A modern funk guitar kingpin brings sly, slinky solos and soulful scratching to Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.
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.
Williams jams with former Allman Brothers Band and current Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell at the 2015 Lockn’ Music Festival in Arrington, Virginia, in September. Photo by William David Lawrence
Do you find—similar to what a lot of players do in a jazz setting—that you stay away from playing a chord’s root and 5?
Yes, shell voicings, for sure. Especially in a band this big. I rarely ever play the root; I just play the shell of the chord.
You’ll just play the 3, 7, and a color note?
Yeah, and it’s gotten to the point where I just do it all the time out of habit. I’ll be playing by myself and I’ve got to remind myself to put the root in there when I’m playing solo.
Horn players tend to favor keys like Bb, F, and C as opposed to classic guitar keys like E and A. Does that ever get to be a challenge?
Ah, no, I love all the keys. There are some keys like F# and C# that I have to pay more attention to—they are such lonely, far-out-there keys that a lot of people don’t play in. But other than that, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable at playing in any key.
Talk about soloing and your approach to getting beyond the blues scale.
I’d say my comfort zone is melodic minor. That’s pretty much how I approach everything when it comes to soloing.
How about songs with a more complex chordal structure? Do you have to think more like a jazz-head in terms of making changes?
I’m not really thinking in terms of jazz chops or anything. I always just think about being melodic. I try to tell a story. I usually start pretty simple and I either approach the solo very melodically or very funky. Sometimes I try to go back and forth between those two worlds. I usually like to reference the melody line somewhere in the solo, and I usually try to find some way to take that melody line and twist it inside out and find a way to drive it home.
What do you do to develop good habits and techniques?
One thing I always try to practice is getting the left and right hands to work together at the same time. Pre-show, I’ll sit backstage and do a lot of chromatic runs up and down the neck. I have different exercises that I do. I go four frets at a time, up and down each string chromatically. Then I do exercises in fourths, so that I am practicing skipping from string to string up and down the neck as well. And I do runs—probably about 20 to 30 minutes of those—before going onstage.
Are you playing a shape or are you changing fingerings between the 2nd and 3rd strings?
I’m playing fourths but I’m also going diagonally. It’s almost like a major 7 arpeggio as well.
Do you practice with a metronome?
No I don’t. I should [laughs].
Let’s talk about your tone. How do you get such a warm fuzz sound?
For the longest time I used this pedal called the Fonesy. It’s a custom overdrive pedal built by Brian Fones. He lives here in Richmond and made it for me. It’s one of the best overdrive pedals because it actually lets a lot of the natural tones of the guitar come through without putting any of that scratch and powder on top. It gives it that warm feeling. It’s more of the guitar being on top and the fuzz being on bottom.
So you’re relying on the pedal for your fuzz as opposed to your amp?
Yeah. I play through a Fender Twin because I love my cleans really clean. I piggyback the Twin through a Mesa/Boogie 4x12 cab, so I’m actually pushing all six 12s.
You also play a lot of semi-hollowbody guitars. What do you like about them?
It’s just that warm sound, plus I can get so many different tones out of it. I actually just got an artist deal with Gibson, so I’ve been playing this 335 that I got from the Gibson shop in Austin. I’ve wanted one forever and now that I finally have one, I’ve kind of neglected all of my other guitars.
Showing their deep soul-groove roots, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe take on D.C. go-go legends the Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip.” DJ Williams keeps his rhythm tight until 2:38, when he breaks into a tasteful solo, and then he drops back in the pocket until 3:30, when he unfurls his superb scratching technique.
With all the funk you play, I would’ve thought you played a Telecaster and nothing else. Do you even own a Tele?
I do. When I first joined Tiny Universe that was my main axe. I have a 1972 Thinline Telecaster, which is the Telecaster, but it has humbuckers and it’s semi-hollow. It’s the one with the F-hole.
And finally, how do you create those cool record-scratching sounds?
It started with me seeing [Rage Against the Machine’s] Tom Morello do it back when I was a senior in high school. I thought, “I need to learn that immediately.” I read a bunch of interviews and I tried to find out how he did it. I did research online. I started experimenting with using the gain—I cut the guitar all the way back to the bridge pickup and I turned the gain really high up on one of my overdrives—but then I found out that if I turned the wah on and just left it in the up position, I could really get that high-pitched thing. I use my fingers to rub against the strings above the neck pickup and it sounds just like scratching a record.
On the recorded version we actually ran that through an old Echoplex machine. It sounds even crazier on the record than it does live. It was a lot of fun to play with the different sounds.
DJ Williams jams with fellow soul-funker Robert Randolph during Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe Run DMC Remixed concert at the Brooklyn Bowl on February 5, 2015. Photo by Marc Millman
Shell Voicings: A Simple Approach to Adding Harmonic Colors
Shell voicings are a tool DJ Williams uses to keep his comping simple. These voicings allow you to play complex chords without competing with your band’s other accompanists. They also allow you to expand your harmonic palette beyond simple barre chords and power chords.
Most guitar players love power chords because they contain only two notes: the root and fifth of a chord. Power chords are easy to play and—as an added bonus—allow for harmonic ambiguity. They don’t contain a third (the note in the chord that indicates major or minor) and are therefore perfect for blues-based rock and its derivatives including punk, metal, thrash, and you-name-it.
But in other musical contexts, particularly funk and jazz, more complex chords are not only more appropriate but—can I say it?—may even sound better. In those settings you need to include other chord tones like the 3 and 7, plus notes drawn from the upper tensions (like 9s, 11s, and 13s). If you try building those more complex chords using the power chord as your base (i.e. the standard barre chord), you end up with a thick soup of unnecessary and redundant sounds that clutter up the mix and don’t allow space for the music to breathe.
Shell voicings are the simple yet elegant solution. The foundation of shell voicings—similar to power chords—are based on just two notes. Those two notes, the 3 and the 7, are all you need to determine whether the chord is a major, dominant, or minor. That is the basic “shell” of the chord. They are easy to play, sound great with other instruments, and allow you to provide a creative accompaniment while still giving the soloist the freedom to add color or dissonance.
Here’s how to build your own.
Step one. Figure out the chord’s root. (Hint: It’s the name of the chord. For example, the root of Amaj7#11 is “A.”) You almost never need to play the root because another instrument (usually the bass) is already playing it. But even though you might not play it, you need to know what it is so you can determine the other notes.
Step two. Once you know the root, figure out the 3 of the chord. You only have two choices: either major or minor. For example, if the chord is C major-something, the 3 is E. If it is C minor-something, the 3 is Eb.
Step three. Determine the 7 of the chord. Again, you have only two note choices (in C it is either B or Bb), but depending on the 3 you could end up with one of four sounds. In C it looks like this:
• Major 7: E (major third) + B (major seventh)
• Dominant 7: E (major third) + Bb (minor seventh)
• Minor 7: Eb (minor third) + Bb (minor seventh)
• Minor/major 7: Eb (minor third) + B (major seventh) (the Get Smart chord)
The beauty of shell voicings is that once you know the 3 and 7, you can play them any way you choose. Either note can be above or below the other, and depending on context, the implied sound will always remain the same. You can leave it as is or add tension, and a tension note is always within reach.
There is a lot more to say about shell voicings, but discovering the simplest fingerings for your favorite chords is a great way to begin.