JGS Scott Henderson Interview, 12/20/12

(We’ve decided to do a series of interviews with amazing jazz guitarists here at JazzGuitarSociety.com, and an obvious person to start off with was Scott Henderson, since I (Doug Perkins) knew and lived with him in the 1980s when we were both new to Los Angeles and students and later instructors at Guitar Institute of Technology, later to become Musician’s Institute. Since then, Scott has played with an amazing set of musicians including Jeff Berlin, Jean Luc Ponty, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and of course co-led his own groups including the prolific and beloved Tribal Tech. I talked to him about the recent release from both the new HBC band as well as Tribal Tech X, and some other observations about his playing I had from way back when we met.)

DP: Scott, since you and I were roommates in the ‘80s for a couple of years, I probably have a more insider perspective on your playing at least during that period than your average interviewer, so as such I have some questions that you’re probably not used to getting, but I think they’re going to be really interesting to the people here at JazzGuitarSociety.com – don’t worry, they’re all about guitar and music.

SH: They’re not going to be about toilet use or anything like that…..(laughs)

DP: No, no, no… (laughs) OK, lets start with the two new records that you have out, beginning with the HBC CD, which for those who don’t know, stands for the last names of Scott Henderson, Jeff Berlin, and Dennis Chambers. It’s a really amazing record of Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, Weather Report and other great fusion era tunes, done by a guitar trio. For me, the first thing that came to my mind was how close you came to sounding like Herbie’s clavinet in the intro of “Actual Proof” – how the heck did you get that sound?

H: That’s one of those envelope filter pedals sort of like the old Mutron. It’s called a Discombobulator by Emma Electronics. It’s like the Mutron III but sweeter sounding.

DP: Well, the record overall has a lot of amazing sounds from you, and you’re sort of the “sound doctor”….

SH: Right….trying my best…..(laughs)

DP: I’ve seen you do “Mysterious Traveler” live, one of my absolute fav Weather Report tunes, a couple of times. You virtually re-create Zawinul’s opening “sound cloud” on the guitar -can you talk a bit about how you did that as well?

SH: Well, obviously a lot of reverb, but just trying to choose tones that were as close to the parts on the record as I could – I mean, I know for a fact that without synthesizers I’m never going to get sounds that are as fat as Joe’s (Zawinul), but if I can just get close…. I have a whole arsenal of pedals – over 100 to choose from. I’m getting fairly good at hearing a sound and knowing in my head which guitar, amp and pedals to use to get as close to that sound as possible.
I didn’t use a lot of guitars on this record, I pretty much just stuck with Strats, because the sounds that I was hearing – mainly the keyboard sounds – seemed like they were closer to Strats than Gibsons. So except for a few times where I needed that humbucker type of tone, I used mostly single coils for the whole album – just a LOT of variation with pedals, mic placement, that kind of stuff. I used three different amps on the album – a ’71 Marshall, a Dumble modded Fender Bandmaster, and a Suhr Badger which was really helpful recording late at night, because it’s a pretty soft amp, only 18 watts.

DP: Right yeah, you were telling me about that – that Marshall, that’s not the same 50 watt Marshall you had when I met you, is it?

SH: No, I actually bought it from Martin Golub, the tech that used to work for Bob Bradshaw,. It was his personal amp, and it was a ’71 stock Marshall which means it had no master volume, so it was like a plexi – REALLY loud. I had John Suhr put in the same master volume that he puts in the OD-100, so I can use it to get the right amount of gain that I need without having to turn the amp all the way up and completely kill my speakers.

DP: Got it – so we also talked a bit before about the challenges that present themselves to guitarists when you try to put music played on another instrument on the guitar in a “playable” way – can you talk about that, and were there any particularly challenging passages in this project in that way?

SH: Yeah, there were a lot of them – on the record it’s easy because I can overdub – if there’s a note in the voicing that I can’t get, I just overdub it on another track, and have the whole chord – but live is where the problem comes in (laughs), because you have to choose the important notes in the chord that are going to get the message across, and obviously being guitar players emulating keyboard players, we’re going to have to leave some notes out. I like how guitar players like (John) Scofield play these two and three note chords, yet you hear the harmony with no problem That’s something I’ve been working on a lot – especially being more of a high gain distortion player. I try not to “clunk up” the music with overly big voicings, and use less notes in the chords to make the music sound “light” – when you use a lot of gain, big chords can sound terrible, but you can get away with two to three notes and it sounds OK – it’s just finding the right ones to play.

