Scott Henderson Interview: Effected by Fusion

Scott Henderson Vibe Station

Scott Henderson is one of the most exciting fusion guitarists in music today. His body of work with Tribal Tech, Vital Tech Tones, and jazz-fusion keyboard legends Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea earned him numerous #1 Jazz Guitarist accolades from all the big guitar mags early in his career, and he has continued to explore and move fusion guitar playing forward ever since, with much continued acclaim.

Henderson grew up in Florida listening to the rock, blues, funk, and soul of the 1960s and ‘70s. Then he discovered jazz, and ground-breakers such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. A move to Los Angeles after college led to his playing with such luminaries as Jean Luc Ponty, and the aforementioned Zawinul and Corea.

Fast forward through a career that has now seen Henderson touring the world many times over, and putting in 20-plus years as a staff professor at the vaunted Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, California. He has, at this point, recorded on more than two dozen albums, including 10 with Tribal Tech -- the most recent being X, in 2012 -- and five solo albums, including his stellar new 2015 release, Vibe Station.

In this in-depth interview Henderson speaks with me about his methods of songwriting, his love/hate relationship with digital music production technology, and his approach to teaching at Musicians Institute.

We also spoke in detail about his vast collection of boutique effects pedals. At times the conversation seemed like a guided tour through some high-end music store, complete with commentary from a master guitarist on all the wild and wonderful uses you can get out of some of the coolest music-making tools available today. If you’re a little bit gear-crazy, you’re going to love this interview.

Scott HendersonHenderson: Hey, Adam. How are you doing? I’m doing great, Scott. So, the new album sounds pretty cool, man. I really like it.

Henderson: Thank you. We actually had touched based last summer, and you told me that you were working on an album. You had hoped to have it out by the end of the year, I thought. Took a little longer?

Henderson: Yeah, because of the touring, you know. I’m on the road a lot. I could have finished this record in three months if I didn’t have to leave every month to go somewhere. Sure. I’m in Chicago. I’m looking forward to you coming through town. It’s not till September, but I’m looking forward to that.

Henderson: Oh, yeah. We play at Reggies. That’s a great room. I played there with Dennis Chambers and Jeff Berlin about, I don’t know, maybe a year or two ago. It was really fun. They’re nice people and, you know, it’s a nice place to play. Yeah.

Henderson: I think the last time I saw you – wasn’t it when we played at Martyrs’? Possibly, yeah.

Henderson: Yeah. I think that’s the last time we actually saw each other. I was playing at Martyr’s with the old band, with Kirk Covington and John Humphrey. Yeah, it’s been like at least seven or eight years. Yeah, it probably has. I was actually away from for a while. So, I’m back as the editor, and it’s been about that long.

Henderson: Oh, okay. Very cool. Well, you know, I look forward to that. And the new album is really cool. So, it came out, actually, in May, right?

Henderson: Yeah, May 1st. Okay. all right. I don’t have your dates in front of me right now, but you’re playing quite a bit with this album, aren’t you?

Henderson: Yeah. The touring dates are on my website. There’s a little touring tab, and the dates are there and there’s a lot of them coming up soon. Very Cool. So, on this album I hear so many different guitar tones. It’s very cool. How did you pull all these together?

Henderson: Well, you know, we’ve been playing these tunes as a trio for a while. And I always like to play the songs on the road for a bit before we go into the studio just because they get to be their best. You know, everybody figures out little nuances that they put into the music and everybody sort of reaches the height of their creativity level on each tune. And I like that to happen before we go in and actually put them on tape.

So, we’ve been playing the songs on the road, and then, of course, when I listen to the tracks in the studio, I hear so much more that the tunes can be. And I don’t want to add so much to the tunes that the audience can’t recognize them, or that the song can’t be played anymore the way that we’ve been playing them on the road.

So, I don’t want to add too much because the basic element of the trio still needs to be there. But there are tons of places to add little things and little nuances that hopefully won’t be missed that much when we play live, but they just add color and add some nice things to the arrangement. Right. With the actual tones that I’m hearing on this recording… I mean, you’ve got stuff that sounds like almost sitar-like and all kinds of things...

Henderson: That is a sitar.

Listen to Scott Henderson’s Sitar Fusion on "Manic Carpet" from Vibe Station Oh, okay.

Henderson: That’s one of those Jerry Jones electric sitars. Oh, okay. Cool. And how are you recording these day?. Are you using amps and mics? Are you recording through plugins? What are you doing?

Henderson: Amps and mics, man. I’m old school. Marshalls turned way, way up. Oh, really?

Henderson: A 4x12 cabinet with Greenbacks and ’71 Marshall. I wouldn’t do it any other way, dude. I hate all that bullshit -- that guitar modeling crap, man. That’s so much bullshit. Okay. So, you just crank way up in the studio to get that tone.

