Escape the tyranny of vanilla blues scales with some tricks from one of jazz-fusion’s most influential players.
• Understand how to imply alternate tonalities over a static chord. • Learn how to weave chromaticism into your lines. • Create traditional—but twisted—blues lines.
After more than two years of writing this column, I’m very happy to dig into the style of one of my favorite guitarists—Scott Henderson. Henderson’s imprint on the jazz-rock scene is monumental. He has played with a host of legendary jazz and fusion artists, including Joe Zawinul, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Chick Corea (he was featured on Corea’s first Elektric Band album). He also formed the influential fusion group Tribal Tech with bassist Gary Willis. This video shows Henderson in fine form with Corea’s Elektric band:
In Tribal Tech, there are two very distinct eras. The early records featured complex compositions with intricate arrangements and orchestration. Henderson was heavily into technology during this period, using a MIDI pickup to add timbres to fill out the tunes. As the band lineup solidified (drummer Kirk Covington and keyboardist Scott Kinsey joined Henderson and Willis), the approach began to change to a more riff-based jam band. I personally go for the earlier records, and Dr. Hee and Nomad are as good as it gets (just check out “Tunnel Vision” from Nomad). I’d also recommend checking out the band cutting loose on Thick or Rocket Science.
In 1994, Henderson took a break from Tribal Tech to put out his first solo record, and the result was an absolute game changer (for me, at least). Dog Party was a blues album in every sense of the word and Henderson really wears his Stevie Ray Vaughan influence on his sleeve, as you can hear in the video below for “Hole Diggin’.”
From there, he released two more solo records, Tore Down House and Well to the Bone. He continued with the blues theme, but gradually twisted it with greater jazz influences and some Jeff Beck-inspired tremolo sounds. The MIDI pickup is long gone, and instead we have some variation of Strat/Marshall/Tube Screamer. Start with “Dolemite” on Tore Down House to get a taste of some of Henderson’s best blues playing.
Our first example (Ex. 1) is a straight-ahead blues idea using notes of the A minor pentatonic (A–C–D–E–G) scale, as well as the 6th (F#) thrown in on those starting double-stops for some grit. Vocabulary like this is really all down to players like Stevie Ray and Albert King, and while this is an essential part of Henderson’s playing, he can get way more adventurous.
Ex. 2 is still very much in the traditional blues vein, but we’re moving along the neck with some pace, so it may feel a little tricky. The 6ths we start with are a big part of Henderson’s vocabulary. Notice how fluidly they blend with SRV’s trademark b9 lick at the end of measure three.
We kick things up a gear in Ex. 3. The notes might make you think of an E7alt chord, but it’s a great trick to use over an A7 to imply the V-I sound. You could analyze this lick closely and try to work out what scale he’s using, but I don’t think that’s the idea here because we’ve got the 5, #5, 6, b7, R, and b9 all represented. Theory nerds might define it as a Super Locrian scale with some chromaticism, but it’s simpler than that—just tension and release.
Diminished sounds are a big part of Henderson’s playing and Ex. 4 is an example of how he might use this over an A7 chord. The three-fret gaps on the 1st and 3rd strings will never be totally diatonic, so this is an easy way to add some outside sounds without learning complete fingerings for the diminished scale. Again, experimentation is key here. Play with the ideas and never lose sight of the importance of a smooth resolution.
Sticking with the theme of Henderson’s exciting approach to chromaticism, Ex. 4 is quite a string-skipping workout. This line could also work over an E7 chord or even an E minor tonality. Henderson has so many great lines like this when he unleashes, so get listening and transcribe some for your own use.
Our final example (Ex. 6), gives you a flavor of where Henderson is now, drawing influence from his latest record, Vibe Station. He’s back in full fusion mode for this record, but keeps some bluesy vocabulary when soloing. This particular riff is about creating mood and atmosphere, and it works a treat.
Henderson is still one of the most exciting players out there. We’d never be able to cover his full style here, so hopefully this is enough to encourage you to do your own listening and draw your own influence from this master of touch, tone, and phrasing.