Cory Wong on 10 key tracks from his extraordinary run of funk guitar albums

Cory Wong
(Image credit: Future / Joby Sessions)

Funk legend James Brown used to call himself ‘the hardest working man in show business’. In 2020, that guy is Cory Wong, the modern funk master who’s made six albums within a year – five solo records and one collaboration with pianist Jon Batiste.

Here, in his own words, Cory outlines his ever-expanding “artistic journey” via 10 key tracks...

Cory Wong: 10 Key Tracks

1. Lunchtime

Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul, 2019

”Obviously, who I am as a guitar player is going to be a through-line on every record I make. But it is interesting to have a broader approach on Motivational Music... and Elevator Music For An Elevated Mood

”Even though it’s two albums, it’s one big cycle. It was a continued self-discovery of how to explore my artistic vision of joy and fun, combined with rhythm guitar as a lead thing.

How do I do what I do, making a guitar record but not overt chops? It’s covert chops

”When you hear the song, how do you know that it’s me? What is it about my sound, my attacks, my releases, the nuances of what I play, which makes somebody recognise it? How can I let my personality and wit come through instrumental music? And now that I have a better idea about what’s most magnetic about what I do, how can I continue to hone that and make it more interesting and potent?

”When you listen to certain albums, like Surfing With The Alien [Joe Satriani] or Blow By Blow [Jeff Beck], it’s so obviously a guitar record. So how do I do what I do, making a guitar record but not overt chops? It’s covert chops. 

”I've got to have a few tunes on each record with some guitar fireworks, because people expect that. And a few things on each record where I should do the funk thing right down the middle, because that’s what I do. And Lunchtime is a great example of a rhythm guitar part being a lead thing. It’s very much that 16th note Prince school.”

Cory Wong's Strats

The American Ultra Strat (left) is a recent addition to Cory’s rig. His workhorse guitar is a Highway One model (right). (Image credit: Future / Joby Sessions)

2. Cosmic Sans

Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul, 2019

”This is a fun song I wrote with Tom Misch, who’s from London, a beat-maker and singer, and a great guitar player. This song to me ended up being a version of my style and his style, both in sound and feel. I’m playing super-rhythmic, super-percussive, and he’s a little behind in time, laid-back, and it works. 

”The parts we’re playing are very different but they’re complementary. The tones are very different and the time feel is different. The time feel has to do with my guitar and his guitar not being exactly lined up, and it gives a unique character to the thing. 

”On that track I play bass and guitar, so the two rhythmic elements of that are very much down the centre of the grid, and Tom’s kind of the wild card and that gives it a fun push-pull. That’s more a hybrid of the Prince rhythmic thing and the Nile Rodgers thing.”

3. Home

Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul, 2019

”That’s a tune that’s playingwise very different to any of the others because it’s not ‘rhythm guitar guy’. I’m delivering a melody and I had to find a unique way to make it feel and sound like me, and it really does feel like an honest representation of my sound. 

”I play the melody straight down and the second half of the A section melody I’m harmonising 4ths, the pentatonic harmonising thing that a lot of people know me for. Which is such a simple and subtle thing but at the same time gives it more of a signature feel, the way I attack it. 

”The harmonic complexity of that song, none of it comes from the guitar. All of it has to do with the interplay with John Batiste’s piano playing, weaving around the guitar parts. He makes my parts sound even more interesting than they are, which is a cool thing.”

4. Companion Pass

Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul, 2019

”I don’t think I was breaking new ground compositionally, I just feel like I had a better idea of what people were connecting with and what I have to offer as a writer and arranger. And with Companion Pass, that has some of one of my signatures, the triplet. 

”It opens with one of my guitar fireworks moments, where I do an upstroke, I hit the strings with the side of my hand, and then I do a downstroke, to make the triplet. It’s something that I didn’t intentionally think about. I never thought, I’m going to hit the strings and it’s going to be part of the rhythm. 

”I didn’t even realise I was doing it until somebody pointed it out to me. But I guess it’s become part of my signature thing, but I never practised it, I never intended to invent some new way of playing, and I know I’m not the first person to hit the strings with my hand.”

5. Golden

Elevator Music For An Elevated Mood, 2020

”The Elevator Music record is more chilled, like musical wallpaper, but I mean that in a good way. Sometimes, it’s just music with a vibe. And oddly enough, Golden was the first song where I was like, alright, I’m going to be ‘guitar guy’ here for a minute. 

”So I’ll do some interesting guitar things and I’ll rip a guitar solo. And this one I kind of took from the Angus Young, Rivers Cuomo, Kirk Hammett style of composing a solo for the song, and then adding the second guitar to harmonise with it at the end, like Brian May. I got my rhythm guitar kicks on it, but also got my lead guitar hero solo thing. 

