Jon Herington of Steely Dan Talks About His Musical Journey

By Craig Hunter Ross
Guitar International

Jon Herington is simply one of the most respected guitar players in the music business.  His resume is second to none, having provided his skillful and smooth soloing style to some of the biggest names in music.

For the past 13 years, he has served as the touring and recording guitarist for Steely Dan; as well as in more recent years the same for The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, featuring Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, and Michael McDonald. Jon’s also busy as the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the New York City based Jon Herington Band.

Guitar International recently caught up with Jon backstage in Bristow, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, for a one-on-one exclusive interview.  Jon shares with us his musical journey, life with Steely Dan and his most recent solo recording, Time On My Hands.

Craig Hunter Ross:  Growing up, you started out playing piano and saxophone, before making your way to guitar.  In retrospect, do you think that a non-guitar foundation benefits you in your guitar playing?

Jon Herington: There’s no question and being in a musical house… we listened to a lot of music… my brother played piano, my parents listened to a lot of music; I think it’s that my ears were just full all the time.  I didn’t really do much piano playing as a kid; I took lessons for a year or two and I did play saxophone for a number of years.  But, I was never disciplined in practice, so I wasn’t very good at it.

There was something though that appealed to me about a wind instrument.  Maybe that it sounded more like a voice because of the air; and some of that might have connected when I fell in love with the sound of the guitar, it wasn’t an acoustic guitar, it was most decidedly an electric guitar through an amp cranked up.

Pretty much British Invasion rock and roll and blues sound.  I fell in love with Clapton’s sound, Beatles, Hendrix, The Stones, all that great music of the time.

You could say I fell in love with the guitar, but it was really the guitar through an amp in a particular way.  Again, because I think it was a vocal kind of sound.  There was sustaining like a violin, etcetera.

But mostly because our house was so musical and I was into listening all the time, that was probably more important than having had played those other instruments.  My head was into music all the time.

Craig: Did you start out playing electric?

Jon Herington: Yeah, the first guitar my parents bought for me was an electric guitar and I was only interested in that.  There was an acoustic lying around the house, but it was difficult to play and was in bad shape.  I wasn’t drawn to it.

Craig: And once you picked up that guitar, did you decide you were done with the other instruments?

Jon Herington: Yeah, I did play saxophone for another five or six years after I started playing guitar, but I was really more interested in the music that guitar was at the center of, the music of that time.  There was an occasional sax solo in that music you may hear every now and then, but it was all about the guitar.  Plus, I wanted to sing and write tunes and guitar was better suited to that.

Craig: Early in your career you were based out of the New York/New Jersey area, correct?

Jon Herington: I grew up in a town called West Long Branch, New Jersey, about an hour drive outside the city. My dad was a commuter into the city, but I was pretty much just a neighborhood guy until my college days.

Craig: You even opened for Springsteen a few times back then…

Jon Herington: We did.  We had the opportunity to do that a few times and we used to regularly play a bar called The Student Prince in Asbury Park, which was a regular haunt of his.  He was already past the band phase and was doing solo gigs, kind of getting ready for the release of his first record, acoustic guitar, stuff that was kind of Dylan-esque.  But he had played at our high school dances with some rock bands earlier on and he was fantastic.

Craig: Tell me about moving out to Indianapolis. That’s not what most folks would find to be or consider a real hotbed of the music business, session work or gigging.  What brought you out there at the time?

Jon Herington: A woman [Laughs]. And maybe some subconscious desire to escape my situation in New Jersey at the time.  I’d never really been out of New Jersey or lived anywhere else.  I think I was starting to feel pigeon holed or typecast having been just really studying jazz for about eight years with the only gigs I was really getting being gigs, where I was substituting for my teacher.

He was a great player, but the gigs would be for like thirty bucks a man in restaurants where no one was really listening.  It just seemed like it was going to be a rough life that I was signing up for.  I think I felt the need to roll the dice, you know?

I met this woman and after six months she moved back to Indiana, where she was from; six months later, I followed her.  I really felt I’d be looking for a job doing something else, so I’m there going through the Sunday classifieds figuring I’d get a writing job or something, since I was an English major in school.

