Get Your Groove On with Help from Prince/Justin Timberlake Guitarist Mike Scott

You’ve heard the story before: A posse of musicians stuffs a mountain of instruments into a car and heads west to Hollywood to take a shot at the big time. Mike Scott’s road to the main stage, however, took a big right turn to the north. In the early ’90s, Scott said goodbye to his hometown of Washington D.C. when he, a bass player, and a drummer crammed all their gear into a Ford Escort and drove 22 hours to Minneapolis. They weren’t relocating to the Minnesota city with lofty ambitions of scoring work with Prince, production moguls Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, or any of the other R&B kingpins that called the place home. They were there to team up with Radiant, a D.C.-based cover band working the “Marriott circuit,” doing month-long stints in hotel lounges. The band broke up mere weeks after Scott’s arrival.
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“The other guys went back to D.C.,” says Scott, “but I said, ‘I’m staying here,’ because I saw that on the local level, the Minneapolis scene was just virgin. There were no funky black guitar players out there, not one.”
Scott’s first lucky break occurred at a club where Michael Bland, Prince’s drummer at the time, was playing in a cover band. “People were like, ‘Man, nobody sits in with them,’ but I just walked up and said, ‘I wanna sit in,’ and they said, ‘Well, come on then.’ I played with them that night and the next day my phone started ringing and soon the gigs came rolling in. I eventually hooked up with Sounds of Blackness, who were signed to Jam and Lewis. When I met Jam and Lewis, they immediately put me to work on all kinds of albums they were producing—Mariah Carey, Lionel Richie, Gladys Knight, Janet Jackson. Those guys were busy. I worked for them for 12 years.
“When Jam and Lewis moved to L.A., whew, things dried up. [Laughs.] But I got with Prince one day in 1996. Then he asked me to come to a rehearsal the next day, and then the next day after that. Next thing I know, I’m on a tour bus with them, despite never officially being told I’m in the band. I’ve been with Prince on and off ever since.”
As if Prince’s recent Musicology tour wasn’t exciting enough, Scott has now landed the lead guitar spot on one of the most elaborate touring shows of all time—Justin Timberlake’s massive FutureSex/LoveShow tour. How does Scott score all these top-shelf R&B gigs? Well, for one, he is a ripping lead player. “One night Prince’s guitar went out a half a bar before his big solo on ‘Purple Rain,’ so he had me take the solo,” says Scott. “I tore the ass out of that thing. Afterwards, he said, ‘You’ll never get that solo again.’” [Laughs.]
Really, though, despite his versatility, it’s Scott’s fluency in the universal language of groove that keeps his phone ringing with dream gigs. Whether he’s playing rhythm or lead, Scott’s got a pulverizing attack that’s as lively and loose as it is metronomically perfect—and visceral. He kills his .010-.046 DR strings with one of the heaviest picks in production today (a 2.0mm Dunlop Delrin 500), yet the defenseless wires don’t seem to mind and rarely break on him. It’s as if they forgive his punishing heavyweight strumming because his notes are timed so well—much the way your eardrums forgive a hard-hitting drummer with a phat pocket.

Chicka, Chank, Choke

In the back lounge of the band bus behind the arena, Mike Scott uncases a Paul Reed Smith Hollowbody II (which, aside from perhaps his Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion, seems to be his go-to guitar), plugs into a practice amp, and starts warming up with a variety of licks that show deep funk roots. He touches on everyone from Tony Maiden to Ernie Isley, James Brown to Chuck Brown.
Before you begin to tackle funk licks, make sure you’ve got three basic funk attacks down. We’ll call the first one [Ex. 1] the chicka, because that’s the sound you hear when you mute a chord with your fretting hand and strike it with quick down/up strums. The second, the chank, is the onomatopoeic name we’ll apply to an un-muted chord struck on the high strings and made staccato by a quick release of the fretting-hand fingers [Ex. 2]. The choke [Ex. 3] is necessary when you need to absolutely murder single notes with a free-swinging picking hand and don’t want the other five strings to ring. (Mute the unused strings with unused fretting fingers, including, when necessary, the fretting-hand thumb.) See if you can play Scott’s scratchy single-note lick in Ex. 4 using the choke to prevent extra string jangle.
Playing Ex. 5, Scott demonstrates three other funk stylings you’ll need to own—chord vibrato (as applied to all four notes in the G7#9 chord that opens each measure), double-note bends (bar 1), and percussive sweeps (such as the six-string muted sweep in bar 2).

