Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: that giant of bluesy jazz-fusion, Scott Henderson
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
SH: I need to say first of all that I love singers. I actually like them so much that I want to be one; but I can’t sing, so I let the instrument sing for me instead!
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
SH: If you’re expressing yourself musically, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it through your voice or an instrument. Your voice is an instrument, it’s just built in. But those of us who play physical instruments, we have to learn and internalise them, just like a voice.
GT: Anything you embrace or avoid?
SH: It really depends on how consonant or dissonant you want the song to be. If you want to play a song that’s very consonant, you’ll be looking to obey all the rules we have in jazz harmony. You probably wouldn’t write a C# over a Cmaj7 chord, for example. But we tend not to follow these rules nearly as much as we used to. If the song you’re creating is dissonant and you’re trying to evoke different feelings from that piece of music, then the rule book should be torn to pieces. The only rule is: if it sounds good, then it’s good.
GT: Is a typical song structure always relevant for an instrumental?
SH: It might be relevant for a traditional piece of music. But bands like Weather Report have songs that never repeat a melody; they’re almost like an improvisation throughout. I worked with Joe Zawinul and there were times when he would just keep composing and maybe only repeat a small part of what he was playing. But, having said that, Weather Report could follow the traditional formula of intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus etc and really make it work too. Every tune is different and has its own identity.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
SH: It’s extremely important vocalists have incredible phrasing. If you listen to some of the best we have to offer - Sarah Vaughan, Beyoncé - their phrasing is on another level. Anyone playing an instrument can learn a lot from great singers like these. They don’t have to think as much before they ‘play’; they don’t have to consider the next chord. ‘Thinking’ can be distracting when playing your instrument, because thinking makes you concentrate and too much concentration can distract you from the purpose, which is to tell a story. Music is like a language; if you’re too busy thinking about nouns, pronouns, verbs and adjectives, you’re unlikely to tell a good story. We learn our instrument’s technical aspects, so we can understand them inside out. It’s when you know everything about the instrument that you don’t overthink what you’re doing as you play. Singers help us remember that, because their instrument doesn’t require as much technical knowledge as a guitar.
GT: How do you start writing one; any typical approach or inspiration?
SH: I try to avoid that word, ‘inspiration’, as it’s kind of an excuse not to work. You know, “I’m not going to work today, because I’m not inspired.” I look at it like this; I go to work every day. There are days which are good, when I’m inspired and things happen much easier. But then there are days when I’m less inspired and I may have to work a little harder. That’s not to say I’m not going to work though I’ve come up with some of my best stuff when I’d really rather be watching TV! The thing is, it’s not the product that’s important, it’s the process. A guy once said, “If you’re having fun while you’re writing music you’re probably writing a piece of shit!” Now, I don’t know how much fun you’re supposed to have, but the important thing you need to stay focused on is the process - whether you’re having fun or not. The product is a result of the process. It wouldn’t exist without the process, so realise you’re doing something constructive and sooner or later you’ll come up with something that you like. It’s best to try and have a good time while you’re doing it though; to me the process is supposed to be fun. From a technical point-of-view, I write a lot of different ways; sometimes I’ll start with a groove, other times I’ll begin with the bass line or melody. I like to try and do it differently each time, because if I don’t I’m afraid I’ll write the same song 100 times; maybe I’ve already done that!
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
SH: I don’t like the word ‘performance’. I never want to ‘perform’. Instead, I ‘participate’. When you perform you split yourself into three people; the person playing the notes, the person that doesn’t like the notes and the person that’s judging them. The executioner who hates every note they hear. But when I ‘participate’, I try not to think about who’s listening to me and I throw the ego away. I just ‘participate’ in that act of playing music. This allows me to become centred on the other guys in the band, so I don’t focus entirely on me. My music is based on interplay and conversation. If you’re centred on how you sound, then you’re not being truthful to the music. In my band, we try to tell a story with the song, and our communication is very important to the narrative.
