Jimmy Herring’s Tackle Box
(Driftin’ on a Lifeboat – Pt.2)
by Rod Sibley
You didn’t really think I would talk to Jimmy for three hours and not talk about guitars, did you? – RS
Rod: So what guitars did you use on Lifeboat?
Jimmy: The main guitar was the one I play all the time. I don’t know what year it is – I’ve had it for 15 years. My friend Gene Baker, when he was working at the Fender Custom Shop, he made that guitar for me. He just had some spare parts layin’ around – it wasn’t really put together. Gene knew what I was into. He knew I liked all Strats, and that I liked humbuckers, too. So he just took some ’59 reissues – you know, like fake Les Paul pickups – and he put them in that guitar and…
Rod: He didn’t rewind the coils or change the magnets?
Jimmy: No. They’re just stock ’59 reissues. But he did wire it for me in a way that I prefer: which is two volumes and one tone. It’s sorta wired like a Gibson. Most people with Strats, they don’t wire it with two volunes, they wire it with one volume and two tones. I don’t like that because I like to use both pickups and then manipulate the volume of each pickup against the other one. And you can get some “in between” tones that you can’t always – I almost never use the bridge pickup by itself. I’ll put it on both, but I keep the bridge turned wide-open and turn the neck down just a little bit. What that does is, it lets the neck be dominated by the bridge. So it sounds almost like a bridge pickup sounds, but it’s just a fraction sweeter soundin’. The bridge by itself is really kinda harsh. If you EQ the amp to where it sounds right with the bridge by itself, then when you switch to the neck pickup, it’s muddy. ’Cuz you rolled off all the treble to get the bridge pickup to sound right. So I try and never do that, and just use the bridge pickup and the neck pickup together and manipulate the volume controls. That’s my No.1 guitar on this record.
Jimmy: I also used a Warmoth guitar, which is a guitar they made for me. I used it on a lot of stuff…
Rod: Strat style?
Jimmy: Yeah. It’s just a Strat body with the same Duncan 59 pickups. But it’s got a neck made of this wood called goncalo. You ever heard of it?
Jimmy: It’s some weird wood that I’ve never heard of before. But they made me this neck and they sent it to me. I put it on the guitar, and I really liked it. I didn’t use it on a lot of solos, but I used it on the solo on “Gray Day”. And I used it on a lot of heads, like “Splash”. “Only When It’s Light” might be that guitar. And I used a Paul Reed Smith (PRS) with P-90’s…
Rod: The one with three P-90’s?
Jimmy: That particular one has three P-90’s in it, yeah. I wanted it to be like a big bad Strat, and that’s exactly what it is.
Rod: You know, I can never get a tone outta P-90’s. And I blame myself for it. You’re one of the few guys I listen to that can actually get a tone out of P-90’s.
Jimmy: Man it’s hard, you know. It’s funny – what about Strats? Do you like Strats?
Rod: I can’t deal with the necks. I play Gibson SG’s and Les Paul’s. But I’m an EMG player; I use active pickups instead of passives.
Jimmy: Okay, okay. I gotcha.
Jimmy: I can relate to what you’re sayin’, man. ’Cuz it is very hard. But certain amps and combinations of things can lead you to a little bit better place. Like when I hear David Gilmour from Pink Floyd; he plays Strats. Strats are edgy and like really not smooth sounding, they can really sound ugly. But in his hands, they sound beautiful. Of course, he’s processing the hell out of it. But the reverb is critical to gettin’ P-90’s to sound right; at least in my opinion. Same thing with Strat pickups. Another thing I learned during the making of this record is how important reverb is, man. I mean, you can take almost any tone – I mean you can take a real crappy tone – and if you put the right reverb on it you can make it sound good.
