“Afrobeats is all about rhythm - it’s not just about the vocals... it’s music first,” explains Nigerian guitarist Ifiok Effanga, better known as Fiokee. Over the past 10 years, his contributions have been heard on almost three-quarters of the genre’s biggest hits, appearing on over 500 songs and cementing his stature as one of the most highly revered guitar players on the African continent.
His collaborations have stretched far and wide, from Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade to Simi and Kiss Daniel, though he’s arguably best known for his work with Flavour, one of Nigeria’s biggest stars...
“I became one of the pioneers of this sound by getting myself out there and playing as much as I can,” he continues, speaking to Guitar World from his home in Lagos. “I like to call it afro-fusion, because the foundation for a lot of my music is a mixture of highlife, makossa, RnB, jazz, hip-hop and more. I try to fuse it all together, but carefully. Some songs can have too many elements...
“I started off learning music from the local churches. After that I started listening to some Western players like George Benson, Earl Klugh and Norman Brown and I’d say they are probably my three main influences. I listen to some rock music too.
"Carlos Santana is another player who has helped me when it comes to bringing guitars into contemporary and pop music styles. For a guitar player like him to becoming big in hip-hop is a big thing.”
Of all these influences, it’s George Benson that the guitarist singles out as the most prominent. He cites the American jazz legend’s ability to go from sweet and smooth to fast and furious as a truly unique talent that any musician can learn a lot from. It’s a valid point indeed…
“I have to pick George first, because no matter how fast and outside he could play - using melodic minor or diminished ideas - he is most famous for simple, catchy pentatonic melodies that speak to everyone,” continues Fiokee. “I’m not playing guitar just for the guitar audience. I also love the way he uses octaves, which I think he learned from Wes Montgomery.
"Ultimately, you have to be careful in how things influence you - I don’t want to sound like anyone but myself. The best players all have their own sounds and talk through their instrument. So I figured my sound should be my own way of speaking...”
How did you initially get playing - were you self-taught or did you have tuition?
“I started playing 20 years ago, having learned from a taxi driver. Before then, I was already used to melodies and knew how to translate those melodies into a sound. That made it a lot easier when learning from the taxi driver because I already had an idea of modes and keys.
"I had two months of learning from him and then started to teach myself - reading books on chords and doing the ear training to know my chord families and extensions. That’s been most of my experience so far, teaching myself...
“Guitars are quite affordable here because there are a lot of second-hand ones. Obviously some are still expensive but others you can get for as cheap as 100 dollars. I got my Ibanez for 2000, so it really depends on what your budget is, but it’s good there are options for everyone.”
Much like George himself, you play a lot of pentatonic lines on your Ibanez...
“I see the guitar as a microphone, while most other players look at it more like an instrument. That perspective has helped me a lot. I try to keep my melodies very simple so that everyone can understand the message. It’s like I’m talking to myself and then passing the message on through my guitar.
"I’m not here to say I’m the best guitarist in the world, I’d rather make music that makes an impact and connects to the people listening in a natural way... just like a singer. “
What are the main guitars you’ve used on your most famous recordings?
“I’m using Ibanez and Fender guitars, they are two of my favorite brands and very easy to get here. We have a Fender shop which has a lot of things. Then whenever I am in the US or UK, I go to a shop like Guitar Center to try out things and know what guitar to go for, something with a high-quality sound.
“For pedals, I use the Boss GT-10, which is one of my favorite effects units ever made. I started with a Zoom 505 and then switched to the GT-10 and GT-100. But I still prefer the GT-10 for some reason, even though it’s one of the first things I got after that Zoom 505! To record, I have an ART Tube preamp, an Avid M-Box Pro and Komplete 6 running into Logic or Cubase."
What are the secrets to the Afrobeats guitar style?
“I always start by listening to the music and analyzing it. You can start hearing the direction you should take - and it could be something from the RnB world, hip-hop or pop world. Every genre has its own kind of melodies and dynamics, so the more you know, the better.
