing what I loved about the recordings, and making sure that I set the bar pretty high as far as the standard of what I wanted to play. It had to fit with the music. It had to serve the whole big picture, but if there was room for me to find some personal expression, then I wanted to grab it and take it. That's turned out to be a formula that works for me. As difficult as it can sometimes be, because it's ... In a way, it'd be easier to play the solos note for note, or to just improvise the entire gig, and to straddle both of those worlds sometimes feels like I'm working hard.

Jon Herington: I'm happy with the result, and I'm here 20 years later, so I guess I'm doing something right.

Madhouse Magazine: Yeah, absolutely. I saw you guys last summer, and a few times before, and you do a great job, so keep it up.

Jon Herington: Thank you, I appreciate it. I appreciate it. Thank you.
Madhouse Magazine: Do you remember how you felt during your first live gig playing with Steely Dan?

Jon Herington: Oh, I absolutely do. I'll tell you, I'll never forget it. I'll tell you why. The first actual gig I played, there were two nights at the old Sony Studios on the west side of Manhattan, because we were making that DVD that came out, and it was a big feature for PBS. It was their big fund drive push that year. We rehearsed only the tunes that we had to play on those two nights. They filmed everything, and it was intense enough, but there was a limited number of tunes that I had to learn. I got through that one, and then we had, I think, only a couple more days of rehearsals before we were off to Japan for our first real tour. That was the first real pure live gig that I did, because the other ones were recordings, and we had been rehearsing just for those live recordings.

Jon Herington: Here's what happened. Because we had such little rehearsal time going to Japan, before we went to Japan, we had a lot more tunes to learn, and so I remember the first gig in Japan, on top of my pedal board, I had several charts that were about eight pages long, all taped together. I didn't want to put them on a music stand, because I didn't think that would look professional, and mostly I knew the tunes, but sometimes, there was some little tricky section in the middle that I didn't know, so I remember on one of those tunes, a couple of those tunes, I was playing along, and doing fine, feeling pretty good, and then all of a sudden, I know, okay, here comes that section that I'm not really sure I remember.

Jon Herington: Then, of course, I looked down at this eight page mess on my pedal board, and I can't find where this little section is. I'm lost. I was so angry at myself, and so disappointed with that, but we just hadn't had time. What I did was, I went home, and I ... Well, home was the hotel room in Tokyo, and I went to the hotel room, and I stayed up all night memorizing the tunes that I had still needed charts for the night before, so that the next night, I'd be able to do it without ... and basically do it forever without a chart, because it just changed everything. Yeah, that was painful. I'll definitely remember that first gig, because it was embarrassing. I don't think it was a big deal to anybody else, but for me, it was huge. I began to just work a little harder after that.

Madhouse Magazine: I find that's always the things with charts. Either you lose your place, or the wind blows it, or something happens and makes it harder a lot of the times.

Jon Herington: For me, it's always a liability, and my vision isn't getting any better as I get older. Actually, the biggest difference to me, if your head's in a chart ... I find, at least for me, it's true, and that's some guys who don't sound like this at all to me, but when my head is buried in a chart, I just find I have less attention for the rest of the band, and for how I'm interacting with the band. It becomes a much more private enterprise, and it doesn't feel like at all ... I don't feel at all flexible like I do once I've memorized a tune, because then I'm actually looking at all the other guys in the band, and I'm listening. I'm just not so preoccupied in a narrow, tunnel vision kind of way. I'm really more open and tuned in to the rest of the band. To me, that's a much better way to make music. I try to always make sure, before the gig coming up, that I've got it in my head.

Madhouse Magazine: Absolutely. Do you have a favorite song when you're playing live, one that you think, "Oh, I can't wait to get to this part, this song."

Jon Herington: Well, there's so many great ones, it's really hard to say. Although, just because when we're on the road and we're playing a lot, a lot of times, we're doing similar set lists. They're never exactly the same. Usually, there's about five or 10 tunes that get rotated in and out, but some of the ones we play all the time, over time, they can get less exciting to play, if we play them too much. It helps to give them a rest and come back, and then all of a sudden, they're your favorites again. It's a funny thing. Even though there are tunes that I would say, "Oh, man. That's one of the greatest Steely Dan tunes ever," sometimes, I'm just like, "I wish I didn't see it on the set list," some night. I wish we could take a break from it, and then try to be fresher with it in a couple days. There's some that just never fail to just thrill me, and are fun to play, but it's because they're musically so unusual.

Jon Herington: I'm thinking of Babylon Sisters, that just never gets old to me. I don't know. We could play that all the time, and it never feels old. It's just so strangely weird and beautiful to me. A lot of that later writing is like that for me, but that's one. Third World Man is just a gem to me, and that's one of the few times where I try every time to play exactly what Larry Carlton played on the solo, because to me, I think it might be my favorite pop rock guitar solo of all time. I just always love doing that again. That's a favorite.

Madhouse Magazine: That's good stuff.

