by Jude Gold

Few things are more explosive than Jimmy Herring’s solos. Except, perhaps, his telephone, which is always blowing up. Headliners such as the Allman Brothers Band, Blues Traveler, the Dave Matthews Band, Billy Cobham, Phish, Bruce Hornsby, Frogwings, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Alfonso Johnson, Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, and others want Herring on their stage because he solos like John Coltrane through a Marshall—and his fiery tone, ferocious chops, and humble nature make him a treasure in any band.

Herring forged his intrepid style by combining several powerful influences. Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he was exposed to guitar music early on when his older brothers spun Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix records constantly. “The melodies were so powerful, I could hear them in my head, even when the albums weren’t playing,” he recalls. “As I got older, I could play Led Zeppelin riffs note for note, but I got frustrated quickly because I realized nobody could sing like Robert Plant. That’s when my brother said, ‘Well, have you checked out any instrumental music?’ He turned me on to Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the Dixie Dregs, and I was floored. Hearing how disciplined and free Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Steve Morse all were, I started practicing a lot more seriously. I began by lifting melodic patterns off their records and revoicing them all over the neck.”

If you want to hear Herring at his most unrestrained, check out Project Z’s self-titled release on Terminus records, where he and co-guitarist Derek Trucks improvise entire songs. From secret uses of the pentatonic scale to bluegrass, bebop blues, free jazz, and chord melody, Herring—with a heaping helping of Southern hospitality—is about to share with you several inspiring musical examples. Hopefully, they’ll take your soloing—as well as your entire concept of improvisation—to new dimensions. Read on for the guitar lesson including audio and charts…

Guitar Lesson

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Mind-Blowing Pentatonics
Most players have used the A-minor pentatonic fingering in Ex. 1 a zillion times. “The obvious way to use the scale is off the root of a minor-7th chord,” says Herring, ripping into to the delicious A-minor pentatonic run in Ex. 2a. “But when you listen to great horn players like John Coltrane and Michael Brecker—or guitarists who were inspired by them, like Scott Henderson—you can hear many exciting new ways to use the pentatonic scale. For instance, try moving the scale up a whole-step against the Am7 chord—it’s like you’re playing B-minor pentatonic over A minor.”

To demonstrate, Herring plays the lick from Ex. 2a up two frets. Against the key of A minor, the sound is refreshingly modal. By repositioning the scale, the 2 and 6 (B and F#) are added to the mix, while the 3 and the 7 (C and G) disappear. To really hear this effect in action, tape yourself strumming (or have a friend accompany you) in A-minor as you play in the new position. Herring serves up another delicious “up a whole step” pentatonic run in Ex. 2b. It starts at the fifth position, but after two notes quickly jumps up two frets to the new B-minor box. Dig the hip stacked fourths—they give this lick reach.

“You can also use the pentatonic scale up a fifth, starting at the 12th fret,” suggests Herring, playing the soaring line in Ex. 2c. “If you put all three positions together, it’s really just the Dorian mode in A. But this approach gives you three different ways of looking at it.”

Major Matters
“Another slick way to use the minor-pentatonic shape is over major-7th voicings,” says Herring, who sets the key by playing the Amaj7 chord in Ex. 3a. “Now, try moving the A-minor
pentatonic scale up a major third. [Moving the A-minor box up to the 9th fret, he plays the spectacular line in Ex. 3b.] “I’m really just playing C# blues over A major.” Because it never tags the tonic, A, this use of the pentatonic box is great for adding an evasive, rootless vibe to your solos.

“You can also use the pentatonic scale down a half-step in major keys,” says Herring. “Play G#-minor pentatonic over A major, and you get an interesting, sharped-11th sound.” First, strum the Amaj7#11 chord in Ex. 4a to acclimate your ears. Then try the run in Ex. 4b. It never leaves the 4th-fret pentatonic box, yet it adds a zesty, Lydian flavor in the key of A major.

The Final Frontier
Put on your space suit. Herring is about to show you how to launch solos that break the gravitational pull of conventional harmony using just the pentatonic scale. “Some of the ways I use the scale won’t work when you’re playing with people who aren’t receptive to sounds that may bend some ears,” cautions Herring. “For example, when you’re in A minor, try moving the pentatonic scale up a half-step and back again in the middle of a phrase. [Ex. 5 illustrates how Herring shifts the scale back and forth between the fifth and sixth positions every four notes.] But my favorite way to use the pentatonic scale is how Coltrane did on ‘Giant Steps’—in minor thirds. To do this, you could just take the minor- pentatonic box and move it up the neck three frets at a time. But rather than jump up and down the fretboard, try staying in one position. If you can shoot fragments from those keys at a static A chord of your choosing, the sound is really cool.”

