My latest musical interest is of guitar/producing legend Nile Rodgers. He played guitar in the disco band Chic (Le Freak, I want Your Love, etc) but is most notably known for his production work. Working with everybody in the industry from David Bowie to Diana Ross to Sister Sledge to Madonna to Duran Duran to Lady Gaga to Keith Urban to Brittany Spears to Christina Aguilara...need I continue? Oh yeah and Daft Punk! Legendary to say the least. Nile now is touring under the name "Nile Rodgers and Chic" playing all of the old hits of Chic along with Nile's productions from other artists. Go see them live if you have the chance!
YOU CAN'T PLAY THAT CHORD IN A POP SONG!
The most incredible thing to me about Nile is his use of creative harmony in pop music. He seems just to sneak in these little nuggets of wicked harmonic motion throughout his songs. Proving you can avoid the immensely overused I vi IV V and still create earworms for the average listener. Take a listen to "Everybody Dance" by Chic, the fifth chord of the song is an Am(b13) or you can call it Dm/A bridging the Abmaj7 to the Ab/Bb (Bb7sus) chord. What about "Let's Dance" by David Bowie, which currently has over 75 million views on youtube. Crazy harmonic choices for a pop song! What pop artists adds upper extensions to the triad?! What about "Upside Down" by Diana Ross. That second section really pops when the Gminor chord moves up chromatically to a Bbminor chord after being strongly in a Bb lydian/G dorian key center. Now, going from a key center of Bb major to Bb minor within a song isn't unusual but how they get there is very unique. Whacky!
Perhaps these harmonic choices can be used due to the strong sense of groove and melody creating a strong foundation for unusual harmonic movement.
This is obviously not the case for every song Nile Rodgers has produced or co-written, the bulk of Chic's catalogue is moving from i - IV. "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk also showcases a roundabout way of going from i - IV (Bm D F#m E). However, the amount of songs with Nile's name on it that contain some 'jazzy' chords is quite surprising for someone who has a guitar named the "hitmaker".
TRIADS TRIADS TRIADS
Another aspect of his playing that sticks out is his use of the simple triad. Nile clearly has a strong knowledge of triads and the inversions of the triads. Most of his accompaniment relies on incredibly rhythmic right hand and very staccato notes. Relying heavily on 3 string voicings or splitting up a chord into the lower root and the upper triad. For example, "Le Freak" by Chic, Nile's voicing on the Am chord is just the barring the first 3 strings on the 5th fret giving you an C, E, A on the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st string respectively. Also known as an Am in 2nd inversion - Am/C. The bass player is playing an A so Nile can leave out the low part of the chord and reduce muddiness in the recordings.
Many of Nile's funky fills come from moving around inversions of triads and adding little embellishments to the triads. Changing roots to 9ths, 5ths to 6ths/13ths, 3rds to 4ths/11ths. A quick way to spice up a simple triad and add a sense of melody to your rhythm playing.
From what I can gather online - Nile seems to record his strat (the hitmaker) directly into the console of whatever studio he is in. I for one have never really enjoyed the sound of DI guitar but it clearly seems to work for Nile's recordings. Perhaps worth a try next time you get in the studio recording on a funk/disco/r&b track. I suppose the saying is true "it's all in your hands".
One of the trademark stylistic choices of Nile Rodgers is that you blast the hook/Chorus of your song as fast as possible to get the listener sucked in. There are a few exceptions (Get Lucky, Like a Virgin) but I found interviews with Nile discussing this approach to songwriting. The listener doesn't have to wait for the best part of the song.
SIMPLE IS BEST
I think the most important lesson I have picked up from transcribing some Nile Rodgers guitar parts is that the KISS method works! He picks a strong rhythmic pattern and really sticks to it. Some of those old Chic songs are in the 6-8 min range and Nile really bats out the same stuff for a good portion of that time. It's so hard to stick in the pocket and really lay down a strong sense of groove for that long without trying to get too fancy. It's great practice for any guitarist or any accompanist to practice their comping.
Here are a short list of songs that I believe really showcase Nile's approach to playing. If you play funk/r&b/disco rhythm guitar, I would highly recommend transcribing these parts and playing along with the record.
Le Freak - Chic
I Want Your Love - Chic
Good Times - Chic
Everybody Dance - Chic
Get Lucky - Daft Punk
Let's Dance - David Bowie
Fantasy - George Michael
I'm Coming Out - Diana Ross
Upside Down - Diana Ross