Jon Herington: There's so many. I mean, really, there's so many. I started playing an electric sitar guitar on a couple tunes, and so we used it on Bad Sneakers. We played Bad Sneakers a couple times in October, and it was really fun, just because we got that sound, like what you remember, the beginning of that tune, but it really is that same sound. We got one mounted on a special stand so I don't have to take my regular guitar off, and I can just lean over and play that part when it comes back.

Madhouse Magazine: That's awesome.

Jon Herington: It's not much, it just sounds so good, that it's been fun. That's a new favorite.
Madhouse Magazine: You grew up in Jersey, West Long Branch. What were your influences growing up? What made you play the guitar? Your first bands, that kind of stuff?

Jon Herington: Yeah, well, I mean, I was like many people of my age and my generation. I was pretty much hooked after I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. That was probably the most powerful thing, but I had been an avid 45 singles, vinyl collector as a kid. I loved The Beach Boys and The Four Seasons, and I loved Motown. I was an AM radio junkie even as a little kid. Then, when I saw The Beatles, I wasn't yet a guitar player. I was playing saxophone, and I had taken some piano listens. It was a semi-musical house. I remember making cardboard cutouts of John Lennon's Rickenbacker, and jumping up on the old furniture that was thrown down in the basement to these 45s, The Beatles 45s that we would spin. I was hooked in some kind of way, just on that pop music early, and loved it. Then, a few years later, I started joining bands and I was a saxophone player. That didn't last long, but thankfully, my mother let us rehearse in our basement, so all the other guitar players in the band, the two other guitar players used to leave their instruments and amps in my basement.

Jon Herington: They didn't practice, and they didn't take their stuff home. They just left it in my place. I went down there and had a field day, just learning guitar on my own. Finally, I was playing better than anybody in the band, and I convinced my parents that I needed an electric guitar, and so I was off and running. But, the other way I like to stress how important the radio was to me, was there was ... Around '68, I started playing the guitar, and it was the beginning and the heyday, really, of FM radio. It had switched from AM to FM. It was stereo for the first time. Great sound, and it was album oriented rock, of course. I started buying LPs instead of singles. My first buying trip will give you some idea of what I was into. I bought Cream's Disraeli Gears. I bought Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced, and I bought The Beatles White Album.

Jon Herington: That was my wheelhouse completely. I love guitar. I loved amps, because I liked the sound of the vocal quality that you get from turning up an amp, and the sustain and the bending of strings. All that is what I fell in love with, the electric guitar. It was so central to all that music at that time, that it was just an endless number of songs to try to figure out, and hunt and peck my way through.

Madhouse Magazine: There's nothing like that feeling, when a new album's coming out, and you sit down and you learn it.

Jon Herington: It was fantastic. I remember I got so good at dropping the needle on the record, that I could put it in the same groove I picked it up from when I was trying to figure something out. I did it for hours. I just spent hours and hours every day, just trying to figure out solos and guitar parts and even piano parts. I was so in love with the music, and I just was obsessive about trying to figure out what made it tick. That was my music education as a kid, in a way. That ear training, it's great.

Madhouse Magazine: Absolutely. Now, you also teach guitar as well, right?

Jon Herington: I do a little bit. Yeah. Because I'm on the road, sometimes as much as six months out of the year when you add up all the days, I don't really do any regular teaching. Occasionally, when I'm back in town, there are some students that'll get in touch with me. The last several years, I've been doing some educational videos for a great company called TrueFire. They're in St. Petersburg, Florida. They have a huge catalog of mostly guitar, but not just guitar, instructional video stuff with some fantastic instructors. Among them, Robben Ford and Larry Carlton, for instance. I'm in good company, and I've got two of their formal video courses available there and on my website, but I'm also excited about a new thing that they're launching, which is called a TrueFire channel, and basically, it'll be a monthly subscription for very low fee. People will be able to access all sorts of shorter and more informal instructional stuff that I'll be posting on the channel every month.

Jon Herington: It'll be some looser stuff that's more fun and not so ... not exactly educational in content, but there'll be quite a lot of educational stuff too. I'm excited about that, and we're going to probably launch it pretty soon. It looks like it's almost ready to start. Then, it's an ongoing thing that'll be changing. Every month, I'll be adding content.

Madhouse Magazine: That sounds awesome.

Jon Herington: I'm excited about that. That should be fun. I can do that pretty much anywhere I am, because the software's really pretty good and flexible, and I can do stuff from hotel rooms. 

Madhouse Magazine: What do you think's going to become of the future of music and the future of the electric guitar? There's definitely not as many kids picking up the electric guitar as there used to be. You think it'll become extinct someday, or it'll always be there?

Jon Herington: Yeah, that's an interesting thing. I mean, my guess is it'll be around for quite a while. I mean, it's true that it's not all the rage like it was when we were kids. My god, everybody played. I mean, in my high school class, I mean, it's amazing how many ... just the sheer percentage of people that were into music and playing drums, guitar, bass, or something.

jon Herington: From what I hear, at least from students, I've had so many students over the years tell me. "When I ask them are you getting to play with anybody?" They say, "Well, nobody really plays." This is just not the way it used to be. We were playing all the time.

