Motown Guitar Licks from Hit Songs


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In the 1960’s and early ‘70s Motown Records was an unstoppable hit-making machine. It’s amazing to think about how many Motown artists became household names, including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson (with his brothers in the Jackson 5). But unlike many other assembly-line hit factories, the artists at Motown were often writers and instrumentalists as well. Stevie Wonder’s abilities as a musician and singer need no introduction. Marvin Gaye was a session drummer at Motown before launching his solo career, and Smokey Robinson wrote the definitive Motown classic “My Girl” with his Miracles bandmate Ronald White. White also produced the recording session and played the iconic intro guitar lick. Motown

The players on Motown sessions, like most session musicians in those days, weren’t credited on the records. But the core group of musicians that created the Motown sound did become known in later years as the Funk Brothers, most notably the brilliant bassist James Jamerson. Try to imagine practically any Motown hit without those bass lines. Each one is a hook in itself. Jamerson arguably had more impact on electric bass playing in popular music than possibly any other musician in history.

Guitars were an integral part of the Motown sound, but in a much more subtle and tasteful way than in most rock or blues. This was pop music, after all, and the vocals were always front and center. At the same time, the instrumental parts were always impeccably crafted and tuneful without calling too much attention to themselves. Guitar parts were played by a core trio of guitarists, usually Robert White, Joe Messina, and Eddie Willis. The three would work out their parts together just before each session began, weaving chords and lines together seamlessly with each other and with the other instruments. They blended so well that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between the guitar parts, or even to pick out that there are three of them. White would often double pianist Earl Van Dyke’s piano, or one of the guitars might follow Jamerson’s bass lines.

"My Girl" Lick and Tabs

But guitars were featured often in Motown songs, especially in melodic intros. The most famous of all is, of course, Ronald White’s opening lick in “My Girl.” Please see the lick below which is inspired by the song.

Exercise 4

Full Speed Demonstration

The lick is as simple as simple could be: an ascending C major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales, as the name suggest, use 5 notes: penta-tonic. To most guitarists, the minor pentatonic scale is the most familiar. Almost every aspiring player’s introduction to lead guitar starts with a minor pentatonic formation. After all, it’s the sound of blues-based rock guitar. But the major pentatonic is just as familiar. You’ve heard it all your life, starting with nursery rhymes and folk songs and continuing into country and bluegrass, not to mention roots-oriented rock bands like the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead.

The 5 notes of the major pentatonic come from the 7-note major scale, but leave out the 4th and 7th tones:

C1stScale Tone
D2ndScale Tone
E3rdScale Tone
G5thScale Tone
A6thScale Tone
C8thScale Tone

Note that the final C (note 8) is the octave of note 1, and not actually a sixth scale tone. Think of the opening guitar lick of “My Girl” and you’ll hear the sound in your head. Example 1 shows how White played up the scale very simply in the open position, basically following the fingering of a C chord. When the harmony changes to F in the third measure, the guitar follows the same 1-2-3-5-6-8 sequence from an F scale to match the F chord. Play with a light attack and a clean tone.

Smokey Robinson Lick in G

Example 2 is based on another memorable Motown intro, Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks Of My Tears.” We’re working primarily off the notes of a G major pentatonic scale (with two exceptions), but this time the moving scale tones work with the chords to articulate the changing harmony underneath. This is a simplified example based on the primary melodic guitar part. Listen to the original recording to hear a great example of how the Funk Brothers’ guitar section wove their parts together so seamlessly it’s difficult to separate them in your ear.

Exercise 4

Full Speed Demonstration

We start off with a 4-note partial barre G chord in the 3rd position. You might recognize this shape as the upper four notes of the familiar “E-shape” barre chord, or as the formation you might have learned as a simple F chord. Moved up a whole step to the third fret, the chord becomes a G. The upper note on the first string is struck twice before we jump to another partial barre, a C triad played across the second, third, and fourth strings with the index finger at the 5th fret. Notice how your ear is drawn to the melody created by the high notes even though we’re playing chords.

Staying in fifth position, we then walk up the scale on the 2nd and 3rd strings before shifting up a whole-step to play a D triad on the 7th fret. Again, we’re simply following the chords of the song, but notice how strongly the ear is drawn to the high F# on the 2nd string.

