Beyond Blues: Jimmy Herring's Twisted Jams
Get inside the mind of one of the most creative improvisers playing guitar today.
• Explore the half-whole diminished scale.
• Create flowing lines that use bebop phrasing.
• Understand how to combine pentatonic scales with modes.
Are you hip to Jimmy Herring? Perhaps you’ve heard his name, but can’t quite place it. Herring’s career spans a quarter of a century, so he must be doing something right to still be at the top of his game.
Born in 1962 in North Carolina, Herring began to show a real gift for guitar in his teens. His influences were broad, but being exposed to Steve Morse and the Dixie Dregs certainly helped shape his utterly incredible picking technique. His formative years were filled with a great education (including stints at both Berklee and GIT) and, more importantly, hundreds of hours of performing demanding fusion onstage in an improvisational setting.
It’s fair to say that Herring’s musical interests have always focused more on the jazz and the jam-band scene, as he has played in such outfits as Jazz is Dead (featuring members of Dixie Dregs, Weather Report, and Mahavishnu Orchestra), The Dead (a continuation of The Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia’s death), and The Aquarium Rescue Unit.
Even though his career has consisted mainly of sideman work, Herring’s two solo albums, Lifeboat and Subject to Change Without Notice, feature amazing playing and compositions. I’ll take this opportunity to feature a video with Herring alongside our own Jason Shadrick. In it Herring deconstructs what might be his best tune: a gospel-blues track called “Bilgewater Blues” that features a fascinating interpretation of the blues form.
For our first set of examples, I’ve prepared a backing track that sits on a static Bbm7 sound. Take a listen below and experiment with the different phrases we cover, and then try to come up with some of your own.
Our first lick (Ex. 1) features some slippery phrasing that combines the Bb blues (Bb-Db-Eb-E-F-Ab) and Bb Dorian (Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab) scales. Make sure to notice what notes fall outside of the basic pentatonic or blues framework and learn where they are coming from. For example, in measure two we have a G natural which would be the 6 of the Dorian or Mixolydian scale.
The next phrase (Ex. 2) works over our backing track, but we’re actually imagining an Eb7 (which would be the IV in a Bb blues). It’s worth taking notice of the typical bebop chromatic approach in the end of the second measure. There are some tricky little position shifts in the third measure, so take this one real slow. You want to have the right notes when you’re up to speed.
Ex. 3 uses one of Herring’s favorite sounds—the half-whole diminished scale. This is a fantastic scale built of consecutive half- and whole-step intervals (though it could also be seen as two diminished arpeggios a half-step apart). It’s a great little outside sound that can be used for a bit of color over a minor or dominant setting. Check out Herring’s “Scapegoat Blues” to see it used to full effect.
Here we combine the Bb half-whole (Bb-B-C#-D-E-F-G-Ab) scale with some pretty out rhythms (the latter for their jarring effect) before we resolve back to the Bb minor pentatonic scale.
For some variety, here’s a backing track that covers a basic B minor blues form. Before we see how Herring might tackle it, take a listen to the groove.
The first lick in Ex. 4 can easily fit over a blues progression, starting in the third measure. It’s here we outline the I-IV movement before returning to the tonic. Beginning on the second beat, we have some heavy chromaticism on the B melodic minor scale (B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A#). That leads into a line based mostly around an E melodic minor scale (E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D#), but with a D natural, which implies the Dorian mode. In the fourth measure, there’s a tricky alternate-picked C#m7b5 arpeggio. This implies a jazzy Em6 sound before resolving to an equally tricky Bm6 arpeggio that leads us back to the I chord.
The final example outlines the bVI-V-I progression that you would hear on a minor jazz-blues. Over the G7 we play a phrase using the G Mixolydian (G-A-B-C-D-E-F) scale. Then we shift to a chromatically embellished GmMaj7 arpeggio over the F#7 (implying an F#7#5b9 sound). To finish the lick we shift back to our Bm7 chord (actually a Bm6 on the track) and wail with a blend of B Dorian, blues, and melodic minor. These types of phrases are an essential part of the fusion vocabulary and require alternate picking mastery well beyond my own. This example is at 115 bpm, but Herring wouldn’t break a sweat at 160!
Take your time with these ideas and use them as a springboard to do your own listening and transcribing, and enlist the provided backing tracks to accompany your musical explorations.