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I’ve watched some YouTube videos of
you playing 10-minute solos where
you accompany yourself vocally. Is that
something you do more on your own
or with the Roots?
It’s a cool effect—like an organic way of playing through a talk box. I’ve done that with the Roots mostly, but last week I did my first gig in five years at Brooklyn Bowl, and it was just me and my band. I wound up having to do two sets, because Questlove was supposed to DJ later that night but he got sick. So we had original music planned for the first set, but when I realized we had to do two sets I could either say, “Sorry, we’re not prepared to do that,” or I could rise to the occasion. That required us to do some covers and a lot more jamming and fleshing-out of things.
I never thought I would be doing all of that scatting stuff that I learned from watching George Benson, but as far as stretching out and seeing where you can take the music, I found myself doing that and it felt really comfortable. But that’s something that I learned by playing with the Roots. “Here’s your guitar spot—do what you want with it.” I tried it one night just for the hell of it. A while later, Questlove said, “You know, you stopped doing that scatting thing. You should do that.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” Sometimes just a little positive reinforcement can go a long way.
George Benson is featured in this issue
He sat in with us, too, and I told him, “Y’know, I feel like I owe you a lot of money for that scatting-and-playing thing I do—I totally ripped that off from you.” And he’s like, “Well, son, you better pay up then!”
Let’s go back to your guitars for a second.
Is the Gibson CS-356 your primary guitar?
I use that mostly with Fallon. I got that guitar when I got that gig. My primary guitar is a Les Paul that got burned during a Heineken commercial. I use that one a lot with the Roots when we go on tour.
And you had it signed by Les Paul, right?
Yep, it’s signed by Les Paul on the back. But my main guitar is a white ’61 Epiphone Crestwood—that’s probably what you saw on that Hendrix stuff. For Hundred Watt Heart, that’s my favorite. It just feels so good, and it’s got mini humbuckers so the sound isn’t as thick. It’s not like thick magic marker—it’s more like crayon. When you’re using a distorted amp, the Crestwood offers more string-to-string clarity on complex chords.
Guitarists can typically be pretty closed minded about hip-hop—they tend to lump it all together in a very narrow niche and stereotype it as dominated by crappysounding drum machines or repetitiveness and inane rhyming. What do you have to say to players who might not have an open mind to your style of music?
When you’re looking at the roots of hip-hop, you’re looking back at James Brown—that’s like the original hip-hop. The dude was generally rapping a lot of the time. You could say the same for Dylan and a lot of his stuff. He’s storytelling— he’s rapping. Listen to, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Listen to “The Big Payback.” That’s like rap before rap existed. So if you’re dismissive about hiphop, then you’re being just as dismissive to forefathers like James Brown, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan.
There’s a lot to learn from hip-hop, too, and I’m really grateful that the Roots saw a relevance in what I was doing and found a place for me in the band. Before I joined, I had cassette tapes with Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Roots all on one tape. I saw a continuum from what all those people were doing to what the Roots were doing. The fact that we’re doing what we’re doing now and seeing this steady progression of exposure and success makes me feel I was right in seeing that.