DP: “Footprints” is probably on of the most commonly called tunes at a jazz jam I can think of, but when Dennis played the opening groove, it was totally fresh. You approach the changes with some really great outside concepts – I know this is a huge question, but are there any devices that you use for re-harmonizing changes in your soloing that you could share?

SH: Well, honestly, I’d have to say that most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing. That sounds like a cop-out answer, but I just grab voicings that I hear, and hopefully they’ll sound good where I choose to play them. Sometimes just the nature of the voicings sound good, even if I play them where they’re not supposed to be. If you move them in parallel or chromatically it can sound great – I just take a lot of liberties and try stuff – I’m not one of these guys that plays a chord substitution because I know it theoretically works. I just don’t have enough training or knowledge about harmony to be able to do that, I’m just led by my ear and I grab these voicings that hopefully work.
Sometimes I’ll play the top note of what you would expect to hear with something you don’t expect to hear under it, so that the melody is still there so everything works, except there’s this color below it that doesn’t belong there – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Honestly, I’d have to say that in my case it doesn’t work half the time. (laughs) On the records, when it doesn’t work I’m able to punch in and do it again with something that does work, whereas live I just try to stay positive when I do something that sounds awful.

DP: Yeah, I have found that the top note is like the important thing and then underneath it you can do almost anything you want.

SH: Sure, especially if there’s no keyboard player, you can get away with murder – I get pleasantly surprised when I pull off something that sounds great, even if I had no idea what I was doing. I remember one time hearing Joe Zawinul re-harmonizing a jazz standard and it was just otherworldly. It was blowing me away so I asked him “what are those chords you’re using?” and he said, “You know better than to ask me something like that!” (both laugh)…because it was really obvious that he didn’t know either, you know what I mean? He’s wasn’t coming from “theory” – he was just hearing colors in his head and playing them – in fact, I remember him saying one time “I don’t know what those chords are, but they’re some BAD ASS CHORDS!” (both laughing).
So it’s definitely more art than science, and I’m sure most of the musicians that I listen to would agree. I think good players are able to get into a zone where the left-brain is completely shut off. We can transcribe and learn afterwards, but while it’s going down, theory and analytical stuff is out of the picture, at least consciously.

DP: I remember that when I left Berklee after two years it was because I said to myself “It’s all ears after this”, so I hear what you’re saying. OK, speaking of Zawinul, HBC’s version of “The Orphan” opens with you playing that lush echo-y keyboard-like pad, with Jeff Berlin really beautify playing the melody. There are even vocal effects going on….

SH: That’s my daughter singing…

DP: Oh – wow!

SH: (Laughing) I wasn’t able to do that with my own voice, so I got her in on that project.

DP: (Laughing) OK, so I’m not going to ask if there was any AutoTune going on there…

SH: She’s only nine, but she made it through about 50 takes since it needed to sound like a choir. There were definitely some out of tune moments, but I left them in – I was thinking, should I tune this, but I didn’t touch it because when I heard it all together with the majority of it being in tune and just a little that wasn’t, it sounded great, all “chorusy” and cool. So there’s no AutoTune at all.

DP: “Sightseeing” is a great “blowing” Weather Report tune you guys do that is a Wayne Shorter tune – can you talk about any challenges you had hitting what he did on this tune?

SH: Well, that tune…we’re not really sure what the real changes are – Wayne Shorter told me one time that “Sightseeing” was written as a ballad, so I’m sure there ARE changes in that tune and they’re probably playing them, but I can’t tell what they are when I listen to it…so, rather than try to guess, we just decided to do the tune “free” (no pre-determined chord changes).
And I just have to say that when I played my solo in the studio, Jeff Berlin totally made it happen….he’s one of the best supporting bass players harmonically that I’ve ever worked with. As soon as I go to another harmonic area, he’s right there with me. He’s so good at following the harmony around and making what you play sound supported. We did two or three takes of that tune, and I think on the third take we really hit on some nice harmonic stuff together. There were a few clashes that I fixed in overdubbing, but overall I think my solo sounds like I’m playing over written changes, mainly due to Jeff’s great ears.

