Uptown Funk: Kirk Fletcher's Blues Comping Tips

August 25, 2015

It is often said that great lead guitarists are great rhythm players as well, and many a brilliant player has proven this to be true. Case in point: Kirk Fletcher. As fans of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Joe Bonamassa, the Mannish Boys, Italian superstar Eros Ramozzatti, and other artists who have hired Fletcher over the years are well aware, the Los Angeles guitarist fires off soulful, straight-from-the-heart solos that dazzle on big stages. Yet, like many truly great blues and gospel players, Fletcher also blows people’s minds when he’s playing rhythm guitar.

Just ask the many YouTubers who have watched the video I shot of Fletcher teaching rhythm guitar approaches one afternoon at Musicians Institute. (You’ll find it if you search YouTube for “Kirk Fletcher’s Blues Comping Tips.”) These guitar fanatics love the way Fletcher delivers rich “uptown” blues grips (“I like chords with a lot of information in them,” says Fletcher) with a soulful old-school gospel pocket, and the comments they post are overwhelmingly positive. (No trolls here.) Watch the saucy 12-bar blues shuffle progression in Bb Fletcher opens with, and you’ll probably find it impossible not to pat your foot along with the Fletcher funk. It seems to have an irresistible bounce.

Bar 1, beat two Bar 3, beat one Bar 3, beat two

“That bounce came from a combination of playing tons of shows with West Coast jump-blues artists like Lynwood Slim, who helped me learn the Hollywood Fats style,” says Fletcher, who has a new solo album out called Burning Blues—Live at the Baked Potato. “I also learned that feel taking lessons from Junior Watson.”

Because most of the comments on this video are along the lines of, “Damn, I wish had a transcription of this,” we have responded accordingly. That’s right, Internet, your wish has been granted. See Ex. 1, where Fletcher’s blues opens with the classic but always satisfying sounding Bb blues turnaround that starts on the second beat of bar 1 (0:11 on the video timer) and features contrapuntal lines moving chromatically on the second and fourth strings. The Ab13 grip near the end of bar 2 rises chromatically through A13 to land on our first I chord—bar 3’s Bb13. Here at the double barline, letter A indicates the start of the 12-bar form, a traditional I-IV-V blues sequence that employs jazzy III-VI-II-V turnarounds in the last four bars.

Bar 7, beat three, middle of triplet
“Some of this stuff comes from watching Robben Ford’s instructional video, The Blues and Beyond,” says Fletcher, who was such a fan of Ford, that he even helped tech for the renowned guitarist in his late teens. “It also comes from growing up playing in my father’s church in Inglewood. I started playing there around age nine.”

Speaking of cool gospel-inspired guitar parts, let’s head to the IV section, which hits at bar 7. (Note: This is actually taken from Fletcher’s second 12-bar chorus, and, as indicated, occurs 0:43 into the video. But don’t worry—if you learn all the moves in this lesson, you should be able to play nearly everything Fletcher plays in the video example.)

Bar 12, beat one
The general harmony here at bar 7 is Eb9 (which Fletcher sets up with the E9-Eb9 shift at the end of bar 6), but my favorite part of the entire video begins on beat three of bar 7. Here, Fletcher plays a tasty three-part harmony line on the high strings that navigates down the neck gracefully, goes to two-part in the second half of bar 8, and goes back to three-part in bar 9. When I first heard this phrase, it sounded like it could be a big band line played by saxes, ’bones, and trumpets.

“That’s actually more of a steel-guitar thing,” says Fletcher. “I learned lines like that from the steel player in my father’s church.”

Fletcher’s next chorus begins at letter B (bar 15) with sparkly Bb9 and Bb9sus4 fingerings every guitarist should know. Add the juicy Bb7-Eb9 shapes in Ex. 2 (which Fletcher strums at 0:36) and the intriguing secondary dominant in Ex. 3 (a Bb7#5 voicing Fletcher uses at 1:02 to set up the next IV section), and you’ve nailed just about everything Fletcher plays in this blues.

But don’t stop there. Keep watching the video and you’ll be rewarded with several other kick-ass blues grooves and techniques courtesy of Mr. Fletcher. In fact, you’ll probably be so impressed you may be inspired to post a comment of your own. But you’ll hard-pressed to express your praise more colorfully than YouTube user Intr1nsic did, who rhymed, “That was cold as a witch’s titty. On a scale of one to ten, I give it about fiddy.”  

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