Jon Herington – Steely Dan’s Lead Guitarist

Jon Herington

Jon Herington

By Leslie Michele Derrough
Glide Magazine

If Jon Herington is anything, idle is not it. It may have taken him a little while to get to where he is today, playing guitar in Steely Dan since 2000 and fronting his own band, but he has never really stopped and piddled his time away. In fact, the gentleman from New Jersey with some sweet sounds emanating from his guitar, finds time to play and record and promote his latest album even when he doesn’t have the time to do anything else. When I spoke to Herington a while back, he had just flown in from playing some gigs with Jazz chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux in Europe. “I’m pretty good, not too jet-lagged,” Herington said with a laugh.

Herington first joined up with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in Steely Dan when the duo was looking for some fresh guitar blood to play on their so-called comeback album, Two Against Nature. From then on, Herington has added his trademark sound to the band’s 2003 record Everything Must Go, as well as solo endeavors by both Fagen and Becker. He must be doing something right to please a couple of gentlemen known for their recording perfectionism.

Late last year, Herington released his sparkling solo album, Time On My Hands. Filled top to bottom with spring-footed enjoyable tunes that inhabit territories of Jazz, rock and blues, with a bit of vaudeville humor in the lyrics and some mighty fine swinging chords, Herington has captured his best features and nailed them down on one circular piece of plastic. It is so enjoyable that you can’t have just one spin through the ten songs. Hit play and let it keep repeating.

“I can talk, you know. I’m good at that,” Herington forewarns me. What follows is a good in-depth chat with a musician who has been on the musical highway for many years now and has no intention of setting his guitar case down anytime soon.

Jon, why don’t we start with you telling us where you grew up.

I was born in North Jersey in a town called Paterson but really grew up on the Jersey Shore in a town called West Long Branch, New Jersey. When I was a high school kid, it was Bruce Springsteen country. He played our high school dances and I remember some of the first high school dances where kids stopped dancing and started sitting on the floor listening to the band. It was the beginning of sort of the hippie era. I had a local band in high school that opened up for Springsteen on a couple of occasions in our neighborhood because he was sort of a local hero. Pretty successful around where we were at the time and we were just a bunch of kids in high school. But we had a band and I did some writing of original music and we found ourselves on a bill with him a couple of times, just locally, before his first record actually came out.

What were you like as a kid and how did you get into music?

Generally, I was a pretty good student but fell in love with music. By the time I was an eighth grader I was playing quite a lot of guitar and putting bands together and basically started doing what I have been doing since. But I did it locally for a while and then went to college and kind of had a big shift there because it was a bigger world and I met a lot of really excellent musicians there. In my hometown area where I grew up, there were some talented local people but it wasn’t a big pool town, really.

But in college, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, there were just a lot of really talented musicians. As soon as I got there I realized, oh boy, I better get serious about my music making. At the time, I played guitar, piano and saxophone equally poorly (laughs). But I decided I better get serious about something and focus more and I did. In the next many, many years I spent not only working a lot on the guitar but also decided to really learn Jazz, which was like an eight year undertaking to even get half-way decent at it and understand it. So I spent a lot of time working on that and as an English major, I was really mostly interested in music. I wasn’t looking ahead very far but I always enjoyed the music making and somehow work always came to me. When I got out of college it was natural for me to just keep doing what I had to do, so I just did it, kept working and did some teaching of guitar lessons. It’s been a long haul ever since but those are the beginnings.

I guess the only thing I left out was I took piano lessons when I was a kid. It was sort of a musical household, although my parents weren’t musicians themselves, but there was always a lot of music playing in the house. I guess one of the big formative moments for me was hearing The Beatles on the EdSullivan Show. A lot of musicians in my generation credit that one day in 1964 when they heard The Beatles on Tv with having made their career choice and I’m pretty much one of those people, I think.

When did you get into Jazz?

