Known throughout the guitar world for his infinitely tasty arrangements and rock solid 16th notes, Cory Wong is one of modern day funk's leading ambassadors and most prolific producers and songwriters.
Cory is a rare example of a guitarist who's established a distinct voice as a rhythm player, whether he's rocking the house with Vulfpeck, the Fearless Flyers, his solo band Cory & the Wong Notes or various collaborations with jazz and R&B greats, like Dave Koz.
Speaking to Q104.3 New York's QN'A about the process behind developing his new Fender Cory Wong Stratocaster, Cory addressed his early introduction to punk, rock, jazz and R&B and his guitar's eerie link to another prolific funk master: Nile Rodgers.
Before settling on the specifications for his signature model, Cory set out to learn as much about the Stratocaster as possible, playing as many examples as he could. He realized he had an affinity for the feel and sound of Strats with smaller bodies.
So Cory asked Fender to spend a few extra minutes sanding his signature model at the factory, keeping its load light and its tone tight. He learned just recently that he's not alone in terms of that preference.
"[Fender is] trying to remake the Hitmaker, the Nile Rodgers guitar," Cory explained to QN'A. "Every step of the way, Nile was saying the exact same sort of things I was saying, as far as the type of attack and the rhythm guitar thing."
He noted: "[Nile] is a legendary rhythm guitar player. I am a modern-day consummate rhythm guitar player. That’s my world that I live in. I feel like a lot of people bring different things to the table that are compelling. I think the thing that I bring to the table that’s most compelling is in the rhythm guitar world."
The new guitar is both an homage to a guitar Cory has played for years and the culmination of what he's learned about his playing throughout his professional life. Best of all, it makes perfect sense for the scores of players chasing Cory's crystal clear palette of sounds for their own projects.
Read Cory Wong's QN'A conversation below!
How long have you had your signature model in your hands? You must be really happy with it.
I think the first prototype was Q1, 2020. There were a handful of prototypes. We tried a bunch of different things. The first one was very, very close. And then we just made some small tweaks. We were kind of relentless in the pursuit for this.
I’ve been trying pickups in guitars since about that time, and then as far as designing the body and all that, it’s been a long process. But absolutely worth it because we landed on a guitar that I absolutely love.
In what was is this guitar based on your other blue Strat, and in what ways is it a better version?
That’s a great question. It’s in a lot of ways not very similar to my regular blue Strat that I’ve played. The way that I played homage to [that guitar] is with the [aesthetics]. [The features are] a little more like [Fender’s] professional level — their highest level guitars, kind of like the Ultra Series.
It’s a more modern upgrade. It’s got the contoured neck heel, contoured body, upgraded frets, tuners, electronics. Everything about it is the high-level stuff. The blue Strat that I’ve been playing, it was all the entry-level U.S. specs, which is still a great guitar — there’s a reason why I played it for years.
The body shape has a little more contour to it; it’s a little bit lighter weight. Technically, it’s like 3 percent smaller than the average Strat. But I don’t’ know that you’d really notice.
Basically, I asked them, ‘Whoever is sanding the instruments, when you do the Cory Wong Stratocaster, just sand it for 15 more minutes than the other ones.”
I wanted to ask you about that because I saw in the description that the body is slightly smaller. Nile Rodgers told me last October—
I can’t wait to hear where you’re going with this…
Nile told me that his famous Hitmaker Stratocaster is one of the thinnest bodies that ever made it out of the Fender factory. He says the guitar is a total anomaly.
Yes! You know this! Nobody else knows this!
Right! So somehow that guitar made it into his hands, and it’s been his voice, so to speak for the past 50 years. Were you were aware of any of that when you were designing your signature model?
This is the wild thing: I knew nothing of Nile’s preference or proclivities for Stratocaster types — nothing about it. He is a legendary rhythm guitar player. I am a modern day consummate rhythm guitar player. That’s my world that I live in. I feel like a lot of people bring different things to the table that are compelling. I think the thing that I bring to the table that’s most compelling is in the rhythm guitar world.
