Under Investigation: The Soulful Guitarists of James Brown

James Brown’s bands - especially his guitarists - collectively transformed an entire genre and changed the world.
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Back when funk was called "Soul Music" James Brown and his various groups ruled the roost. These meticulous musical outfits, which included the Famous Flames, the James Brown Band, the James Brown Orchestra, the Depps, and, of course, the J.B.’s, were required to uphold a reputation for turn-on-a-dime precision and the ability to alter grooves and arrangements via on-the-fly signals from their leader, or face stiff penalties. Bearing influence on everyone from Jimi to Led Zeppelin and from Miles to Prince, Brown’s bands - especially his guitarists - collectively transformed an entire genre and changed the world.

Investigating the impressive roster of guitarists who have passed through the ranks of Brown’s groups between 1956 and 1976 is often as surprising as it is informative. Ladies and gents, give it up for Nafloyd Scott, Kenny Burrell, Bobby Roach, Les Buie, Billy Butler, Wallace Richardson, Jimmy Nolen, Alphonso “Country” Kellum, “Fat Eddie” Setser, Kenny Poole, Phelps “Catfish” Collins, Hearlon “Cheese” Martin, Hugh McCracken, David Spinozza, Robert Coleman, Sam Brown and Joe Beck.

Though the guitar is rarely featured as a solo instrument per se in Brown’s music, it is an absolutely integral part of the rhythmic engine that powers his legendary funk and soul revues, and each player listed above deserves recognition for contributing something unique to Brown’s oeuvre. We can’t possibly cover them all, so let’s zero in on a handful of names and investigate exactly how they informed and enriched the ageless funk grooves of Soul Brother No. 1, a.k.a. the Godfather of Soul, a.k.a. the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. James Brown.

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Ex. 1a introduces some J.B.-approved I-, IV-, and V-chord voicings in the horn-friendly key of Eb, all of which may be put to use when playing the following examples, beginning with Ex. 1b’s excerpt from Brown’s “Think.” Here, guitarist Bobby Roach holds down the almighty “one,” while the horn section swings a bluesy, bugle-call riff all around him. Nothing could sound simpler, but nailing the I-chord downbeat in bar 2 while the horns anticipate it an eighth-note sooner is harder than you think. Ex. 1c’s turnaround completes the 12-bar progression with rhythmically identical V-, IV-, and I-chord figures, plus that all-important V-chord hit on beat two in the last measure - a J.B. trademark. The single-note, straight-eighth, I-chord line shown in Ex. 1d provides the final piece of the puzzle. Play it as written (eight times), and then transpose it to the next lower string group to cover eight bars of Bb7, the V chord, before returning to Ex. 1b.

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Ex. 2a shifts the emphasis to the backbeats with the great Jimmy Nolen’s I- and IV-chord chops on beats two and four, as heard during the verses on Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Pt. 1” For the turnaround, shown in Ex. 2b, Nolen continues the same hits for the V chord (bar 1), breaks on the one for the IV chord (bar 2), and then launches his famous flurry of Eb9 sixteenths and I-V hits in bars 3 and 4. Note the optional Bb9/F V-chord voicing (See Ex. 1a) culled from a previously unreleased and slightly slower earlier take of the song.


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Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” turnaround is captured in Ex. 3a, where Jimmy Nolen and Alphonso “Country” Kellum stab the V and IV chords on beats two and three (bars 1 and 2), before joining the horn section in bars 3 and 4 for five consecutive eighth-note upbeats that outline an ascending D9 arpeggio. Ex. 3b features a similarly syncopated single-note Eb9-based line alternately doubled and harmonized by Kellum alone on “Bring It Up (Hipster’s Avenue).” Ex. 3c shows Kellum’s gospel-tinged I-to-IV-chord sequel. Play it a bunch of times, and then reprise Ex. 3a.


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In Ex. 4a (reminiscent of “Licking Stick”), Jimmy Nolen doesn’t hit a single backbeat, leaving that chore to the organist. Instead, he dances all around them with precisely placed ninth-chord hits concentrated on the top four strings. Study this one well. It’s a beautiful and valuable lesson in funk instrumental interplay. In fact, I strongly urge you to extend this and all of the following examples for five minutes or more, as Brown was often apt to do. (Tip: Astute funkateers will recognize that many of the rhythms from this month’s Rhythm Workshop have been incorporated into this and most of the remaining examples.) Ex. 4b gets tricky with Nolen’s five-bar rhythm figure from “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” The figure combines simple single notes with chordal hits, but the hard part here is keeping track of its odd number of measures.


Ex. 5a documents Nolen’s relentless syncopated single-note swing sixteenths punctuated with string scratches as heard on Brown’s “Give It Up (or Turn It Loose).” His IV-chord figure veers close to the G9 syncopations and sliding chromatic F#9 passing chords shown in Ex. 5b’s two-bar vamp. Note how all but two of the chords are played on the inside four strings. On a quirkier note, Ex. 5c (à la “Funky Drummer”) features a combination of straight-sixteenth single notes and D9 chord hits that I’ll bet you never thought of before.


Phelps “Catfish” Collins (brother of Bootsy) was the lone guitarist on Brown’s “Super Bad, Pts. 1 & 2.” His mantra-like, single-note staccato line, detailed in Ex. 6a, emphasizes the b3 of D minor (F) to sustain tension against the superimposed triadic horn hits. Ex. 6b features Collins accenting two sets of Dm9 chord fragments - think of them as A minor triads - and filling in every available space with muted sixteenth-note scratches, which are played by slightly releasing your fret-hand grip but still maintaining contact with the strings. The supercharged, slightly wacked IV-chord bridge figure shown in Ex. 6c begins with three bars of rapid alternations between G7 and Gm7 fragments, and ends abruptly on the fourth round. Repeat the whole deal as many times as you like, and then break out of it by replacing the last bar with Ex. 6d’s staccato A7#9 hits. Follow up with either Ex. 6a or Ex. 6b.

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There’s nothing funkier than two J.B. guitarists locking into a groove, but sounds can be deceiving. Ex. 7a (à la “I Can’t Stand Myself”) simulates how “Fat Eddie” Setser laid down a single guitar part that sounds like two. (Tip: Picking those sliding tritones near the bridge further reinforces the illusion.) On the other hand, Ex. 7b (à la “Mother Popcorn”) features Nolen and Kellum pairing a classic Brown bass line (reprised from “Cold Sweat”), with a scratchy D7/A-based rhythm figure that incorporates chordal downbeats, muted-string “chicks” (also accomplished by slightly relaxing your D7 grip), and low-register 5s (As) on every eighth-note upbeat. The same bass figure appears transposed up a whole-step and enhanced by guitar 2’s counterpoint halfghosted staccato ninth chords, rhythmically displaced chromatic sixth intervals (kind of like a funky hiccup!), and too-cool open Es in Ex. 7c’s four-bar, call-and-response groove, inspired by the killer twin guitar work on Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” (from James Brown’s Funky People Pt. 2, a J.B. production ca. 1971). Add “Huh!” at will and funk on. It doesn’t get better than this!

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Recommended Listening: James Brown: Star Time (4-disc box); James Brown: Soul Pride–The Instrumentals 1960–1969; James Brown’s Funky People Pt.1, Pt. 2, & Pt.3.