Probably about my second year of college, after I had been playing blues rock guitar for maybe six or seven years or something. I got reasonably good at that but when I got to college I noticed that I really didn’t know that much, that my training had been very limited. I had never really studied with a guitar teacher or a music teacher. It just seemed like the world of Jazz was sort of the most affable and most interesting to me on guitar. I played it with a pick so I wasn’t really interested in playing classical music even though I studied quite a bit of it. I really wanted to play more contemporary American music, so that meant for me rock blues, but Jazz kind of fit into that. So I kind of learned the style and grew to love it very much and even though I don’t think of myself as a Jazz player so much, there’s no question that all that study has partially formed me, or deformed me (laughs). There’s no question that how I play is a hybrid of a lot of those styles. At first it felt a little strange but over time I’ve realized that it has served me really well because it led to things like my best paying gig, which is the Steely Dan gig. Their style is a hybrid of all those same styles that I loved and learned.

What is your first memory of music?

I remember absolutely loving pop radio. I was just a huge radio listener when I was a kid. In the very early days of my listening, I guess it was really an AM radio phenomenon and we would listen to basically top 40 hit radio. I remember falling in love with the Beach Boys and with the Four Seasons; then later with, of course, The Beatles and all the Motown stuff that they used to play, the Supremes and early Stevie Wonder. I just loved all that and was glued to it. I’d go to bed at night and turn the radio on and try to not wake my parents up and let them know I was still up listening.

Then when I got a little older it was when the shift happened from AM to FM radio and it was sort of album oriented. This was the late 60’s and all sorts of amazing music was being introduced on radio. It moved away from the single short pop song on AM radio and it got into a lot of what we know from that era as great pop and rock and blues and folk music. That’s when I sort of got more formed as a guitar player because it was all that British Invasion rock that I fell in love with, like Hendrix and Cream and The Who, The Beatles and the Stones, Led Zeppelin. That was my whole world.

Is that when you decided you wanted to be a professional musician?

I never really decided that. I still haven’t really decided that (laughs). It’s funny, I have students now who are so savvy and have goals and they’re well-directed, looking ahead and trying to figure out career strategies. I never thought about that. And that’s sort of one of the blessings about my life, I think. It might be because I was afraid to look ahead, but I was just so engaged in what I was doing all the time. I loved the act of making music and listening to it and figuring it out and trying to get better at it. I guess I must have subscribed to some sort of false belief that if I got good enough, the phone would start ringing and I’d work. It didn’t always happen in the many years that I’ve been doing this, but I was working on that assumption and just not worrying about career strategies or should I do this for a living.

Even when I was in school, in college, every weekend once I was there for a while, I was working, doing some kind of playing, whether it was some little job around campus in one of the coffee houses playing tunes and singing or eventually I got in a band which would play like weddings and bar mitzvahs on the weekend. Just anything so I could get out and play and make some money. Eventually, I would also be doing some Jazz gigs and things like that. So it was a combination of things but I was always basically employed, even when I was in school. So when I got out I didn’t really think about it much. In the first year, I moved back to the Jersey Shore for a year and I got a job teaching guitar lessons in a local music store that I knew and started working with a bunch of the old guys I played with. I realized the limitations of that after about a year and decided to look for a richer place to try to work. But there was never a moment where I said, this is going to be my career or I’m going to make a future in music. It was more day to day. I just did what I liked and I was lucky enough to somehow get well-enough rewarded to keep doing it and not have to consider ever getting a real job (laughs).

You moved to Indiana and got involved in the Jazz scene there. Was it because New York wasn’t working out at the time?

Before I went to Indiana, I was like subbing for my Jazz guitar teacher, who was a fantastic player but did these pretty low-paying jobs. He made a living more from teaching than playing jobs. So the jobs were kind of depressing and kind of low-paying and I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the work prospects there at the time. I was occasionally getting the call to do something in the city but I was really still feeling more like a Jazz player and I wasn’t feeling like a guitar player for hire who could do a range of things yet. So I sort of on a whim decided to follow a girlfriend who was moving back to Indianapolis, where she was from. I decided to sort of roll the dice and see what happened by changing my circumstances pretty radically. I didn’t even think I’d make a living playing music out there. I thought I’d be looking at the want ads for a real job (laughs).

