John Herdt Biography
From the prairie of Wyoming to the mountains of Colorado, progressive western rock becomes psychedelicized…
I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t the most important thing to me. Not getting famous or rich, just the music itself and the impact it had on my imagination. Before first grade, maybe four years old, I’d stand in front of my parents’ stereo and listen to their records, which were like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or James Bond film soundtracks. I would just get the shakes on some parts, just blown away. This is way before I heard rock for the first time.
I was an only child in a small town on the Wyoming prairie, often alone with nothing but my imagination and a lot of wide open spaces. One time I got terribly sick and stuck in bed for a month during grade school summer vacation. All I had was a little record player and some records. The only person I saw was my mother three times a day, like she was feeding the dog. At that age a month is forever. Alone. With just the music.
We moved to Denver in 1968 when I was 12 years old. By then I’d started to hear rock music on the radio and from garage bands back in Wyoming that I heard in my many walks around town. The rock music that was on the radio then was more a mix of styles than it is now. You’d hear a song by Jefferson Airplane then one by Sly and the Family Stone. I played sax in my junior high school band, but was really starting to notice the electric guitar. It cut through on solos like a trumpet, but could also play chords, so a guitar player could play music either with a band or alone.
I was really starting to pay attention to the names of players in the popular rock bands, especially if they stood out somehow. Not just guitar players, just anyone who rocked the house. It could be bass like Larry Graham with Sly Stone, it could be drums like Keith Moon. Though I still played sax, my jones for guitar was getting intense. I had this sound in my head that I didn’t hear anyone doing. When I was walking around, if I heard a cool guitar sound coming out of someone’s car stereo I’d ask who it was. It would be like “that’s Humble Pie” or “that’s Ten Years After.” I was already into guys like Leslie West from Mountain. They had great tone, but I had advanced musical taste for my age from listening to my parents’ albums, and most of the players lacked something that I had trouble defining. I still dug them, they just weren’t right on the mark for what I was looking for. The moment I decided it was imperative that I pick up the guitar was when I heard this one charming blues lick that Martin Barre played during the piano intro to Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath,” but my search went on for hearing someone that defined the instrument in a certain way.
SWITCHING FROM SAX TO GUITAR AND THE FORT COLLINS YEARS
A few months before I started college at Colorado State University in 1974 I bought my first guitar, a new but slightly dented ’73 Fender Stratocaster without a case. For the first two years I carried it around in the cardboard box it shipped in. I started learning to play guitar for real on the day I started college, playing along with albums Joe Walsh and the James Gang, Robin Trower and other hard rock bands. My first method book was “Improvising Rock Guitar” by Pat Thrall, which taught me the blues box and got me off and running. I’d been playing a couple of months and was already jamming with guys who had played for years, I had a knack for it plus a head start on theory from playing the sax.
A couple of months along and I bought the James Gang’s Bang album with Tommy Bolin on guitar. When I heard Tommy the first time all the searching for the perfect rock guitar approach was resolved. Tommy’s tone raised the hair on the back of my neck, and he had a high degree of technical ability. From the beginning of a song to the end of a song, his playing would be interesting and inspiring all the way through, always standing out yet fitting perfectly. He rarely played anything that didn’t make sense, and that was a big deal to me. To this day Tommy’s still my main guitar hero, even as I developed my own musical path.
While in college I had many of the richest musical experiences of my life. My college roommates dug what I was playing on guitar, so Dave Marsh learned to play bass and Steve Chaffey learned to play drums. As the Head Arrangers we played at keggers, house parties and street parties all the time. The real amazing gigs though, were the parties that went all day and late into the night up in Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins. Some of the people who lived up there would build stages beside their house and invite a few hundred people. We’d be partied up, jamming in the moonlit clouds, the sound shooting through the hills. Nothing I’ve ever done can equal those mountain gigs for intensity. Also during college I was asked to play on two avant garde jazz albums by the Mnemonist Orchestra. It was weird music to me, but there was a big niche market for it in Europe. I still see Mnemonist tracks appearing on some of the more adventurous internet radio stations, and have seen the two albums I played on selling for hundreds of dollar on the internet.