Henderson: Yeah, man. Like a real musician. Yeah.

Scott HendersonHenderson: I’m sorry I’m so down on that stuff. I just hear it, and It’s just, you know... I’ve had that stuff over at my house, and I just can’t do a single thing with it -- all that Axe-FX and all that stuff over at my house. It just sounds like a joke compared to a real cabinet with a mic in front of it.

But, I understand that some people can’t turn up loud at their house, and I get that. And, you know, for the purpose of laying down some tracks for commercial purposes, I totally can understand how you could fool people into thinking that it is a real amplifier, but there’s no way in hell I can get my tone out of a rig like that. I gotta have the real deal. So, are you recording a lot of this at home?

Henderson: Yes and no. I keep some stuff from the basics. And then stuff I don’t like, I play it at home. Yeah. Are you recording to tape?

Henderson: No, we record it into a Mac running 96k/24bit. And then our mastering engineer ran it to half-inch tape before he EQ’d it. So, yes, it did go on to tape, and that makes a huge difference in the sound. Do you hear that tape warm up the sound a bunch?

Henderson: Yeah. It warms it up. It gets rid of all the digital spikes. It blends all the music together without needing a compressor, because I hate compressed music. But, the tapes, he didn’t use any compression on the music, that’s why it sounds so dynamic. It’s not the loudest record in the world, but, you know, the louder it gets…

I mean, the more compression, the louder the music gets, but I’m not competing with anybody. I couldn’t care less how loud the record is, you know? I just want the dynamics to be there. So, he didn’t use any compressors. Instead he put them on tape. And the tape has its own natural compression, which just compressed it slightly, but that’s enough. Right. So, you said you record it into a Mac, so you’re talking about Pro Tools on the Mac?

Henderson: I believe it was done on Pro Tools, yeah, in the studio. At the studio we record in, they have Pro Tools, but I take the files and convert them to Digital Performer because I like to work with Digital Performer – I’m not a Pro Tools guy. So, you’re not averse to digital recording, you just don’t like the plugins for amps?

Henderson: Yeah. Digital recording is fine, but nothing beats tubes and speakers turned up loud. Yeah, I get that. What guitars were you using on this? Were you using a bunch of different things? You were using a sitar...

Scott HendersonHenderson: Yeah, but mainly the Suhr’s. I have these Suhr Strats that are my signature model, and I have like five or six of them, and I use my favorite ones. And every once in a while, I’ll pull out a Les Paul or a Tele – it’s a Suhr Tele though, but... Yeah, you know, most of the record was just done with my signature Suhr Strat.

And tons of pedals -- lots of different pedals. The main pedal I use is the RC Booster, which is my favorite pedal of all time, which I’ve been using for about 20 years, ever since they came out with it. It’s my Desert Island pedal. It’s great because, you know, you can play solos with it, but it also cleans up really well when you turn your guitar down. So, it’s a great, great pedal. It’s almost on all the time when I use it live.

And then, if I wanted a high gain solo, I use two or three different ones. I use mainly the Klon Centaur and I use a Maxon SD-9 and a Fulltone PlimSoul. Those are my three favorite distortion pedals. Do you ever have two of them on at the same time, or three?

Henderson: No, just one pedal. I never combine them, they make too much noise. It just adds so much noise. And with the RC there’s plenty enough gain without needing to add anything to it.

And then I just have, like, lots and lots of effect pedals -- chorus pedals and all kinds of weird noise pedals. I have about, I don’t know, 60 or 70 pedals. So, I just pull them out when I need them and I think, “Oh, this pedal might be good for a certain part.”

And I do use a lot of plugins too for effects. I love EchoBoy. That’s been one of my favorite plugins for a long time. I think that’s actually the biggest bang for your buck out there on the Internet because the thing only costs $179. And not only does it give you every delay known to man, but it gives you amazing special effects. It’s a great, great plugin.

And I use the Lexicon Reverb Bundle for reverb plugins and all the wave stuff. So, yeah, everything stayed in the computer. We didn’t run out any additional hardware. We used plugins for all the reverbs, delays, and effects.

Watch the Scott Henderson Trio Play “Sphinx” from Vibe Station  I see. Do you do some of the engineering yourself?

Henderson: Yeah. I do the guitar part of the engineering. Our drummer Alan Hertz is also an engineer, so by the time Alan comes over to do the mix, the guitar stuff is pretty much done. It’s all EQ’d and mixed within itself -- all the guitar tracks.

And depending on what he does, I may have to change something here or there. I remember him making a remark that some of the guitar tones were too fat and are going to be in the way, so I had to go in and scoop out a few of the guitar parts to make room for the other more important guitar parts so that they don’t get in the way. What do you mean by “scoop out”?