But I got out there and within the first week I met a bunch of local musicians and they were very welcoming, and some of them were excellent, and I found myself playing jobs out there in small little Jazz clubs and eventually I ended up meeting a whole bunch of local musicians and a bunch of Jazz players who were studying down in Bloomington, Indiana, at the university, where they have an excellent music program. So it was a fertile place for me because a couple things happened for me. I met some fantastic players that would all end up in New York or LA, who were studying at college at the time. A couple of them are my closest friends still, particularly a keyboard player named Jim Beard.       He’s one of my best buddies and he works in Steely Dan now with me and we’ve done many, many records together. And because it was Wes Montgomery’s hometown, there was a bunch of local people that had played with Wes when he was alive and they were still there, alive and going strong, and I met a whole bunch of players who had played with him. So there was a local Jazz scene that I was able to work my way into and probably the biggest thing that was a great benefit in Indiana for me was the small recording scene out there.

How did that scene help you become a better musician?

There were a handful of really top notch players who got all the calls for the recording but it just happened to be that they didn’t have a single guitar player with a great range of skills who could follow a conductor, who could play in different styles. So I found an opportunity there and in a way I ended up redefining myself. I grew up playing rock & roll and blues and I loved a lot of folk music and learned how to play some of that. This was an opportunity to buy some different guitars and amps and start getting into the world of playing recording sessions than being a guitar player for hire in a range of styles, which was a much more natural thing for me than to be sort of narrow-minded or a Jazz purist or something like that. I grew up with a lot of different music over the years and loved a lot of it. It wasn’t like I was just drawn to one thing. I’ve always loved a lot of styles. If I hear something I like, I’m always driven to figure out what makes it tick. I try to tear it apart and understand how it works and I’ve always been excited about that and always found that compelling and intriguing. I guess I didn’t realize it for a while but my nature was kind of varied like that and it actually prepared me for a kind of work that I hadn’t really been expecting to even want to do.

But out there, it just seemed like a natural thing and I think it was because I was in a new world and I didn’t know anybody, nobody knew me, there was no history to sort of do battle with, I was free to show up as anybody I wanted to. Ten years before that it was unthinkable. But it just turned out that I studied hard enough and loved so many different things that I was able to fall into that kind of scene out there. So for me it was like a big fish in a little pond syndrome. For the three or four years I was out there, I did a lot of great work and met a lot of great people and ultimately found that I needed a bigger pond (laughs). That’s finally when I did take the plunge and did move to New York.

How was it finally going into that New York scene?

That was actually the roughest time I had because just breaking into a scene with as big a talent pool as New York has, was not an easy thing. For the first maybe five or six years I barely got any work that I would be proud of or like or enjoy. I mean, I worked hard to try to meet people and said yes to everything possible but it’s a deep enough city and there’s enough competition for the work that it just takes a long time until enough people know you’re there and you’re going to stay there, that you’re a professional and that you’re an ok guy to have on the job, that you really can play and do what they need. That just takes quite a long time. People are generally conservative out there. They want to call people they know, they want to call people they are comfortable with, want to make their own jobs easier. So it can take a while and it really did for me. I did struggle and didn’t earn much money for many, many years.

What do you think is the hardest thing about being a session musician in New York?

I guess the hardest thing, at least to me, is the sort of relentless high standard that you’re held to just because there’re so many great players out here. People get used to sort of expecting you to nail it on the first take. So it’s the pressure of that. And it’s not always the way you make the best music. Sometimes it needs more time and when you have the luxury of time to do it, it gets better. But again, the hardest thing for me is the stress of a session that you know has to get done right away and if they need it done right away, they’re not going to be happy if you’re not on top of it and if you can’t get it done right away. So it’s those high expectations that I find very challenging sometimes but also that’s what’s great about New York. You’re forced to sort of bring up your game. You’re going to work harder here because otherwise you’re not going to work. If you want to keep working, you’ve got to keep it up.

