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Everyone knows James Brown essentially created funk. And if Brown was the Godfather of Soul, then the late Jimmy Nolen was the groovin’ don’s 6-string consigliere. Nolen played with Brown from 1965 to 1970, took a two-year break, and then joined forces with him again from 1972 until his death in 1983. Before hooking up with Brown, Nolen paid his dues playing blues on the Chitlin’ Circuit and being the house guitarist for traveling acts coming through Oklahoma, Arizona, and California.
Gear-wise, Nolen used a variety of tools during his career. The guitars he was most often spotted with included Gibson ES-175 and ES-5 Switchmaster hollowbodies, a Japanese-made Stratocaster copy called a Fresher Straighter, and a Gibson Les Paul Recording Model with single-coils. To achieve his signature sound, he ran the guitars through a Fender Twin Reverb with the treble cranked. As any live version of “I Got the Feeling” proves, Nolen’s tone was clean and full, and despite playing in such a large band, you can hear every note.
Nolen first played with Brown in 1965, and the stylistic elements he brought from blues, jazz, and R&B helped make James Brown one of the most successful soul acts of all time. His first session with the Godfather was for the race-barrier-breaking hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” On it he pioneered the use of hip jazz voicings, 16thnote strumming, and alternating single-note lines with funky 9th chords. But that was only the beginning. On songs like “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “There Was a Time,” “Cold Sweat,” and “Mother Popcorn,” Nolen laid the foundation for funk guitarists of the future with muted string scratching, dominant-9th-to-13th hammer-ons, and a sense of time that was both hypnotic and infectiously grooving. The combination was so compelling that it became the blueprint for every funk guitarist to follow. In fact, whether they know it or not, anyone who plays funk today either purposely or inadvertently gives props to Jimmy Nolen.