As one of the legendary Funk Brothers, guitarist Dennis Coffey helped shape the sound of countless Motown classics. He is also recognized as the man who brought the wah pedal to R&B, beginning with The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball Of Confusion.” He went on to score soundtracks for movies like Black Belt Jones, and reached platinum status on his own with the single “Scorpio.” In addition to his successful solo career, he was always in demand as a session player (Ringo Starr, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, The Temptations, The Four Tops and many more), and established himself as a producer.
In 2002, Dennis Coffey was featured in the award-winning documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and in 2004 he published his memoir, Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars. Recently, Coffey became the subject of a series of podcasts entitled Premium Blend. Produced by Chris Peters, the series highlights Coffey’s inimitable guitar licks and hit singles, and includes interviews in which Coffey discusses his Motown years, how the Funk Brothers achieved those enduring sounds, and the work he has done since then.
Coffey is recording a new album at Rust Belt Studios, in his hometown of Detroit. Between sessions, he took some time to speak with Gibson.com.
You’re working on a new album. Why now?
I've been doing a lot of club work around town, concerts in New Orleans, jazz festivals, funk, and a lot of playing. Things are working, and it’s time I reinvented what I do: funky things, but all different. I try to never play the same song the same way. I’ve written tons of pieces, and this is a new thing I’m trying to do. You have to be able to pack a club, you have to have original material, and the time is right. I’ve been woodshedding and writing the last couple of years, I put a band together, and it’s time to get this thing out.
It’s no secret that you’re a longtime Gibson man. According to legend, you made the switch when you saw [Funk Brother] Eddie Willis playing a Firebird, and you never looked back. What’s in your collection?
I've been a Gibson man from day one. All the Motown sessions were done on the Firebird, and at Motown West I used a 345, which I still have and still use. A few years ago, Gibson gave me a 355, and I'm getting ready to bring that one more on the job. It's a finely crafted, well-made guitar. I had a Byrdland when I started doing session work; it was my main guitar and I still have it. But for backbeats and tight sounds, you need a solidbody guitar. I saw Eddie playing his Firebird, and when I tried it, that’s what I wanted to play. The guitars in my collection look like they’ve been played, and they have, because that's their purpose I have two 345’s, one 335, my Firebird, a 355, the Byrdland that I use for jazz gigs and the 345 that I use for out-of-town gigs.
You have referred to [Motown producer/songwriter] Norman Whitfield as a “master of dynamics.” Is he the person from whom you learned your own sense of dynamics?
Norman was the first guy who got me to Motown. He came to a producers’ workshop, and I was in the band with James Jamerson. These workshops were held to give producers the chance to experiment. I had a Dunlop wah pedal, and when Norman brought the charts to “Cloud Nine,” he wanted to use the wah. Within two weeks I was in the studio, and he used me on all his stuff. He would say, "Show me what's in your bag." I would use the wah and the Echoplex. He was my biggest advocate. He kept me working at Motown. He had a vision of transitioning from love songs to protest songs, and he needed that sound to help his vision get there. He was the kind of producer who was in [Motown studio] the Snake Pit, giving us breakdowns, and I still do those breakdowns with my band. I bring it down and build it up, and without being aware of it, yes; he did influence my sense of dynamics.
The music of the Funk Brothers, of Motown, the music that you recorded in the years following, is timeless. It still gets airplay, the melodies are unmistakable, younger generations keep discovering it. Why do you think it has survived so many decades?
Because we were making quality records. Everybody involved, from the producers to the studios to the record companies, was committed to making quality music, and we spent years learning our craft. Today, they cut and paste, throw someone’s stuff on there, mix it around, and that does not equal quality. When I was 15, I practiced guitar eight hours a day. We all spent that time at our craft. Learning to write hits and produce them, playing our instruments — it took a tremendous amount of commitment to come up with that music.
You mentioned woodshedding. What does that involve for you?
I practice two hours every morning. I play traditional jazz, R&B, funk. I'll be a student of the guitar for as long as I can play. Look at Les Paul — I played with him a year and a half ago, and he was 93 years old. I'm fascinated with the instrument, and I’m always learning new things from it. There are always new things to learn about it. I have the same passion for soloing and being creative as I ever did. Every night that I play, there are musical surprises. It's a journey about music and learning the instrument.
Modeling, digital, computers — manufacturers continue to come up with new technological tools for the guitar. At the end of the day, are these things really necessary?
It's still all about the player. The manufacturers — everybody is looking for some sort of innovation. Les Paul invented the solidbody, which was a big difference from archtops. The metal guys use Drop D tuning, whammy bars and a lot of bells and whistles, baritone guitars and guitars with seven strings. I'm a fundamentalist. I preferred the innovation to be in my playing and in my pedals and not in the instrument itself. There are things I can think of playing, rather than using a guitar with a million things on it.
For more about Dennis Coffey, visit http://www.denniscoffeysite.com/. To download the Premium Blend podcasts, visit http://denniscoffey.bandcamp.com/. For more about Standing in the Shadows of Motown, visit http://www.standingintheshadowsofmotown.com/.