I have mixed feelings about it, especially now as I’m getting older and I’m not as driven to prove myself that way to do that kind of work, cause I enjoy other kinds of work more. But I love that about New York musicians. When you call this guy, he’s going to show up totally prepared and ready to play. If you don’t want to feel like an idiot or the wrong guy, you want to show up to the same degree. It’s a high pressure thing but it does improve you. You get quicker, you get sharper and you become one of those kind of players that I remembered when I first got to New York and would just stare at it in disbelief with my mouth wide open.

What do you remember most about some of those early sessions?

I remember one of the first sessions I did in New York before I actually lived there and there was a bass player named Neil Jason, who is still around actually, and I remember that we were both standing by the piano where the guy who wrote the song was playing it and we were learning it. We’d never heard it but Neil was playing along the entire time and he was sort of guessing the chord changes and I was just floored because he’s guessing everything right. If they had had him plugged in and recording, it would have been a keeper take. He could have gone home before all of us because he sort of knew it. And I was like, how did he know this? He’s guessing right all the time. It was just phenomenal. I don’t know if he was watching the piano player’s left hand or what his trick was but it was his experience. He was just so on it. He was doing sessions every morning all day long and he was one of the most in-demand guys and deservedly so, because he was so quick it was ridiculous. And I’m sitting there trying to figure it out and he’s already done. It was amazing. That’s the kind of thing that’s always impressed me. I wanted to be that way but I never felt like I was. I suppose over the years you do this enough, you do get better at it. It’s mostly about the confidence that comes from experience when you do it a lot, especially when you’re in a place where everyone around you is holding you to a high standard. It’s pretty great.

When you came into Steely Dan, and they hadn’t made an album in a really long time, what was the atmosphere like when you got there? You came in kind of late to the recording.

I did. They were making Two Against Nature and they had been working on it for at least a couple of years. I’m not sure why they were looking for another guitar player but they were and it was just some rhythm guitar that they were looking for. I found them totally relaxed and easy to be with, easy to work for. None of their reputation of being these harsh, unforgiving taskmasters seemed true about them. They seemed happy to work for many hours on one song, on one part of one song. But that didn’t strike me as weird or wrong or anything because it’s the kind of thing I would do and feel comfortable doing. They didn’t seem to be feeling any pressure to finish the record, they’d taken so long to do it already (laughs). They must have had a big budget or if they went over they weren’t worried about it. The whole thing was very relaxed and it was a great experience for me. It was fun to play, fun to meet them, and it quickly led to a couple of other things.

Some company was doing the making of Aja video. I think it’s a DVD now but it was a video at the time. But they asked me if I wanted to play, that they were going to try to recreate the recording atmosphere of Aja because there was no video footage, not even any photographs from the thing, and they were trying to do a documentary about the making of Aja. They really had no info at all, no footage, nothing really. So they were going to put it all together to make some footage that they could use. They invited me to do that and that meant we got to play some tunes from Aja and I got to play with a couple of people who were on the record originally. So that was a treat and somewhere along that time, they said they were going to do a tour in 2000 and was I around and was I interested in doing it. So of course I jumped at the chance and it’s been thirteen years now that I’ve been doing that job. It was really a game changer for me as far as how many people got to see me, other jobs that that led to, and that kind of exposure.

How long was it before you started adding in your own personality to these songs that people know by heart? When did you feel comfortable doing that?

I think that even though I wasn’t able to think about it or focus on it because I was scrambling to stay afloat in the beginning, there was a lot of music and the guitar chair was a big responsibility; there was a lot of stuff to learn and a lot of stuff to figure out how to play and how to solo on. But I think that even then without helping it, I sounded like me, you know. I don’t think you can avoid that. I’ve learned that over the years, that even if you try to sound like somebody else, you’re going to fail (laughs). You’re going to end up sounding like yourself anyway. There’s something about it that it’s sometimes hard to see this because it’s hardest to recognize things like that in yourself. It’s easier to pick them out in other people. I think it’s pretty universal, because with guitars, you’re touching it with your hands and because it’s such an odd instrument and can be played so many different ways, the personality of the player really comes through, for better or for worse. Even though I was trying to find a way to play a lot of different music by a lot of different guitar players, cause Steely Dan always had a habit of calling different session players, there’s quite a range of sounds and styles and players on those records.