Jon Herington: Yeah, I mean, it is different, but the other thing that's heartening about it is that, again, some of these students, even though it's not the same kind of milieu in their life like it was for us when we were kids, they are so into it, so they're warriors, and I know these guys are lifers. They're going to be playing forever. They fell in love with the guitar. I think maybe a smaller bunch, but maybe mightier bunch who are going to carry it on. If you think about it, I mean, people are still playing Bach on harpsichords and pianos and organs, you know what I mean? They play it because there's nothing like a real organ in the church. There's nothing like it. A great piano, there's nothing like it. I mean, the imitations are getting pretty good, but when you're in a room with an instrument, there's a certain kind of visceral power that you're just not going to get from anything through a pair of speakers. It's just going to be different.

Jon Herington: To be really, right in front of that thing that's moving air and that you can reach out and touch, the thing that makes the sound, that's pretty different. That's what people have always loved about playing electric guitar. When you're in front of an amp like that, there's something magical happening. It's pretty great. I think that appeal is going to stick with us. I don't think it's going to go away.

Jon Herington: Things get recycled too. I mean, you remember when there had been various ... There seemed to be cycles of guitar groups, like the punk thing was one of them, you know what I mean? They're people who discover it, and bring new life to it, and start writing tunes. It's a beautifully friendly instrument. In a way, you can get in the game with a simple, powerful accompaniment approach pretty easy. I mean, guitar's pretty good that way, especially electric guitar. It's a little easier to play than an acoustic guitar, because the strings are lighter. It's usually better action and the amp is doing a lot of the work for you. There's some simple ways to get in the game, and it's so much fun. It's hard to resist. I think it'll always have that kind of fresh appeal to people. I mean, it's not an easy instrument to really master. To get into it pretty deeply, it's a little strange. It's an unusual instrument.

Madhouse Magazine: You're never done learning, right?

Jon Herington: No, that's true, but it's a funny design. It's got an asymmetrical tuning, which makes it a little strange and a little daunting. There's so many things you can do with it. When you think about other instruments, I mean, say a saxophone or a trumpet or something, I mean, I guess some people get into electronic uses, but not very many. Most people just play the horn. There's a beautiful simplicity compared to guitar. I mean, you think about guitar, I mean, there are all types of different strings you can string a guitar with. There's acoustic instruments. There's electric instruments. There's different tunings you can use. You can play it with a slide. You can play lap steel, petal steel. Those are all guitars, but there are so many different techniques. You can play it with your fingers, and you can play with a pick.

Madhouse Magazine: It's endless.

Jon Herington: It's just crazy how much ... Yeah. There's just so many ways to play it. That's part of what's so beautiful about it, but it's also something that can really ... can distract you and slow you down if you're trying to master an instrument. That's for sure.

Madhouse Magazine: The thing is, Country music is keeping it going, and then someday, we'll have a resurgence like you said. Someone will rise up and there'll be a whole new movement of the guitar.

Jon Herington: That's true. I mean, there's no shortage of electric guitars in Nashville music. It's still very much guitar and drum driven. I think it's around forever. I don't think ... At least for our lifetimes.
Madhouse Magazine: Yeah, we hope so. You have a Jon Herington Band as well, so what's going on with that?

Jon Herington: Well, we've actually been on a little bit of a break for a while, but for many years, I have worked with a trio, with two other guys, Frank Pagano is the drummer. Dennis Espantman is the bass player. Over the years, we've done a lot of writing. We've done ... I don't know ... five or six records, CDs of mine that we've put out. I think they're all original songs on all the records, so we have a big repertoire of songs, and for a long time, we were trying to do work when I wasn't on the road and away with other bands, and then Frank got busy a couple years with a Jimmy Buffett musical that was in workshop for a year, and then on Broadway, so he had steady work that made him unavailable, so I gave it a little rest.

Jon Herington: But, I'm actually thinking of reviving it, because we've been rehearsing a little bit, and been trying to remember these tunes again, because I really miss playing with the band. It was a lot of fun, and it's a lot of work too, because we could only ... We hadn't been able to go out and do a serious tour or anything like that, so we're really basically doing gigs that are driving distance from where we live in the New York area. It's a bit of work, because I'm carrying the equipment. I'm driving the car.

Madhouse Magazine: Like the old days, yeah.

Jon Herington: Yeah, it's like the old days. But, it's a labor of love, and it's a lot of fun, but it is a lot of work for the hour and a half of pure joy on the stage. I'm ready to tackle it again if we can find a simple way that won't beat me up too much. I get spoiled on Steely Dan gigs.

Madhouse Magazine: Yeah, right.

Jon Herington: We get pretty first class help. Great technical help, great ... The conditions are pretty good. I miss it, and I think we're going to revive it and do some more gigging this year.

Madhouse Magazine: All right. Sounds great. We'll be looking forward to that. Thanks for speaking with us, it was a great conversation. Good luck on the tour, and actually, I'll be seeing you Thursday then.

Jon Herington: Yeah. I'm looking forward to Thursday. It'll be fun. Say hello.

Madhouse Magazine:    All right. I will. Thanks, Jon.

Jon Herington:    Great to talk to you. Thanks.​
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