Nile Rodgers

April 1, 2009

“THE HARRY FOX AGENCY ONCE FIGURED OUT THAT something like two billion dollars worth of music has flowed through this one guitar,” says Nile Rodgers. He’s talking about “The Hitmaker,” the ’59/’60-era hard-tail Fender Stratocaster you hear him playing on hit albums he produced for Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Duran Duran, and myriad other stars. You also, of course, hear that Strat featured prominently in the riffs that power Chic, the band Rodgers formed in the late-’70s with his late, great partner in groove, bassist Bernard Edwards. The Rodgers/Edwards tag team is considered by many to be the funkiest guitar/bass tandem that ever existed, and Chic’s dance floor smashes “Good Times” and “Le Freak” remain two of the most influential funk clinics of all time.

And no, Rodgers, who got his professional start as guitarist in the Apollo Theater and Sesame Street house bands, is not bragging when he mentions all the success he has enjoyed as producer and performer. In fact, having launched the We Are Family Foundation (named after the Sister Sledge mega-hit) some years back, the New York producer has proven to be quite the humanitarian. Success or no success, though, he remains first and foremost a guitarist.

“All my life, I’ve been working on records and playing, and I’m happy to do it, and quite lucky—lucky that I get to groove behind great artists and write songs that people will remember or feel. Times are different now. If I were 19 today, I’d probably be playing in a hardcore funk band, and not making much money. I probably wouldn’t have a record deal. I’d probably be playing a lot of cover songs off Ohio Players records—and [laughing] Chic records, too!”

I was in the fourth or fifth grade when I first heard “Le Freak.” Right then and there, I knew I had to play guitar. Was there a specific recording for you that put you on the guitar path?

It’s interesting, because when I was a kid, the guitar was much more vital to black music. In fact, when you look at classic R&B music, funk music—whatever you want to call it—a lot of the bandleaders were guitar players. What has happened with R&B now is that just about everything is programmed, and that part of the groove that would traditionally be played on guitar by a guy like me can be supported with samples of other things that add a similar percussive element. On one level, it sounds interesting, because there is new sonic information. But spiritually, it doesn’t fill the same void. I used to love walking down the street with a gig bag on my back, and everyone knowing that I made my living playing guitar.

Early on, all of my favorite guitarists were jazz players. I was really into Wes Montgomery— the early stuff at first, when he was really burning, but also the later stuff, when he went into the smooth thing. I liked the smooth stuff a lot because it had an R&B vibe. Then, my whole world changed when I heard James Brown. I realized that almost every one of his records was just two guitars, bass, drums, and a horn section, and it was the funkiest stuff in the world. As a black musician, guitar is really about the rhythm and supporting the arch—you’re usually behind somebody and rarely do the guitar players become stars. So I grew up supporting stars, and felt very comfortable doing that, but, nonetheless, I tried to figure out a style that would allow my own voice to be heard. Funk was the perfect opportunity for that, because with funk records, when someone hums the song to you, it’s usually the guitar riff they’re singing.

Who did you get to play guitar for at the Apollo?

Aretha, Nancy Wilson, Parliament, the Cadillacs—whoever came through and needed guitar. My first show was the most memorable— Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I’m from New York, so I was more into Motown, etc., and didn’t know much about blues, or Hawkins’ whole act. So, while I’m getting ready to play, reading through the charts, they roll this coffin out. I didn’t know what was going on, when all of the sudden, Hawkins jumps out of the coffin and scares the sh*t out of me. They set me up, because I was the new guy!

Nowadays, it seems that not as many guitarists can read charts.

Back then, if you couldn’t read, you couldn’t make a living. Not only did you have to read, you had to have great powers of interpretation. And you had to be fast, because most of the time you went from one studio to the next, and the producers had only three hours to cut all of the instruments on a song. It helps to be fast when you start doing production, as it keeps costs way down. Chic’s first album cost only $35,000, and we had half the New York Philharmonic on it, plus Bob Clearmountain engineering! I recorded and mixed Bowie’s Let’s Dance—the whole album, from start to finish, with musicians who had never heard the songs before and were reading charts for the first time—in just 21 days.