But I was trying to find a way to sort of get through it in the beginning but I think even then if I listen back now, I think I hear things that sound like me in spite of the lack of effort to try to do that at the time. But as the gig went on, I realized this was an amazing opportunity in the music business that I had never had before and a lot of people don’t get, ever. But to be able to not only night after night but year after year to be able to play the same music with the same band with the same approach and to have every night with the stakes pretty high, a full house of people expecting to be wowed and knowing the music very well, that’s a lot of pressure. But it’s also an amazing opportunity that you get to do this again and again. And if you’re willing to take that seriously and work on it and try to improve, it’s amazing how much room you find ultimately for growth and in my case, in that gig, for kind of personal expression that I never had the opportunity to do.

For example, when I was doing just session work and doing odd jobs on the weekends with different bands, just freelancing, which I had done basically for years before that call, it was always a different thing. For example, once in a while I’d get a call that we’d need somebody to come in to play some rockabilly guitar on this tune or this jingle. Ok, I can do that. So I’d find the right guitar in my collection and I would put on a Brian Setzer record and listen and study up a little bit, cram basically for the next day, and I’d go in there with a couple licks I could play and a sense of how it’s supposed to sound and then I’d wing it and see what happens. It would go fine and then maybe if I were lucky, maybe nine months later I’d get another call to play rockabilly guitar. But those nine months in between, I wouldn’t play it at all. There’s no way you’re going to get any better playing rockabilly guitar doing that. The way you get better at it is if I really wanted to play rockabilly guitar and get to be an expert, I’d get in a band and go out on the road, then just do it every night all the time and keep working at it. That’s the way I would improve.

That’s the funny thing about session work. It keeps you sharp in the sense of being spontaneous and being able to quickly react and find a way to get through the next hour. And those are great skills to have. But the opportunity to have repeated performances of the same songs with the same people with high stakes and getting paid well for it, that’s how you can really change your playing over time. It’s been thirteen years that I’ve been doing this. And I’ll have to do it again this year because we’re at it again, another fifty-five shows or something happening this summer and that’s going to be another chance to sort of see if I can do something different with the same material. Or even just the challenge of keeping it up to the level that I was able to get it up to. That can be hard enough (laughs). If I can keep my attitude healthy and if I put in the time, I may find that there’s even more room to use it as a sort of personal platform, a new way to tackle those tunes. But I think that changed me as a player over the years, more than almost anything else has.

Any recording coming up?

I haven’t heard about any recording for Steely Dan. I don’t think so. I’m happy to have gotten to my new record and got it done. Donald has a fairly new record called Sunken Condos. It’s a real showpiece for me because I play all over it, which is pretty great. That’s a cool record. I’ve done two Steely Dan records, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go. But also a solo record with Donald called Morph The Cat, a solo record with Walter called Circus Money and then this new one of Donald’s, Sunken Condos. It’s been five records with them so far.

You mentioned your latest CD. How did you find the time with all these other projects to make your own record?

That’s a good question. My calendar is pretty busy and it’s been that way for quite a number of years now, which is pretty great. But somehow we got three records worth of songs recorded right in that same time frame, since 2000, which was the first one we did. I think it’s just because it’s important to me and I’ve made it a priority. A couple of times it’s felt very stressful to try to finish things before I go out on tour. I’ve had to interrupt the making of the record for this tour or that tour, and just had to make it whenever I have a little hole in the schedule. But somehow the pace has picked up in the last couple of years. Between Like So, the first one we did in 2000, which I remember struggling to finish before we went on the road and I didn’t quite make it. But we did get it done maybe a month or so into the first tour I did with them. Then it was about ten years, I think, before the next one, Shine Shine Shine, was released. Between Shine Shine Shine and Time On My Hands, it was only a little over a year, I think. That’s a much faster pace and I was glad about that and I’m going to try to keep that pace happening.

