When it comes to the soulful, funky guitars of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s almost impossible not to think of Curtis Mayfield. Sonically and compositionally, Mayfield set the stage for what many of us associate with slick ’70s funk. However, Mayfield reaches further back than the ’70s and his landmark contributions to the Super Fly soundtrack.
You can find Mayfield’s influence in the roots of Jimi Hendrix’s playing. Listen to “People Get Ready” below. Mayfield’s band, the Impressions, had a hit with this civil-rights theme back in 1965.
Now, check out Jimi’s “Castles Made of Sand” and you’ll notice some immediate connections between the two.
Mayfield had a unique approach to the guitar. He started singing in a gospel choir at age seven and absorbed the music he grew up with like a sponge. He played piano, which his mother taught him, before the guitar. Curtis joined the Impressions at age 14 in 1956. He was noted as being one of the first recording artists to include a strong social consciousness in his music. He was at the forefront of a social movement that would later include Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Mayfield had a gentle delivery while confronting society with the truth masked from our eyes.
While I was on tour in the Midwest a month ago, our tour manager Brendan McDonough bought to my attention that Mayfield used an odd guitar tuning. I had listened to him for years without knowing this.
The tuning was F#–A#–C#–F#–A#–F# (low to high).
I bet you didn’t see that coming! It’s quite an odd tuning, but it basically translates to an open F# tuning. The tuning was inspired by the black keys on the piano. Once you realize that, it doesn’t seem so weird.
What’s in a Tuning?
One thing that comes up a lot when discussing open tunings is the question of necessity. Many will say that if you’re not using a lot of open-string combinations, it’s not necessary. I can see this point; however, it doesn’t take into account how a tuning can influence your voicing and fills.
A D major chord is not just a D major chord. Where you place that chord and how you arrange the intervals changes the sound considerably. It’s for this reason that you can play the given chords for a song, but still have it sound incorrect because you are using different voicings. A prime example is the music of Bob Marley. His guitar voicings are so tied to his songs. Sure, you can use cowboy chords and get through the song, but it won’t sound like Marley.
I believe the F# tuning Mayfield used greatly influenced his playing. When you listen to a song like “People Get Ready,” the parts flow better with the F# tuning. You can play it in standard, but something just doesn’t sound completely right. For his style, the fingerings flow a little easier in F#.
Let’s look at a few popular scales and chords in the F# tuning, but don’t worry, we’ll get to copping Mayfield’s licks in standard tuning later in the lesson.
Ex. 1 shows the full D major chord, while Ex. 2 shows a more stripped-down voicing, closer to what Curtis would use.
To move from D major to a D minor chord, we lower the 3 (F#) to the b3 (F). Ex. 3 shows a minor triad with a low note on the 6th string. Ex. 4 refines that voicing a bit.
You can see in Ex. 5 that you don’t have to move around too much to add some major pentatonic colors to the major triad shape.
Ex. 6 extends the box to end on the 5th of the scale.
Ex. 7 shows a box for the D minor pentatonic scale (D–F–G–A–C) in the F# tuning. Again, Ex. 8 extends the box ending on the 5 of the scale.
Moving sixths around in the F# tuning is pretty easy. You can play them on the top two strings. Ex. 9 outlines a D major sound from the 3 (F#) of the chord, and Ex. 10 outlines a D minor sound starting from the b3 (F).
Just by looking at these shapes, you can see the convenience of this tuning for coloring chords à la Mayfield. The tuning can influence the performance. However, it doesn’t mean we can’t play Mayfield-inspired music in standard tuning.