DP: Interesting, I agree about Jeff as well – so, “Wayward Son Of A Devil Boy” and “Hirami Miso” are like the wild cards amongst the other tunes on this record – straight ahead blues amongst all the complexity, although Wayward Son has it’s own cool chord progression. One of the things that I think you have down better than most guitar players is getting a distorted sound that will still let complex chord voicings be heard – I know you talked a little bit about that before, but can you extrapolate a bit more about that?

SH: For as long as I’ve been playing, I’ve been a rock & roll guitar player and I guess when I started to learn jazz, around the time that we were going to GIT together (Guitar Institute of Technology, now Musician’s Institute), I just never left that voice behind – I’m pretty much a disciple of Johnny Winter, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck and those guys (chuckles), and no matter what kind of harmony I learn on the guitar, that’s my tone. So “Wayward Son Of Devil Boy” is basically just a jazz blues with the normal I / VI / II/ V progression, and when I play over that progression, even though it definitely sounds like blues rock, I’m playing through those jazz changes instead of just playing the regular blues pentatonic stuff over the whole thing. A lot of my blues students want to learn those type of lines, not even realizing that I’m not playing over a straight I / IV / V blues. I tell them if it was a regular rock blues, I wouldn’t play that kind of stuff.

DP: Let’s move on to Tribal Tech X, the brand new and long awaited record from one of the longest lasting bands of it’s kind that I can think of. The band seems to draw from the same well compositionally as Weather Report, which is saying a lot – “Anthem” is a tune that to me could be on a Weather Report record…..

SH: That’s a (Gary) Willis tune…

DP: Cool, it’s a great track – well, I was just going to ask, was there anything you learned compositionally from working with Zawinul, or was it more just philosophic?

SH: Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t learn much about harmony, because like I said, you couldn’t talk to him about chord changes. The way he would write out a chord would be like a chord stack rather than A7(b5,#9). He didn’t think that way – he was coming from a classical background where all the notes are written out. I learned more about harmony from transcribing Weather Report tunes than I ever learned from actually working in Joe’s band, because when I transcribe a tune, I transcribe it with the vocabulary that I know, which is chord symbols.
I could take a Revel or Debussy tune and break it down to chord symbols so that I can understand it, because that’s the way of looking at harmony that I was taught. The intricate movement of the lines is the icing on the cake, but if I can at least understand the harmony and melody, it goes a long way to understanding the piece. When I compose, in terms of choosing chords, art triumphs over science again because I don’t have any formulas and don’t use much theory. I don’t know why some of the things I’ve written work and why some of them don’t, but I’ve definitely written some awful ones along with the good ones. I choose the chords simply because they’re the ones that I like at the moment, and sometimes I go through a hard process of eliminating the ones that I don’t like before I get to the ones that I do. I finally get to the point where I say “that’s good”. Of course that’s just personal taste, which for me changes daily, so maybe the next day, or a year later, I might listen to it and say “that’s NOT good”. It’s art – it’s all subjective.

DP: “Palm Moon Plaza” is a great composition that starts as a really beautiful ballad with your big spacious reverb and echo tone….

SH: I should tell you something about the Tribal Tech recording process that you might not know – on the last three albums, there is no pre-written music before going into the studio. Everything starts as a jam.

DP: Oh, really, this one as well?

SH: This one too.

DP: I had heard something about that but I didn’t know it was on the entire record – so you go back afterwards and sort of assemble the tunes?