Jimmy: I’m not an active pickup guy. I like weak pickups and then let the amp do the work. I just feel like – for what I’m tryin’ to do – that you can hear the character of the guitar better with the weaker sounding pickup. Like a P-90 or a humbucker that’s basically a copy of a PAF; the ones that aren’t very hot. They seem to let the guitar’s character come through a little more. I’ve always found that you hear the pickup more than you hear the guitar with hotter pickups. And some of that is just a good amplifier, and partly the speakers, man. I did not know what a huge difference they could make. I never thought speaker were all that important until a few years ago. This friend of mine turned me on to those Tone Tubby speakers. I thought it was a gimmick: hemp speakers – oh yeah, yeah, yeah. “Wave your freak flag high”, you know. I’d always just used – well, I knew if I wanted a real, real clean sound I should use something like EV’s or JBL’s. And if I wanted it to break-up, use a 25W Celestion or whatever. I had limited knowledge on speakers. But my God, man! They can make a tremendous difference. This guy who made the Tone Tubby speakers is the premiere speaker re-coner on the west coast. And I had this Super Reverb – which is like my favorite amp – that had the original speakers in it. But they sounded really tired, ’cuz they were 1964’s. I was gonna get him to re-cone my original speakers. And he goes, “Maaan, I can re-cone your original speakers for you, but you really outta be using my speakers.” And I thought it was crap, right. But he made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. He said, “Look, if you don’t like my speakers, you can have them. You can sell them on eBay, or whatever. And I’ll re-cone your speakers for free if you don’t like mine. And I said, “Okay. I can’t argue with that.” He put those speakers in my amp, and I just completely freaked-out! I heard a “night and day” difference.
Rod: 10-inch or 12-inch?
Jimmy: There’s four 10-inch speakers in a Super Reverb. But man, the difference it made was so profound, that I was stunned. And I’ve never been that knocked-out by a speaker before, I never knew they could make that much difference. Super Reverb’s were my favorite amps, I love ’em. But there’s good ones and bad ones; and I thought I’d gotten a bad one. I thought, “This amp is a piece of crap, and I just paid 1200 bucks for it.”
Rod: Is this a “Blackface”?
Jimmy: Yeah. I was depressed thinkin’ that this amp sucked. You know man, he put those speakers in it – that thing became my favorite amp overnight. And that’s the one that I used on the majority of this record. It’s just amazing what those speakers can do. And ever since then, that’s the only speakers I use.
Rod: Any other amps and effects?
Jimmy: Let’s see: my 1960’s Fender Super Reverb; a Hughes & Kettner distortion box called a Tube Factor; and a Fuchs amp called a Tripledrive Supreme. Those were the only amps I used. I did use a Leslie on a lot of stuff. Bobby Lee Rogers plays through a Leslie, too. On one song, he was just taking the place of an organ; kinda compin’ rhythm.
Rod: Now that’s a cool retro sound. Was that a sound that you had in your head for a while?
Jimmy: I’ve had it in my head forever. I absolutely love guitar through a Leslie. But I don’t use it for solos; I was just using it for chords. Like in “Scapegoat Blues” when that chord progressions starts after the head, and you get that weird [sings part]; that’s guitar through a Leslie on those chords.
Rod: You use it on “New Moon”, too.
Jimmy: Yeah. The chords that start “New Moon” are Leslie’d. And then there’s – God, I think it’s in a lot of stuff… Oh! One thing we did that was really cool: you know those orchestrated sounds that sound like a fake string section? Everybody thinks that’s keyboards, but that’s guitar. It’s guitar goin’ through this little box called a Space Station. It’s just a little effects box with a little pedal on it. Somebody had given it to me years ago and it’s got this string patch in it – it’s kind of a fake guitar-synth kinda thing. I was workin’ on “Jungle Book”, and when we got in the studio I knew it needed some orchestration. I was gonna have a keyboard player to do it, but I had specific ideas for the voicings I wanted to use. And I hate tellin’ someone else to play my voicings. You know, it just doesn’t work: goin’ to a keyboard player and sayin’, “Here, do it like this.” I didn’t want to do that. So I figured I’ll try this little Space Station, and if it sucks, I’ll just get the keyboard player to do it however he wants. But I gotta at least try it to see what it sounds like. And I loved it! But when Jeff Sipe heard it, he went, “Man, what’s up with the dated string patch?” He didn’t like it. I think he grew to like it a little more, but he didn’t like it in the beginning. And when he said that, me and Rush just looked at each other and started laughin’ ’cuz he thought it was keyboards. I didn’t care if it sounded dated. I liked it because it was the first time I was able to orchestrate with my own voicings and get to hear what it sounded like in my head. And in one song, we put that Space Station through a Leslie; it was in that song “Transients”. If you listen to the bass solo you can hear it really clearly. During the bass solo, when it goes to the B-section it sounds like a Leslie rotating and swirling around. Most people think it’s organ. All the orchestration you hear is me on the guitar. But people think it’s keyboards, I’m sure.