Golden was the first song where I was like, alright, I’m going to be ‘guitar guy’ here for a minute

”People have asked me how I got the sound on Golden. The funny thing is I recorded the solo at my home studio direct into my Apollo, directly into Logic. I used my wah pedal for the solo. I don’t even remember which Logic amp I used, probably the Fender Bassman or something, a 4x10" or a 2x12", I don’t know. I ended up tweaking it a bit and okay, it sounds like me.

”It was the least amount of work and thought I’d put into getting a guitar tone, and it happens to be the one everybody’s asking me about. The guitar tone is super-important to me, but the gear I use to get there is not something that I’m going to spend my entire lifetime finding, because I’m just going to find my sound on the gear I’ve got.”

6. Meditation

Elevator Music For An Elevated Mood, 2020

”It’s a rhythm part and a melody. I was thinking more like a piano. And it’s mostly seven tenths. With Meditation, I was sitting at home in Minnesota, my backyard has some nature in it, just looking out, and it came to me, the melody, kind of like a mantra. I gave it the electric guitar sound, but I ended up using my Music Man Valentine guitar. 

”It has a little bit of a thicker sound than my Strat. It carried a little more weight. On the record I put a piano solo on there, but when we play it live it’s a big guitar hero song, with an extended guitar solo.”

7. Watercolors

Elevator Music For An Elevated Mood, 2020

”This is a funny one. I wanted one more song to spoon-feed the elevator music thing. Historically, elevator music is smooth jazz. And being as I’m friends with Dave Koz, the king of smooth jazz, I called him up and said, ‘Screw it, you gotta play on this song!’. Smooth jazz is like a dirty word, right? But it was fun to do something where I could make my own version of it. 

”So how do I put my sounds on it? A lot of smooth jazz is like instrumental R&B, and with Watercolors I wanted an Allman Brothers approach to the melody and harmonising the melody. That was how I was thinking: what if the Allman Brothers were smooth jazz? So that was fun.”

8. Tomorrow and Forever

Trail Songs: Dusk, 2020

”Throughout this whole lockdown, I quickly realised that 2020 was no regular year, and all expectations and ‘rules’ for the music industry seemingly went out the door. Not to mention I had a lot of time on my hands. So I decided that this was the perfect time to really dive in to writing and recording some acoustic music ideas that I’ve had floating in my head for a while. 

”The weird thing is, once I opened that valve, it just started pouring out. All of these ideas and techniques and arrangements just kept growing like a vine, so I made a two-part acoustic album called Trail Songs: Dawn and Dusk. They represent our connection with the Earth and with nature, and the fact that there can be sombre and quiet moments but also wild and fun moments.

”My favourite moment about the Dusk album is just the concept in general. I don’t know a lot of albums that are centred around guitar with a string quartet. 

”The majority of the music has that as the focus, but other instrumentation built around as supporting cast as well. It’s more of the reflective and contemplative side of me, and it’s meant to reflect that part of nature as well. Best paired with a walk outside.”

9. Bluebird

Trail Songs: Dawn, 2020

”Bluebird is my favourite moment on the Dawn album, and features Chris Thile on mandolin. He’s such an incredible musician and a virtuoso of a player. There are no technical hang-ups for him when he plays, so everything sounds and feels so effortless. That whole song was put together by sending files back and forth through Dropbox. 

”I recorded my guitar in Minneapolis, the drums by Petar Janjic were done in Nashville, the bass by Seth Tackaberry was done in London, the percussion by Steve Goold was done in Phoenix, and Chris Thile recorded his mandolin from his home in Brooklyn, New York. It was a pretty incredible experience to see the power of home recording rigs!”

10. Prayer

Meditations, 2020

”Meditations is an album that Jon Batiste and I had a concept for that’s meant to reflect the human experience of meditation and the journey it takes in our minds and bodies.

”Musically the concept is built around guitar and piano with B3 organ by Sam Yahel and drums and percussion by Nate Smith. That album was really fun to make because Jon and I had written some musical ‘jumping points’ and motifs that defined each song, but then improvised for 80 per cent of the album. 

”We went into the studio three nights in a row and recorded the album top to bottom one time each night. That’s it. Most of the songs on the album are from the first take, but a couple are from the third night. It was a really fun yet vulnerable way of recording, but I think it helped contribute to the energy of the songs.”

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Chris Bird

Chris has been the Editor of Total Guitar magazine since 2020. Prior to that, he was at the helm of Total Guitar's world-class tab and tuition section for 12 years. He's a former guitar teacher with 35 years playing experience and he holds a degree in Philosophy & Popular Music. Chris has interviewed Brian May three times, Jimmy Page once, and Mark Knopfler zero times – something he desperately hopes to rectify as soon as possible.