4 Michael Jackson Style Guitar Riffs

This lesson is actually based on the guitar style of the late, great David Williams. With his super-clean and compressed funk guitar licks, he carved himself an A-list career, adding his unique rhythm magic to numerous soul, funk and pop tracks. Although he played for a variety of big name acts, his guitar playing for Michael Jackson has probably been heard by more ears worldwide. His clean guitar funking had a bit more attitude than other rhythm specialists and he was not frightened to dig in – he had a bit of an ‘old skool’ R&B attitude, if you will. On some of his earlier sessions (e.g. the Jackson 5 and Chaka Khan), you can hear the strings snapping on the fretboard for some of his more animated licks!

Although he used the humble Minor Pentatonic Scale (for songs that use common major and minor chord progressions), he used enough unique fingering patterns and ‘push and pull’ rhythmic syncopations to make his playing stand out from the rest of the crowd. Throw his liberal use of slides and judicious use of double stops into the mix, and you had one funky dude!

Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on:

Riff 1

David would play something like this to fit into a busy band arrangement. As it’s relatively syncopated I’ve provided pick directions – notice the large amount of up-picks due to many notes being played off the main beat. The slide articulation in the second bar gives it a bit of personality.

Riff 2

Watch that you get the picking directions sorted and the notes occurring exactly where they should be. Each bar begins with a tricky alternate-picked E Minor Arpeggio – practice this slowly at first. Lastly, make sure you snap those octave slides for some funk attitude!

Riff 3

This works on the fifth and fourth strings. Occasionally, David will move away from the tried and tested Pentatonic-style funking and explore chord tones more – in this case, he’s working within the C7 shape in the key of E7, and stretches it out so it glues well not only to E7, but the following D chord too.

Riff 4

This is best used when you’re in the spotlight but still required to funk like crazy! Not only is it syncopated, it also displays clever use of chromaticism, so that E7 chord tones (G# and D) fall on the beat and non-passing notes (G and D#) on off-beats.

As always, below the YouTube video you’ll find the backing track to play along with, and below that, the tablature. Aren’t I nice?!

Feel free to ask questions or just share your thoughts in the comments!

Watch the video:

Play along with the backing track:

Read the tab:

4 Michael Jackson Style Guitar Riffs

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