Some singers spend that long on just one song.

Here’s my secret: If I’m leading the band, I don’t let anyone hear the songs until they come into the studio. Ever. Diana Ross didn’t hear ’em, Chic doesn’t hear ’em. That’s because I believe that as a producer, I get to pull something magical out of a talented person when they’re nervous, when they’re trying to learn something new, and when there’s no pressure, because they don’t know the tape is rolling. I can give you 20 to 30 records off the top of my head, from INXS to Duran Duran, that were done that way. They thought we were just practicing and getting levels.

It works really well with singers, because they say, “Okay, I’m ready to try one,” and I go, “What do you mean? It’s done.” Of course, I’ll let them fix something later if we need to, or I’ll give them another shot at it, but if you listen to an album like [Madonna’s] Like a Virgin, every song is mostly just one take. Bowie sang all of Let’s Dance in a day or two.

You and Bernard helped usher in the hip-hop age with the breakdown on “Good Times.” I’m not sure what’s funkier on that song—the guitar part or the bass part.

The great thing we always did was try to complement the other person. If I was working on a song, he’d always look at me and go, “That your part?” And what he meant was, “Are you committed enough to what you’re playing so that I can now write my part?” If I said yes, then he would get to work and, without fail, come up with a part that made us both sound funkier.

One thing that made Bernard’s style so unique has to do with the fact that he started out as a guitar player, so, while he played the bass without a pick—with his fingers— he always played as if he was holding a pick, strumming with the tips of his fingers. If you watch old Chic tapes, after a while, you might see blood running down the front of his bass, because his fingers were being cut to shreds. People always thought that we had some kind of sequencer, but it was just Bernard’s funky bass strumming.

Your style seems so simple—and a million guitarists have imitated it over the years—but it’s tricky to emulate convincingly.

Whenever I hear a person playing “Le Freak,” it kills me, because I’m like, “That’s what you think I’m playing?” [Laughs.] One thing about what I do is that while I’m playing the song, I’m also embellishing it—I’m playing it differently, all the time, but it still sounds like the song. That’s because when I learned to play, every band had a style, and you worked hard to sound like yourself. Even if was I jamming with Parliament—and they had amazing guitar players—I wanted to stand out. You wanna be able to be heard amongst the chorus of people. You had to have a style that added but didn’t take away, and didn’t distract or detract from the core vibe. I had to figure out a way to sound original so that no matter what record I’m playing on, people are like, “Oh, that’s Nile playing.”

My style is actually based on a jazz technique known as the George Van Eps style, which teaches you how to play all of your inversions on sets of three strings, up and down the neck. Even if I finger six notes, I’m always concentrating on only playing three at a time. If I played all the inversions I know the way that I learned them, it would sound like I was playing jazz instead of funk.

How did you record your guitar on the classic Chic records?

It was mostly my guitar on the neck pickup, direct into a Neve console with some compression, with maybe a touch of miked amp blended in. Onstage, Bernard and I had matching Sunn cabinets, and I used a Fender Bassman or Music Man head. My amps haven’t changed since Stevie Ray Vaughan died. When we were doing the Vaughan Brothers record, Peavey gave him a bunch of Classic 50s. He gave two to me, and I’ve been playing them ever since, because I love the sound, and because I’m emotionally attached to them. Stevie was a great friend. We use to hang out and play guitar together for hours on end.

Do you ever kick on a distortion pedal and take a wild solo?

You know, I played the Montreux Jazz Festival a few years ago with John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, and other cats I have loved and idolized all my life, and when it came time to do my solos, you have no idea how much I was fighting not to just start doing my best McLaughlin-type riffs, because I rarely get a chance to play like that. But in one nanosecond, I said to myself, “You know what? You’re standing on this stage as Nile Rodgers, the guitar player from Chic. Here’s your moment to play funk for this audience.” So I did my thing, playing three-string shapes up and down the neck, inverting the harmony, playing a whole solo in chords. A funk solo. And I was so proud that I was brave enough to do that—to honor Chic and funk and all that stuff. And the next day, people who previously never knew who I was were walking up to me on the street, saying, “Wow. I never heard anything like that!”

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