Scott Henderson's recent studio rigHenderson: You know, take away mid-range, because the main guitar part -- which is the part that you would hear us play if you went to see a live gig – the main guitar part is the part that needs to be really big and take up lots of space, and sound huge.

The other auxiliary parts are those little nuances that I add. Those don’t have to sound so big. They just need to sit in the right place in the mix, and I had some of them sounding too big, and taking up too much space, and too much room in the soundscape.

So, Alan -- who’s a great engineer -- he knew to take those guitar parts and thin them out a little bit so that they can be heard,  but don’t take up so much room and make everything muddy. So, I would say 80 percent of the guitar mixing was done, and then he came in and further tweaked it, and made it even better. So you scoop out the mids on those auxiliary guitar tracks, and then maybe pan them, or put some different reverb on them or something?

Henderson: Yeah. Panning is a great way to keep separation in the mix. Panning, of course, is the easiest way to keep one track out of the way of another. But there are instances where there’s so many tracks going on at the same time. There are some groups of guitars that are on one side, so you’ve got to separate those guitars somehow.

So, you have to figure out a way to make them heard without being in the way of the other guitars that sit there in that same speaker. And that’s an engineering art, and Alan is a super expert at doing that – way more than me. When you say “groups of guitars,” how many groups of guitars did you have?

Henderson: Oh, there’s a lot. You know, Joe Zawinul told me a little secret at one time, and he said, “Always have stuff in there that no one will ever hear because it draws people subconsciously into the music.”

So, there is stuff in there that you would have to strain really hard to hear. There are tracks that are in there that are almost subliminal, they’re so soft, but they’re in there, and they create an ambiance, and they create a sound. You would miss them if they weren’t there, but you don’t notice them. Right, I was just telling my 14-year-old songwriter son that this morning, about cool production tricks...

Henderson: Right. So, yeah. It’s kind of like I’m coming from the Led Zeppelin school. If you listen to a Led Zeppelin record, you basically hear the main guitar part, but if you listen over, and over, and over, you hear all these weird little ambiances behind the scenes.

And you realize that, Jeez, there’s probably 10 guitar tracks going on right now, and you may have only noticed two of them, but there’s another eight back there that you don’t pay attention to because they’re down in the mix. Right. So, that’s kind of the fun stuff too, isn’t it?

Henderson: Yeah. That’s the part I enjoy the most -- adding these little colors to the tunes. It’s a lot of fun. It’s painting, you know? It’s great. Yeah. And it may just be a few seconds here, a few seconds there, right?

Henderson: Exactly, yeah. They’re not always long, sometimes they’re just a little note here, a little note there. Maybe one note that I couldn’t play in the chord because it would make the chord -- you know, I don’t have enough fingers to play some of the notes -- so I just add one note to the chord that would give it a whole new sound. Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to play it live, but, hey, it’s kind of cool to have them on the record. Well, that is cool. That’s fun stuff when you’re recording. So I suppose when you’re doing some of those added on notes, you’re also playing around with different tones, and different effects and pedals, and different sounds?

Henderson: Yeah. I think I probably spend more time dialing up sound, or trying to find the right sound for the right part than I did playing notes. Yeah. That’s understandable. So, what were some of the favorite old vintage pedals you busted out for this album?

Scott Henderson's pedal boardHenderson: Well, I don’t know about vintage pedals. Let me see. Do I use anything vintage? I’m not sure I use anything vintage. Well, I just mean anything that you had sitting around at home that you don’t normally bring on the road..

Henderson: Well, let me think about that... What do I use? I use the Ola Chorus a lot. That’s a Strymon pedal. That chorus sounds better than any plugin that I have. I also use an Arion Chorus a lot, but, I take that on the road. That’s my like road chorus.

I also use a Strymon Lex which is their, sort of, their Leslie simulator. That’s a beautiful pedal. It makes some great sounds and you can rev up the rotor. When you play a sound you can make the rotor go faster and it’s really nice. It gives this great effects. With a foot pedal or something?

Henderson: Yeah, with an expression pedal -- so that’s a great pedal. I use a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory for the solo on “Festival of Ghosts,” which is that really wicked solo that makes all the noisy kind of sound. I use that same pedal on the “Mysterious Traveller” solo on the HBC record. That’s a fun pedal. It sort of reacts to how you have your volume control on your guitar set. When you move your guitar volume up and down, it warbles out and makes the weirdest tones. Cool.

Henderson: On the Blues tune, I use the Trombetta Robotone, which is a great pedal because when you pick kind of a -- what do you call it -- medium pressure, or medium force – it sounds like a really nice distortion pedal, but when you pick hard, these kind of overtones come out that almost makes it sound like a trombone. Wow.

