On playing Madison Square Garden, working with Jon Batiste and more.
Rhythm guitarist extraordinaire, solo artist and grammy nominated musician Cory Wong has been making a splash in the funk scene as of late. Racking up eleven solo albums, being a member of Vulfpeck, Fearless Flyers and playing on The Late Show as a a part of the band and a special guest performer, Cory’s got it going on.
Read up on all the latest interviews, features and columns here.
To celebrate the release of his new guitar, Cory sat down with us at Mixdown, to chat about all things music, touring, his new Fender signature and what’s coming up next for the artist.
What ended up happening is we just went in and started playing the first tune and 36 minutes later, the album was recorded.
Here’s the bit where I’d ask about what people got up to over the lockdown period, but you’ve been really busy it seems! Can you talk about your ‘Cory and the Wong Notes’ sitcom-esc YouTube series, where the inspiration came from and what your favorite episode is?
I wanted to create a show that was like SNL meets The Late Show for musicians – if the musicians took over. I had the idea for that show for a long time and I just didn’t really have the vision for it. And then finally I thought, what a cool way to just make an album? What if I just, built the set, made the show, and recorded my album on it.
That way, I could make it work, and, it’s like a fun way to promote an album, a fun way to make a show and just do something interesting on the internet. So, I really just wanted to create a show that showcased musicians, musician humor, something that’s for musicians, but also general public acceptable. And my favorite episode is probably the collaboration episode – that was a really fun one to do.
Your record Meditations with Jon Batiste is a side-step from your usual funky solo work. How did you find working with him on that record and did you have to do things differently to create it?
So that album was very different to make than any of my other albums because Jon and I have worked together a lot. We’re really close friends and we just love playing together. We have a really deep musical connection and that’s turned into a deep friendship. The first time we met each other, it was at a sound check and he was sitting down playing and I walked in and I plugged in my guitar and we just started playing for like a half hour.
And then before we even said, hi, hung out, whatever, we knew who each other were because of the internet and music community, we started playing together and we just started sending voice memos back and forth to each other after a while. And we’re like, hey, this would be a cool thing to work on, because I play on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with him because he’s the band leader.
So, I would go in his dressing room and we’d just jam a little bit. We just start playing things. And then all of a sudden, we were like, this would be cool to try guitar and piano duets, but also a couple of other instruments. We thought it’d be cool to have Hammond organ and some really organic of the earth sounding drums or percussion. So, we started texting each other voice memos back and forth.
And then one week when I was in New York playing for the late show, he said, hey, let’s just go in and record this stuff. Basically what we had was six little jumping points, just little melodic ideas, songs, starters and finishes, like beginnings and ends of songs. And we kind of went through those. We just talked through them, we didn’t even play them.
I said, all right, this is what I have in mind for this, this is what I have in mind for that, and let’s go in there and see what happens. What ended up happening is we just went in and started playing the first tune and 36 minutes later, the album was recorded. We didn’t rehearse the tunes. We didn’t listen back after each song. We literally just played the album straight down.
And it was like this interesting duet of guitar and piano with the drums and the organ just kind of following along and helping the story be told in the moment. What’s funny about that is it was all instincts. It was all just in the moment doing what we do and that’s the album that got nominated for a Grammy. That was my first Grammy nomination. It’s really kind of incredible, but I wouldn’t suggest it, and I’m not going to do that moving forward.
It’s funny how sometimes, the same year I put out an album that was with a 60 piece Metropole orchestra – the most prestigious pop orchestra in the world probably, or whatever. I slaved over these arrangements for months. We had a week of rehearsal and a week of shows and we were recording on the last day. We so meticulously thought out every single aspect, which made that album great, and it did well.
But it’s funny that the one that took 30 minutes and I mixed in one afternoon was the one that got the Grammy nomination. And it’s just kind of fun that, you just never know, what’s either going to be commercially successful or what’s going to be artistically celebrated or whatever, but that one just seemed to be capturing lightning in a bottle. It was really fun because it was such a departure from what I normally do.
How was your experience playing with Vulfpeck at Madison Square Garden and what was going through your mind at that moment?
It was an absolute dream come true. Now to give a little bit of context – first and foremost, Vulfpeck is just a group of friends and Vulfpeck existed as like a YouTube thing for a couple of years with just four guys. And then I became friends with them. They came and saw one of my bands. We just became really good friends. We started hanging out for about a year and then eventually Jack, the band leader, just absorbed me to be part of the band, to be a band member. And it was all about just hanging out as friends and playing music.
Of course, we take it very seriously on that side of things, as well. But first and foremost, we are just a group of friends and that’s how it started. My relationship, all of our relationships started as friendship. And when we were backstage about to go on at the garden, we all huddled up and it was a really special moment to just kind of sit in there as friends to look at each other and just like wow. Here we are, like all of us at the top of Mount Everest and we’re getting to the peak – is what it felt like. When you sell out Madison Square Garden, it’s a huge moment. And it was incredible for us as an independent band and for us as friends to go on that journey together and to see Jack as the band leader help take us there.