SH: Yeah, but we usually don’t have to chop them up because if it’s a good jam, that isn’t necessary. We go into the basic tracks and don’t even really say much to each other, we just jam. We’re sitting close to each other in the studio, except for Kirk (Covington – drums) who obviously needs to be in a separated room, but we see him either through a window or a video cam. Me, (Gary) Willis and (Scott) Kinsey are playing at a fairly soft volume, so we can call changes to each other as we play with no problem. I’m pretty good at calling changes off the top of my head – Kinsey is REALLY good at it – he has incredible harmony ideas, and he just calls changes as we’re playing. We sort of take turns on who’s going to “lead” the jams. That concept in the studio came from something like (Miles Davis’) “Bitches Brew”- that’s where our inspiration came from, but instead of jamming for 30 minutes in one key and leaving it like it is, we’re taking it a step further with the understanding that these jams are going to be turned into compositions. So they shouldn’t be overly long, they should have some harmonic twists and turns as well as some dynamic changes, and they should breath and have some sort of form, like a real composition would, even though it’s not a strict A-A-B-A (song form) type of thing. Anything that takes it away from just being a one chord jam with no dynamics is a good thing, though those types of jams are cool too and we always use a few of them.
After a three-day session we have like 30 or 40 jams and we choose our favorite 10. Then each band member gets like 3 tunes to produce, and the producer of his tunes can either cut information that’s not needed, or add harmony or melodies, and then send the tune with the changes to the other guys. For instance if I changed a harmonic piece of a tune, I’d need Willis to change his bass line under it, so I’d send the file to him and say that in bars 16 to 32 I need you to play this bass line to match what I’ve composed. That’s the process and it’s a lot of fun because it’s composing, but over material that happened in a really organic way. So, you get the best of both worlds; the composition and the harmony, but also the nice interplay that happened in the basic tracks because that was what the sessions were all about, the interplay. That’s why when I listen to some of the older Tribal Tech records where it was all about composing, I don’t hear as much interplay and it sounds a little stiff to me.

DP: Well, that throws out a lot of my other compositionally oriented questions (laughs)….

SH: On X, I’m the most proud of “Palm Moon Plaza”, because what you hear on the album is exactly what went down in the studio.

DP: Oh, wow…

SH: All we added was the acoustic piano overdub at the end. It sure doesn’t sound like a jam, it sounds like a pre-written piece of music, and I was really proud that we were able to create it on the spot. There’s a skill to calling changes, but there’s also something about working with each other for as long as we have. There’s definitely a chemistry there and sometimes we just all end up on the same page – it’s almost eerie. That being said, I hate those guys. (laughs)

DP: To me, everything you’ve been saying speaks to pretty much any musician of the huge importance that ears are above everything else.

SH: Absolutely, there’s no question about that.

DP: So with that, I’m going to move on to some questions that are more philosophical about your playing from back when we first knew each other. First thing: one of the few observations I have of what you do that is at least fairly unique to you that I remember from back when we used to live together. I remember that you used to have a couple of pieces of paper that you had a list of your favorite personal licks that you had short memorable names like “Cannonball Turnaround” etc.

SH: Yeah, sure, I still have it. (Both laugh)

DP: While lots of musicians write down the stuff they create for continued practice, I’ve never seen anyone catalog them in such a sort of “compact way”, and it always seemed to give you a more automatic access to your “bag of tricks” so to speak – could you comment on that?

SH: Well, the only reason I did that is because I’ve never been able to read very well – I’m the world’s worst reader. If I tried to write everything down it would take too much time, and I just don’t have the time it would take to improve my reading. I’ve got too many other things to do – too much dog poop in the yard to clean up (both dog owners laugh). One of my little secrets is never to learn long ideas but just learn little short things that I can cut and paste into my own solos – I don’t like to sound like I’m quoting when I’m playing.
Learning whole solos can be helpful too, from a phrasing standpoint. Even learning whole solos by memory, away from your instrument, builds your rhythmic phrasing vocabulary. But as far as learning short ideas, I always tell my students that if you’re going to learn a lick, you shouldn’t ever learn more than one a week – or even every two weeks. After you learn the lick, you have to be able to play into and out of it seamlessly, and use it with different modes, use it with different rhythms, and make that idea your own, not just a quote from the person you learned it from – so that it becomes part of your vocabulary just like you invented it. The purpose of transcription isn’t to sound like someone else, but to learn to move our fingers in a way that we wouldn’t have thought of on our own.
So, that’s always been my justification for transcription, where some people say, “oh, you shouldn’t transcribe other people, you should just have your own style.” I believe that to a point, but I also believe that transcription is a valuable tool that can get you up the road faster. As long as you do the work AFTER you’ve transcribed a lick, to make it sound like a natural part of your playing, you’ll truly see the value of doing it. In terms of naming licks, I would just name them something like “George Benson lick #7”, and that would correlate in my mind with the sound of the lick. So when I’d see “George Benson Lick #7” on a piece of paper, it was just a reminder to try to work that type of idea into my own playing.

