Play Like Cornell Dupree

January 30, 2014

The rhythm-and-blues train lost its primary groove engine when the great Cornell Dupree passed away on May 8, 2011. Throughout his career, Dupree impacted myriad guitarists, and although all of them knew his sound, many never knew his name. Heard on dozens of hit records and thousands of R&B, blues, jazz, and rock sessions, Dupree was internationally regarded as the ultimate R&B guitarist—he was on the cover of every Japanese guitar mag last month— but he was much, much more.

Self-taught, and born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas (you could hear it in his playing), young Dupree cut his musical teeth on the road, touring with top R&B artists such as legendary sax man King Curtis (where he temporarily shared the guitar chair with a young Jimi Hendrix), soul diva Aretha Franklin, and R&B sensation Donny Hathaway as early as 1962. After returning to Texas for several years, Dupree, with encouragement from bassist Chuck Rainey, made a permanent move to New York in the early ’70s to pursue a successful and lucrative studio career. He also began recording as a solo artist, and later became a member of instru-funk supergroups Stuff (where he shared guitar duties with Eric Gale) and Steve Gadd’s Gadd Gang. And, oh yeah— he looked cool and dressed even cooler!

Dupree’s discography, with tons of releases featuring his work as a sideman, session cat, and leader, is astoundingly diverse and way beyond the scope of this article. Do yourself a favor and go to, type in his name, and prepare to be amazed. In the meantime, a tiny sampling of his recorded legacy includes names like Carly, Chaka, Cobham, Cocker, Dizzy, Etta, Miles, Mariah, Midler, Mayall, Pickett, and Ringo. Wow!

Can there be any better way to pay tribute to Cornell Dupree than to incorporate a few of his signature moves into our own musical vocabularies to help assure the propagation of a style that might otherwise become a lost art? The answer is no, so let’s absorb and assimilate some of Dupree’s favorite musical devices. But first, you’ve gotta...


Cornell Dupree achieved his signature sound by sticking with a relatively small number of guitars and amps. He consistently relied on a small stable of axes, the most famous two being a highly modified, pickguard- less, mid-’70s Fender Telecaster fitted with a center-position DeArmond pickup, a Yamaha SJ-800, and later, his signature Yamaha Dupree Jam model. Plugging directly into clean amps—usually a Fender Twin Reverb (including solid-state, “red knob” models) and later a Yamaha Twin, which he described as sounding a lot like a Fender Twin—Dupree coaxed an extraordinary palette of tones from these simple setups. (He reportedly only used effects upon request.) So the good news is you don’t need much gear to get up and running Dupree-style, but the not-so-great revelation is that it’s all in the hands, peoples. Ready for some hands on?


When I began researching this article, I couldn’t think of a better person to pow-wow with than my Woodstock bud and occasional bandmate, Telemaster Jim Weider, a long-time Dupree disciple who routinely watched the master at work during the mid ’70s. “I used to see him play with Stuff at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock all the time,” recalls Weider. “The thing that really struck me was his rhythmic feel and where he planted the rhythm in the band. He was very smooth.” When I asked him to demo some choice Dupree-isms, Weider immediately launched the relentless rhythm figure illustrated in Ex. 1a at ca. 106 b.p.m., and what stood out most was the way he articulated the chords. “I call that ‘The Cornell Bounce,’” says Weider. The “bounce” is actually a frethand muting technique, which in this case involves momentarily releasing fret-hand pressure on each accented E7 chord without breaking contact with the strings. This also accommodates muted string chucking for all of the in-between sixteenths. Your fret hand should pulsate along with the to the exact rhythm of the accented E7 hits: “two-e, three-e,” etc. (Tip: Try reversing the accented chords and muted string chucks.) The horn-section-style chromatic 7th-chord slide in bar 2 is another important Dupree trademark. Ex. 1b shows a more syncopated and uptempo A7 rhythm figure, reminiscent of Dupree’s groove on Buddy Miles’ “Changes,” from 1971’s King Curtis Live at Fillmore West, and features more bouncing. Use it as either a IV-chord modulation, or as a self-contained I-chord vamp. (Tip: Play both figures with different voicings and in all keys.)


Melodic and harmonic sixth intervals (i.e., both notes played in succession or both notes played together), which he used for both leads and to imply chords, impacted a huge portion of Dupree’s musical vocabulary. Weider describes the sequence of hybrid-picked sliding melodic sixths in Ex. 2a as “Something I still use all the time,” and so can you! Simply slide up the lower string and down the upper string for each pair of broken sixth intervals. This handy device may also be manipulated to cover other harmonic environments and rhythmically displaced to produce dozens of variations. (Tip: Try it over Bm7 or Dmaj7.) The notated fingering reflects Dupree’s all-fingers approach, but feel free to use whatever’s comfortable for any example. To illustrate Dupree-style harmonic sixths, Weider hybrid-picks his way through Ex. 2b, an E7-based excursion laced with chromatic passing tones and ghosted open strings.

A quick peek into the Dupree catalog revealed dozens of examples of sixths in action, perhaps none more striking than the funky intro vamp shown in Ex. 2c. (Tip: Check out King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew.”)


Weider also points out Dupree’s penchant for fourth intervals as another important stylistic hallmark. This time he demonstrates harmonic fourths first by playing Ex. 3a. Here, we define four shapes, plus their recurrence one octave lower, at a slower tempo perfect for creating lush, sensuous R&B ballads.