When we were going through this. I was looking at a bunch of different Stratocaster. I went to some of the local shops and found all these vintage guitars, I found all the modern ones; I wanted to play them, see them, feel them, know what I was like.
I noticed … not every Stratocaster has the exact same body shape. [I found] that for whatever reason, when I’m playing all the Strats that have a little more contour, that are a little lighter in the body, that have less wood in the body, they do a certain thing in the transient attack … that’s a little bit different. It feels different. It’s hard to quantify, but there’s something about rhythm playing and the attack of lead notes with a tiny bit smaller body … but I feel it. There’s something that feels different.
So when did you find out about the Hitmaker similarities?
After we finished the guitar, I went and met in person [with Fender] — this is like a month-and-a-half-ago — with the R&D team. The guitar is done. They were like, “We have something really interesting that we want to talk to you about.”
They were trying to remake the Hitmaker, the Nile Rodgers guitar. Every step of the way, Nile was saying the exact same sort of things I was saying, as far as the type of attack and the rhythm guitar thing.
“We made him a guitar that wasn’t the same thin width as the Hitmaker. It was like a millimeter wider. Nile was like, ‘Well, how come you didn’t keep the thinner body shape?’"
Nobody else could feel it. But of course if you’re playing a guitar for 50 years, you’re gonna pick up one that’s supposed to be the same exact thing, it’s like, ‘Uhh, it’s not right.’
I thought that was really interesting and I think that’s awesome that you know that. I think there’s maybe something to it, but it feels like [this guitar] really nails that thing a bit better.
How did you find funk? I don’t feel like there’s a lot of pure funk out there; it seems like it's more elements of funk brought into other styles. You seem firmly rooted in funk.
The way I got into funk is a geographical coincidence. What I mean by that is, I grew up in Minneapolis. I live in Minneapolis right now. Everybody who was a mentor of mine when I started playing is Prince alumni.
I was the only one who didn’t play with Prince. He would come out to see my band. This is the last couple years of his life, he would come out to this place called Bunker's and see my band play.
When I was growing up, I just assumed that everybody knew about funk and that funk was a part of everybody’s scene. …I just kind of grew up with it in the water. And honestly, I didn’t realize how much of an international sensation Prince was until he died. He lived in a different space in my brain because we’re from the same city, and all my friends who taught me how to play music were friends of his. One of my mentors, Sonny T., was Prince’s guitar teacher and played bass in his band for a decade. Oddly enough, Sonny now plays bass in my band.
What funk your gateway music?
What really got me hooked on playing was ‘90s alt-rock and punk. I was a little kid watching MTV and I felt something when I saw Green Day. I felt something when I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I wanted to create that feeling myself. I wanted to see if I could accomplish that for me and my friends. An emotional expression is really what got me into music.
I’m basically the only musician in my family, but my dad is such a music lover. He has a huge record collection, a huge jazz collection, classic rock, R&B, everything. He had Blue Note albums, CTI, ECM, Columbia Jazz.
I started showing interest in the bass. And I was like, ‘Oh, I love RHCP, I love Primus. I love bands with an amazing bassist. How come there’s not more bands where the bass player is insane?’
You’ve put out two records already this year. Is that output a product of the pandemic, and do you have anything else coming out this year?
I have at least one more album that will come out. It’s already done.
[These new releases are] a product of not being on tour, but more so a product of I really feel like creativity as a vine or a flower that blossoms rather than a gas tank that empties. So the more creative projects that I do, the more creative energy I get. It doesn’t drain out.
So being home a lot and just showing up at my studio every day has really allowed me the space to write a lot more, to record and produce a lot more. I just love doing it so much, and it’s such a part of who I am, and I’ve had so much more time to do it, it’s just been a lot easier to do.