Rod: Did you use a harmonizer for your unison lines on “Scapegoat Blues”, or did you track them?
Jimmy: No, no. I actually played it. It’s parallel harmony: I just played the same line like a minor-3rd lower. That’s why it sounded “pitch transposey”. That whole head is based on the diminished scale. And any line you play in that scale, you can play the same line a minor-3rd up or down, and it harmonizes with it. It stays within the same scale because it’s a symmetrical scale.
Rod: That’s a wicked riff. I figured you went through a harmonizer just to keep from having to play it over again.
Jimmy: It wasn’t hard. It’s just the same line a minor-3rd higher. I could have fussed over it and tried to make it perfect. It’s just for effect. I just did one pass through and it was like, “That’s good enough, just mix it low.” [chuckles]
Rod: So did producing and recording Lifeboat get you closer guitar-wise to the sound that you hear in your head?
Jimmy: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it got close. Especially the Super Reverb sound. You know, I also like the Fuchs amp. I used it on that solo at the end of “Lifeboat Serenade”. Fuchs amps are made in New Jersey. I got lucky: my friend Rush – the same guy that made Lifeboat with me – he works down at this back-line company called Crossover, down in Atlanta. And he said, “Man, there’s this amp down here you really need to check-out. It’s called the Fuchs Overdrive Special.” So I came down there one night – and Marshall had just sent me this new Marshall they had come out with to see if I liked it. I took that with me; I took my Super Reverb with me; and I think Mesa/Boogie had sent me a Roadster or Lone Star. And we went down there and A-B’ed all these amps. And man, Jesus Christ! That Fuchs, it blew my mind! But we were in a room where everything sounded good. It was a “live” room; it had a lot of natural reverb in it. And there was no band there, it was just me. We were playin’ really loud in this tiny little – well it wasn’t tiny; it was a pretty big room, actually. But it sounded so good.
Jimmy: So the next day, I sent Fuchs an email basically sayin’, “I know you guys are probably not in the habit of people contacting you like this. I’d like to have a relationship with your company – I don’t know what I have to do.” Carolyn sent the email for me. Five minutes later the phone rang and it’s Fuchs: “This is Fuchs Audio, is Jimmy Herring there?” And I was like, “Whoa!” They gave me three amps, right off the bat.
Rod: WOW!! What did they send you?
Jimmy: The first one was an Overdrive Supreme. Then the other two were called the Tripledrive Supreme. They have three channels: they have a super clean channel, and then the next channel is kinda mid-way distortion, and the third channel is the high gain channel. But I never used the high gain channel – I mean, I use it with Panic all the time – but I didn’t use it on this album.
Rod: Well you’re gettin’ some great tones, man.
Jimmy: Thank you. I was using the middle channel of the Fuchs; that’s not even the full gain channel. But it’s cranked-up real loud to get that tone. “Lost” and “Lifeboat Serenade”, both of those are the Fuchs amp. And “Jungle Book”, “Scapegoat Blues”, “New Moon”, “Splash” and all that, that’s all the Super Reverb. They’re different, but they’re both pretty good. I’m pretty happy with ’em.
