“Everybody wants to be a lead player, but if you’re a working musician, 95 per cent of it is rhythm”: Cory Wong

The Vulfpeck guitarist on his ‘covert chops’, why he can’t eat chocolate cake all day – and his latest solo album, Motivational Music For The Syncopated Soul.

Cory Wong

Image: Sergione Infuso / Corbis via Getty Images

Cory Wong always seems to be having a good time. Whether he’s laying down the rhythm with US funk sensations Vulfpeck, going out as an elite guitar-for-hire, or fronting his own solo projects, the Minnesota-raised player’s goofy grin and boundless energy seem as ever-present as they are infectious. He’s even made an album called The Optimist, for crying out loud.

Having a conversation with the man only reinforces that impression. Like a well-shaken Coke can of ideas, he doesn’t so much answer a question as he erupts – enthusiastically taking you on a ride through the lessons and wisdom he’s accrued on his journey to becoming a very 2019 kind of guitarist.

And that’s what makes him interesting. In an era when outside commentators queue up to pronounce the death of the instrument on a seemingly annual basis, Wong and those like him are evolving what it means to be a guitar hero.

Instead of the hoary old staples of monster guitar solos and hard-rock posturing, these new- breed guitar players are bringing fierce chops and impressive ingenuity to hip-hop, soul, R&B and funk. In the case of Wong himself, he’s doing it in a way that marks him out as something extremely out of the ordinary – a bona-fide virtuoso rhythm guitarist.

“That’s funny. You’re absolutely right,” Wong chuckles when we observe that traditionally, the title of ‘rhythm guitarist’ is not so much a badge of honour as a derogatory term. “Some people are like, ‘Oh dude, I don’t want to be the rhythm player – I wanna be the lead guy!’ But there is a way you can do both!

“My biggest inspiration on guitar is Dave Williams and his stuff with Michael Jackson. There’s this interview with him from back in the early 90s, or late 80s that I once watched. And in it, he’s saying: ‘One of the things that I did is I took rhythm guitar and brought it to the forefront.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s exactly what I had in mind!’

“My other big inspiration is Paul Jackson Jr, who also played on a bunch of Michael Jackson stuff. I remember as a teenager, I had this old DVD, Paul Jackson Jr: The Science Of Rhythm Guitar.

“He talked a lot about how everybody wants to be a lead player, but nobody realises that if you’re an actual working musician, you’re practising 90 per cent of your time on lead and only 10 per cent practising rhythm. But it’s completely the flip-flop of what the reality is in the real world! Because 95 per cent of the playing you’re doing is rhythm and five per cent is lead. And I really connected with that.

“So I learned to take these percussive rhythm-guitar parts and make them catchy enough that they are hooks, and make them melodic enough that they’re hooks. And boom, I found my formula – that’s how we solve the dilemma of the rhythm guitar being the ‘lead’ instrument.”

Motivational speakers

This formula provides the bedrock for Wong’s third studio solo album, the aptly titled Motivational Music For The Syncopated Soul. Relentlessly funky and sunny, with his trademark percussive lead/rhythm fusion constantly accented by horns, organs and the occasional vocal, it’s a compelling manifesto for where the guitar fits in pop music in 2019.

“On my previous records and albums, I was kind of thinking, ‘Alright, what kind of what kind of artistic statement do I want to make? What is my fingerprint?’ And I’ve been kind of developing that, and discovering my voice over the last few years, and I feel like on this record, I have a more realised idea of that,” he explains.

“You hear a lot of ‘guitar’ records and most of them, it’s like, ‘Here’s a guitar album… tonnes of shredding and guitar gymnastics and guitar fireworks everywhere!’ And that’s impressive, and that’s cool. I like those things, and I can do those things, too – I can pull out the fireworks when I need to. But it’s not necessarily what moves me as a musician, and as a person.

“I have seen some of my favourite guitar players live. And they’re doing a ‘guitar show’ for three hours or two hours, whatever it is. And like, 90 minutes in, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Alright… I need to hear something different. I can’t just hear guitar!’ I can’t eat chocolate cake all day – I gotta have something else, y’know?

“I wouldn’t say that everybody who’s doing that is ego-driven, but for me, I think it might be! If I was like, ‘Here’s what I can do on the guitar! Check it out! All bow down to my ability!’ It’s like, ‘Ahh, that doesn’t feel right…’

Cory Wong
Image: Sergione Infuso / Corbis via Getty Images

Instead, Cory has to make guitar-centric records that don’t lean on the crutches of blazing solos and flash, while still being interesting, inventive and technically impressive.

“I have to try to reconcile what that looks like, y’know?” he shrugs. “A lot of what I do, is not like the ‘overt chops’. It’s not one of those things where you listen to it and you’re like, ‘Damn! That guy is INSANE! I like to think of it more as ‘covert chops’. You listen to it and it’s like, ‘Oh wow, that’s cool,’ and seems like something that’s very approachable… but then when you sit down to play it, it’s like, ‘Oh… that’s actually really hard!’

“I feel like I’m able to do something more compelling with the rhythm side than the lead side, because there are so many guys that are doing just the lead thing, and they’re crushing the lead thing! So why should I bother getting into that sphere – plenty of those guys have that taken! So why don’t I take this role and make this role shine – and show the world with this type of playing can do and how to bring the lead to the forefront?”

Misch takes

Perhaps the most dynamic and compelling example of this concept on Motivational Music For The Syncopated Soul is Cosmic Sans – a duet with British jazz-pop sensation Tom Misch that sees the pair go toe to toe in a rhythm and lead funk-off for the ages.