DP: Well, I know you recorded them as well, you kept them on tape…

SH: I still do, so if I forget what something means I can go back and listen to it and say “oh yeah, that thing”….that’s something I haven’t done in a long time, I should pull that out and get some of the rust off of it (laughs), you know, get that back into my playing again. Actually I don’t do it nearly as much as I used to, because my concentration is more on motific playing these days than building my vocabulary, which is pretty much all I thought about as a student.

DP: Now, speaking of students, I remember once that a number of guitar students were over to the house and I heard you say to them that you “never practiced”, and I said to myself, “What? This guy literally will fall asleep with the guitar in his hands sometimes” – but then later I thought about it and realized that what you probably meant was that you never practiced things that you weren’t going to use musically on a gig, as in finger or picking exercises or…

SH: That’s it – you know who told me that? Don Mock – one of the first things I learned at GIT from Don Mock was don’t practice stuff you’re not going to use on the gig – you know like those mind bending exercises that people would just sit there and try to get down as fast as they could and I’d think, that SOUNDS like an exercise, it doesn’t sound like music, so why would I waste my time with it? I’d rather practice something I learned from Coltrane that I’d actually try to pull off in one of my solos or something like that. To me that made more sense.

DP: Another thing that I saw you do that I had never seen other musicians do – and I am in no way implying that this is a bad thing – was how you prepared for record dates. Lots of musicians will practice soloing over the changes of the tunes that they know that they are going to record, but I noticed that you went beyond that and for your solos would sort of develop areas where you put together some prepared stuff and left other areas where you left yourself free to just improvise, and maybe return to things you had worked out after that. You certainly didn’t do it because you couldn’t improvise a killer solo in the moment, but it seemed that besides other things, it left you free to really work on the tone, phrasing and other musical aspects of what you were playing. What are your thoughts on that sort of thing?

SH: I think it’s because if I’m soloing over a set of changes that are difficult – or even not that difficult – I just know that there are certain voice leadings which are going to be the best ones, so I try to find them. And I make them a target point within my solo so that no matter what I’m improvising, I’m going to somehow get to those notes and play them over that chord change – it’s almost like a little piece of a composition within a solo. I always try to find these things that work the best and get to them somehow, in between moments where I’m just improvising with no idea of what I’m going to do next.

DP: If I remember right, you sort of got your “big break” by the great guitarist Carlos Rios happening to see you play in what I think was that top 40 club in Northridge, CA that you and I used to jam together in sometimes….

SH: Yeah, but the person that helped me the most was Jeff (Berlin) when he came to that club, because he hired me for his group and I ended up recording on his first album “Champion”.

DP: I remember that record, that was a great record….what I wanted to ask before we conclude is: if you were talking to a guy that was sort of in your same shoes back then when you were getting ready to play with a lot of the people that you’d looked up to for a lot of your musical life, what advice would you give to them from what you learned from those experiences?

SH: I guess the hardest thing to accomplish is to just relax when you play. Believe me, it’s hard to be on stage with Joe Zawinul knowing that for the last 15 years he’s been listening to Wayne Shorter, and now he has to listen to me! (laughs) It’s not a comforting thought – but somehow, I got comfortable with it. And also, you have to realize that you’re the best you there is. I’m the best Scott Henderson on the planet, though I’m certainly not as good a rock player as Eddie Van Halen, or as good at jazz guitar as Kurt Rosenwinkel, but I do a thing, and my talent is specific to me…..


SH: Having that confidence in who you are and what you do plays a big role in how you play – in how notes “stick”, if you know what I mean. Sometimes notes stick, sometimes they don’t – usually if they don’t, it’s because they’re not played with enough confidence.