Rod: Did you guy’s do hard drive recording with Pro Tools, or use tape?
Jimmy: We love tape, and would prefer to be using tape in this situation where you’re not doin’ 70 minute long improvisations. When you’re just doin’ songs, it makes sense to use tape. But it’s just too expensive. So we just did Pro Tools. Rush has a lot of really good mic pre’s; and he has really good microphones; and he has really good… You know, he just has really good gear that gets you into Pro Tools. I mean, that’s the secret: those Neve preamps. He’s got pieces from Neve consoles that the mic’s go into before they hit the hard drive. He calls ’em “mic pre’s”; that‘s what they are, mic preamps. So, he’s got a bunch of good mics, he’s got good mic pre’s – and he’s got different ones. He’s got one called the Wunder’s. The Wunder’s is the one I plugged into to do “Gray Day”; I just plugged directly into it. He’s got a Neve, which we used on a lot of stuff. Then he’s got one called the Lunchbox. API is the company that makes it; you see it in every major studio you go in. API is a good company.
Rod: Did you use a combination of mic’s and DI for recording the guitars?
Jimmy: It was all mic’s. Except for “Gray Day”, that lead voice was direct. We just used two mics. We used a [Shure] Beta 57 – which is not one of my favorite mics. I would have wanted a “normal” 57. And Rush had one, but for some reason he kept wanting to use the Beta. And then the other mic is the standard 421. And that’s what most people record guitars with: a 421 and a 57. We used a blend of the two mics, we didn’t use one or the other. And it wasn’t 50% every time; it wasn‘t like half this mic and half that mic. Sometimes it was 60-40%, sometimes it was 75-25%. I was really impressed with the tones. I couldn’t complain about ’em at all.
Jimmy: At first we were recording my reverb, too. I put the source of the reverb in a different cabinet so it’s not cluttering up the dry signal. I’ve been doing that for a long time. Your main amp doesn’t have any reverb; you take a line out off the back of that and go into a digital reverb; and then return that to another power amp. And then that power amp is powering two more speaker cabinets that have nothing but reverb. That way, you still get a stereo reverb, but it doesn’t have any reverb in the dry signal. That way, the sound guy can separate one from the other a lot easier than if you had a lot of reverb coming through your dry cabinet. You do it that way too, so you know what I’m talkin’ about.
Rod: Yeah. I run my rack like that: in parallel rather than in series. I split the signal from the preamp into four outs, keeping one totally dry; send the other three to the effects, return from the effects 100% wet; and use a mixer to blend the one dry and three wet signals before they go to the power amp and speakers. I wouldn’t do it any other way, man.
Jimmy: Now, Rush kept tellin’ me, “Man, every time we record a guitar track for you, it’s four tracks.” Because it’s two mic’s on the dry amp, and then there’s two reverb mic’s. So when you start gettin’ to the place where you’re doin’ overdubs and you’re doing several tracks, it starts gettin’ really… I mean, Pro Tools, it doesn’t matter; you can do as many tracks as you want. But it starts to be a real pain to keep up with. And Rush kept tryin’ to convince me, “Dude, you don’t need to use your reverbs. I got reverbs right here that’ll sound just as good.” And I didn’t believe him! Because producers have been tellin’ me that, man, for years; and they were full of crap. I would hear it back, and I couldn’t even play because it sounded so bad. After about the third day he said, “Look. Let me prove to you that I can beat that reverb sound that we’re takin’ up all these tracks with.” And he proved it to me! I said, “Okay. You’ve done it.” So after the third day we didn’t record my reverbs anymore. He would just let me hear it; I could hear it when we recorded, but he wasn’t actually recording it.
Jimmy: You know what else is weird, man? I’ve never been able – never been able – to record in the control room. I mean, for clean parts I could. But for overdriven solos and stuff, what I’ve always done is I go in the room where the amp is and then put headphones on. And I get the band in my headphones, but no guitar.
Jimmy: Yeah, because the guitar is blastin’ in the room. So I don’t need it in the headphones.