There’s so much gratitude for each other, so much gratitude for Jack as a band leader, as a visionary. And our parents were there, our families were there. So, it was fun to look out and see our families and friends and the joy on their faces. I don’t know, just to see how proud every parent was when we got off stage, all the parents running backstage and just giving big hugs and the siblings and all of that.
It was just a really special moment because it felt like there was so much work and so much dedication to something and a vision to something that’s like a little bit fringe. We’re a group of musicians that has a big musician fan base, but we’re not on the radio. We don’t get played on the radio. There was something really special that felt like the audience was a part of it as well. We felt onstage, it felt like, yes, we’re performing to the audience, but it felt so much like they were a part of the whole experience and that might sound cheesy or whatever, but it really, for anybody that was there, I think that it’s palpable.
What inspired your Fender Signature guitar and why did you choose the Stratocaster? What makes the Cory Wong Stratocaster stand out as yours?
I’ve been a Stratocaster guy since I was a kid. It has just been my main axe since I started playing guitar. When I first was going to start playing electric guitar, I got this cheap little guitar from a pawn shop or something. And then once I started to realize, I think I’m going to dedicate some real energy into this, my dad said, all right, let’s go get you a Stratocaster.
I was like, what, what do you mean a Stratocaster? He’s like, well. I was like, can I choose from other guitars? He’s like, you could choose other guitars. But why don’t you, let’s go get you a Strat. I was like, what do you mean? He’s like, all right, look at this: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, David Gilmore, John Frusciante – you love the Red Hot Chili Peppers – look at John Frusciante, Nile Rodgers. And he starts listing off all these people that are just Stratocaster players. He goes, look at all these. He’s like, look at your Green Day videos. The guy’s playing a Strat, all the bands, like we are going to get you a Strat. I was like, okay, fine.
So, I started playing a Strat from the time I was a teenager and I’ve just stuck with it. Occasionally you find an instrument, of course, I say this a lot, but no matter what, no matter what instrument you play, you’re going to sound like yourself. But there are certain instruments that just draw your voice out of you effortlessly with no friction. And for me, that’s the Stratocaster. And when I play the Strat, it just sounds like me, exactly what I want to sound like on the guitar and with my music.
So, what inspired me with this signature Stratocaster? So I’ve played the same Highway One Strat since I was a teenager and it was a cheaper American model guitar at the time. But when it came to my guitar, I wanted it to be a professional level guitar. Because my Strat that I’ve had for a while, I had a lot of work done to it. I’ve beat it up over the years, right? And I’ve done some upgrades. With this guitar, it’s a different animal. It’s a different beast. In a lot of ways it’s a little more like an American Ultra meets Highway One in a certain sense. The only way it’s like a Highway One is that it’s a Rosewood fingerboard 22 frets, nitro finish.
Now everything else about it is all brand new and even the things, it’s got an American Ultra-style neck shape where it’s the modern D shape neck. The body shape is a little bit smaller than the average Strat. So it’s like three percent smaller or something in some way, it’s a little more contoured in the body shape but it’s just to kind of fit a little more comfortably in my hands and in my arms, so my shoulder isn’t up as high. Let’s just contour it a little bit more, but the average person looking at it wouldn’t really be able to tell.
So it’s really made to get my sound, but also it’s got so much versatility like any Stratocaster that you can get thousands of sounds out of it. I developed these pickups, the Seymour Duncan, clean machine pickups, and they’re kind of like an antiquity set but wound a little bit hotter. And it’s got a stacked humbucker in the bridge to give a little more meat, a little more body to the sound out of that bridge pickup.
And my favorite thing about this guitar is the fourth position panic button, where for me, in my rhythm playing, I’ve got a pretty wide stroke, pretty wide strumming. So sometimes I’ll hit the pickup selector out of fourth position. So to solve that, I thought of having a panic button in the tone two-knob where it’s a push-push knob. I push it. And no matter where the pickup selector is, it’s in fourth position. It’s a really fun thing that’s kind of unique to this guitar.
How involved in the design process of the guitar were you?
I was very, very heavily involved in all of the R&D and all of the design, all of the sound. We tried a bunch of different things. We tried different woods, different body shapes, different finishes. We tried a bunch of different pickups, different types of headstocks, different types of neck shapes. And through the whole process Fender was really amazing in just wanting to make sure that we really nailed it and that I was a hundred percent happy with this guitar. So, it was really great.
What can we expect from Cory Wong within the next year?
Well, I have a couple projects that I’ve finished just recently. One that I’ve just finished and one that I’m still working on. And because I’ve been writing and recording so much over the last year and a half, it’s kind of what’s kept me sane and creatively charged. So, I have a bunch of new music that’s still going to keep coming out.
I have some educational material that I’ve been working on because I love teaching – I used to teach a lot before I was touring and playing a lot as an artist. I miss that. I miss talking about that. And now that I’ve developed a sound, I have more insight into being a professional musician, being a professional guitar player. There are a lot of things that I haven’t seen in educational materials that I think I’m going to talk about. So I’ve got some educational material coming out soon and also getting back out on the road and playing live. I’m super excited. I’m doing a bunch of touring, the US, in Europe over the next year. And I’m so excited about that.
Head to Fender’s website for more information on Cory’s Signature Stratocaster Guitar.