Hallmarks of Mayfield’s Style

Good luck learning Mayfield licks by watching him on YouTube—that is, unless you know the secret to his tuning. “One day, cleaning out a closet, he’s like 8 or 9, Curtis finds this guitar and sits down on the side of the bed and starts fooling around with it,” Impressions lead vocalist Jerry Butler recalled in a July 2012 interview with The New York Times. “He used to love playing boogie-woogie on the piano, and he learned to play that in F#, which meant he was playing on all black keys. That’s how he came about that unique sound on his guitar, because he tuned it that same way.”

That’s right, Mayfield tuned his guitar F#–A#–C#–F#–A#–F#, low to high. According to Craig Werner’s 2004 book Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, Mayfield said, “Being self-taught, I never changed it. It used to make me proud, because no matter how good a guitarist was, when he grabbed my ax he couldn’t play it.”

The Curtis/Live! cover shows Mayfield playing a Fender Telecaster Thinline, while videos from this same time period and later show him favoring ’70s Fender Stratocasters. They also show him strumming or picking the strings with his right thumb and fingers, while curling his left thumb over the neck to play barre chords. The Strat was usually set on the middle pickup. His parts fill out the middle and low end of the tune through a Fender Twin, while lead guitarist Craig McMullen often worked his wah in tandem with “Master” Henry Gibson’s percussion.

Mayfield’s rhythm playing often had a pretty open feel, with the strings ringing out rather than being damped in the tight manner usually associated with funk. Other times he employed more closely muted chucks for rhythmic emphases.

The rolling hammer-ons and pull-offs often used by Mayfield were likely a big influence on Jimi Hendrix. For example: fingering an A at the fifth fret, hammering-on a B at the seventh fret, then quickly pulling it off back to the A, landing on the F# on the B string—all within an eighth-note (see Ex. 1). Of course, the strings and fingering would be different in Mayfield’s preferred tuning.

Mayfield might also play the same rhythmic pattern at the same fret, holding down the A while playing E to F# on the B string and back, landing on the C# on the G string. Straighten out the rhythm and you have a country lick. Play it the way Mayfield played it, and it becomes pure soul.