As one of the legendary Funk Brothers, the studio band that played on countless Motown recordings, Dennis Coffey is known as the guitarist who brought the wah pedal to R&B via The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.” In addition to songs by The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Isley Brothers, and so many others, Coffey was on the charts for his production work and solo recordings, including the platinum single “Scorpio,” and the soundtrack to Black Belt Jones.
In 2002, Coffey was featured in the award-winning documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Two years later he published his memoir, Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars. In a 2010 series of podcasts called Premium Blend, he was interviewed about the Motown years and his guitar work. (The podcasts are linked on his website, http://denniscoffeysite.com, and on his bandcamp page, http://denniscoffey.bandcamp.com.)
Dennis Coffey remains active in the music industry, performing regularly with his band in venues around Detroit. He produced and performed on The Cambodian Space Project CD Whisky Cambodia, which was released in 2014. He was featured in Searching for Sugar Man, the 2013 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary that follows the life of singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. (Coffey has production credits on Rodriguez’ 1970 and 1971 albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, as well as the documentary soundtrack.) In March 2014, he traveled to the U.K. with Rodriguez and opened two sold-out shows in Birmingham and London.
The Funk Brothers were more than a studio band. You were a team and a family.
The Funk Brothers were the best band in the world and we had a blast. All of the musicians were master players on their own, but we worked together as a team. The output, collectively, was much better than anyone could dream up. There was a synergy, bouncing ideas off of one another, and the end product was much better than one person on their own playing all the instruments. All the minds working together, all the backgrounds and experience, made it a unit and a rhythm section. At Motown, we would go in, read the music, come up with ideas to enhance the music, get the grooves going on, and we cut one song an hour, six or seven songs a day, five days a week. Then I would go to Holland-Dozier-Holland and do the same thing for three hours.
The problem you faced with your music was sampling. Now the problem is downloading entire songs and albums for free.
I don't pay attention to it, other than the first time I heard one of my songs sampled and realized what was going on. I called Clarence Avant, the publisher who owned the copyright, to see what he could do about getting us paid and getting us part of the writing credit. As far as ringtones, I hope they pay me. People’s tastes change so fast, and if they want to repurpose your music, you can't stop the progress. The illegal downloading is theft and it kills sales entirely, and if that's the case, why not make a few records, use them as promotional pieces, give them away and do concerts? There are always ways to make money, but record sales — are they a big piece of it now or is it concerts? I play and people pay me. It's real simple.
What is it about the guitar that makes it speak to so many people without saying a word?
I think what strikes our hearts is that guitar is the instrument of the common man. With an acoustic guitar, you can strum and sing because of the simplicity of what you can do with the instrument. Anybody can learn to play it for amusement, you don't need a lot of money to buy one, and you don't need a bunch of people to load it up.
What is your definition of tone and when did you discover it?
Everyone chases it. For instance, for a while I used the Byrdland with flatwound strings for jazz and funk. Then I decided I needed more horsepower and edginess, like the [Gibson ES] 345, and then I put a high end on it so the punch was just screaming. We're always in pursuit of tone because it's who we are, but we never say, "That's it!" You change your tone as you grow musically and artistically; tones you liked in the past will not serve or suit you in the future. Now I use a Fender tube amp because I love that sound.
You say in your book that you used to spend a week learning one riff. Today, it’s instant everything. Are guitarists as patient and willing to put in the time? Is it even necessary?
Some people choose to do things differently in the digital age, with virtual instrumentation, and others spend time or have a good school system, so it goes hand-in-hand, but they're not going to get there any other way. When you see a good player, you know they spent time getting there.
What do you think about when you're playing?
Way back when, sitting down, it would be like a transcendental meditation thing with my eyes closed and in another dimension. Now I'm standing, and half the time I get there. Mechanically, I'm trying another approach and I'm treading new ground, so I have to look at the instrument and the fingerboard. Other times, I close my eyes and get to that other level.
What is your main goal as a guitarist?
The goals depend on the individual, and where or how well you want to learn to play. I think what you're looking at is how versatile you want to be. Do you want to write? Do you want to read music? Do you want to learn all kinds of music? When I first started out, it was not to be a star or to make money. I love the instrument. I saw my cousin playing country guitar and I had to do it. My whole thing is just wanting to be the best I can be, perform and make records, and as long as I can keep doing it, I will do it. There is no objective because it is a never-ending journey. I enjoy the trip with no destination. I'm not looking for the train station. I'm not looking for the end. There is no end.
What is the biggest mistake that guitarists make, not only technically, but in their approach and attitude?
Some guitarists don't understand that they should learn to read music. Some also need to understand that they need to fit in with the group, because it is very easy to out-volume anybody else in the band. Part of your role is to be in a team. When you are out front, you can crank up and be the center of attention, but you've got to work with the other guys, too. Now, with digital tuners, you need to be aware of intonation. But I believe guitarists are trying new things and working hard, all of them.
What should the solo do within the context of the song?
It should communicate and connect to the audience with soul, melody, and the flashiness that’s called for. It's about communication. It's not about being the best technician. It's about feel. That's what connects. A few notes with a lot of feel, and constantly balancing, because music is an art form and a communication form. Without feel, you don't have it.
How does this differ from the role of a bridge or a breakdown?
The bridge, to me, is the high point of the composition. The breakdown is where you bring everything down to a level. All of this stuff is to change the point of interest in the composition and make it more fun to hear. In “Scorpio,” the percussion does the breakdown with the bass solo. Bridges and choruses and verses are to create points of interest for the listener and composer.
How important is jamming?
Jamming, sometimes, sounds like we're talking about people getting together and they are unorganized. A better term is “sitting in with other folks.” You do jam, but there is structure. Jamming without structure is disorganization. What it means is getting together, deciding on songs, and bringing structure. Just to follow … some people can, but to me, that's why I'm a songwriter — I need songs and composition, the roadmap, not just bouncing notes off of each other.
What does it take to become a good session musician?
Now, most guys who get calls for session work are doing overdubs. Most of the time, those guys have been playing live and their style is somewhat formulated. One thing about session work, in my experience, is that you had to be able to read. You can't go from your basement to a session. Sessions move fast and it takes years of experience to interpret charts. To be a session guy, you've got to learn everything, you've got to be versatile, and you've got to be able to deliver quickly. I played in a backup band on the road before I got into the studio.
Can you play everything you hear in your head?
That's kind of what happens. Anything on guitar I can put on paper as an arranger and it sounds right in my head. You close your eyes and music flows out instinctively, as opposed to hearing it and, "Let me play it." You get a direction for a melody. Mental creativity is primary because you're not worried about the mechanics with experience.
There seems to be a newfound reverence for music from the past. Is it nostalgia? Are people disenchanted with new music? Both?
I think it's good to appreciate the past. There are a lot of good, young musicians who have tremendous respect for that music. They understand that what came before makes you a better musician, including classical music. Musicians today would be well aware to respect and study the past because it will help them create the future.