You have a good variety of musical styles on this CD so let’s talk about a couple of songs. Tell us about “I Ain’t Got You.”

That has a pretty funny history, actually. It started out life as a very different song. It was written with the bass player, Dennis Espantman. A couple years ago, Madeleine Peyroux, a singer I’ve worked with for about seven or eight years off and on, was doing a new record and I had been working with her long enough that I felt comfortable submitting her a couple of songs for her to consider doing on her record. So we wrote three, I think, just for Madeleine, thinking of her style. I did some very rough demos but in as close to her style as I could and we gave her three tunes and she passed on all of them and didn’t use them. But Dennis and I decided that one of them in particular we were sorry to just let it drop and go nowhere. It was called “I Ain’t Got You” and we took it and we had to do some serious editing on it because it was a much more earnest song when we submitted it to Madeleine. It was shorter and it had a different feel completely. We changed a lot about it and it would almost be unrecognizable now except for some of the lyrics from that version. But we sort of did our thing to it, which is sort of stuck our tongues in our cheeks and tried to add a good dollop of irony and humor (laughs). It starts out similar to the version we sent to Madeleine but then with succeeding verses it gets more and more outrageous and sillier and sillier and I hope funnier and funnier as it goes. But there is still something sentimental about it. We just tried to make some lemonade out of a lemon basically. I like the way it came out and it’s a big crowd pleaser.

“I’ll Fix Your Wagon”

That’s one of my favorite solos on that. Plus I like some of the background guitars that are adding some sonic action on the side. A couple were done with a funny little combination of slide with an EBow, which is a strange little thing you hold in your right hand and it electronically vibrates the string trying to simulate what a violin bow would do. So it’s sustained and it’s eerie in a strange way. And that alone with the slide is a pretty wild sound. I tracked maybe three of those parts with a weird sort of background, almost like what a string section would sound but with these weird sort of guitar sounds. That was fun to do. The solo was fun too.

On “EGirl,” you seem to have a playfulness going on in your lyrics.

We’re trying (laughs) Wait till you hear the next record. We’ve got about six tunes done already and they tend to be even more over the top. I think it might hang together a little more than this record does just in terms of style. I’m ok with the styles that are kind of varied on this record but the thing that holds it together a little bit is some of that sense of humor and, I’m hoping, the guitar playing. That was the sort of focus of the record for me. But this new one is definitely going to be a different kind of record but it does seem like we’re taking that same sensibility that’s in “EGirl” into the lyric writing and we’re just trying to run with it. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

What are your plans for the rest of 2013?

We start a bunch of shows with my band for maybe about a month. Then we’re done with that in the middle June. Then there is another week of Madeleine Peyroux touring. Then I come home and the next day I start rehearsing with Steely Dan. That tour goes through October 8th or something. Then there’s more Madeleine Peyroux at the end of October, all the way through November to the beginning of December.

Any chance of finishing up your next solo album during that time?

The first chance of any kind of a serious hole in my calendar is probably like the end of December and that’s a terrible time to have to do a record. I’m going to be exhausted so I’m just going to do some Christmas shopping and relax for the rest of the month. It’s looking like maybe, if we have enough songs, and at the rate we’re going, we might somehow pull the record together. I’m hoping maybe early 2014. Longer than I wanted it to be but I can’t say no to the work and I really like what I’m doing.

The bass player and I have been getting together pretty regularly and we seem like we’re on a roll. So if we can keep that going, I’m encouraged to stay in this mode and see how much we can come up with. I think we might be at a full LP’s worth before too long. Plus, we want to do this record differently. I don’t want to have to take a year to finish it because I’m interrupting the work on it. I’d love to just take like three or four weeks, go somewhere, and come back with a finished product. That would be so cool. That’s the way people used to do it. The idea of it dragging on and just taking it home and working on it for months and months, for an hour here and an hour there, it was so exhausting to do it that way. I’m wondering if we can maybe just do it all in one sitting. But that would require some room on the calendar.

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