Continuing on, we return to the opening chord formation in measure 3, but this time the chord is played as a descending arpeggio. Hold the chord shape as you strike the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings in succession before shifting up two frets to once again grab the partial barre C triad on the 5th fret. The lick ends with a nice descending figure E-D-C-B, which becomes a secondary hook in the song. In the guitar part, the descending scale is harmonized by chord tones: the opening two-note chord of measure 4 creates an inversion of the C triad you just played. Walking down, we strike another partial C chord double-stop before resolving into the partial G chord created by the concluding major third.

Jackson 5 Lick in A Flat

For our last example, let’s get a little bit funky. This part is much more rhythmic than our first two, and a bit more challenging. We’re also in a less familiar key for many guitar players, the key of A flat. To get the sound in your head, listen to the intro to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

Exercise 4

Full Speed Demonstration

First of all, notice the syncopated 16th-note rhythms in the first two bars. Using a light touch and a loose, relaxed wrist, strum the double-stops in the first measure and the octaves in the second as if you were strumming chords. To make a guitar part “speak” as part of a dense texture like the full sound of a Funk Brothers track, less is often more. These two-note sonorities cut through the mix much better than full chords would. We open with descending parallel thirds on the 1st and 2nd strings, using the index and middle fingers. The opening pair on the 8th and 9th frets descends to frets 6 and 8. One finger drops one fret while the other drops two. Use the same two fingers to get a smooth slide from the first pair of notes (technically called a “dyad”) to the second.

The next bar uses the same rhythm in octaves on the 4th and 2nd strings. On the Jackson 5 song, this octave figure is actually played through the entire intro while a second guitar plays the descending 3rds lick. Play the octaves with the index and pinky fingers, allowing the side of the index finger to mute the 3rd string. It’s sort of like playing a barre, except that you’re not trying to hold the middle note down but to touch the string just enough to muffle it.

The last part is the trickiest. Here we have a series of R&B-style licks that Ernie Isley or Curtis Mayfield might have played. Maybe even the greatest R&B-influenced rock guitarist ever, Jimi Hendrix. Before Jimi was Jimi, he was “Jimmy James” and toured as a sideman behind numerous R&B artists in the early 60’s including Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. Listen to “Little Wing” or “Castles Made Of Sand” to hear how he incorporated these R&B techniques (actually derived from gospel piano playing) into his music.

But back to Motown. The 60’s R&B guitar style is defined by quickly strummed 16th-note figures and by double-stop licks using hammer-ons and pull-offs to add flavor. These licks are a little more straightforward than what you’ll hear in Hendrix’ music, but make for a good introduction to the style. Start measure 3 with a 3-note F minor triad, fingered index-middle-ring across the treble strings on frets 8, 9, and 10. Add your little finger to the 11th fret of the 1st string, creating an Fm7. Strike this 3-note chord, then lift the little finger to strike the 1st string again at the 8th fret. Then add the little finger to the 2nd string at the 11th fret, and lift once again to sound the 9th fret note held by the middle finger. Now release the index finger and move it to the 3rd string at the 8th fret. Hammer the ring finger to fret 10 as you continue to hold fret 9 with the middle finger, then lift the ring finger to return to the 8th fret note you just hammered from. This is a classic R&B lick, and a sound that lives on in rock music as well thanks to the influence of Hendrix. You’ll hear it in the playing of John Mayer or the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante, among many others.

For a deeper exploration of Motown and other 60’s R&B styles, check out the introductory lesson to Nick Kellie’s fine JamPlay series:

Introduction to Rhythm and Blues/Soul by Nick Kellie

Taught by Nick Kellie

Nick Kellie introduces a lesson series designed to highlight the tendencies, techniques and concepts of R&B and soul playing. Characterized by rhythmic elements and simplicity, this style combines muted left and right hand techniques with melodic scale ideas. In the first lesson, Nick discusses the basics of this style and introduces the core techniques.

The closing lick relates to the melodic approach used at the end of example 2. Play a 2-note chord on the 1st and 2nd frets with index and middle, but plant the ring finger at the same time to reach the 3rd fret Bb on the 3rd string. Then lift the ring finger to sound the 1st fret Ab with the index, already in place. We end with a triadic lick. A partial barre across strings 2, 3, and 4 at the first fret provides the anchor we need to play a Db triad by adding the middle and ring fingers to the 2nd and 4th strings. Release those two fingers and return to the barre to sound the final Ab triad.

These three examples are, of course, just an introduction, but cover several different approaches: single-note melody, melody enhanced by chords, and driving rhythmic parts that are still equally melodic. Notice that melody, the essential element of good pop songwriting and something every guitarist should be aware of, is a common element between all three exercises.

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun with your rigs this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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