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Cory Wong: “Most people know me as a rhythm player with a clean sound. But I’ve been playing lead guitar since I was a kid, too”

Cory Wong
(Image credit: Olly Curtis/Future)

Cory Wong gets time. As the poster boy for modern funk, the American guitarist knows all about how playing in the pocket and feeling the groove gets bodies moving – it’s his area of expertise. He’s the kind of guitarist who can make one static chord sound interesting for longer because he’ll never run out of interesting ways to deliver it. 

2021 was a big year for Wong, with the launch of his first signature Strat and even his own YouTube variety show, brilliantly titled Cory and the Wong Notes. This year, he’s teaming up again with funk supergroup Vulfpeck, the band that gained him worldwide recognition, for Vulf Vault 005: Wong’s Cafe

“We decided to do this series called the Vulf Vaults,” explains Wong, talking to TG from his home studio – with his 2002 Highway One Strat, bought for just $300 on Craigslist, sat in his lap. “It started as a vinyl-only compilation series where it would be songs by just one of us each time. I was talking to Jack [Stratton, drums] and told him there was a bunch of recordings we did pre-pandemic which I liked but didn’t make it on our last album. 

“Some I’d written with him and some with the other guys, so I suggested using this unreleased material for my vault. He said, ‘Produce them, do what you want and make it very Cory Wong!’ So I took the recordings and started to produce them, adding different textures to make them more guitar-centric...”

How exactly did you go about making this new album ‘more guitar-centric’?

“I wanted to capture that classic old-school Vulfpeck feel with all this extra guitar stuff. The original albums were instrumental and were less song-oriented, so I wanted to explore more of that. I wrote some stuff with Woody [Goss, keyboards] over email and I started making new recordings to showcase guitars in a way that’s not always done on regular Vulfpeck albums. 

“Because usually I show up and Jack is the bandleader, so I’ll play the part that’s appropriate. Joe Dart is the Angus Young of the band – it’s all led by his bass playing and that’s cool. I like doing my thing around that and seeing where it fits in. On this album, I got to be a little more of the Angus or Eddie Van Halen. 

“It being called Wong’s Cafe meant I could showcase my own recipe... or whatever metaphor you prefer! I didn’t have to think about staying away from anyone else. I decided to make it very guitar-forward. It’s the most guitar-led Vulfpeck project yet!”

The opening track, Smokeshow, has moments where several guitar parts merge into one line – similar to what Nile Rodgers did on Daft Punk hit Get Lucky.

“Definitely! A lot of the time when I play those lines, I’ll come up with one lead part, just a little hook. I’ll record it and pan it hard left, then do the exact same thing panned all the way right to make it feel wider. Then I’ll make a harmony part sticking to the same pentatonic scale but starting on an adjacent string, and keep that panned to the middle.

“Or I might have the harmony part in stereo and the main hook in the middle. Then I might stack in another layer on the next string along and then add in another played an octave up. For live shows I’ve learned how to play the harmonies as chords, which is fun, because you have to barre across three strings for every note! So there are a lot of three-part harmonies like that on the album.”

Just listen to Jay Graydon’s solo on Steely Dan’s Peg and then listen to my solo. I wasn’t trying to hide it: that was a total homage to him

The solo in that song is quite overdriven for you.

“Yeah, I guess it is quite different and more of a rock thing. Most people know me as a rhythm player with a clean sound. But I’ve been playing lead guitar since I was a kid, too. I’ve played lead on sessions and in a lot of bands. 

“I’m a Steely Dan nut and I’m a freak for John Scofield! Those were my two influences on this song. Just listen to Jay Graydon’s solo on Steely Dan’s Peg and then listen to my solo. I wasn’t trying to hide it: that was a total homage to him.”

Fender Cory Wong Stratocaster

(Image credit: Fender)

That solo also features some interesting concepts in G Mixolydian, with a few chromatic twists…

“Yeah, there’s a descending modal lick in there, going down in G Mixolydian with some chromatics thrown in at the end for a bit of tension and release – which, again, I got from the Peg solo. It’s an interesting shape to move but it also resolves on strong notes, ones which are modal and have that sense of resolution. 

“I actually got to talk to John Scofield about this stuff, asking how he always found these interesting notes. And he told me that a lot of the time he’ll find a melodic shape he likes, move it back a fret and then come back when he wants to resolve. It creates this cool effect. 

“Guitar players love shapes... we often use these shapes to the point where we get stuck in them. So maybe don’t do that, but definitely try to add in some more chromatic tension and see what happens. You might start inside, then go way outside and then wham, you find your way back.”

Let’s Go has an interesting fuzz tone for the intro, as well as super-clean octave lines that are reminiscent of The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back

“That was a 335 into a Princeton Reverb that was cranked, but most of the fuzz was actually from overdriving the analogue board going direct to tape. If you crank into the red, you can overload your signal and find some interesting tones. And yeah, that’s definitely a Jackson 5 thing, plus stuff like Celebration by Kool & The Gang. 

“I love all that – it’s the kind of thing that would be like a cowbell pattern, like a party percussion thing, but on guitar you can give it a note! It still adds that fun, driving and party feel. And because I’m playing the tonic, it’s so non-threatening harmonically! Everything can move around it freely. I’ll either do that move on the tonic or the fifth of whatever key I’m in, because in modern music, there will be a root and fifth hanging out anyway.” 