Henderson: Yeah. If you listen to the blues tune, you hear it. Like it starts coming in around the middle of the solo, and then it really gets crazy on some phrases where you go, “What’s that sound?” It’s almost like a ring modulator, but not quite -- a little more subtle. It’s almost like a subtle ring modulator, and it’s a beautiful tone, it’s really great. That was a real fun pedal to use on that tune because it just wigged it out a little bit from being just a normal blues.

And then, let’s see, what else do I use? I use a Vertex Boost for a couple of tunes. I use a really nice boost pedal that a guy from Holland gave me called an (AMT Electronics) R1. I use that on the song “Calhoun.” It has a tube in it. It’s got a really beautiful, fat tone. And it seems to fit that tune more than the RC Booster, so I used that.

I use a Robotalk to make the radio sounds on the song “Vibe Station,” because I got a Mexican radio station coming through it. So, I turned up the gain, and I set the tempo of the Robotalk to the tempo of the song and got some really wild radio sounds. And that would have never happened without that Xotic pedal, the Robotalk. It’s sort of like an envelope filter, but it has a modulator like an in-time step modulator on it too, so it can wig out and do all kinds of strange things. So, yeah, lots of strange pedals – lots of pedals. Wow. Yeah, it sounds like…

Henderson: An Octafuzz Chorus. I use my Octafuzz a couple of times, which is sort of like the Fulltone copy of the Tycobrahe Octavia.

Watch Scott Henderson, Jeff Berlin, and Billy Cobham Play Cobham's Fusion Classic “Stratus” It sounds like you went shopping at some boutique pedal shop before you did the album!

Henderson: Yeah, you have to. When you make a trio record, you gotta kind of pull out all the stops. You know -- it’s just guitar, bass, and drums. It’s got to have some colors. I’m spoiled by working with keyboard players and they have so many sounds at the touch of a finger. So, I wanted to make a record sonically fun to listen to.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, the main thing, the coolest thing is that Bruce Forman -- who is one of my favorite jazz guitar players -- he loaned me his hollow-body for the last tune. And it’s a Sonntag that was made for him by Stefan Sonntag. But, it’s one of the most beautiful hollow-bodies I’ve ever heard. It’s just gorgeous sounding.

So, he was kind enough to loan me that guitar for “Chelsea Bridge.” And that’s just a beautiful sounding guitar, man. I had fun playing that thing. What a gorgeous guitar. I’m very tempted to call that guy in Germany and ask him if I could get some kind of deal, if he could make me one too, because I love the sound of Bruce’s other guitar.

He mainly plays an L5, and I love the sound of a Gibson L5. But, this guitar has a single coil, so it has a different kind of thing. And I’m just really attracted to it. Maybe it’s just because I love single coil pickups on my Strat, and the single coil pickups on that hollow-body give it such a beautiful tone. In fact, that might be my favorite tone on the whole record. Really?

Henderson: It’s just I’m not used to having a great hollow-body, so I was like “Whoa, this is amazing!” It’s a gorgeous-sounding guitar. Do you actively seek out new equipment on a regular basis?

Scott HendersonHenderson: Well, my mind is always open to new stuff. I don’t necessarily go out and buy a lot of stuff because I’m pretty happy with all the stuff that I have. Right now, for example, I’m working on a new speaker cabinet. Kerry Wright is building me a new 4x12, and I’m going to put four different speakers in it. And I’m going to be able to turn the speaker around on all sides because I like to mic a certain speaker because of its place in the room, so I can just turn the speaker on its side and turn it over, you know, so that the speaker end up on the microphone.

And I’ll have four different speakers that I can try out. I bought a ’69 Greenback, you know, the old days. And a Heritage Greenback, a Heritage G12H. And a V-type speaker from Celestion. Yeah, it would be interesting to see what those speakers sound like. They’ll be a little bit different sounding than the Greenbacks that I use, which are the Chinese Greenbacks, which I totally love, but these will have a little bit of a different color.  So, yeah, I’m always experimenting with stuff. Do manufacturers send things your way to try out?

Henderson: Yeah. Yeah, they do. Fishman was kind enough to send me their MIDI guitar pickup. And I used that to make the charts for my play along version of the records. I have a play along version you can buy off my website – where you can take the guitar mix, or the bass mix, or the drum mix, and turn them off and play along or solo the tracks..

And I’ve sold quite a few of those. It’s getting pretty popular. They are these great bass and drum tracks to play along to. And of course, if you set the tempo of your sequencer to the tempo of the songs, you can loop any section you want, so you can loop the solos. It’s a nice practice tool for musicians, and especially for people who like the songs, it’s a nice way to learn the songs, because I wrote the charts, all these guitar charts and bass charts. Thanks to Fishman and their guitar controller we’re able to get the notes into the computer so that Digital Performer can spit out those charts.

Watch Scott Henderson Play the Blues Is there any chance that you might be willing to share a little fragment of the chart with us for the article?