“Tom and I connected in the most Millennial, 2019 way… Instagram!” Cory chuckles. “We became internet guitar buddies! It’s such a funny and cool thing that we can do that nowadays. Even 10 years ago, that just wouldn’t have happened.

“He was in LA for a couple weeks, and he was just like,‘’Hey man, I’ve got this Airbnb, there’s a little studio in the back. Why don’t you come over, and let’s do a tune together?’ So I went over there and I wanted it to feel like ‘guitar buddies hanging out’. And that’s exactly what it was! I met him in person and 30 minutes later, the song was recorded.

“We started jamming and he’s like, ‘Should we record this?’ ‘Yeah! Let’s do it!’ I was going through my Wampler Ego compressor, direct into a UA Apollo, and Tom was going literally direct, because he has this huge pedalboard… but his converter wouldn’t work with US power!

“So he’s like, ‘Aw man, I wanted to use my envelope filter on this!’ And I was like, ‘Well, let’s pull up an envelope filter in Logic!’ It was a classic case of, ‘This exact piece of gear doesn’t really matter, let’s just use our ears.’ We’re big boys here. We’re adults. We’re professionals! It’s one of those things where we could have easily been overthinking the entire process.”

This knack for being ready to go at the drop of a hat has been honed in Cory’s most high-profile gig as the rhythm guitarist in Vulfpeck (despite being a constant presence on tour and on their last two records, he’s still not an official member of the band), where the band’s always-on dynamic leaves no room for passengers.

Tom misch
All images: Eleanor Jane

“Somebody will come in with a song idea, or Jack [Stratton] will say, ‘Hey, Cory, send me that demo…’ and he’ll listen to it and then all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Alright, A section, let’s play it. B section, let’s play it!’ Boom! And 20 minutes later, it’s what you hear on the album,” Cory explains.

“It means that every take, we’re playing for keeps. If it was one of those sessions where I treated it like, ‘I’ll take my time, we’ll get into, we play this thing down about 10 times and then we’ll get it…’ Well take one could be to take that ends up going on the album, so I’d better make sure I’m playing for keeps every time!

Nashville soul

The professionalism and focus required for working in that way hasn’t come out of nowhere – as a young man Cory left his hometown of Minneapolis to try to cut in perhaps the most insanely competitive and demanding environment a musician could hope to find – the Nashville session scene.

“It’s such a great environment and I’m thankful that I had a lot of good mentors,” Cory reflects. “There’s so many elements that you need to hone in on in a split second in the session world and you need to be so deep inside it.

Cory Wong
Image: Gary Miller / FilmMagic

“A lot of times, the producer will play you a demo once, and you’ve never heard this song before. And as you’re listening to it, you need to chart it out, so you can go in that room as soon as the song is done and play it down perfectly!

“But not only, you have to be able to play the song down, you need to be able to play parts that are like ‘signature’ guitar parts. It’s not just like, ‘Okay, this is a song that goes from G to C to E minor to D…’ It’s like, ‘Okay, how many hundreds of songs are that? What’s going to make this song ‘signature’? What’s going to make my part stand out when people turn this song on?

“But the only way to get really good at that is lots of reps and lots of instinct. And the more reps you get, the more you’re going to hone your instincts.”

Working in the demanding and no-nonsense session world also helped Cory to develop a thick skin when it came to his guitar playing, as he learned to accept that he was crafting parts for someone else, not for him.

“If they say, ‘That’s not what I’m looking for,’ it doesn’t mean you’re a bad guitar player, it means they’re looking for something different!” he exclaims. “I’ve been in the situation where there’s two guitar players on a job and you don’t want to be the guy who’s overdubbing for an hour on one song!

“The producer is saying that they’re wanting something different and then that guy starts to get offended… and then all of a sudden, it’s personal. But dude, don’t take it personally! It’s that the artist and the producer are wanting to convey a message and right now the guitar part and tone that you’re playing is not getting that message across.

“Not because it’s bad, not because what you’re doing is wrong. It’s because so much of music and art is subjective and they’re looking for something else, to convey the message they want. All of those lessons that I’ve learned have helped inform me in my decisions as the leader of the band.”

Strat master

As befits a man who swims deep in the groovy waters of funk, Cory is rarely seen on stage without a Stratocaster – and one Strat in particular. Cory’s Sapphire Blue Highway One model might not be the most high-end guitar for a globe-trotting guitarist to trust every night, but this one has been his faithful companion for a long time.

“I’ve had this guitar since high school – my first real guitar was a Strat,” he explains. “I wanted to play guitar so bad. I went to a pawn shop as a sixth grader and bought a Gretsch Traveling Wilburys guitar – they’re still out there somewhere! It was this $75 used guitar and it didn’t stay in tune. It’s probably actually a nice guitar, but the one that I had… well there’s a reason why I was sitting in a pawn shop!”

But Cory persisted with his ungainly Gretsch, all the while badgering his dad to buy him a real guitar, desperate to convince him that this wasn’t a passing infatuation.

“By that time, I’m in seventh grade. I’ve got a punk rock band. I’m playing with my friends, and I said, ‘I have this much money saved up. And I’m wondering if we combined Christmas and my birthday and everything else…’ And I live in Minnesota, so I was like,‘If I shoveled the driveway 100 times this winter… could you buy me a guitar?’

“And my dad says, ‘Alright, but here’s the deal – you need to get a Stratocaster.’ ‘Okay, why?’ ‘Well, look at Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Nile Rodgers…’ he’s listing off all these legends. ‘I rest my case!’ And I’m like,‘Okay, cool.’

“So I got a Strat, and here we are, it just feels like home. When I play a Strat, it just feels like my voice. I love other guitars, but the Strat is just home.”

Cory Wong’s Motivational Music For The Syncopated Soul is out now.

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