It’s early 1965 and James Brown – whose May 3 birthday is a national funk holiday – is looking for a new guitar player. Les Blue, who’s been burning up the road with Brown for years, has had it with traveling. You’ve got the audition thanks to Blue’s recommendation to the demanding bandleader. How do you ace it and win the gig?
For Jimmy Nolen, the legendary Gibson ES-175 and ES-5 Switchmaster player who picked up Blue’s mantle in Brown’s band and ran with it into the pages of history, it was a matter of developing a unique style of rhythm playing that’s since become the very foundation of funky R&B.
Nolen’s story starts in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where he began playing guitar on a battered acoustic at age 14. He was a prodigy who’d taken violin lessons since age nine, so when he began to emulate another Gibson legend – ES-250, Switchmaster and ES-335 player T-Bone Walker – on six-string, Nolen knew the basics.
He was still in his late teens when traveling blues singer Jimmy Wilson discovered him in a Tulsa dive and snatched him up for his band. When they arrived in Wilson’s home base of Los Angeles, Nolen began working in the studio on sessions for Modern Records’ Bihari Brothers, who put our a slew of early B.B. King and Lowell Fulson recordings, as well as the Cincinnati-based King and Federal labels. Nolen even cut a few singles himself – straight-up blues tunes still under the sway of Walker with titles like “How Fine Can You Be” and “After Hours,” and the Elmore James classic “It Hurts Me Too.” His instrumentals, like “Strollin’ With Nolen,” were more of an indication of where he’d take his sound with Brown.
But before he became part of Brown’s ensemble, Nolen was a key sideman for another famous rhythm & blues innovator: Johnny Otis. Nolen joined Otis’s group in 1957 and played the chanking guitar behind Otis’s most famous hit “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Nolen’s reputation spread during his stint with Otis as they toured the West Coast chitlin circuit. By 1959 he was popular enough to form his own band, which played dances on the same chain of clubs and roadhouses, and backed up artists like Walker and Lowell Fulson as they passed through California.
Nolen was playing with another bluesman, George “Harmonica” Smith, when his friend Les Blue decided to quit touring. Supporting other artists required more strumming than lead playing, which, for a guitarist of Nolen’s skills, could get dull plowing through I-IV-V chord changes all night. So Nolen had begun to develop a style of strumming that gave him a unique sound, and that style – now commonly called the “chicken scratch” – came into full bloom with Brown and helped etch both Brown’s and Nolen’s place in history.
Here’s how Nolen did it, and how you can, too. The “chicken scratch” sound is achieved by lightly pressing the strings against the fretboard and then quickly releasing them just enough to get a slightly muted scratching while constantly strumming very close to the bridge. If you’ve tried this with full barre chords, you know it’s not as dynamic as the sound you hear on Brown records like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or the later “Sex Machine.” Try it with triads or seventh and ninth chords that you can augment by alternately pressing and lifting your pinky on the high strings while strumming. Also, Nolen’s most pronounced chicken scratching was done in straight, unerring patterns of sixteenth notes, like on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
An important ingredient of Nolen’s chemistry was his choice of amps and instruments, too. The early ES-175s and ES-5 Switchmasters are clean guitars with deep, round-toned voices and P-90 pickups. Chicken scratching at its best is really a job for single-coil pickups, to get that bright, snappy, in-your-face tone. Nolen also used a Gibson Les Paul Recording model when he began playing solid body guitars. For amplification, he preferred low-gain amps with clean palettes, with the treble cranked high to accentuate his strumming and string sound, and to cut through Brown’s big, powerful bands.
Nolen can be heard experimenting with this technique and tone as early as Otis’s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” but one of his first recordings with the Brown band displays his style in all its glory. The October 1965 King label single “I Got You (I Feel Good)” still sounds incredibly modern thanks to Nolen’s incredible rhythm playing and Brown’s complete devotion to “the one.”
The entire Brown band – including Nolen, horn men Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, and drummer Clyde Stubblefield — left their leader in 1970, tired of his fines and erratic behavior. Nolen and Parker went on to form Maceo & All the King’s Men. The guitarist who replaced Nolen with Brown, Phelps “Catfish” Collins, would go make history himself, not only recreating Nolen’s approach with Brown, but stepping out into funky psychedelia alongside his brother “Bootsy,” who joined Brown on bass at the same time. Catfish and Bootsy would stay with Brown for just two years until they forged a musical partnership with George Clinton that led to the monster funk collectives Parliament, Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band. And at that point, in 1972, Nolen came back to his high-profile gig with Brown’s band and remained part of the J.B.’s until his fatal heart attack in December 1983.