Rod: Oooh. I gotcha.
Jimmy: What I do is just get them to put the band at a level where I can still hear the guitar.
Rod: I’ll bet Pete Townshend wishes he had thought of that idea a few years ago. [both laugh]
Jimmy: Oh my God. I can’t stand the sound of guitar through headphones. I mean, Pete just plays so loud. And I’m playin’ loud as hell, too – I can’t talk – but not “Pete Townshend loud”. And I love him, by the way.
Rod: Oh yeah! When we were talkin’ about P-90’s pickups, I was thinking about Pete playing a Gibson SG Special with P-90’s.
Jimmy: Yeeeah, man. I love that. Like the Live At Leeds album. But I could never play in the control room. For some reason at Rush’s house – I guess it’s because we’re such good friends; we’ve known each other for so long. He knows what he’s doin’. He knows how to get the tone I like. So this time, I did everything in the control room.
Rod: Any other toys?
Jimmy: I got this new guitar recently that’s just – God, it’s so beautiful.
Rod: What is it?
Jimmy: It’s a Warmoth. It’s a different one from the one we talked about. The other one is just a basic black Strat with a couple of humbuckers. This is a semi-hollow body Strat: it’s got an f-hole on one hollow chamber. I had gotten away from playing my PRS guitars. I started playing Fender’s again because I missed that 25-½ inch scale length. You know, you got 25-½ inch with Fender; you got 25-inch with a PRS; and Gibson’s are 24-¾ inch in general. So each one of them feels different and plays different. I’ve always played Fender’s my whole life, up until I started playin’ those PRS’s. And I went probably five or seven years on nothing but the PRS’s, and kinda forgot what Fender’s felt like. I started playing them again a little bit at home, and I was like, “Oh my God! I forgot how much I loved this!” The string tensions a little bit tighter because the neck is longer, so you have to bend it a little further to reach the pitch.
Rod: That’s why I play mainly Gibson’s. I’m lazy and I don’t like fightin’ with my guitar.
Jimmy: And the Gibson’s awesome. Except, what do you do when you get up high on the neck? The frets are too close together. That’s what I run into with Gibson’s. Like with SG’s – I love SG’s but…
Rod: Well, that’s what distortion is for, remember? [both laugh]
Rod: You don’t have to care about playing clean. The noise is there for a reason. You’re supposed to be playin’ up high and messin’ up.
Jimmy: Yeah. All those “clams”? That’s called “nuance”. [more laughter]
Jimmy: Hey man, that’s rock’n’roll.
Jimmy: The Fender’s, you know, the frets are far enough apart where I can get my little sausages in there. [both laugh]
Jimmy: For me, it’s hard to be articulate on a Gibson up high on the neck. I hear other people do it brilliantly. But for me, it’s just kinda hard. But the Fender scale length, I’m kinda hooked on it again. Warmoth is workin’ with me. They’re buildin’ me these different necks until I can narrow down exactly what I really, really want in terms of how flat the neck is; the radius of the neck. I read just recently that Holdsworth uses a 20-inch radius! I mean, a 20-inch radius is dead flat. Gibson necks are pretty flat, they’re like a 12-inch radius or something like that?
Rod: 10 to 12-inch; somewhere in there. But a 20-inch radius is flat.
Jimmy: 20 is dead flat. And I’ve never played a dead flat neck before. So I asked Warmoth if they would build me one. And they said, “My God. A 20-inch radius?! Nobody plays a 20-inch radius!” Do you know how long I’ve had to hear that crap from people?!
Jimmy: ’Cuz I like this insanely huge fret wire called Dunlop 6000…
Rod: Oooh. You’re one of thooose guys.
