As a fan of Steely Dan, I recently found myself reaching out to Jon Herington, the band's guitarist since 1999, hoping to gain some insight into his world of music. What started as a simple email exchange turned into a fascinating glimpse into the life and mind of a professional musician.

In my initial message to Jon, I expressed my admiration for his work and curiosity about his experiences playing with Steely Dan. The funny thing is I “met” Jon way before this. You see, Steely Dan released a live album a couple years ago and I went to the credits on the back of the sleeve to find his name. I’ve been hearing his playing for a little while now, dare I say, I’ve been trying to play his parts note for note. I asked in my email for any tour stories he might have up his sleeve and about a specific song I wrote out, “Peg.” To my surprised delight, Jon responded with humility and generosity, sharing snippets of his journey with the iconic band and insightful help on my arrangement of “Peg.” Jon's insights into touring with Steely Dan were enlightening. He painted a picture of a musician's dream—playing in packed venues, traveling the world, and getting paid to do what he loves. But beyond the glamor, Jon revealed the hard work and dedication required to excel in the industry. Jon's feedback was beyond expected and very sharp on my arrangement of Steely Dan's classic hit, "Peg." 

(Here is the live album. You can see Jon all the way over to the left, holding a water bottle.)

In our correspondence, Herington delved into the specific chord voicings of "Peg," providing a detailed breakdown that illuminated the song's harmonic complexity. What that means is since a chord has more than one note, there are multiple ways you can write it, basically different combinations for different sounds. 

(As you can see, this is all the same chord, the notes are just rearranged in each voicing.)

He meticulously dissected the progression, suggesting alternative voicings and even providing chord names, such as Gmi11 and D7sus4 for the chorus of the song, to capture the nuances of the composition accurately. Jon's acknowledgment of the potential utility of comprehensive scores for Steely Dan's repertoire hinted at the band's collaborative spirit and dedication to musical excellence. His suggestion to create master scores for all tunes underscored a commitment to musical education and accessibility, ensuring that future generations of musicians could benefit from their rich catalog.

 I was surprised to learn from Jon that no one in the band has taken all the parts before and wrote them out like I have. His response to my score was, “Your score for Peg is excellent. I'm pretty sure no one has ever done a full fledged score like that for any song in this band. Usually there's only a lead sheet type of chart indicating the chord changes and the form, and sometimes few actual chord voicings, but not much more than that. The rhythm section players all have to consult the records to get clear on their parts, though the horn section will have a written arrangement to read. Typically the vocalists will rehearse with Donald and make personal notes in order to memorize their parts. If it were up to me, though, I think I might do all the work you did, and create a master score for all the tunes. It would be great to have the vocal parts notated for times when we have subs, and it would be great to have individual guitar parts, too.”

This response amazed me. I think of the Steely Dan members as the musician’s musician. They have been known to strive for perfection and excellence, so I would think they play exactly what’s on the “paper” but the paper doesn’t exist. Jon told me that Donald Fagen, the co-writer of all of Steely Dan’s music along with Walter Becker who sadly passed away in 2017, encourages all the members to play their own solos instead of taking what’s on the album. What put me in awe after everything he shared with me was that he said he would like to use my chart for the band. 

Jon had humility towards me despite his mastery of the material. He admitted to his guitar player's bias with chord voicing but offered his perspective with clarity and precision. His willingness to engage with my arrangement and offer constructive feedback highlighted his commitment to nurturing young musicians and fostering a deeper understanding of the craft for them. My interaction with Jon Herington was not just about getting answers to my questions; it was about forging a connection with someone who shares my love for music. It reminded me that behind every iconic guitar riff out there, is a dedicated artist willing to share their wisdom and inspire others on their musical journey in some way.