Henderson: Yeah, sure. No problem. To show people what you’re talking about?

Henderson. Yeah. No, I have no problem with that. That would be very cool.

Henderson: Whatever chart you want, you know, whatever chart -- whatever tune you like, I’d be happy to give it to you, yeah.

Click Here to Learn "Secrets of the Pentatonic Scale" from Scott Henderson Okay, cool. Yeah, I’ve been personally trying to move a little more… I’ve always been more of a straight rock player. I’ve been in an Allman Brothers tribute band for years and years in Chicago, and I’m a little tired of it. I’m trying to find the time and the means to move more toward fusion style playing. I’ve got a very, very long way to go. But your albums are very inspiring to me.

Henderson: Oh, thanks. I appreciate that, man. Thank you so much. It’s very cool stuff. So, what else goes on for you these days? You’re a staff member at MI -- at the Guitar Institute of Technology -- aren’t you?

Scott HendersonHenderson: Yeah. I’m just there on Monday and Tuesday, and I just do open counseling. I’m not a classroom teacher. I can’t be because I leave too much and I would have to get subbed and stuff. So I basically just do my own thing in my open counseling room, and people can come in and out as they please. So, it’s very open and informal. So, with this counseling you’re playing and you’re showing people things.

Henderson: Mm-hm. And, you know, I just play with one or two students at a time, and on whatever tune, answer whatever questions. I don’t really have an agenda in there. It’s like the agenda is whatever the student asks. I just basically answer questions.

So, if somebody wants to learn how to play On “Giant Steps,” we’ll talk about that. If somebody wants to learn how to play “Pride and Joy,” we’ll do that. It just depends. It changes with whatever the students need.

And that’s what keeps it fresh for me. I mean, I’m open. I love to play blues, I love to play rock, jazz, whatever. And it’s fun because the students always have something different that they want to do. Right. And it keeps you on your toes, doesn’t it?

Henderson: Yeah, it does sometimes because, you know, it dusts off my… If I haven’t played a particular tune, like a student might come in wanting to play a tune that I haven’t played for ages, and it kind of gives me the “Okay, let’s revisit this tune that I haven’t played in years.” Right, exactly. Do you do any online teaching?

Henderson: I give Skype lessons, but I usually end up giving at least one or two Skype lessons a week.

Click Here to Learn "Secrets of the Pentatonic Scale" from Scott Henderson So, where do you go from here? You’ve got some dates, you’re touring the album. What else is happening for you this summer or through the rest of 2015. Any other recordings you’re working on?

Scott HendersonHenderson: Nothing’s really going on this summer. I’m just practicing a lot. And once I finish these gigs, which would be like toward the end of November, then I’ve got to start writing again, you know, for another album.

It sort of keeps going on. I don’t get a break. When you’re a composer, you know, people keep expecting… I don’t want it to be another 10 years. Actually, I have a good excuse. You know, the reason why it’s been so long between Well to the Bone and this album is because my daughter was born in 2004. Oh, wow. Okay.

Henderson: Not far after Well to the Bone.  And I took some years off from composing just to be with her just to try to be a good Dad, you know.

Once she started to be a little bit more independent, I did the Tribal Tech “X” and HBC albums. And now she’s 11, so she’s kind of, you know, she’s in school a lot, she’s doing her piano, and ice skating, and theater, and all kinds of stuff. And I’ve got a ton of time to be a composer again, you know, just sort of get back into composing again. I can completely relate. I’m in the same place right now.

Henderson: Yeah. So, I had time to, you know, write the music for Vibe Station. And now that that’s done, I’m going to be ready to do another one. And I always feel like I can do better, you know? I know I can. So, I always feel like, okay, I know I’m able to write a set of better music than this, and I can get better tones. And I can.

I’m always trying to grow as every musician is, so I always consider myself a work in progress. So I hope the next record is even better and I’ll start writing for it probably as soon as I get home from all the touring. Yeah. “Well to the Bone” is one of my favorite tracks, man. I love that song.

Henderson: Oh, yeah. That’s a blues tune for sure. I always like to put a straight ahead blues tune on a record, you know? It’s fun. Yeah. It’s a really cool tune, lyrics and everything.

Listen to Scott Henderson’s “Well To The Bone”

Henderson: The main difference on this record, the big challenge on this record was that we don’t have singing anymore. Right. Yeah.

Henderson: So, it was challenging to be able to play the melodies and the chords, but not in the typical jazz chord melody style, which, of course, I love that style of playing and several of my favorite players are great at it. But, those big chords don’t fit what I do because I’ve always got a little bit of distortion in my sound. So I have to play different types of voicings that sounds good with distortion.

And yet I love those really small intervals like Holdsworth does by stretching. But I can’t stretch, so I use a lot of open strings. And just by luck, the open strings really kind of work with the distortion. I don’t know why -- I don’t know the technical reasons, but the open strings seem to sound clearer with a little bit of distortion, and especially clear like a big group, a big chord group would.

