During the late 1970s and early ’80s, Nile Rodgers took the old-school chordal style that had earned him a spot as house guitarist at New York’s famed Apollo Theater and morphed it into the key ingredient of a dance revolution. The band that was the vehicle for this revolution was Chic, and it was the toast of the New York disco/funk scene. Rodgers pared down his jazz chord vocabulary in favor of a more R&B-like approach and refined it to fit within a tight, badass funk ensemble. Drummer Tony Thompson and bassist Bernard Edwards were the band’s muscle, while Rodgers’ less-is-more approach—which favored triads and dyads (two-note chords)—was the secret sauce. One of the more intriguing elements of his style is how he is able to mute unwanted notes with his fretting hand, while still using those notes to give his fretted notes a fatter, more percussive sound.
That clucky muted sound became the centerpiece for songs like “Le Freak,” “Everybody Dance,” and “Good Times,” and it has also become a standard within the funk and disco lexicon. His signature style can also be heard on hit songs by Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance,” which also features a solo by Stevie Ray Vaughan), Diana Ross (“Upside Down”), and many others. On all of them, his presence is undeniable.
Rodgers’ gets his tone from a hard-tail Fender Strat with a late-’50s neck and a ’62 body. His pickup selector is usually set to the neck position, and it goes into a Neve console, gets a little compression, and is mixed with a Fender Super Reverb, Twin Reverb, or Roland JC-120. The amps add warmth to the direct sound, while his use of thin strings and thin picks adds a brightness that punches through a bass-heavy mix. Onstage, he sometimes uses a Fender Bassman or a Music Man head with Sunn cabinets. He’s also been known to use Peavey Classic 50s.
Although Rodgers’ style had a sleek, slick, funky economy that pushed so many commercial hits over the top, he actually began by learning the George Van Eps style of jazz guitar, which emphasized playing inversions on sets of three strings all over the neck. While hardcore jazz cats might not approve of how Rodgers put this knowledge to use, that knowledge was key to his tough, minimalist style. He went on to become an A-list producer for some of the biggest names in the business, but it’s his sick, groovalicious guitar playing that kept everyone dancing.