Nile Rodgers of Chic is the greatest disco songwriter of them all – and a man whose guitar skills have influenced two generations of musicians. Joel McIver asks the great man the questions while trying not to… aaaaah… freak out!
‘If I had to choose one role, I would think I’m a composer, but if I had one profession, I would just like to be a guitar player,’ smiles Nile Rodgers. ‘I would just like to show up every day and have somebody tell me what to do. I would just do that and then go home, ha ha!’
What’s this? A man whose skills as a songwriter, producer, remixer, lyricist, author and oh yes, figurehead for an entire musical movement, would rather be known as a simple axeman? We ask him to clarify…
‘A great example of what I mean by “just being a guitar player” is in ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’ by Daft Punk,’ replies Nile. ‘When they first played the track for me, it didn’t have a guitar part, of course. The part that I added kept the same voice leading through all the chord changes.’
Investigate this tune if you don’t know the part he’s referring to: delivered in his signature high-register, rapidly-strummed style, Nile’s guitar part contains a melody within the extended chords that harmonises with the groove. It’s an infectious, maddeningly catchy part that completely makes the song.
‘That’s what I mean about being “just” a guitar player,’ explains Nile. ‘You go in and you do what they tell you to do, but you add your own technique to it. All of a sudden, that thing that you did, they can’t live without! The simple chords are the basis of the song, but once you put your lick to it – a lick that makes the song special – and then you take that lick away again, all of a sudden the song isn’t doing that thing any more. Even though it’s the same chords.’
In case you were wondering what such a well-known electric guitar player is doing with Acoustic magazine, wonder no more. Nile is a superb acoustic player too, as you can see for yourself in a backstage festival clip on YouTube. In fact, the wisdom he shares with us behind the scenes at the recent Acoustic-sponsored Electric Live show in association with The London Acoustic Guitar Show can be applied equally to any acoustic or electric guitarist – especially if you’re into groove-heavy music.
Tell us, Nile: what is funky guitar playing, and how do we master it? ‘I try to accentuate the important part of any groove,’ he tells us, picking up the famous 1960 Fender Stratocaster on which he has written so many songs that it has its own nickname, the Hitmaker. ‘Typically I play sixteenth notes with my right hand. If I didn’t hold down any notes, you would hear this…’ Demonstrating his effortless syncopated picking style, Nile mutes the strings, leaving us with a toneless metallic click that reveals the slinky rhythm behind the up- and downstrokes. He continues, ‘To me, my style of funk is based on playing groups of three strings at a time and not playing too much information on the first stroke. That way, on the second stroke that follows it, I can invert and make it sound almost like a Clavinet or another keyboard instrument.’
As an example, Nile plays through what is probably the most famous song in his immense catalogue: Chic’s eternal ‘Good Times’. That three-downstrokes-plus-eighths line, which you’ve heard a million times before, somehow manages to sound incredibly fresh when he plays it to us in this little backstage room at London’s Olympia… He explains, ‘I don’t play ‘Good Times’ like most guitar players. I could just play those high three strings with precision, but I like to play all six, a full 13 chord, even though you don’t hear the lower three. Even though you see me fingering all six strings, I’m muting the low strings, especially because I’m on the seventh fret and you know there’s a big harmonic there. I’m basically playing a triad on the higher strings. But what makes it funky is the tonality of the chord. I’m just playing the motion that is defining the voice, and that’s what makes it sound funky and cool to me.’
He stops playing, laughs and says: ‘It just hit me this morning that what I am is the right hand of a piano player – a frustrated piano player, actually, because I only have six strings. That’s what I do! When you’re watching a band’s guitar player play a song, look at his right hand. Once they’ve learned the song, they play it the same way from then on, but a piano player would do something different, maybe in a different octave. I’ll always try and do something interesting. But that’s not how most people play.’
Asked how he got into playing with such economy, Nile lays the blame squarel at the feet of a jazz icon. ‘When I was learning to play funk as a pretty young guy, I was going to Miles Davis concerts,’ he says. ‘Miles would say things like, “You know man, it’s ain’t the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play”. He was telling us to play sparingly but make it hip – I guess, anyway… Who knows what Miles meant? Ha ha! But I’d hear that stuff as a kid and take it to heart. I don’t always want to beat people up by playing all the time. It’s fun though, I love doing it.’
