Guitar 101: Playing With Soul
Back in the ‘60s in Memphis, I listened to and played a lot of Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T. and The M.G.’s, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett. We used to call it “soul music.” Some people called it R&B (rhythm and blues). Now they call it “old school.” A lot of this music came from the South and was recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Musicians from the South hate it when you call this music “Motown.” The music recorded in Detroit by The Temptations, Miracles and Supremes was quite different. It was soulful, too, but it was slicker and had “bigger” arrangements, usually. A little more pop. The Southern stuff was rawer and more basic. There is a particular style of guitar playing that you hear on these records that’s sort of a lost art. It’s a cross between lead and rhythm with lots of tasty fills and cool intros and turnarounds. Not flashy, but “soulful.” There are few guitar solos in soul music and if there is a solo, it is simple, rhythmic, and melodic. This style of playing doesn’t utilize scales that much, but relies on knowledge of where the different chord inversions lie on the middle and upper frets of the guitar. Not a lot of open chords or open string melodies, like country and bluegrass. You gotta know where your chords are as you go up the neck.
I learned a lot about chords and chord inversions by listening to (and stealing from) Steve Cropper, Reggie Young, Bobby Womack, and Cornell Dupree. Steve Cropper’s famous intro to “Soul Man” (sung by Sam and Dave and written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter) is based on playing pieces of chords. He takes two notes of a G major chord, D and B, both on the 7th fret (on the G and little E strings, respectively) and slides down the neck making the same inversion of an F chord, then up to a C and D chord. The notes are a 6th apart. Most of your famous soul music licks are based on 6ths, 3rds and 4ths.
Listen to “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding. That’s Steve again, playing 6ths and 3rds. 3rds (3 scale tones apart) are usually found on adjacent strings. When you play 6ths, they’re usually two strings apart. Cornell Dupree’s beautiful intro to “Rainy Night In Georgia” (written by Tony Joe White) is mostly in 4ths, which are found on the B and E strings (2nd and 1st). If you play two notes on the same fret on those two strings, you’re playing 4ths. Say you’re in the key of G, for instance, you’ll find your typical 4th licks on the 3rd, 5th, 10th, and 12th frets. In “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, David Gilmour uses the same 4ths. In “Little Wing,” by Jimi Hendrix, he does the same thing. So you see, these cool licks are used in rock and pop music too.
Let’s say you’re still in G (the most guitar friendly key). To play these kind of fills and intros, you need to know: 1) the chords in the key of G (G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, etc.) and 2) their inversions as you go up the neck. Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” (written by Mentor Williams) is a beautiful example of this R&B guitar style by another master, Reggie Young. Reggie arpeggiates the 1, 2m and 3m of the key of B, using barre chords. Speaking of barre chords, there are lots of them in soul music. Listen to “Knock On Wood” by Eddie Floyd and “In The Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett. Steve Cropper used a series of major barre chords going up and down the neck. And you have to check out “I’m In Love” by Wilson Pickett. The two guitars that weave together so beautifully are played by Reggie Young and Bobby Womack, who also wrote the song. If you listen to Bobby Womack and Curtis Mayfield, you’ll see where Jimi Hendrix got a lot of his little pull-off and hammer-on licks, based on chords played up the neck, doing a barre or partial barre with his finger and doing his little fluttery flourishes with his other fingers.
One of the factors that distinguish R&B or soul music from blues is the use of the major pentatonic scale as opposed to the minor pentatonic scale more common in blues. You hear major thirds in these little fills, intros, and turnarounds. There are no hard and fast rules here, of course. Speaking of blues, I find it laughable that someone thought of something and called it the blues scale. It’s understandable that in order to explain something, you have to give it certain parameters and a name, but this thing they call the blues scale has a flatted fifth and a minor third. But in reality, if you listen to T. Bone Walker, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, they are definitely not adhering to what some academician has called the “blues scale.” They’re mixing up major and minor thirds, not flatting their fifths, using ninths (not allowed in the blues scale) and all kinds of stuff. I guess nobody told ‘em about the blues scale. Too bad.
Most of the people mentioned here did not have formal music training. Neither did I, when I was learning to play. I learned music theory much later, after I was already playing professionally. People who teach this stuff only use musical terms like pentatonic and 3rds and 4ths to explain something better. You do not have to know these terms in order to play the music, but sometimes using these terms and understanding some music theory can save a lot of time in the learning process. I still think the best way to learn to play is by listening and feeling the music and trying to express emotions through music.