How to Play Motown Rhythm Guitar


Before going further, I want to define what I call the “rhythm” guitar. Many great blues artists such as BB King, Albert Collins and Albert King were soloists who didn’t really ‘play’ chords, but I wanted to play here with the guitar as the ‘featured instrument’ – not necessarily playing a solo or melody but not relegated to strumming inaudible blocks of chords either.

That said, the bass and drum accompaniment provide very little harmonic detail, so the guitar is needed to step in here as well, while still providing some rhythmic and melodic variety. Sounds like a tall order indeed, but if we talk about our options, I hope you’ll see that it’s entirely possible to develop a flexible approach that also allows for some spontaneity.

Another bonus is that the skills we hone here can be applied to any style or genre with a little imagination and a change in tone or pickup setting. I went for a soul/R&B/Motown vibe and played five short alternate takes over the same backing track.

These progress from almost entirely chords to a fairly sparse single-note melody, with a mixture of chord approaches and voicings between these two extremes. I imagined a producer asking me for different options (a fairly common scenario), including coming up with little “hooks” in the form of embellishments or single-note lines. If you’re playing over an existing song, the vocal melody (or even the lyrics) can be great inspiration for parts like this.

When you place your fingers over some of these chord inversions, you can also recognize pentatonic scale fragments. That’s good – try to ‘file’ these achievements for future use. I hope you enjoy these examples and see you next time!

Example 1

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This first example sets up the rhythmic and harmonic patterns that the other examples follow – while taking a few extra “liberties” as you go along. The rhythmic feel is based mostly on a mix of staccato and looser low kicks.

However, you’ll see on the video that there are also upstrokes, although they don’t always connect with the strings. This keeps all offbeat rhythms on track without feeling like you have to count every sixteenth note to calculate whether an up or down stroke would be best.

Example 2

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Expanding on what I hinted at in the final bar of Example 1, it still describes the harmony quite clearly, but it allows for a few double stops to spice things up. Note the different inversions, which fall under CAGED and pentatonic forms.

If you’re working with a vocalist or soloist, be sure to choose your moments for these, for two reasons: you don’t want to encroach on their territory, and you want your embellishments to be heard.

Example 3

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Moving up (pun intended) to a higher register, I moved on to three-note triads. This gives what would probably be quite a large part a bit more attention – and smaller chords are easier to move around! In this take, I varied the rhythm a bit, especially in bar 2.

Notice how I went with the small wing school of thought for the Bb/sus4 movement in the final measure. Not so many embellishments here, but the nature of this part is pretty straightforward anyway.

Example 4

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A change to the bridge pickup here gives a different feel, which I think suited this mix of pentatonic melody and chord embellishment. After the initial melody, I stayed inside and arpeggiated a few three-note versions of the chords.

Bars 3 and 4 feature a little hammering as a nod to how Jimi Hendrix or Curtis Mayfield would embellish their rhythm parts, before the last bar reverts to the pentatonic approach we started with, only now we are towards the 12 fret.

Example 5

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More of a melody than a solo or rhythm part, this example uses 6ths (Steve Cropper-style) to describe the harmony, while allowing the flexibility to switch to a single-note approach without feeling like the chords dropped sharply. .

A line like this would benefit from chord accompaniment from a “production” perspective, but note that it actually spells out the harmony much more than a “standard” pentatonic solo.

Listen to it here

Robert White – Motown Anthems

Robert was an integral part of the Funk Brothers, along with guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina. Their “one for all” teamwork resulted in interlocking and complementary parts on many classics, but I chose Robert for his pentatonic intro on The Temptations. My daughterthe Morse code-style octaves on The Supremes’ You keep me hookedand the strummed chords that form the basis of Stevie Wonder MA Dear Lover.

Curtis Mayfield – Roots

You’ll have to listen carefully for Curtis’ inventive rhythm guitar in the mix of orchestrations, but it’s worth it. Check out the way he goes in and out of the Anthem beat To come down.

Other highlights include his embellished arpeggios on keep on keep onand Now you are gone is a great example of Funk Brothers style complementary parts with staccato chord chops, wah textures and bluesy fills.

Tony Joe White – Tony Joe White

Funk and blues collide here with a neat parallel order of tasteful wah and Motown arrangements. Check They caught the devil and put him in jail in Eudora, Arkansas (Worth it just for the title!).

my kind of woman brings pentatonic riffs that it would be easy to imagine Jimi Hendrix coming up with, and, finally, be sure to listen A night in the life of a marsh foxwith its mixture of chords, melodic figures and bluesy licks.


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