In our first episode of Fret Chat, Vulfpeck guitarist Cory Wong shares valuable insight for upcoming guitarists and discusses his influences.
Cory Wong’s brand of loose-wrist guitar funk draws comparisons to the likes of David Williams, Nile Rodgers, and Prince, but his style is uniquely his own. When he’s on stage, you’ll see him wearing a striped t-shirt and a massive grin. When he gets into a groove, his strumming hand defies the law of physics– it legitimately looks like he can turn his wrist bones to rubber on command.
Cory’s musical resume is extensive, but many of you probably know him from Vulfpeck. His bright, rhythm-as-lead Strat sound found a natural home with the band’s pocket funk starting back in 2013. He also released his own debut album in 2017 as Cory Wong and is part of Vulf records’ newest project, Fearless Flyers.
To kick off our Fret Chat series, we asked Cory some questions about the art of guitar. He gave us a goldmine of insight to share.
Cory’s Guitar Influences & Players to Watch
Cory is a Minneapolis native, so it’s no surprise that Prince and Sonny T have had a huge impact on his playing. When we asked him about guitar players to keep an eye on, he was quick to point out the “insane musical force” that is Blake Mills (as heard on Rango II with Vulfpeck).
“When [Blake Mills] touches the guitar, he is channeling something else,” Cory explained, “I never felt the feeling I had when I heard him just plug in and play– it felt like this soul just crying out from the depths of the Earth–[his playing] had this extreme sense of channeling beyond what a natural person is capable of.”
If that’s not a strong endorsement of a fellow guitar player, I don’t know what is.
Earlier in his music career, Cory was in the jazz scene and heavily influenced by Pat Metheny. He also mentioned his admiration for fellow Fearless Flyer Mark Letteri‘s chops and rhythm and Julian Lage‘s harmonic sense and fluid playing.
Cory’s Practice Routine
These days, between a full schedule of touring and session work, Cory doesn’t have as much time to just sit down and practice.
“My practice routine has to be more efficient than it ever has been,” he explained, “It’s normally split up into a few different areas.”
Coordination & facility
“I think it’s really important to practice musical ideas,” Cory explained, “There was a time when I was just practicing a lot of finger motions without thinking about the musicality of it, and I was recognizing [the effect] in my playing. If you practice musically, you’ll sound more musical. If you practice mechanically, you’ll tend to sound more mechanical.”
“Now, if I’m practicing moving my fingers fast and trying to get coordination, I’ll usually do it with arpeggio exercises,” he said, “like a three octave arpeggio or some scalar things where I’m playing actual motions I’d use in a song or things that are musically pleasing to listen to.”
Groove & time awareness
“Most of my practice is done with a metronome. I do it that way because I think playing in time is very important, and it’s a big part of my playing,” Cory said, “Of course, part of the groove aspect is where you feel the time– the ebb and flow the time and where you feel it breathe.”
“That means sometimes practicing dead on the click (a little bit ahead of it) and also a laid back behind the beat thing. Each of those has their place as far as where [and when] to feel the groove,” he continued, “The Prince funk sound is very much in time and [often] on top, while the modern RnB/Funk stuff is much more behind.”
“Now that I’m super comfortable on my instrument–a lot of my practice is spent listening to other people to figure out how [they] approach music and how I can either learn that stuff, respond to it, or build it into my own playing.”
Advice for Fellow Guitar Players
Cory reiterated the importance of time feel and practicing with a metronome, which, let’s be honest, are aspects of practice that guitar players often neglect. He offered two pieces of actionable advice for guitarists.
Get a mental awareness of time feel and where the grid is
“The thing that I see a lot of players not spending time on is practicing their time feel and groove with a metronome and with records that really inspire them,” he said, “Build awareness to what it sounds like when you play ahead of, behind, and directly on the grid. Time awareness can be a huge thing when you dive in and learn it.”
Play along precisely with records
“The second thing is playing along with favorite records,” he said, “not just jamming along– that’s fun, and I do it too– but if you really like a Prince tune, learn the exact parts, and don’t do anything different. Our natural tendency when we’re playing in our basement is to add extra stuff and jam the part loosely, but I think it’s important to learn exactly what the part is.
Important but Overlooked Aspects of Guitar
We asked Cory what he thinks the most important but overlooked aspect of guitar playing is. He gave us two: thinking about how your part fits in a song and finding your voice on the instrument.
Fitting into a song
Having the discipline and awareness to play only what’s needed in a song is what separates the amateurs from the pros. And who better to share insight on that concept than a member of the mystically minimalist Vulfpeck?
“I think it’s very, very important to notice how all the parts fit together,” Cory said, “How does your part respond or react with the drums, the bass, the keyboards? A lot of times, there are two keyboard players. You have no reason to be playing six strings at a time. You don’t need to be playing that dense of a thing because there’s so much other harmonic information happening. Sometimes it’s figuring out how can you play the cleanest, most effective part–and the operative word there is part. What’s your part in the whole of the song and in the whole of what’s happening?”
“There are also a lot of times when your part is serving a purpose, and your natural tendency is to wander like three quarters of the way through the verse,” he said, “All of the sudden, you’re going to change this thing for no reason out of an eight bar verse. That makes things lose focus, and it doesn’t feel as pro to me.”
Finding your voice
Finding your voice as a musician is a journey– one that starts the moment you pick up your instrument.
We all have teachers, mentors, and idols who shape our playing. We mimic the people who inspire us and often draw heavily on one source. Then, as influences blend together, individual style emerges, and we start to learn what feels true and how to embrace what makes our playing unique.
Cory provided some insight into his early musical journey when he was heavily into jazz and hadn’t yet discovered his voice.
“I spent years trying to be Pat Metheny, which was dumb! [Jazz] was challenging and fun, but my heart was somewhere else,” he said, “That whole time, it felt like I was forcing something that I thought was more prestigious, but in the end, I needed to follow my heart, which is the kind of stuff I do now.”
Cory doesn’t regret the time he spent in the jazz world though–it’s all part of the journey, and his current style is richer from the experience.
As he continued on, Cory got involved in a Monday night jam with Dr. Mambo’s Combo (a legendary house band comprised of members from Prince’s New Power Generation) at Bunkers in Minneapolis. This is where he cut his teeth and really delved into the world of funk and RnB.
“Earlier on, when I was playing that gig, Prince would come in, and I would try to impress him by playing more like him or doing the over-the-top Minneapolis thing,” Cory explained, “Eventually, Michael Bland and Sonny T (Prince’s rhythm section) would be like ‘dude, quit trying to sound like that, just sound like yourself. You sound great when you play like you, and that’s why people connect to your playing.'”
Eventually, Cory started to do just that, and people took notice. Prince did too.
“Getting the nod from Prince, saying that he liked my style and the way that I played was mind blowing,” Cory said, “I had to run away when he said that and freak out for a second.”
To musicians searching for their voice, Cory advises, “Just find out who you are as a player, what you want to do, and what you want to express through your music. Most importantly, what’s the message and overarching thing that you want to do with your music? I think that can be a guiding light to why and what you practice and play.”
Kyle Sparkman is a musician and writer based in Philadelphia. He writes about music and other things that are interesting to humans. If the music is funky, he probably likes it.