In its 1991 readers’ poll, Guitar World hung the title of ‘No. 1 Jazz Guitarist’ on the then 37-year-old Scott Henderson. It wasn’t shocking considering his jazz-fusion exploits with the band Tribal Tech. And if we fast-forward to his latest solo work, Karnevel! – which arrives on February 2 – the title clearly remains one he earned.
Henderson gets it, even if he refuses to own the label. “I don't know… as one goes through many years of playing, influences and experimenting with gear, maybe you just hit on something that’s you – that defines who you are. But am I a jazz guitarist? No, not really.”
He adds: “I’m a combination of all my influences. Over the years, my experimentation with tone, amps and pedals has led me to hit on something that sounds like me. I don't know how that happens other than through experience and trial and error.”
As an illustration, Karnevel! is brimming with sounds that lend themselves to his mad scientist mindset. Regardless of what you call it, Henderson’s wandering ear only fixes on one thing for a short time. And yet his ideas remain cohesive.
He’ll be hitting the road in 2024, wowing audiences with his trio, and continuing his journey to the depths of his genreless mine. But again, don’t call him a jazz guitarist. “I used to know about 50 standards, but I gave all that up as I have no interest anymore,” he says.
“There are so many jazz guitarists out there playing standards. I’m not a jazz guitarist, and I don’t feel like I need to be another one playing those songs. Not that I don’t respect jazz guitar players who play standards – I think it's great to keep those traditions alive. But there’s a lot of guys who do that better than I do. So I let him do it. I’ll be doing me.
“I’m not happy when I’m not writing, so I would rather write my own music. That didn’t happen overnight, but at this point it’s all I’m interested in doing.”
When did the ideas for Karnevel! begin to crop up?
“It started over Covid – there wasn’t much else to do since I wasn’t working. I went a good year or two with no tours, so there was a lot of time for ideas.
“One of the things I wanted to improve was coming up with chordal harmonies in real-time. I wanted a totally organic approach to writing. So I practiced a lot of chord progressions, and through that, Karnevel! came out in real-time, as opposed to the process of chordal elimination.”
What gear helped stoke your inspiration during that time?
“It’s weird – I wasn't thinking about gear. I used a lot of handheld amp modelers, and I found myself very impressed by how good they sounded, considering how small they were.
“I had a lot of luck getting my tone with the smaller ones rather than the larger ones. But it wasn’t so much about gear rather than notes.
“I started to think about gear after the album was written and the base tracks were recorded. I needed to start layering guitar parts, and that’s when it became all about gear.
“Coming up with new sounds for all those layers becomes a matter of making the music sound bigger than it is. And that’s important, because my band is a trio with one guitar.”
Did you incorporate any new sounds into your signal chain?
“I’ve been using the same combination of pedals forever, which includes a Roger Mayer Voodoo-1 going into an Xotic RC Booster. I love that sound, even though the RC Booster tends to have a bass frequency I don't like.
“If I had it at around 12 o’clock I wouldn’t be able to use it, as it muddies up the chords. So, I turn the bass way down to 9 o’clock and put a blue drive pedal in front; that midrange bass goes away, and I get real bass.”
Are you still using your signature Suhr Classic S?
“I also have an actual Fender bridge. I like the tone of the Fender bridge, even if it’s more challenging to keep in tune than a Floyd Rose. I’ve been out of tune playing live for years anyway, so it doesn’t matter!”
I suppose the out-of-tune nuance has become a signature?
“In a way, yes it has! It bothers me in the studio sometimes because I try to dial things in on my albums, so that’s annoying. But it’s not a major problem live because people don’t hear it unless you point it out. I'll hear it, but anyone who plays a Strat with a Fender bridge deals with it.”
Suhr guitars seem to be quite underrated.
“They are. Suhr is the best brand there is. No brand comes remotely close to comparing to Suhr as far as quality. They took the time to add a Fender bridge, one of the most flawed bridges, because Fender’s quality control is at an all-time low, and they work on them to improve them.
“Suhr takes the time to buff out the rough edges of the holes so that nothing gets hung up in the bridge that will cause it to get out of tune quickly.
“They also set the bridge up in a way that aids in tuning stability by adjusting the position of the screws. And then you’ve got Suhr’s nuts, which are great and never have strings hanging up on them. You’ve got a straight line from the bridge to the tuning pegs, which is not remotely the case with many Fender guitars.
“The other big thing is that they have a noiseless design for the pickups, which lets you use real single-coil pickups without that weird Fender Noiseless pickup sound.”
Keeping noise to a minimum must be important for you, considering the nuance within your playing.
“It’s essential. I use a fair amount of drive, and you can’t play an overdriven guitar without noiseless pickups; but I hate Fender’s. Without some noiseless element, the hum ends up louder than the notes – which means when I play with gain, I’m overwhelmed by that loud noise.
“It would ruin the nuances of my music, especially during the soft sections. I have a lot of dynamics within my music, and despite the soft sections, I still need gain. Fender’s Noiseless pickups eliminate the hum, but they sound weird. Suhr’s design eliminates all of that and still sounds like a single-coil.”
Those nuances and dynamics range from blues to rock to jazz. Which genre do you identify with the most?
“I don’t see myself as any of those things. I’m one of the few musicians you’ll find who has no favorite form of music. I go for quality over genre. I love Beyoncé, country, Albert King and Eddie Van Halen.
“There’s so much good music out there, including pop music. As far as jazz, I love that music, but I’m not a jazz guitarist. I have no clue what to call myself. I’m just a guitar player.”
But you’re most associated with Tribal Tech, a jazz-fusion group. Has your approach changed much since then?
“In some ways – mainly because I’m playing with a trio. I came to a point in my guitar-playing life where I felt I was missing out by constantly playing with keyboardists. In a way, I regard myself as more of a horn player than a guitar player, meaning that’s how I approach guitar. I was missing out by not playing as a trio, as it’s a big opportunity to explore my instrument.”
And did you find that to be true?
“I did. When I began playing chords and melodies simultaneously to navigate through the music, and doing it alone, that made me a better guitarist. To a rock guy, you have to play a lot of single lines, and there’s a lot of bends, nuances, and expressive tonal things I miss. That would probably be there if there were a second guitarist, but operating within a trio is the best world for me now.”
But still, Guitar World named you ‘No. 1 Jazz Guitarist’ in 1991.
“That is interesting! But it’s not due to anything I did. I just kept being me and trying to do whatever I did better. Everything I do presents new challenges. The big thing is wanting to get better, no matter the genre. Sometimes I want to get better at soloing through chord progressions; and other times it’s a technical aspect, like going from one voice to another without space.
“That’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard to go from one thing to another without the melody sounding robotic. But I always try to keep my sound smooth from chord to chord, and that is something jazz players do well.
“But again, I’ve never thought of myself as a jazz guy because my mindset has never mirrored that. There are many things I’ve always needed to work on, so it’s a technical thing.”
Do you have any tips for players about to embark on a multi-genre journey?
“Keep an open mind. You never know what you’re going to end up doing. It’s good to be versatile – especially when looking for gigs. You could end up in any number of situations, and if you find yourself unprepared, you’re in trouble.
“I’m not suggesting you become a jack of all trades, master of none – even though I look at myself that way. I guess the thing is to not worry about genre or what people say and focus on being the best version of yourself every day.
“All I care about is trying to be the best Scott Henderson I can be, and that’s the mindset I’d preach to anyone asking.”
- Karnevel! is available to preorder via ScottHenderson.net.