But the first weekend I was there, I went out to hear some music and met a group of musicians who were all very welcoming and very friendly.

There was a first string of musicians in Indianapolis, they were top notch and they were getting all the work.  So, it turned out it was a good time to be there and be a guitar player with some skills who could play, follow a conductor, play different styles, etcetera.

Initially, I got some jazz gigs, but then began to break into a little studio scene out there and ended up doing lots and lots of sessions, meeting a lot of great players;  there were a lot of great players going to school there at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Among them were Jim Beard [Steely Dan], who co-produced my record and I worked on his; we’ve been working together for several years now.  I played with drummer Kenny Aronov, trumpeter Chris Botti was out there too.  We worked all the time; even got to work with a bunch of Wes Montgomery’s former band mates, since he was from out there.

In almost every way, it was a step up, which I would have never imagined Indiana would have provided for me… even played mandolin with the Indiana Symphony.

After about three years though, all the work that was to be had was pretty much complete.

Craig: So you decide to head back to New York…

Jon Herington: I did, yes…

Craig: Then we’ll skip forward to 1999…

Jon Herington: And you’ll have to, I had a lot of down years!  I really struggled for about six to eight years there.  It was impossible to work.  Only gradually was I able to build myself back up to make a living.

Craig: Did you go back to New York because that was what you would have considered your home base, as opposed to maybe looking to pick up session work in Nashville or Los Angeles?

Jon Herington: When people left Indy, that’s usually where there would go, but neither place really made sense for me.  I didn’t feel cut out to be a Nashville guitar player, because it seemed at that time to just be too heavy country.  That really wasn’t where I lived naturally in terms of my style.  It would have been a strange move.  L.A. had a huge music scene, but I really am more of an east coast guy.

New York just felt like the obvious place to go, though it wasn’t friendly for the first several years.  All I was doing was weddings, bar mitzvahs and any pick up gigs I could find.  But I started to meet more people and get more calls.  I did some Broadway pit work and was a player on a TV show called New York at Night with Clint Holmes, he had been Joan Rivers’ sidekick.  It was fun.

There was a great range of work, but it really changed of course when I got the call for Steely Dan.  My whole focused shifted from in town work to being on the road.

In 2000, it started being about four months a year; touring with them led to Boz Scaggs calling, shortly after that Bette Midler for several years, Steely Dan records and more tours, it’s been 13 years now.

Craig: Did you envision the time with Steely Dan lasting these last 13 years?

Jon Herington: Oh, no. I certainly hoped it would continue, but never let myself dream that it would go this long.  It looked like from their history that they changed players out every tour.  There had been three tours and three guitar players, three drummers I think too.  I just figured it would always be up for grabs.

Turned out, that isn’t what they were after, but that they were really just looking for the right combinations of musicianship and personality.  It’s been the same bunch for a long time now.

When they found guys they were comfortable with, they returned to them for recording and touring.  I’ve done two Donald Fagan records, one Walter Becker record and two Steely Dan records at this point.

Craig: The summer 2013 summer tour had such great structures to shows.  Sets may be albums played through, greatest hits nights, audience choice, a lot of fun stuff!  While that keep s things fresh for you all, how do you prepare for that, with it not being the typical new night same structure same set that most tours are made of?

Jon Herington: We’d like to do even more variety in the sets!  It’s pretty typical; we’d work out a regular set for the normal nights and then have the theme nights.  It’s usually pretty much the same, it helps keep everyone comfortable.

But then you get like an Aja night and you have to stay on your toes.  We run through some of the more rare songs in sound checks and such, there can be some cramming!

Craig: Let’s talk about your last solo album, Time on My Hands.  It has a great road trip feel to it.  You just want to get in the car, crank it and go.  Was a lot, or any, of that written on the road?

Jon Herington: I don’t have much luck writing on the road, aside from the occasional idea here and there.  Especially on the Steely Dan tours, I have so much music in my head; I really don’t get into any other.  We have long song checks, usually about five shows a week, so I find it hard to do my own writing.