GT: Many songs feature a solo that starts low and slow then finishes high and fast. Is this structure a useful for pace and dynamics?
SH: That’s a very dated concept, though not entirely useless. There’s nothing wrong with it, but if every single song you wrote employed that model, then you’ll have very predictable music. I’ve worked for sidemen in the past and it seemed like almost every solo was built to do that - start slow and soft and end fast and big. My band and I really listen to each other. If I come down, they will too. I can be cookin’ along in a solo and decide I want to play something softer and they’ll go with me; the solo’s allowed to breathe dynamically. It doesn’t have to be on a path up or down, it can do what it wants. The more fun solos have soft moments in them, but they’re not following the rigid concept of moving steadily from soft to loud.
it’s when you know everything about the instrument that you don’t overthink what you are doing
GT: What type of tone do you prefer?
SH: I like the tone to be good, haha! I mean, most people know me as a
tone nerd, I’ve spent a lot of hours twirling knobs rather that practising. I suppose every guitar player does though, because it’s not easy to get good tone from the guitar alone; there are a million things that can mess it up. The whole package matters; having a good guitar, amp, pedals etc. But ultimately the tone is in your fingers. When we listen to the great guitarists that came before us, we try to emulate their tone first before looking for our own. I’ve been inspired by guys like Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Mark Knopfler, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ritchie Blackmore; they were known for their fantastic tone. Most players who are really good don’t just play great notes - they have great tone. If you listen to these guys, you might hear the deficiencies in your own tone and be inspired to make it better. Eventually you’ll end up with a tone that represents your own voice and makes you happy. When people ask me how I get a great tone and find my voice, the answer is pretty simple: you find the tone that suits you the most and enables you to play your own music.
GT: Any favourite keys or tempos?
SH: G and C and really slow, haha! I’m not a huge fan of fast tempos, even though it wouldn’t make sense if I never played any, because music has to have variety. But any time you have a fast tempo, you’re less likely to be creative, because you have to use muscle memory just to keep up the tempo. You have to play a lot of things you’ve played before just because the tempo’s so fast. I’m much more creative when the tempo’s medium or slow because I don’t have to remember things I’ve played before, I can just feel it. Even though I can play fast and have fast tunes, my favourite type of music isn’t so fast, because I always love to be creative; that’s my main goal in making music.
GT: Do you find minor or major keys easier to write in?
SH: It’s all the same to me; most of my music switches keys pretty often. You might find yourself in major, but it won’t last very long and then you take it to minor and you won’t hang around there too long either. My music tends to have a lot of chords in it - that’s why I don’t make much money! Every time you write a chord, it takes away money, but I never seem to learn that and keep writing thousands of them. If I got paid by the chord, I’d be a rich man!
GT: What about modulations into new keys?
SH: Well that’s very important. I was listening to a friend’s album a couple of months ago and everything about the record was really good; great tones, some nice melodies, really cool layering. But then I started to notice what was missing; there weren’t any modulations. You can have a lot of chords in a song, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any modulations. I’m sure this person thought: ‘There’s a lot of harmonies in this song’ - which there is; there are a lot of chords, but they’re in the same key, or they all reflect the same key. You have to include modulations, that’s so important; and you find them in the simplest tunes. They go on for a while in one key, using traditional harmony, then they modulate into another key and still use traditional harmony in that key. But the fact that they modulate is what makes them fun to play over.
GT: Do you view the band’s role differently than on a vocal song?
SH: Yes, definitely, because usually in a vocal song - at least in reference
to pop vocals - the band’s there purely to support the singer. In a band like mine, the bass and drums are there for support, but they’re also there to add their own voice to the music. They play a little busier than they would in a vocal, pop tune and I like that. I don’t want a rhythm section that’s 100% support; they need to be creative to allow the music that I play to work. If they’re just playing support roles only, who would I look to for inspiration? These guys excite me and make me want to play new stuff. To play new stuff, you actually need to stop playing for a moment and just listen. I’m in this habit of playing a phrase and putting my hands by my side so I can reflect on that phrase, hear how the guys react to it and I get a minute to think about how I’ll play next. Guitar players are notorious for not leaving enough space, and I’m really trying to do this more when I play because I think I play better when I do. I can tell a more interesting story when I leave more space. The space actually becomes more important than the notes.
