DJ Williams brings the funk with his favorite guitar—a new stock Gibson ES-335 he got in Austin—onstage with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Photo by Rich Osweiler
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe shakes your booty. The group is a perennial festival favorite and offers a feast of irresistible grooves, jazz stylings, and down-home feel-good boogie-woogie. And DJ Williams, KDTU’s guitarist, is point center of that proprioceptive assault.
Williams is a monster. His rhythm playing sits deep in the pocket and lays a solid foundation. But Williams isn’t limited to rhythm—as if that were a problem. He’s also an inventive, effective, and ear-catching soloist, armed with a warm tone and superior chops. Within those chops are two signatures: his use of shell chords to expand the sound of the Tiny Universe and his exceptional scratching technique, which makes his abbreviated moniker seem like a matter of fate.
Williams was born in New Jersey, but spent his first years in Liberia, in West Africa, his parents’ homeland. He relocated to Richmond, Virginia, as a youngster and still lives there. “It’s an absolutely amazing music scene,” he says. “So many talented musicians and so many different genres of music are based right here in the city.” Artists as disparate as Lamb of God and Pharrell Williams hail from the area. “There is definitely a family of musicians and everyone supports everybody, comes to each other’s shows, and are always sitting in. It’s really great to see.”
Williams didn’t start with guitar; his first instrument was piano. He also plays clarinet, drums, and bass. He took up guitar his senior year of high school and gigged in and around Richmond with a variety of groups, including his own band, the DJ Williams Projekt.
In the early 2000s, Williams rendezvoused with Karl Denson. “My band, the Projekt, opened up for Tiny Universe,” he says. “Karl sat in with my band and I sat in with his. We became pretty close and our bands toured together for a short while. We saw each other at festivals and I’d sit in with his band. When his guitar player left in 2011, Karl asked me if I wanted to join. I’ve been with him ever since.”
Williams tours extensively with Denson and is all over KDTU’s 2014 release, New Ammo. A new Tiny Universe album, tentatively titled Camping in Suits, is due in early 2016. The DJ Williams Projekt has a new album in the works as well, and both bands will be touring in support of their releases. “It’s going to be a busy 2016, for sure,” Williams says.
Premier Guitar spoke with Williams about the lost art of rhythm playing, sitting tight in the pocket, colorful comping, and how he crafts his incredibly warm tone.
Who are some of your influences? Who made you want to play the guitar?
I started playing classical piano. I didn’t really pick up guitar until later, in high school, so a lot of my influences are pianists—Robert Glasper, and a lot of classical cats like Rachmaninoff. But I think Curtis Mayfield is the one who really drew me to want to play guitar.
What was it about Curtis Mayfield?
I just remember being drawn to that wah-wah sound. My mother has this listening room and I remember her putting on those records. I remember her—what she was wearing and what the room smelled like—and I was like, “What is that sound that is happening right now?” I started learning Curtis Mayfield songs. And then my older sister turned me on to [Funkadelic’s] Maggot Brain and Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder. I just started stealing my parents’ vinyl…
But you didn’t start playing guitar until later in high school. What got you to pick one up?
Some people were talking after school about starting a band and I wanted to jump onboard.
Tell us about your approach to rhythm playing.
Rhythm playing is the most important element of guitar to me—it’s such a rhythmic instrument—and I think a lot of my influences came from African music. It’s really very much about the placement, finding the space, and using your ear to figure out where you want to put those chunks of [rhythm]. You’ve got to find where it fits in the pattern of what’s going on, especially in funk bands that are six, seven, eight people deep. That is pretty much what I’m doing. I’m listening more than anything and trying to figure out what polyrhythms connect with whatever is already going on.
Are you specifically trying to play polyrhythms against the rhythms the band is playing or are you trying to stay more in the pocket?
It depends on what the song calls for. I use my own judgment. Sometimes I like to play against and sometimes I like to play with.
Do you ever find, when playing repetitive rhythm parts, that you get into a zone?
Yes, and that is completely that Afro-rhythm thing. The longer you play something, it becomes a trance. Karl talks about that a lot, too. You keep playing your part over and over and it starts sounding like a train going down the track. It gets tighter and tighter and that’s how I feel it in my head.
Who should guitar players listen to, to learn how to do that?
Definitely a lot of the old funk players like Cornell Dupree. He played with everybody and he is on so many records. He’s one of my biggest influences when it comes to funk guitar.
How do you comp creatively—particularly in terms of choosing interesting chord voicings—without competing with the keyboardist who is doing the same thing?
Well, David [Veith], the keyboardist in Tiny Universe, is an amazing comper, so I’m always trying not to step on his toes [laughs]. Usually he has moments where he gets simple and I’m able to take over a lot of the voicings. A lot of the voicings I use come more from the gospel side of things. I love major ninths, major sevenths—whenever I get a chance to throw the pretty stuff in there, I like to do that.
You do that often, especially on some of the slower songs that are a bit more open. “Sure Shot,” the Beastie Boys cover from New Ammo, is a good example of that.
Oh yeah, that’s a song that I completely get to go jazz-wild on because Karl is doing the flute thing. That is one of those moments where I can really expand my chordal vocabulary without stepping on anyone’s toes.