DP: Exactly….

SH: ….and when I hear these amazing saxophone players like Chris Potter, Seamus Blake, and Steve Tavaglione – they can play a big long C# on a Cmaj7 chord and make it sound like God (both laugh) – they have so much confidence in what they’re doing that it’s just impossible for them to play a bad sounding note. And that’s where it’s at, it’s the confidence level, that’s what makes the music sound good. It sure isn’t the theory or science of it, since theoretically a C# does not work over Cmaj7 (both laugh), but an artist can make it sound great.

DP: I have a saying that goes “Comparison is the mortal enemy of creativity”….

SH: Right…

DP: As long as you are comparing yourself to other people, you’ll never really be able to fully function as an artist.- that’s the most important lesson there is for a student to learn, how to transition from student to artist.

SH: Right, even though I think we all compare ourselves to others sometimes – it’s hard not to with all the great guitarists out there to listen to. We also have influences in our playing – Ritchie Blackmore and Jeff Beck were my two favorite guitar players for many many years, and I’m sure people hear their influence in my playing. I always thought Jeff Beck was the inventor of some of the stuff he does until the first time I heard Les Paul. Same with Michael Brecker and John Coltrane, or Tommy Emmanuel and Chet Atkins. We take an influence and add our own vocabulary to that, and become who we are. Though I could practice for a million years and never be as creative as Jeff Beck – he’s still one of my favorite guitar players. I don’t know how he comes up with all that stuff without ever having to resort to using jazz vocabulary. He still has one of the biggest vocabularies in the world, of STUFF to do on the guitar. I don’t try to compare myself to somebody like that, because, uh….what’s the point?

DP: OK, well. I’ve just have one more question left that is specifically geared towards the kind of players that we have at JazzGuitarSociety.com that have usually already been to music school and that kind of stuff. I’m just wondering what last thoughts you might have for that kind of player that want to get themselves to another level in their playing.

SH: Well, like I said, transcription is a very big part of it. Music is a language just like any other language, and it would be pretty damn hard to learn French if you were not going to copy French people talking. (Both laugh) You know, you can learn the words, but it’s not gonna happen unless you learn the phrasing that helps you to do it in an eloquent way. So, the constant listening to the masters play, not only for the words, but the phrasing, the tone. Not to sound like I’m bragging but it’s something I’ve been doing since I first picked up the guitar.
One of the first things I did when I got my first guitar is to try to learn the solo from “Whole Lotta Love”. Learning that, and so many other Page, Clapton, Beck and Hendrix solos, made me know what it feels like to be in the shoes of guys who played that good. The phrasing wears off on you, the ideas wear off on you, just like many people ask me, “where do you get your rhythmic vocabulary from?” From listening to music! And the beauty of it is that you don’t even need your instrument and it’s not instrument specific – you can listen to a solo in your car over and over until you memorize it, and the more solos you memorize, the more those rhythmic ideas you’re learning will come out when you play. So it’s sort of like you are what you listen to – or what you memorize. And when you memorize solos by many, many musicians on many instruments – piano, trumpet, guitar, whatever – in all kinds of genres – country, rock, blues, jazz; you start to get a pretty big vocabulary of ideas floating around in your brain. And that can’t be a bad thing.

DP: Well, thanks – this is a huge amount of information for people and I think it’s going to be really valuable.

SH: Thanks Doug! Something you might want to mention: As a teacher, something I want people to know about is my message board. If you go to my websitewww.scotthenderson.net, and click on the message board tab, then go to “Scott Henderson discussion”, it will lead you to the “Scott Henderson discussion” page. If you go to the top you’ll see the index – click on it and you’ll see the contents of a huge book of answers that I’ve written to just about every kind of question about every aspect of the music industry. There’s tons of info on gear, recording, business, musicians, etc., and I do it because so many people have unselfishly gone out of their way to help me through the years, this is my way of paying it back. If you don’t see what you need, you can write and ask. I don’t give away music or guitar lessons, but advice is free.

Left to right: Daniel Gilbert, Doug Perkins, and Scott Henderson at the Joe Diorio Benefit Concert @ Musician’s Institute