GT: How conscious are you of its dynamic range when composing a new piece?
SH: Very conscious, because if a song doesn’t breathe, then you’ve got a problem. I used to play with Scott Kinsey, the keyboard player for Tribal Tech, and we were a band that used a lot of electronic loops. Loops are amazing, because they add a lot of texture, but one of the problems is they’re always at the same volume level. Playing at the same volume like that makes it hard to go from the beginning of the song to the end. My favourite kind of music has a lot of dynamism; I think the audience really responds to dynamics. If you ignore them, then you’re doing your music a great disservice.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
SH: We have such a huge palette of chords to choose from - I mean the vocabulary is pretty endless. On a good day, I’m able to just hear the chords I want under melodies; I just hear it, because I’ve heard these chords many times. My ears just hear what I want on a good day and I write pretty quickly. But on a bad day, I might have to use the process of elimination a lot more: try a chord, then try another before I finally come to a chord I want. I’ve even gone from low E all the way to the high E in bass notes. In other words, I’ve tried an E, E-major, E-minor, then go to F and try the chords that are appropriate in F and see if any of these fit. If I don’t like that I head along to G and so on before I finally find something I like, because I just don’t hear it. But there’s nothing wrong with using the process of elimination; many composers have to do that. Then there are those guys who don’t. I mean, Joe Zawinul was known for improvising and almost never having to use the process of elimination. He sat down and freestyled for five minutes and there you have it. He was a very gifted composer and I don’t feel like I’m ‘gifted’ as such. I’m just tenacious - I won’t stop. I don’t give up until I get something done no matter how long it takes. I’m patient with myself and I think that’s the key because you’ll have good and bad days when you’re composing and you have to accept that fact sometimes.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
SH: Oh wow! I can’t just think of three because there really are too many. I could try and name 20! We’re talking about jazz, rock, fusion, and all the rest - there are at least 10 in each category. I’ve always been a big fan of Mahavishnu Orchestra. I thought that band was very original, so I listened to them a lot. I also really like the Spectrum album by Billy Cobham - that has a lot of great instrumental pieces for guitar. Some of those have almost become the standard for fusion guitar. Songs like Stratus; nearly every band in the world plays that song. One of the songs that hit me the hardest on Spectrum, was a tune called Quadrant 4. That had an incredible impact on me; it’s kind of a rock and roll, boogie shuffle and showcases some of Tommy Bolin’s best ever guitar playing. There are great tunes from Scofield... I’m leaving so many people out!
GT: And of the great musicians you’ve played with?
SH: I’d admired Joe Zawinul for a long time before I played with him. We played together for around four years and it was really fun; an incredible learning experience. I don’t believe my skills were actually up to the level of what was needed at the time. He’s gone now but I wish I had a chance to play with him again. It was an incredible period; getting to listen to him play every night was truly amazing.
guitarists are notorious For not leaving space. i’m trying to do this more because i play better when i do
If Scott’s views on playing, writing and performing have whetted your appetite, then check this out. The Musicians Institute launched online courses for the first time in its history in July 2017. MI Online (https://online.mi.edu) is open to students around the world and includes exclusive online programmes from jazz, blues, and rock guitar legend, Scott Henderson who shares his unique approach to guitar improvisation. The courses have been given high-profile praise from ex-KISS guitarist, Bruce Kulick, who said: “Scott Henderson is not only a phenomenal guitarist with amazing articulation, he plays his uniquely beautiful styles by blending jazz with a rock tone that he masterfully expresses. With his online course, he actually explains how he does it! So learn with Scott as he shares his wisdom, unlocking the secrets of his skills.”
Scott plays his Suhr Signature Classic guitar
Scott Henderson: one of jazz-fusion’s most influential and exciting players