Jimmy: I’m a 6000 guy. Everyone else uses 6400, or whatever. The 6400’s not tall enough for me. And then they make this wire called 6100, which most people call “jumbo” or “super jumbo”. But the 6100 isn’t wide enough; it’s tall enough, but it’s not wide enough. The 6000 is perfect for me. And I’ve been using it for twenty years. ’Cuz with tall frets people say, “What are you, crazy! That’s bass frets.” Or, “You’ll never be able to play in tune.” – that’s my favorite one. Now, there’s some truth to it: if you don’t have the touch right. If you push too hard, the notes will go sharp. And it is kinda hard to play chords in tune until you get used to it. But I’ve been gettin’ used to it for twenty years. And I’m tired of hearin’ people say that. There’s always people givin’ you crap about it.
Jimmy: So, I got them over the 6000 wire thing. And now I’m tryin’ to work on ’em on the radius thing. They think I’m insane.
Rod: I know what you mean. Like on acoustic guitar: I’ll take a standard set of extra-light gauge (.010 – .047) that comes .010, .014, .023; remove the .010; and use the .014 as the high-E string, and add a .017. So I’m going .014 plain, .017 plain, .023 wound. And people always say to me, “You can’t use a .014 as the first string, you can’t bend it!” And I go, “Yes, you can. If you can pull down to bend a .056 as a low-E, you can push up a .014 as a high-E; with no extra effort.” And people look at me like I’m nuts.
Jimmy: If you can bend a .014, then you’re my hero.
Rod: I’m not talking about bending it a fifth or some large interval.
Jimmy: That’s amazing.
Rod: It’s no big deal – at least, on my Ovation it isn’t. For me, those gauges feel even across the neck. There’s no “gap” in the transition from the wound strings to the plain. A .014 as a high-E only sounds like a big number in people’s minds. But it’s like what you’re talkin’ about with people hearing about a 20-inch radius neck.
Jimmy: Yeah. People think you’re crazy.
Jimmy: Have you ever messed with a scalloped neck?
Rod: A friend on mine had one, and I couldn’t play it. With nothing underneath, my fingertips felt like they were being sliced open.
Jimmy: Yeah, that’s wild, man. I mean, McLaughlin used one years ago on an acoustic.
Rod: Yeah. He used them on acoustics and electrics. But he studied the vina years before that. So he already knew how to play on a scalloped neck. I mean, he plays chords in tune on the thing!
Jimmy: I had Warmoth make me this neck: it’s standard all the way up to the 12th fret, and from the 12th fret all the way to the end it’s scalloped. And it’s fantastic. But the neck is too big for my hands. What I need to do is get another one made just like it, except for with a smaller neck. The neck is just too fat; it’s too much like a baseball bat. But good God, man, does it feel incredible! When you get up in the high range – now this is electric, obviously – but when you get up in the high frets, man, you can grab the notes. You got so much power. ’Cuz the scallopedness of it makes your little finger really strong. It’s easy for you to do powerful pull-offs with your pinkie way up high on the neck; normally, it’s not. But with scalloped frets, it makes it so much easier. And bending, man – God, bending is just a breeze with the scalloped frets. I wouldn’t want a whole neck like that. But from the 12th fret up, it’s pretty cool. It’s a shame that I gave them the wrong dimensions. But I didn’t know where to start; I didn’t know what was right, you know. But it’s okay, I can still use it for some things. I think it’s gonna help me in terms of, like, Holdsworth’s legato style; being really fluid. I think it’s gonna help me get stronger at that.
Jimmy: But right now Warmoth doesn’t make a 20-inch radius. They don’t even have a machine that will do that. And I was like, “Dang it! I really wanted to try a 20-inch radius.” The guy goes, “We only go as high as 16-inch.” So I asked, “What’s the difference between 16-inch and 20-inch?” He goes, “Man, it’s hardly noticeable.” And I said, “Okay. Let’s just try a 16-inch.” Fender necks are incredibly difficult to play unless you flatten them out some. About like a Gibson; like about a 12-inch radius. I’d like to get all the necks on my Fenders flattened out quite a bit. But there’s just not that many people you can trust to do it. You gotta be careful. You don’t want to give your guitar to some hack. [both laugh]