Most of that record was written when I was home in New York at different times.  We had done a record before called ‘Shine, Shine, Shine’ and I remember the release date of that one because it was 10/10/10.  Even then, I had an inkling for the idea of this last one.  I really wanted to do a record where the guitar was featured in a way that I had never done before on my records; longer solos, showcase what I had developed.

Because of the way I write, I wanted songs with structures of the songs I had grown up loving when I was a kid, that is,  Beatles, Stones… with room for a melodic solo in the middle and then come back to the chorus, song forms like that.

I was always intrigued at how Steely Dan was able to write songs that had plenty of room for lots of solos, guitar solos, sax solos… all without compromising the song.  It’s not the natural way of doing things in terms of song writing for me, but I wanted to give it a try, without making it an instrumental record.

When I began to write I had plenty of musical ideas for songs. But when I tried to write the lyrics in the genre that would allow me to stretch out on the guitar, the character of the songs was so different that my regular approach to lyric writing was not going to work.

Basically, I solve the problem by having a couple friends collaborate with me, which is actually a whole lot more fun.  It also allowed us to find out we should be a little less earnest, a little more light hearted and a lot more fun.

Writing with Dennis the bass player and also with Jim Farmer, they are both funny guys… when we get together it’s a blast.  It gave me an idea of how Don and Walter collaborate.  They get to clowning around and its one joke after the next and a lot of one upsmanship.  It’s probably part of the secret to their success and it worked for us too.

The experiment was to see if we could get songs we like, but that still held up on their own and made room for a lot of guitar playing…I think we succeeded.

Craig: It’s funny you say that because in listening to your playing on it, your playing is crisp and clean but the solos weave in and out so well without being self indulgent.

Jon Herington: I like things nice and orderly, I didn’t want it all loose.  I like clarity in the arranging and the recording, but still have a rock and blues sound with some attitude.

Craig: That being said, do you ever struggle with knowing when to rein it in?  Knowing when to stop coloring the picture?

Jon Herington: Yeah, we tracked it fully expecting that some would be trio tunes, guitar bass and drums.  But when I got to listening in my studio at home, I couldn’t resist trying to dress it up a bit to see if that would improve it.

I was always ready to take stuff off though.  I did add some slides, some overdubs, extras and rhythm guitars.  Stuff we weren’t or couldn’t do live.  I was letting myself try things; there was no hurry, no deadline.

It helps, because you can put it away and not listen to it for a week and then come back and listen to it fresh.  I’m glad I dressed it up though.

Craig: You talk about collaborating and joking with the lyrics, the whole thing is clever and witty…

Jon Herington: Well thank you, we did have some fun with it…

Craig: Like on a track as “I Ain’t Got You,” after repeated listens, you start to think it might be a bit autobiographical, is that the case?

Jon Herington: [Laughs] It’s quite possible that aspects of either of us writing got in there, but it was not on purpose!  We try to make it feel real and fun.  That song has an interesting history.

It was originally written with the intent of hoping Madeleine Peyroux would record it, who I have played with for many years.  But she didn’t decide to use it so we changed the tone to make it funny and entertaining.  As it goes on, it gets more and more outrageous.  Tried to create a character that way, though having fun with the lyric, the chorus still maintained a longing and sweetness.

Craig: The recording is all over the place, and I mean that in a good way, there are just so many of your influences evident throughout…

Jon Herington: It sort of is, there’s Cream sounding, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Beatles, and they are all powerful influences on me.  My formative musical years were 1968 though the mid 1970s.  all of that still resonates for me.

I can’t deny my jazz training though, as well.  It’s changed the way I improvise, etcetera.  In order to make room for the way I play, that has to be there.  I think about it in the harmonies, like when playing with Boz Scaggs or Steely Dan.  You couldn’t play Steely Dan music without an understanding of jazz playing.  It’s not a pure throwback to the sixties, it’s a hybrid and natural to the way I play.

Craig: What’s next for you after the Steely Dan tour wraps up?

Jon Herington: I’ll be in Europe, Istanbul and throughout with Madeleine Peyroux and then after the holidays, hopefully dig into some music for a new record.  We’ll see what happens.  My schedule is up in the air for next year, but I’m sure it will be busy!

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