The main theme of the song has these climbing diads on the low E and G strings which leave a lot of sonic space in between...

“There are different types of diads you can use: close interval ones or distant interval ones. Anything in the same octave I consider to be a close interval diad, from thirds, fourths and fifths to sixths and sevenths... the latter of which I rarely use! I also use a lot of pentatonic diads, similar to the stacking effect I mentioned earlier for Smokeshow.

“On Let’s Go I’m using tenths, which is the third up an octave. It’s a nice sound because it has the same harmonic information as just playing the thirds but it carries so much more because of the interval skip. It’s almost like your brain fills out the blanks. Your ear is tricked into thinking it’s thicker than it really is.”

Where did you learn things like that? 

“I actually got a lot of that stuff from Dave Matthews, who I loved growing up. He used those tenths a lot, sometimes with an open D ringing at the same time, which is kinda similar to [The Beatles’] Blackbird – that kind of idea is based around tenths. It’s a clever way of playing things that have weight but don’t get in the way. 

“Because on that track there’s two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. I don’t need to play full chords. If I did that, I’d just get in the way. It would be too thick and I would make everyone else feel like they can’t fit in. Leaving out a lot of those extra notes is how I make sure I don’t get in the way.”

I wanted to create a song that’s only guitar, so came up with the main chordal riff which I panned left and right. There are the slight nuances you get because you’ve played them twice, almost like an effect

The song Memories covers a lot of ground considering it’s all electric guitar.

“I wanted to create a song that’s only guitar, so came up with the main chordal riff which I panned left and right. There are the slight nuances you get because you’ve played them twice, almost like an effect. In the centre I played basically the same riff but without the scratch notes, playing only the staccato chords. 

“All the extra ‘chukka’ stuff, the Nile Rodgers stuff, is on the sides. I’m using three takes to make this rhythm guitar driver. Then I played a ‘bassline’ down the bottom of the neck, panned left and right and then taken down an octave in the centre. It sounded different to an octave pedal with the mix at 50 per cent because you have three different recordings of the same person playing the same part. It creates an interesting groove. 

“Then I came up with the melodies and again, panned them hard left and right with extra spices in the middle to make it more interesting. It’s the same idea with Smokeshow. I create these little guitar sections – like in an orchestra you have the violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello, the woodwinds. I was thinking, ‘These are my cellos and violas and these are the violins!’ I was orchestrating my own parts just like that.”

So what exactly are we hearing on this album in terms of gear?

“The majority of it was done using my signature Stratocaster and, of course, my Highway One. There are a couple of songs like Disco De Lune and You Got To Be You where I used [bandmate] Theo Katzman’s [Gibson] ES-335, the same one as on Let’s Go

“A lot of this was done while Vulfpeck were on tour. We didn’t have a studio with all our gear. We’d find somewhere available with what we had on us, so it was really just those three guitars. The main pedals were my Wampler Ego Compressor for certain parts, my signature Jackson Audio Optimist dual overdrive, a Vertex Ultraphonix and a Strymon BigSky. 

“But I actually went DI for most of it, though there was an amp in the room instead of using headphones. We didn’t record the amp; we mainly ran the DI through my signature Neural DSP plugin. I even got the gain for the Smokeshow solo from that plugin. It comes with two overdrives: one is like a TS-808 and the other is like a Klon. I just turned them both on with default settings, which is exactly why I developed that plugin. You want to be ready to rock.”

You’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of your Highway One Strat – which goes to show a cheap Fender can go a long way indeed...

“Oh yeah! Over the years I made a few mods to my Highway One to get up it to a pro level, but you really don’t have to buy a ten-thousand dollar guitar to sound incredible. My signature is a bit different to my Highway One, although they look similar with a rosewood neck, pearloid pickguard and exact same finish, the specs aren’t the same.

You need to find the instrument that draws out your creativity in the most effortless way, and it doesn’t need to be super-expensive

“As a teenager, did I want a nicer, higher-end Strat? Sure, but I couldn’t afford one, so I got the $300 Highway One and it worked great for me. A guitar should have the sound you are looking for right away. I’m going to sound like me pretty much no matter what guitar I play, but certain ones just instantly feel right with me too. You need to find the instrument that draws out your creativity in the most effortless way, and it doesn’t need to be super-expensive.”

It’s interesting how your strumming hand never seems to stop – it’s quite the engine!

“That’s a great metaphor there: my right hand is constantly going like the pistons running in an engine! No matter what, I’m always going down and up in sixteenths and my hand is always moving, whether I hit any notes or not. I never have to think about the strumming pattern; I think about the rhythm. That’s what dictates how I play the pattern.”

Which exercise do you think helped you most when it comes to this side of playing?

“There’s one I used to learn how to accent – so I’d start strumming against muted strings, accenting and emphasising on the first strum downbeat four times. Then I’d shift the accent to the other sixteenth note beats (1 e & a, and so on). After that, I’d do the same but playing a chord where the accents are. 

“It helped me learn where all the subdivisions are and the coordination needed from both hands to make it happen. The most important thing is to be 100 percent consistent in your engine. You want absolute timing precision and accuracy. Some people might think that means robotic but no, it doesn’t. You get feel from using downstrokes and upstrokes, which inherently sound different, as well as when you attack and hit the strings. It all comes down to groove.” 

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Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).