STEAL MOTOWN’S TRICKS FOR... Amazing Rhythm
Richard Barrett looks at Motown’s unsung guitar heroes with six fully tabbed example pieces, with playing tips and backing tracks – suitable for almost any style.
Motown’s triple-guitar section powered 100s of hit tracks. Richard Barrett reveals their tricks of the trade and shows you how to introduce interest and movement to your own rhythm.
Before we start, it’s worth pointing out that, although this feature is labelled ‘Motown’, these ideas are readily transferable (with perhaps a tweak here and there) to many other styles of music.
Set up by Berry Gordy in Detroit in 1959, Motown kick-started the career of a long list of artists, including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and many more than we have room to list here. However, this article is more concerned with the guitarists that played on these discs and how they contributed to the song.
In the early days, most recordings from the Motown stable were played on by an in-house band of local musicians, known informally as the Funk Brothers. This included guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White and Eddie ‘Chank’ Willis, though it wasn’t common practice to credit musicians in those days. These players came mainly from a jazz background and this is reflected in their chord voicings and rhythms, their overall swing as a unit and why these ideas are transferable back to blues, jazz, country, etc. Check out It’s A Shame by The Spinners if you need convincing.
As the 1960s drew to a close, Motown moved to Los Angeles, bringing new musicians into the fold (many of the original players stayed in Detroit). Guitarists like Tommy Tedesco, Melvin Ragin (aka Wah Wah Watson) and David Williams now had the chance to bring in their own ideas – in Williams’ case, the tight funk of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean is a notable example.
Through the 70s and early 80s, players like Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather also made their mark. Tight, repetitive (almost subliminal) parts, processed with chorus and compression began to appear on tracks like Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down. The guitar moved from providing chord ‘pads’ and rhythmic fills to a more percussive role.
To nail some of these parts, it’s a good idea to listen closely to where you ‘sit’ in context with the rhythm track and see what elements of your part coincide with the kick drum, snare, hi-hats etc. Alternatively, you may find your part slots into a gap in the overall tapestry of instrumentation, in which case you’ll need to be super aware of when that gap is coming – it’s imperative to be constantly listening and reacting as you play.
This kind of focus and concentration requires stamina, so don’t be surprised if some of these apparently ‘easy’ parts take a bit of getting absolutely right. Our six examples are designed to give you a broad overview of the techniques and chord voicings that give this style its special sound. They aren’t particularly in chronological order, but you will recognise that some have the more ‘strummy’ approach, similar to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, while others combine this with staccato chord ‘chanks’ like The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love.
For some of these, we’ve arranged the guitar to cover both parts in one pass – something often asked of guitarists on the circuit these days. Some of the other examples are several different ideas condensed into one excerpt, so please bear this in mind when creating your own ideas.
Our examples will give you An overview of the techniques And chord voicings that give this style its special sound