Miles of Niles: In the video for his new instrumental, “Inside the Box,” Nile Rodgers plays all the guitar parts and a wide selection of tones on his new pal, a Fender Acoustasonic Stratocaster.
Nile Rodgers’ playing is like an atom. Its nucleus is a blend of jazz and funk, essayed primarily via triads and a distinctive combination of string muting (left and right hand) and a fluid picking attack he calls his “chuck.” Then the electrons kick in—little harmonic and melodic colorations that orbit his core rhythm, all added with minimal movement and maximum focus. The net effect makes Rodgers a Stratocaster-strumming one-man band—or at least a complete rhythm section. Meanwhile, his conflagrant solos favor lightning chord changes or blues-howling single notes. And to describe his ringing, crystalline tones as “chic” is more than a bad pun.
But Rodgers isn’t just a colorfully attired hybrid of George Van Eps and Catfish Collins. His inquisitive nature and broad musical intelligence have made him a living legend of American music, with more hits than the Mafia. According to Billboard, Rodgers’ recordings with Chic, other projects of his own, and productions for the likes of Sister Sledge, David Bowie, Duran Duran, the B-52’s, Jeff Beck, Grace Jones, the Vaughan Brothers, Madonna, Adam Lambert, Laurie Anderson, and many others, total an astounding 500 million albums and 75 million singles sold.
Chic wasn’t just the band where he made his bones. The hits Rodgers cowrote with bassist and cofounder Bernard Edwards—including “Le Freak,” “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” “I Want Your Love,” “Everybody Dance,” and “Good Times”—had a genius for capturing the zeitgeist of the late ’70s, a period when the struggles of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras gave way to the cultural free expression that was at the heart of disco and other blossoming subcultures.
That open-ended joie de vivre shifted when Reagan was elected, but this isn’t a story about the Gipper. It’s a conversation with a vibrant 68-year-old guitar hero who answered a recent Zoom call with a flurry of brilliantly choppy chords, á la Charlie Christian, on an unplugged Fender Acoustasonic Stratocaster. Said Acoustasonic has become a surprisingly large part of Rodgers’ musical life, especially considering his career largely unfolded on a single guitar—a 1960 Strat with a ’59 neck that he dubbed “the Hitmaker.” The new acoustic-electric hybrid first fell into Rodgers’ hands while he was conducting a songwriting workshop at Abbey Road Studios in London this past winter, and not long thereafter he volunteered to be a spokesman for it.
“It would never replace the Hitmaker,” he quickly points out. “I played the Hitmaker on all the songs with Chic, and when we play live it has to be that sound. But the Acoustasonic Stratocaster lets me live in this jazz world that I feel very safe and comfortable in. These days, with everything shut down, I’m loving that.”
The backdrop of our conversation was Rodgers’ office, which has enough platinum on its walls to buy a Maserati. But at the forefront was his history with the Hitmaker, his new romance with the Acoustasonic, early stage and studio experiences, his affection and commitment to the Fender Hot Rod Deville, and the cultural equity work of his 19-year-old We Are Family Foundation.
After 47 years playing the Hitmaker almost exclusively, why embrace the Acoustasonic Stratocaster?
I don’t know if Fender sent one to me to check out or whatever, but somehow an Acoustasonic was laying around at Abbey Road. When I picked it up, I started playing jazz chords and my amp setting was just perfect for that. So I started writing songs with the artists there, no matter the style of the song, using that guitar. It took me about three or four days to really get used to it.
What do you like about it?
It’s so light. I really like guitars that are easy to carry around. The Hitmaker is the lightest Strat I’ve ever held. Anyway, I was on tour with Cher when we went on lockdown, and my gear went into storage. The only guitars I brought home were the Hitmaker and the Acoustasonic, because they were so light and easy to fly with. The Acoustasonic ended up becoming one of the guitars in my bedroom. I wound up playing a lot of jazz on it. I don’t practice rock ’n’ roll. I don’t practice funk. But I practice jazz and classical. Mostly jazz. And it does the real thing for jazz … no amp or anything. Just unplugged. I love it!
I’ve seen posts [online] like, “What is Nile getting from Fender to plug this?” But they’ve got it backwards. I was on the phone to Fender and said, “I really like playing this!”
You’ve made a trippy video that demos parts of the Acoustasonic Stratocaster’s sonic range on a jazz instrumental called “Inside the Box.” It features a half-dozen Nile Rodgers, each one of you playing a different part and tone. How did that happen?
My friend [pianist] Philippe Saisse and I write a lot together, and we couldn’t see each other because we’re all inside a box—he’s quarantined in Los Angeles and I’m in Connecticut. So we composed this song, starting with a simple motif. [Sings the tune’s core riff.] When I was talking to Fender, I mentioned that maybe we could do something with it.
Here’s where it gets incredibly weird. I didn’t know how the guitar was supposed to function—with 20 acoustic and electric voices. I was mostly playing unplugged, and when I plugged in I had my amp set close to how I set it for the Hitmaker. So I’m getting ready to cut “Inside the Box” with my engineer, and he starts looking through the manual and telling me about what switch position does what. As we were recording, he was calling out different positions, like a coach calling out plays, for the different parts. Like, “I think this one’ll be more sympathetic to harmonics,” and “set it here and go down to the 5th fret, so you’re down an octave and it’ll really pop out.” It was really fun, and we got to see what the guitar could do in real time.
You mentioned you were already talking to Fender. What about?
I was talking to Fender almost every few days about a production model of the Hitmaker. [Fender’s Custom Shop made a limited edition in 2014.] But also, I heard they were going to discontinue the amp I use. And I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute! What am I gonna do when the gigs come back?”
A testament to the durability and genre-crossing appeal of Chic’s music was the band’s appearance at Bonnaroo in 2018. Of course, Rodgers brought the Hitmaker. Photo by Chris Kies
Which amp is that?
I use the Hot Rod Deville. It’s available to rent everywhere we go, and those amps are usually in good shape because the rock guys don’t typically rent them. I only carry my own gear here in America, so overseas it’s typically rented gear, and I like my sound with Chic to be consistent.
Your signature tone seems to be clean, bright, and articulate—with an accent on the highs and high mids?
You got it. When I switched to a Strat in 1973 to really get more inside of a funk and pop sound, I started to think about how to really project. Because of my jazz inclinations, I always keep my hand on the bridge, so it’s a muted sound. I noticed when I used 10" speakers they gave me better articulation than 12s. At that point, guitar players were even using 15" speakers, but that wasn’t where I was coming from. I was using a Vibrolux, and then I got a Sunn amp that had six 10s. If you look at the early Chic setup, you can see I had those on both sides of the stage. That was bright enough so I could always hear it, and I could feel comfortable. And when they came out with the 4x10 Deville, that really did it.
I’ve always been into new gear. From Chic’s very first gig, we were using wireless, so we’d start playing backstage with “Strike up the Band,” and we’d come out playing. We still play wireless. When I find something I like, I tend to stick with it. With the Deville, I was literally begging Fender to keep making it.
Typically, in the music business, relationships with corporations are somewhat adversarial. Like with my record label. I would see one of my records go to number one, but before it came out the label would tell me, “This is the worst piece of garbage I’ve ever heard.” So I would beg them to release it, and when it would go to number one, they’d say, “Oh, we always loved that song,” And I’d be like, What the…!”
So I’m accustomed to begging in this business, and I have no problem with that. When I found out Fender was going to stop making the Deville, I said, “Wait a minute! Let me beg! I’ll buy a bunch! Just make a bunch for me!” And out of that developed a relationship that’s really nice. I’m not used to having a corporation listen to me.