Scott Henderson

So, I kind of developed this little chord melody style that I would like to think sounds like me and not like anybody else because I don’t really know anybody else that’s doing this – that’s doing, kind of, like fusion chord melody, for the lack of a better description.

So, that was the main challenge on this record, to make it all come to fruition without the use of a vocalist. And that would be the same challenge for the next record. It’s not easy. I’m used to having somebody else sing the melody and me just having to play the chords. So, this is definitely more of a challenge. Why don’t you just get another singer?

Henderson: Well, because I think it’s fun to do this. I like the challenge of the trio guitar thing. It’s really a lot of fun. And then you don’t have to deal with LSD -- Lead Singer’s Disease -- either.

Henderson: You’ve got a point there. That’s why we really never have a lead singer on the road. I was lucky to get Thelma Houston and Wade Durham to sing on Well to the Bone, but I never went on the road with them because I could never afford Thelma. She’s way too expensive -- way out of my price range. I was just lucky to get her on the record. Bless her heart. She’s such a great singer. Yeah she nailed it on “Well to the Bone.” So, with the writing process, what do you do? Do you sit down and play with jam tracks, with drum tracks, or something? What inspires you to write the next song?

Henderson: That’s one way to do it. I’ve always found writing in real time usually gets you a more organic result. Of course, there are some times where you have to play -- where you have to write in stop time, or you’re just sitting there and going, “Okay, should it be this chord, or this chord, or this chord, or this chord?” And you have to make decisions, you know?

And I try not to spend a whole lot of time making those decisions – I’d rather put it on tape and listen to it because, sometimes, a decision you’re making in stop time, which could take a half an hour of decision making, really, that is only a one second moment in the scheme of things, right?

So, rather than waste a bunch of time, I would rather just put it down on tape and listen to it in real time, and make a decision that way. I’ve learned through experience that working on music in real time is more beneficial, and it’s more – I’m trying to think of a word here – it’s more productive than the other way.

It’s not like I’m doing a painting where you view it in one moment. The art form of music is appreciated over a timespan. So, when you write over that timespan in the same tempo, you just seem to get better results.

So, sometimes, I’m able to just jam with a drum track. I first decide: Okay, what kind of tune is this going to be? Is it going to be a funk tune? Is it going to be a rock tune? Is it a ballad or what kind of groove? So, my first job is usually to make the groove. And then, once the groove’s there, I just jam over it.

Scott HendersonAnd even if I jam over it for six hours, and then come back a few days later and listen, there’s always a few really cool ideas that I can use as a starting point for melodies and stuff like that. And sometimes I just luck out and I might write a whole minute of the song that’s exactly like the way it’s going to be -- or if I had one of those Joe Zawinul moments, one of those Mozart moments where I just luck out.

But, I am not like those guys where, you know -- Joe Zawinul could just sit down and improvise, and you know, five minutes later you have “Birdland.” I’m not that gifted.

So, I’m gifted but in much smaller time intervals. So, I don’t often write big, long things that I can use, but sometimes I luck out and I seem to have instant access to the things I’m hearing in my head on the guitar. And those great moments are what I live for where I’m able to hear things and immediately know where they are on the guitar, and put them down on tape right in tempo of the song. Those are the great writing moments that all composers live for.

But, there are a lot of other times where I have to use the process of elimination and just, “Okay, I hate this. I hate this. I hate this,” and finally I come up with something I like. So, if you’re patient enough to go through that, you can write. Anybody can write good music if you’re just patient enough to go through all the stuff that you hate first.

And a lot of people aren’t patient. A lot of people, if they don’t come up with something they like in a couple of days, they give up. But, I’m willing to sit there and go through three days of garbage before I come up with something decent on the fourth day. And yeah, perseverance, basically, is my biggest friend.

Watch Scott Henderson Perform with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate So, you spend a lot of time listening back to stuff you’ve recorded while you were just jamming?

Henderson: Yeah, I do. And I always like to wait a little while between the time I write stuff and the time I listen back because I want to have the same element of surprise that my listeners are going to have. So, there are many times that I think something’s good, and I come and listen to it three days later, and throw it right into the trash can.

By the same token, there’s tons of where I write stuff and I don’t really think it’s going to be great, and I come back and listen to it, and I go, “Wow. This is way better than I thought it was.”

So, I think the element of surprise is something that you really kind of need because it gives you a better perspective on what you’re doing. It’s easy to get jaded quickly when you hear something over, and over, and over, and you lose perspective. So, it’s good to take breaks even if you take just two hours. Just take two hours and come back to it. You hear it with fresh ears, and it helps you to make the decisions you need to make. What do you use for your drum grooves?