Go-Go Guitar

If there’s one groove Scott plays that truly reflects his roots in D.C. funk, it’s the one that finds him muting the strings with his fretting hand somewhere above the 19th-fret and strumming sixteenth-notes (with a few triplets thrown in) with a “swing sixteenths” feel [Ex. 6]. The chicka-chicka strumming sounds like a shaker or a hi-hat.
“In D.C., there’s a music called go-go,” says Scott, expanding the lick in Ex. 7 by adding 19th-fret harmonics in the repeated bar and a satisfying turnaround in bar 4. “In go-go, percussion is the most important thing, and the guitar often ends up playing percussion, so to speak. This is a little groove Chuck Brown—the ‘Godfather of go-go,’ as they call him—sort of came up with. Throw in those harmonics and you end up sounding kind of like a conga player.”
Or, you could say, the harmonics evoke the dual-cowbell patterns that are a trademark of go-go. “The strumming-hand rhythm’s got to be consistent,” says Scott. “Thinking of the guitar more as a percussion instrument makes it a lot easier to find your place in a song and make it funky—to find that hole.”

Flutter Funk

Asked what he might nominate as the funkiest guitar riff of all time, Scott is hard-pressed to choose just one. “Hmm, could be just about anything by James Brown,” he muses, “or perhaps this lick [Ex. 8], which is like the guitar part on ‘Funky Stuff’ [by Kool & the Gang]—I love that. One guy I always liked was Tony Maiden and that fluttery stuff he played with Chaka Khan.”

To demonstrate the flutter-funk style—now a staple of many R&B songs and a must-know feel for any aspiring funk guitarist—Scott plays Ex. 9. “It’s kind of like Ernie Isley on ‘Who’s That Lady,’” he says. “On the F#m7 and C#m7 chords, let all the notes ring and add the hammered and pulled notes on various strings with your 4th finger. This style is all about the 4th finger.”

Chicken Grease

Another fluttery funk essential is the straight-sixteenths approach to strumming chords popularized by Prince (think “Sexy M.F.”), the Average White Band (intro to “Pick Up the Pieces”), and other groups. “Prince calls it ‘chicken grease,’” says Scott, demonstrating such funk gristle by strumming Ex. 10 with a consistent yet almost feather-light touch. “Prince and I have a good musical rapport onstage. If he is playing low, I play high, or if he’s playing single notes I’ll play chords. It’s the same thing Skip Dorsey and I do on the Timberlake gig. And when Prince wants to change up the groove, he’ll often say, ‘Mike Scott chicken grease!’ and I’ll go into some of these droning sixteenths for a while. If he wants to get out of it, he’ll say something like ‘On the one,’ and we’ll break.”

Gotta Want It

Asked how he would define what it means to be funky, Scott recalls his high school days. “I went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C.,” he says. “There were a lot of guitar players there, and people always used to tell me, ‘Mike Scott, this guy might be better than you, and that guy might be faster, but you’re the funkiest cat in school.’ For me, being funky means being able to find the missing groove—to listen to the other musicians and find that one syncopation they’re missing; that one sixteenth-note somewhere that’s not in the groove. I always hear that extra part and I’m like, ‘Man, I want that.’”
Armed with my own guitar, I decide to put Scott’s funk powers to the test. I play a scratchy, syncopated two-bar funk loop [Gtr. 1 of Ex. 11] and ask him to find the “missing part.” After hearing my riff only twice, he leaps in with Gtr. 2’s slippery take on Jimmy Nolen-style ninth-chord funk. Our two riffs lock like cogs in a Swiss watch. “See, you hit that groove, and your groove was funky,” Scott tells me. “But there were these spaces and holes I was seeing that would make the two of us much funkier together.”
The whole is funkier than the sum of its parts.

Visit Mike Scott online at