RUCKUS ROCKS THE CLUBS
After college I tried to get into a pro band to earn a living. That resulted in a lot of learning but in nothing that stuck together. I started recording a lot more music, usually two microphones into a cassette deck. I’d invite guys to my house on weekends and turn on the recorder. We’d play stuff I’d written during the week. I have a lot of really fun cassettes from that period. My main drummers during this period was Dan Lile, who’s current band Ajalon recently released an album with keyboards by Rick Wakeman from famous progressive rockers Yes. I also sometimes played with Dan and a bass player named Randy George, who is also in Ajalon and has toured and recorded with singer/guitarist/keyboardist Neal Morse. Dan was with me in a three-piece fusion band called Pictures that recorded some demos and played live on KFML radio in Denver. I played in many jams and lineups during this period though, the goal was to get a rush from playing. If a break were to happen then great, but the main thing was to get the rush.
One of these jams lead to the formation of Ruckus, a hard-working road band I played in for a year and half. Five songs into our first jam and the singer called up a club and booked us for the next weekend, and off we went. We made enough money to get by but not ahead. It was a hot band that packed dance floors, playing songs ranging from Elvis Presley to ZZ Top, Billy Idol and The Cars. This was also my first experience with how popularity can end up dictating what you do almost all day long, every day. People were around all the time, wanting me to hang out or something. I had almost no time to myself to practice by myself or for my imagination to bloom for a while. Then the drummer punched the singer and it ended.
MIRAGE AND FLIGHTS OF FUSION
After Ruckus I was asked by some successful musicians to join new commercial bands, but none of the lineups were really comfortable, so I put together a fusion band called Mirage that played intense instrumental music. We played for about a year, mostly parties with some hall dates thrown in. We were a band that other musicians went to see. Not profitable, but very fulfilling for playing exciting, adventurous music. In 1998 I released a CD of the last Mirage show, which had been recorded in the late summer of 1984, and response to it even today dictates that I’ll likely release some more live Mirage some day.
BACK TO THE DAY JOB BUT STILL RECORDING
When Mirage ended my career as a graphic artist was starting to take off, so I started concentrating completely on recording my music, mostly by myself after learning to play bass, some keyboards, and to program drum machines. I formed Rampant Squid Sound Studios for my own music, but did produce a few other people, mainly as favors. That stretch has lead to where I am today, recording my own music and CDs and trying to get it out to a few people. Rock-based, adventurous music that blends organic soul with some technical sophistication. Once in a while someone will give me feedback that tells me that some tune or CD of mine really had an impact on them, and that is worth all the fame in the world.
One thing interesting that happened during the course of things is that I became involved with the scene built around my guitar hero Tommy Bolin. Tommy passed away on December 4, 1976 at age 25, but has left an intense legacy of fans around the world. I became friends with Bobby Berge, who played drums on some of Tommy’s most well-known recordings, and we started making music together. Then in 2002 I played in Bobby’s band at the 2002 Tommy Bolin Music Festival in Tommy’s home town of Sioux City, Iowa, and we played again in the Bobby Berge Project at the 2006 Fest. In between those appearances we have worked on other live and recording projects together.
Also in 2002 I was asked to become the webmaster for the Tommy Bolin Archives, and promptly redesigned and rebuilt the site, and I have been adding material to it ever since. I also produced five authorized CDs of legacy recordings of Tommy that have received worldwide distribution. One positive result is that through the Bolin scene I met a fantastic drummer from Canada named Wally Zielonka, who played on three tunes on my Gather CD in 2004. We then went on to record four commercial albums as John Herdt & Wally Z; Across the Border (2006), Shadow Fades Away (2009), October Sky (2011) and Horizon Miles (2013). These recordings included guest performances from cats who played with Tommy Bolin back in the day, including Bobby Berge on drums on five tracks on Gather, Tommy Stephenson on one track from October Sky, and David Givens from Zephyr who played all the bass on Horizon Miles. In 2017 I released my first solo album in over a decade, titled The Winter Candle, on which I played all the instruments.