Scott HendersonHenderson: I enter the notes of the bass and drums with MIDI with just a little Oxygen 8 keyboard, and I enter the guitar analog through a little Pandora that I use for writing. You know, it’s just one of those little Korg boxes that has a bunch of different sounds in it. And it’s fine for writing because I don’t want to burn the tubes out of my amp for composing.

So, yeah, I have a Korg M1 that I use for the bass because it has a bunch of nice bass sounds. And then I use just a little Yamaha QY100 for the drums. I see.

Henderson: It’s funny because for some reason I like the drums in the QY100 better than a lot of sample drums I’ve heard. They’re nice and punchy, and they sound pretty good. The drum sounds in this QY100 -- I’ve been using them for a long time, and I haven’t found anything I liked better. Samples take time to load and all that stuff, and you know, this is easy. Yeah. You don’t use any loops or anything, any of that kind of stuff?

Henderson: No, no. I don’t use Ableton Live or anything like that because it’s very easy to loop stuff in my DAW. What I’ll usually do is write a 2- or 4-measure drum groove, and just loop them in Digital Performer, and then just write over it.

And another thing that’s kind of a tip for people: I write with pretty small voicings, like not big, huge chords, but small voicings. And that way, once I’m done with the writing, or a section, I go back and I change bass notes or write bass lines under those chords. And a lot of times by moving the bass around, I come up with a lot of different harmonic possibilities that I didn’t realize existed when I first wrote the chords, because where the root is determines what the harmony is.

And by not writing the bass in stone, as I would call it, and making the bass part flexible, I could go back and change the bass and even come up with some more possibilities that I never knew were there.

Scott Henderson behind the scenes in the recording studio

So, the smaller chords you write, the easier it is to change the bass note. Like, if you write a 3-note chord, you could change the bass note to six or seven different roots, and those three notes would work against the bass note and become different chords.

Whereas if you write a six-note chord, your bass note possibilities are more limited. So, yeah, I use the bass a lot to come up with little counter-lines to the melodies and create stuff. I mess around with the bass a lot. Do you actually play bass guitar when you’re doing that?

Henderson: No, I just enter the notes with my little keyboard, with my little Oxygen 8 keyboard. Oh. Well, if you’re going to do that, why not just play it on your guitar?

Henderson: Because the guitar isn’t low enough. Well, can’t you run through the Oxygen 8, somehow?

Henderson: No. I would have to use a MIDI pickup on my guitar… Well, that’s what I was thinking, yeah. And you’ve got one of those.

Henderson: Well, yeah, actually, now that I have… I didn’t have the MIDI stuff before, but now that I do… The only problem with that is that, in order to record, you have to turn one off and turn the other one on, right?

Because if I started playing MIDI notes on my guitar, I’d be recording my guitar too, so I’d have to turn off my guitar track. The thing that’s cool about doing it on two separate things is you can leave the MIDI track recording all the time, and if you don’t record anything, nothing appears on that track, you know? Yeah.

Henderson: So, it’s kind of nice to have it separated. Because if I had the MIDI pickup playing every time I play the guitar part, it would also write MIDI stuff. I would have to turn off the MIDI track record button every time I play guitar, which would be kind of a pain, you know. It’s just an extra move to make. And I’m pretty comfortable playing keyboards -- playing the bass on the keyboard -- so it’s not a problem.

Watch Scott Henderson Perform with Tribal Tech Oh, okay. The MIDI pickup, is that the Fishman TriplePlay?

Henderson: Yeah, the TriplePlay. And it was just infinite help writing those charts – oh, my God. Really? I need one of those!

Scott HendersonHenderson: I mean, it would have taken me just who knows how long to write those charts by hand, but all I had to do was play the notes, especially for the guitar. See, the bass chart wasn’t a problem because the bass was already in MIDI on my computer from the composition sequence, because it was entered with the Oxygen 8.

But since the guitar was entered by audio, I had no MIDI for the guitar. So, by playing my guitar part into the computer with the MIDI pickup, then I got the MIDI notes in the computer, and all I had to do is clean it up a little bit, and the computer printed out the chart. And then I just write chord symbols. And yeah, man, that Fishman TriplePlay was a gigantic help in getting the charts written. Yeah. I saw some videos of a guy named – I don’t know, maybe you know this guy. I think he’s an East Coast guy, though – Ben Levin -- using the TriplePlay pickup to control a light show while he played guitar.

Henderson: How awesome! That thing is so flexible. You know, I haven’t read the whole manual, but I’ve read enough of the manual to know that they can do just about anything but wash dishes.

You know, it’s amazing. It’s the most sophisticated guitar synth I’ve ever seen. And though I’m not really big on using a guitar synth for sounds on my record -- because I don’t really have any desire to be a keyboard player, and I don’t want keyboard sounds on my record -- I’m way more into processed guitar sounds than I am with just keyboard sounds.