Here, Nile grabs the Strat and breaks into a fast-fingered rock solo. Even unamplified, it sounds amazing. ‘I love playing with guys that play like that,’ he says, ‘although I notice that unless I’m careful, we can both sound bad, because it’s like playing doubles in tennis or something. I like to be part of a team. When I started I was like that, I was a soloist and it was all about me and the guitar. I couldn’t wait to go, whooo! I come from the hippie days, so I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix and we’d feed back everywhere. Every now and then, you’ll come to a Chic show and I won’t play with my teeth – I stopped doing that – but I’ll do a trick and play the guitar over my head…’
He leans forward to emphasise his closing point, one which guitarists of all stripes would do well to heed. ‘Music is such an individual thing: the more you learn it, the smarter you get,’ he explains. ‘Every musician who listens to me knows I’m telling you the truth: the smarter you get, the more you want to show people how smart you are, and you actually think that that means more to them. And every now and then it does: you get Eddie Van Halen playing the solo in ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson, and it means a lot. A whole lot! But you don’t want to hear a whole Michael Jackson album like that. You want to hear it on ‘Beat It’. So it’s about learning the art of balance.’
Final words of wisdom? ‘The people who come to hear my music, they come to dance and have a good time. They want to hear musicians who interpret the music well, but it’s really about the crowd, and I’m so happy that I’ve learned to care about other people in my music. I’m learning more as I get older, and as I learn more on the guitar at the age of 62 than I did when I was 16, the compositions get a little more interesting – and a little less selfish!’
Golden Greats: Ten classic songs written, co-written and/or produced or co-produced by Nile Rodgers. He’s been busy…
‘Everybody Dance’ (Chic)
Look, disco never got better than this. Luther Vandross was on background vocals, for heaven’s sake. Chic still open their live set with this song, and for good reason.
‘Get Lucky’ (Daft Punk)
Yes, we know you can’t stand to hear this song one more time, but search Youtube for ‘get lucky acoustic’ and you’ll find a lesson in how to be monstrously funky without the aid of the Hitmaker or indeed its owner.
‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It’ (Will Smith)
When the sometime Fresh Prince released this cut from his amusingly-titled debut album Big Willie Style in 1997, it included a sample from ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ by Sister Sledge, a Rodgers creation. What the ‘it’ was in Smith’s song title remains unclear.
‘Good Times’ (Chic)
A stone cold classic for evermore, this song will be forever synonymous with disco balls and drunk students, but it’s worth so much more than that. That immortal guitar line deserves everyone’s attention.
‘The Jam Was Moving’, Debbie Harry
Released in 1981, this single from the former Blondie frontwoman went nowhere despite Nile’s ace production. It’s still worth your time, though, for his precision-engineered studio treatment.
‘Le Freak’, Chic
The bestselling record ever for Atlantic, and then the best-selling single ever for Warner Music Group until 1990, this epic song (originally boasting the words “F*** off” rather than “Freak out” – really) sold seven million copies. Now do you understand the genius of Chic?
‘Lose Yourself To Dance’, Daft Punk
Another disco tune loaded with Nile’s amazing guitar part, this song is the perfect example of how a chord extension can turn a groove into a hit.
‘Rapper’s Delight’, The Sugarhill Gang
With its Chic sample (hence its inclusion in this list), ‘Rapper’s Delight’ made several things very clear when it came out in 1979. One, hip-hop was a commercial force; two, sampling other people’s music is sometimes appropriate; three, people like really long songs.
‘Upside Down’, Diana Ross
You’re singing that title to yourself, aren’t you? That’s because Nile wrote it. He has a knack for getting into people’s heads, and staying there.
‘We Are Family’, Sister Sledge
Composed by Nile and his late partner in Chic, bassist Bernard Edwards, ‘We Are Family’ wasn’t just a hit song: it came to symbolise an entire generation.