To hear this in action, check out Herring’s angular improvisation in Ex. 6. This time, because he’s essentially remaining in one position, the pentatonic shape does change. But if you analyze the notes, you’ll see that each time the chord goes up a minor third, the lick’s pitches correspond perfectly with the appropriate pentatonic scale. Feisty Flat-picking “I like to take traditional stuff and throw in chromatic notes,” says Herring. This results in twangy, flat-picking solos that really show off Herring’s Southern roots—such as the headturning moves in Ex. 7. Try them over a quick country vamp on A7. Herring is working from the A-major-pentatonic box (which has the same fingering as its relative minor version, F#- minor pentatonic). The chromatic notes are Cn and Eb, and Herring adds a Mixolydian flavor by including Gn and D. Once you work these twists and turns up to speed—and learn to nail the half-step slides—you’ll have a smokinghot approach to chicken pickin’ over dominant- 7th chords.

To see how Herring translates these moves to the swing-jazz camp, check out the infectious eighth-notes in Ex. 8a. They make a great melodic hook over a bebop blues in C, and they’re similar to Herring’s fat licks on “Albright Special” from Project Z. “A lot of that stuff is inspired by Charlie Christian,” says Herring. Give the notes a swing feel, and use the passage over C7, the I7 chord of a 12-bar blues in C. When you’re ready to tackle the IV7 chord, Herring proves with Ex. 8b that all you need are three notes to tear a hole in F7. Avoiding the root, he uses just C, A, and Eb and a repeated pull-off.

Try completing your jazz-blues progression with Ex. 8c—which surfs the G7-F7-C7 turnaround with a sax player’s melodic dexterity. Don’t let the chromaticism throw you. Once you get these notes under your fingers, a satisfying melody will emerge, and you’ll all but hear the word “bebop” in the lick’s last two notes.

Celestial Clusters
One way Herring frees himself as a soloist is by introducing harmonically-open chordal backdrops, such as the shimmering passage in Ex. 9. “When I want to bust into a tonally ambiguous groove in E, I’ll use a progression like this one,” he says. “The cool things are the minor seconds [the clangy intervals in the lowest two voices of the chords in measures 1 and 3.]”

All in the Wrist
Volume swells provide another color in Herring’s solos. Using his picking-hand pinky on his volume knob (see Fig. 1), Herring is quite nimble at making intervals of sixths and fifths leap out of his guitar as if he were a pedal steel player—and he does it quickly, often modulating freely from key to key. See how fast you are at this approach by applying it to the vibrant two-note grips in Ex. 10. Or, just play these intervals straight and enjoy their uplifting, C-major sound.

Knockout Harmony
Like Morse and another of Herring’s favorite guitarists, Allan Holdsworth, Herring enjoys playing transcendent chord melodies. To testdrive one of Herring’s stellar passages, start by playing the simple three-note melody in Ex. 11, which suggests B major. Then move on to Ex. 12, which shows you how Herring harmonizes the same melody several different ways. “I use chords like these on my intro to ‘Utensil Oceans’ from Project Z,” he says. “And I gave the passage a dreamy, ethereal quality by swelling in the chords with a volume pedal and adding some reverb and delay.”

In each of Ex. 12’s first three bars, you’ll spy Ex. 11’s simple melody in the upper voice, though Herring harmonizes it differently each time. Bar 4 features a moody but simple Esus2 chord that has a jangly sound due to its open B string. To complete the example, leave your fourth finger planted on the high B throughout measures 5, 6, and 7, and check out how Herring recasts the note in five dazzling clusters.

The more you practice progressions like this one, the more you’ll be able to improvise similar chord melodies on the fly. One way Herring learned to find new chords was by sitting down and figuring out every possible way four chord tones could be permutated. “Say you have a 1, 3, 5, and 7—there are 24 possible ways you can voice those notes from low to high,” he says. “This approach was inspired by Holdsworth, who is still the undisputed heavyweight champion of modern improvising, and nobody can tell me anything different. His genius may not be fully comprehended for years to come. Everybody knows he’s great, but I don’t think they understand the full magnitude of how deep that dude is.”