Herring’s main gig is lead guitarist in the seminal Southern-rock jam band, Widespread Panic, where he splits guitar duties with founder and frontman John “JB” Bell. Photo by Andy Tennille

Who else was there with you? Weren’t you there at the same time as Jeff Buckley?
Jeff was, like, my best friend. We were practically inseparable. Paul Gilbert was there, too. I remember seeing Paul on the first day of school. I was walking down the hall, didn’t know anybody yet, and there’s this practice room with a group of people huddled around. You can’t even see exactly what’s going on. I peeked over the top and there was Paul sitting in a chair playing. He didn’t even have his guitar plugged in and you could have heard a pin drop. He was playing all that Yngwie stuff from [Alcatrazz’s] No Parole from Rock ‘n’ Roll album note for note. Without an amp! His picking hand was like a jackhammer. He just knocked all of us right on our asses.

Buckley is an artist of such depth that many would be surprised to know that he went to Hollywood’s top guitar school, where all the shredders go.
He was only 17 and I was 22. We were in ear training class together and quickly realized that we had to get together. He would come over to my little apartment and even though he had his own place he stayed at our place more than he went home. I’ll tell you something about him: That cat had the best ear of anybody I have ever been around. This was before the days of being able to digitally slow down Coltrane solos.This cat transcribed all these Coltrane solos, all this stuff from Steve Vai’s Flex-able album, Dregs stuff, Alan Holdsworth solos—you name it. It was inspirational. I was trying to do the same thing, but he was the first guy I met who was as into it as I was—but he was much further along.

"I needed a job to feed my family and I remember calling you for a tech job. Do you remember that?" —Jimmy Herring

What was he like as a player?
He was incredible, but he was real shy. He didn’t play a lot around school, though. He had this electric Ovation guitar. One of the rare ones, I think it was called the Breadwinner. It looked like a broken egg. It wasn’t a great guitar, but it was what he had and he made it work. At graduation he put together a trio and performed a Weather Report song that didn’t even have guitar on it. That will tell you something about his abilities. He never even sang in front of me except when we would do ear training. We would start with a tone and he would sing an interval and I’d have to say what it was. Then I would sing the note he sang and then sing another interval from that note. He was just phenomenal.

I can hear Steve Morse’s influence in your playing. Coincidentally, I first heard of you through T Lavitz, who played in the Dregs. When did you first hear them?
When I was a kid, the Dregs and Steve Morse were a huge, life-changing experience for me. And not just because I was young, but because I got to see them a bunch of times. They toured incessantly and seemed to be in North Carolina a lot. I bet I saw them 100 times. I was like a Deadhead that followed them around, so they joked that I was a “Dreghead.” I would drop anything I was doing if they were close by. Steve was such an amazing role model because this cat didn’t party; he had his guitar with him all the time, and was legendary for practicing for three hours after the gig. It was a tremendous impact on my young way of looking at things and I wanted to do that. So no partying after the gigs—just straight to the hotel and take my guitar into the bathroom where there’s reverb [laughs].

The first guitar clinic I ever attended was at Leo’s Music in Oakland. I had only been playing a year or two and just stopped in to pick up something. Turns out it was Steve Morse. It was a great way to get introduced to him and the Dregs.
I had started to see them when I was a junior in high school. I would be at sound check just because I wanted to see this band every minute I could even if they weren’t playing. I got to be friends with the road crew and they started calling me “North Carolina” because every time they played in the state I was there. I got to be friends with them enough that they would let me start to help set up the gear. T would seem really approachable. I’d go up and ask him to show me a passage in “I’m Freaking Out” or “Odyssey.” He was kinda struck that this little kid knew these songs by name. T would separate the parts and show them to me slowly.

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The “Santana at Woodstock vibe” described by Alex Skolnick propels Widespread Panic’s “Cease Fire,” played here during a March 20, 2015 show at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California. The song is a showcase for Jimmy Herring’s fat, silken tone. He drops into his first solo at 2:12, glides into a second, lengthier guitar break—which includes some elegant microtonal bends—at 3:30, and rips like Carlos at 5:12.

Did you ever get to jam with them during this time?
Eventually. Some of the people at the clubs knew me and would tell the crew, “Hey, that kid can play Dregs stuff,” and I was like, “No! Shut up, don’t tell them that!” One night they were all having a party at my friend’s house and they were playing a Dregs album. My friend was telling a crew guy, “This dude can play that tune.” The crew guy said, “You can’t play that.” And I went, “No, you’re right. I can’t play it.” But my friend, who knew I could, was like, “Pick up that fucking guitar and play it!” It was “Pride O’ the Farm” and I had been shedding on it, and so he basically cornered me. So the record was playing and there was a little amp, and I just doinked around with the record. The guy I had given a ride to said, “Next time we’re in town, bring your guitar. You got to go play with Steve.” Of course, I was terrified.

What happened the next time they came to town?
I had my guitar in the trunk of my car and the crew told me to go get it about a half-hour before the Dregs were going on. They instructed me to go in the dressing room where the band members were warming up and hanging out. Rod Morgenstein had a practice pad, T had a small keyboard, and Steve was warming up through a tiny practice amp. Steve unplugged his guitar and handed me the cord. I was trembling! I didn’t know what to do, so I just started playing fragments of Dregs music I had tried to learn, and asking him if I had it right. He was so genuine and kind, and told me “Almost!” T and Rod started playing along with me, and made me feel welcome and encouraged me, but I didn’t get to play with them that night. Years later ARU opened for the Dregs a few times and Steve sat in with us at least once. I was thrilled and, again, scared to death!