"It’s like I don’t want to stock just one brand, I want to stock them all. Sometimes I might just color a track with some chords, sometimes it might be more of a lead kind of melody and other times it might just be a rhythm, almost like a clock, with no real notes at all.”
And what are kind of chords do you find yourself playing most?
“I learned about major and minor through a chord book, eventually working my way through 9ths, 11ths, diminished or suspended shapes. It’s one thing to learn them and another knowing when to apply them. Some heavily extended chords can make the color of the overall music a bit wrong.
“Afrobeats usually doesn’t need complex 13th chords - it’s more about keeping it clean or even just playing a few notes as an inversion shape. When I start using these chords, I then starting hearing the melodies that best work on top of them. You want to bring their individual color out and add to it, not overcomplicate and subtract.”
What have you learned from working with Flavour?
“I’ve been playing for Flavour since 2014. The main reason I love is because he is not just an artist, he’s a musician. He doesn’t just sing, he plays instruments - which means he knows the true value of what I give to him and my sound. It’s good to work with someone who understands the sacrifice we make on our instruments to get better.
“As a session player, you want to work with someone who understands how to run a team and gives you props and time to express yourself when you perform together on stage. Flavour is one of the biggest artists in Africa, he has a huge amount of YouTube subscribers. He’s more like a friend to me, like a brother, and always giving me a shout out through social media, and that really has helped me a lot.”
What is the music industry like in Lagos?
“The industry has never really appreciated people playing instruments before, it’s always been about the artist that sings. That’s what I was trying to change - hoping to push through as an instrumentalist.
"Every song needs a good sound, you can’t just sing over something that hasn’t got a good rhythm or beat or melody. So you could say that over here a lot of musicians are unrecognised and unsupported, especially compared to the Western world.
“Trying to break into a hip-hop platform is risky, but I wanted to push in that direction and hopefully give others the same kind of confidence. I want them to be thinking, ‘Well Fiokee’s doing it so why can’t we?’ and end up starting a band and playing concerts. In the next five or 10 years a lot of musicians are going to start getting the respect they deserve.”
So how do you go about making a living from music?
“The hardest thing about making a living here is that there has never been a structure to benefit the musicians. They can’t live off their craft. The Western world has a lot more, with things like publishing and creative rights. I’ve tried to make enquiries and learn more about that side of it all. Now I’m registered with PRS For Music in the UK.
“I’ve played on records that I wasn’t credited on and there are some artists who never even paid me after saying they would. So I’ve had to fight for my rights. Trying to live off music in Nigeria has been really frustrating.
"People are starting to wise up and speak up now, protecting their content before they lose it. I own Fiokee Records now, which means I’m in charge of all my own masters and songs. I’m trying to do what DJ Khaled is doing, making sure I collaborate a lot too. I will try to work with an artist who has a bigger fanbase and needs a good guitarist, and hope to tap into that.”
It definitely seems to be working!
“I try not to be just a smart guitarist, but also a smart business guy. I know every chord and melody on every song I’ve played on because I’m particular about business... I’m almost thinking about the market value of each melody. Who is the target audience? Will it get to the UK or US?
"These are important considerations because music is not just for any particular territory, it flies through anywhere. I try to make sure I can speak to the minds of Americans and Europeans as much as the African countries.
“I’ve tried getting credits on the singles I’ve been involved with but some artists don’t want to give credit to the musicians, they only mention the producer - not the trumpeter, saxophone or guitar.
In order to get the credit I deserve, I tried to create a buzz around my name by adding a tag ‘Oh my god, it’s Fiokee!’ Most of the records I’ve played on have that. Once people hear it, they know I’m on the song. I’ve heard it on the radio! So it was a smart move and people have started to remember I’m the guitar player on a lot of these songs.
"It’s all about building my market, my brand and my craft. I’m very blessed, there are so many good guitarists out there, I thank God for giving me the talent and ability to stand out, too.”