And that’s mainly because I don’t consider myself in the league of Joe Zawinul, or Scott Kinsey, or Lyle Mays. I don’t have really quality sounds, you know? I’ve got a Korg iM1 and a Yamaha QY100. I can’t compete with the true synthesizer geniuses that have all these beautiful sounds. I don’t have any of that.

So, I don’t want to put cheap, factory-programmed synth sounds on my record, you know? I would rather put quality guitar sounds on it. So the guitar synthesizer doesn’t interest me very much in a sonic way. But, you know, using it to run a light show? I can probably get into that. Yeah. I’ll find the link. I’ll send you some links. It’s just pretty interesting what the guy does. Click here to see guitarist Ben Levin control a light show using his Fishman TriplePlay MIDI pickup.

Henderson: Great because that sounds fun. That sounds totally fun, man. That sounds like something that I would enjoy. It’s pretty cool stuff. So, again, the bass line thing. So, what about using an octave pedal on your guitar?

Scott HendersonHenderson: Well, yeah, I could probably do that, but then again, I couldn’t enter the bass notes in MIDI. And you see, it’s a lot easier to change things in the computer when they’re in MIDI because you don’t have to replay them, you can just take a note, and drag it down the next bar line. But, I thought you were just doing this for composing purposes.

Henderson: I am. This isn’t going to end up on the final record, right?

Henderson: No, no, no, but I do use MIDI just for composing. But, what I’m saying is if I use the guitar for composing, there’s no way I could change something unless I re-played it. Whereas, if I enter a bass note with MIDI, all I have to do is grab it on the staff, and move an A down to a C, and change the bass note. So, as a composing tool, MIDI is way easier to mess with as far as bass than audio would be. Sure, I understand. Yeah.

Henderson: So, the MIDI thing -- and plus it gives me a bass chart at the end of the day, which I’m going to use later if I make a play-along version. And it gives me a bass chart for the bass player, which is nice.

So, I’ll keep doing MIDI bass and drums and audio guitar. And now that I have the Fishman, I could change that audio guitar to MIDI when it’s time -- at the end of the record, to make some charts for a play-along version of the record.

Watch Scott Henderson Give Us a Gear Tour, courtesy of Suhr Guitars Right. So, you don’t have charts like this for your older records?

Henderson: No, I don’t. No. In fact, there’s no such thing as guitar charts for anything I’ve ever done for Tribal Tech or with anything. Well, wait, I thought Hal Leonard put out something, a Scott Henderson songbook...

Henderson: Yeah, but they transcribed that. They did the transcription, and the tab, and everything. I didn’t do it. So, yeah. So, for accuracy?

Scott HendersonHenderson: What I meant to say is that there’s nothing that I’ve written. I’ve never written a guitar chart because I don’t need one, because I memorize the stuff. I’ve written the keyboard charts, bass charts, drum charts, percussion charts, horn charts, but the one thing I hadn’t ever written is guitar charts, because I’ve memorized this stuff and nobody else is going to read it but me.

So, the Hal Leonard guys were kind enough to do the transcription themselves. I certainly didn’t want to do it. And they even did the solos. And I look at those solos, and I go, “Oh, my God, man. That just looks like fly shit on paper to me. I don’t know how anybody could read that.” Like it would be way easier for me to learn the solos by ear than it would be to try to read it off one of those transcriptions.  Yeah, I hear you. So, hey, man. I appreciate talking to you. And let’s be in touch and try to figure some other fun stuff out.

Henderson: Thanks and feel free to give me a call any time you any time you want, man. We’re buds, man. We’ve known each other for what? Twenty years? Something like that.

Henderson: Yeah, so just give me a buzz any time, and we’ll figure out some other stuff to do. Cool. Awesome. Thanks so much for your time, dude.

Henderson: Nice talking to you, Adam.

Find Out More:

Scott HendersonScott Henderson Website 

Jerry Jones Sitar Website 
Suhr Guitars Website 
Xotic RC Booster Website 
Maxon FX Website 
Fulltone Plimsoul Website 
Soundtoys EchoBoy Website 
Lexicon Pro Website 
Strymon Ola Website 
Strymon Lex Website 
Arion Website 
ZVex Fuzz Factory Website 
Trombetta Pedals Website 
Vertex Pedals Website 
AMT Electronics Website 
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Fulltone Octafuzz Website

Scott Henderson at the Iridium Jazz Club, NYC, photo by Nelson OnofreVertex Scott Henderson Pedal Board 

Sonntag Guitar Website 
Celestion Speakers Website 
Fishman TriplePlay MIDI Pickup Website

MOTU Digital Performer Website 

M-Audio Website 
Korg Pandora Website 
Korg iM1 Website 
Musicians Institute Website 

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