Who are the most self-critical instrumentalists? Surely guitarists.
And in this age of social media, fans have never had a better insight into musicians’ views of their own work.
Steve Khan, Francis Dunnery, Andy Partridge and James Grant often take a pretty dim view of their own stuff. Allan Holdsworth was virtually unable to listen to his own guitar playing on record.
But brilliant guitarist Scott Henderson may trump them all. He emerged as a poster boy of jazz/rock guitar in the mid-to-late ’80s, when, along with Holdsworth and Frank Gambale, he would often appear alongside metal players du jour in the pages of Guitar World or Guitar Player.
A remarkably fluid improviser with a ‘rock’ sound but ‘jazz’ attitude, Henderson’s technical ability was always tempered by a strong blues feeling (distinguishing him from Holdsworth and Gambale).
In 1985, he formed Tribal Tech with ex-Wayne Shorter bassist Gary Willis whilst pursuing a sideman career with Jean-Luc Ponty and Chick Corea (and, later, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul).
I first heard Scott in my late teens when a very shrewd guitar-playing college acquaintance played me his third album Nomad, recorded in 1988 but not released until early 1990.
I was instantly smitten, picking up on the strong ‘Weather Report with guitar’ vibe – mainly due to Willis’s fretless bass – but quickly realising they had their own thing going on.
Also, like Weather Report, Tribal Tech were also fortunate to have not one but two fine composers in their ranks. Willis’s ‘Tunnel Vision’ may be Nomad‘s standout, but Henderson was extremely modest about his superb, much-transcribed solo, telling his website:
The opening eight bars is good because it’s not me – it’s a melody written by Willis. I start playing after the first eight bars and things get considerably worse… We had a good laugh when a critic who reviewed the album commented on how great the beginning of my solo was. Then the tune was put into one of the new Real Books and that eight-bar melody was mis-labelled as my solo. Willis said to me: ‘Wow, I’m really making you look good…’
The excellent opener ‘Renegade’ was another embarrassment for Henderson:
On every Tribal Tech album, there are amazingly bad playing and production flaws, because we thought we were capable of producing the albums ourselves, and we clearly weren’t. We had little to no experience in the studio and were learning as we went. An experienced producer would have made those records much better, but we couldn’t afford one anyway, so they are what they are. The funniest solo is mine on ‘Renegade’ – I didn’t have any vocabulary for that 6/4 feel, so I’m clearly playing lines meant for 4/4 and they don’t fit the groove at all. It’s one of my most embarrassing solos…
Then there’s Henderson’s superb album-closer ‘Rituals’, showingcasing a heavy Wayne Shorter influence:
The last time I listened to the Tribal Tech version, I thought I’d throw up. I played the melody in a horribly stiff way, with the thinnest tone ever, and the arrangement sounds like we’re trying to be Journey – very dated and funny. Then there’s the pan flute synth sound… Holy sh*t, talk about corny. It’s one of my favorites but it didn’t get the production it needed. The drum sound is pathetic and the keyboards aren’t loud and clear enough. Those are some badass voicings and sometimes they’re buried. It’s not a tune I could play trio because there’s too much going on, but I’d like to re-record it and make it sound like it should…
Whatever. Nomad is a great album, with excellent compositions and playing from everyone involved, including drummer Steve Houghton, percussionist Brad Dutz and keyboard player David Goldblatt.
Tribal Tech went through a few other personnel changes until their split in 2013. Scott continues on with a highly-regarded solo career and occasional appearances on the irreverent podcast Guitarwank.