Equally useful is the sequence of melodic fourths Weider plays next (Ex. 3b). Again, we simply slide up the lower string of one fourth interval and down the upper string of the next one. (Tip: After trying both examples over C and Am7, try G7 and Fmaj7.) There’s more to come, but meanwhile, check out any of Dupree’s recordings for dozens of examples of fourths in action. (Jimi must have been listening!)


Dupree certainly had a knack for turning on his groove machine at a moment’s notice and completely locking into a rhythm figure (as we’ve already seen in Examples 1a and 1b), but he was also gifted at coming up with super-creative parts based on a single 7th chord that just felt and sounded great. Take Ex. 4a, where Dupree transforms four bars of static D7 harmony into a cool, relaxed groove that incorporates the 5 (A) in the bass, D9-to- D7 flavoring, and a signature chromatic 7th-chord slide. The latter makes a return appearance in Ex. 4b, a funky, B7-based, one-bar intro vamp that also utilizes a pair of octaves.


Dupree also had a way of coming up with rhythm figures that could make even the simplest twochord progressions shine. Ex. 5a presents his unique twist on a two-bar, I-IV vamp in Ab (not unlike his Ab-Db moves in King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade”). Dupree essentially infused a slow shuffle rhythm with a I-chord hit on the downbeat of bar 1, and then followed up with two “wrong” non-diatonic, sliding minor sixths before targeting the major sixth that defines the Ab chord. Too cool! (Who says two wrongs don’t make a right?) In bar 2, Dupree simply breaks up a three-note, IV-chord voicing—simple, but super effective. Ex. 5b finds Dupree navigating a Hendrix-y E9-F9 progression over another slow shuffle groove. (Think “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” or King Curtis’ “Soul Theme.”) Check out how his punchy string bounces and extreme soft-to-loud dynamics create the impression of a oneman horn section.


In addition to his rhythmic prowess, Dupree was also a tremendous soloist who sported a surprisingly aggressive attack (think Johnny Guitar Watson), and was always ready to burn at the appropriate moment. Jim Weider cites Dupree’s snappy string slurs and slides as particularly influential solo techniques: “Sometimes he’d slide instead of bend.

I still do that all the time.” As Weider plays the lower- and upper-register A pentatonicbased moves notated in Examples 6a and 6b, it immediately becomes apparent that you can get a lot of mileage out of these puppies.

Dupree’s solos were often infused with jazzy chromatic runs and thematic motifs, as the uptempo, fifth-position A7 workouts shown in Examples 6c and 6d illustrate.

The former features a hammered double- stop and broken melodic sixths, while the latter adds a touch of sweep picking, some open strings, and different chromatics that approach the 5 (E) from above rather than below. Note how the identical ending phrases serve to unify both examples. Dig in and play ’em anything but smooth. (Tip: Try playing both over the groove in Ex. 1b.)


One of Dupree’s more unorthodox techniques might have completely eluded me if I didn’t have a witness. Jim Weider recalls how Dupree used his middle finger to “fan” the strings for a rapid, but soft-edged tremolo effect. “He might do something like this for an ending,” he says, while playing the E7-based, soul rave-up ending figure shown in Ex. 7a. To pull this off with or without a pick in your hand, make the “a-ok” sign with your thumb and index finger, lightly lay them flat against the body just above the low-E string, and then rapidly “fan” or graze the strings using upstrokes and downstrokes with the side of your middle finger while your wrist remains steady. Dupree often worked this technique into rhythm figures as well as endings, and Ex.7b demonstrates how he used it to set fire to another slow shuffle figure. (Tip: Pair this one with Ex. 5b.)


Whether harmonizing a melody or creating R&B grooves from sultry to fatback, the importance of Dupree’s reliance on intervals cannot be understated.

Ex. 8a
paraphrases a soulful, Stuff-era, single-note melodic figure chock full of Dupree-isms, while Ex. 8b shows how he might harmonize it using various intervals. It’s all here: fourths, thirds, ghosted notes, single- and double-note slides augmented with a cool, double-stopped, half-step bend and release in bar 1. Ex. 8c brings together sliding fourths (over Dmaj7) and thirds (over Cmaj7), plus a few sixths going into the verse, to create Dupree’s unforgettably atmospheric intro to Brook Benton’s 1970 hit, “Rainy Night in Georgia.” I’ve notated the figure on the same two strings throughout, but you can play the fourths on the top two strings if you like, using a first-finger barre starting at the 5th fret. Ahh...sure sounds like falling rain to me.


Imagine the intense pressure of working against the studio clock to come up with a four-bar instrumental hook for an already smoking rhythm- and horn-section arrangement on a track destined to become a #1 hit. How would you do it? Well, Cornell Dupree has done it time and time again, but perhaps never more elegantly and audibly than on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Many may have opted for a busier approach, but Dupree found the choicest two notes for each chord (C7 and F7) and simply milked them to perfection. Doing his best King Curtis, Dupree zeros in on each chord’s 5 and b7, with the latter slow bent from the each chord’s 6, and lays down the memorable riff notated in Ex. 9. Essentially a pair of minor-third blues licks, it’s only four bars long, and it only appears once during the intro, but Dupree’s riff manages to take a great song and make it even better. But that’s just what he did. Here’s hoping some of “it” rubs off.

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