This week, we’re getting funky with the legendary guitarist, producer and songwriter Nile Rodgers.
Rodgers’ music has permeated the popular music landscape over the last several decades. After mainstream success with the band Chic in the 70s, Rodgers went on to produce and perform on a countless number of hit records for artists such as David Bowie, Diana Ross, Madonna and Duran Duran. More recently, you’ve likely heard his unmistakeable funk guitar strumming on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
His resume is massive. He’s like one of those great character actors who pops up in countless movies.
This week, I have a snippet from a masterclass where Rodgers demonstrates why most guitarists who attempt to emulate his funk style get it wrong.
The first half of the video is well worth watching, but pay particular attention to 2:55 – 4:30:
I love, love, love, love, love seeing stuff like this!
The writer and performer of a classic riff explains why most guitarists fail to play it correctly. GREAT insights here.
In the case of Chic’s “Le Freak”, players tend to play the rhythm and chord progression correctly; however, they add too many notes when forming the chords (i.e. barring the chords instead of playing simplified chord inversions on fewer strings).
This adds “too much information” and decreases the overall funkiness.
Rodgers observes that most guitar players like to play BIG chords that span lower, middle and higher octaves. These full, beefy chords can sound great when we practice by ourselves, but when we find ourselves in a full band context, other instruments start occupying the sonic space. What initially may have sounded great by yourself now sounds muddy with the added instruments.
Rodger’s preference is to break up his chords into 3-string inversions. He doesn’t add too much musical information – he simplifies it. This adds a punchiness to his funk style and places the guitar in a nice sonic range within the band context.
Not only does his explanation offer some great tips on funk playing, it also illustrates the importance of the lesson he learned from Miles Davis — “It’s not the shit that you play, it’s the shit that you don’t play.”
A few tips/pointers to take away from this lesson:
1) Play around with a less-is-more approach. Even if you’re not playing funk, try subtracting harmonic information from your guitar part if you find that something sounds clunky or muddy with a full band. Take away a few notes from your chords and see if your guitar part stands out more.
2) If you’re learning a new guitar riff or lick, especially one that’s considered a classic, see if you can find a video like this where the original guitarist explains his approach to the riff and how he plays it. You might not always find something, but when you do, the tips you get straight from the source will make your interpretation of the riff that much more authentic and accurate.