Nile Rodgers On The Immortality Of Guitar, Why He's Writing More Than Ever


You don't get a nickname like 'Hitmaker' without earning it.

While Nile Rodger's is probably more deserving of the 'Hitmaker' moniker than his white 1960s Fender Stratocaster is, both are artifacts of music's past in their own way. Nile, however, is also an architect of music's present and future.

Nile's resume is so musically diverse and so multi-generational that even sorting his million-selling collaborations from the rest produces a list so preposterously long it doesn't seem feasible that one man could have been part of it all.

Nile is, of course, the mainman from CHIC and co-author of the band's catalog of immortal dance hits. He's also written, produced and performed on hit records by David Bowie, Sister Sledge, Madonna, Duran Duran, Lady Gaga, Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake, Dua Lipa — and we just had to cut it off somewhere.

A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and pop legend who still goes to bed with a guitar in arm's reach, Nile tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A that he's as busy this year as he's ever been in his life.

Even during a pandemic, Nile is writing and producing constantly and finding inspiration to try new things.

One of Nile's most recent muses is his Fender Acoustasonic Stratocaster, a revolutionary new instrument that uniquely encompasses both acoustic and electric guitar in a single body.

Nile can't get enough of the guitar, and in a new video released in partnership with Fender, he shows off the Acoustasonic's diverse sonic palette, performing a jazz-inspired composition called "Inside the Box."

You can watch Nile perform "Inside the Box" in the player above!

Read his full QN'A below!

Nile talks about his history with Fender, making the jump from jazzman to pop hitmaker, why the guitar won't go away and how he stays inspired.

I have a feeling that you haven’t been bored much during the pandemic shutdowns.

Not at all. I’m working now — I hate to say this — more than I’ve ever worked at any period in my life. I just wrote somebody this morning apologizing for not being able to speak to them tonight because, I said to them, my workload is like a galley slave. I feel like I’m rowing the ship and a centurion is like whipping me going, ‘Row! Row! Row!’

The demo video you made for Fender for the Acoustasonic Stratocaster looks like it was fun to shoot. Where did that song come from?

This is so great. What happened was life just converged. I was writing with this great friend of mine … he’s now stuck in Los Angeles — in Calabasas — and I’m now stuck here in New York or Westport, and we basically are living inside a box.

And we said, ‘Well, how to we get creative inside a box?’ So he wrote the first part of the motif, and he sent it to me, and I started working on it. So we started writing back and forth. Then we had the basis of what we would consider a real composition; it had a beginning a middle and an end.

Right now I feel like I’m in my Creed Taylor [CTI Records] 2.0 jazz phase, where I want to do jazz songs that you can sort of, like, dance to and hum along with. So we were writing…and we had a legitimate composition and we liked it.

Somehow my resourceful manager sent it to Fender because Fender sent me this guitar, and I was like, ‘Hey, why don’t I play this song on this guitar?’

I had gotten his guitar while I was at Abbey Road. I was super-imposing this guitar on everything that I was writing because I just liked the way it felt. So I’m writing pop songs, I’m writing whatever — whoever walks into the studio, it doesn’t make any difference who it was, this was the guitar I’m playing.

So I get back home, now we’re in the middle of the pandemic, I continue to write and we write “Inside the Box.” Fender the sends me a schematic that basically shows me the functionality of the guitar and why it’s designed to do what it does.

So you were playing with the switches and doing all of that…

Yeah, but I didn’t really know what it did. Then they explained it to me. I’m going, ‘Oh!...I’ll go back and re-play the composition, knowing that the guitar does these unique things and I will apply those unique things to certain sections of the composition.’

That felt sort of cool to me ‘cause I’ve never done that before. Usually, I just pick up the guitar and play or I hear certain things and just do it on the spot. Now that I have a spiritual schematic, if you will, as to how this thing functions…

I’m all into it, almost as a science project, instead of a music project.

…I’ve never done anything like that because I don’t look at music so technically sometimes; it’s really about the feel. But it was fun to have an instrument that was so versatile.

And it’s funny, what I’m looking at right behind my computer is I have a huge amount of guitar strings laid out. I am getting ready to re-string this puppy and see what it does with all the different strings — how it responds to the different strings, because I’m playing it every day.

The guitar you call ‘Hitmaker’ has been in your hands since the '70s. What’s it like playing new guitars when you have such a strong bond with a single instrument? Do you compare every guitar you play to Hitmaker?

No, I’m just playing a guitar. I’m just playing an instrument that I’ve become fond of [*snaps fingers*] like that.

I guess the thing you don’t know about me is that what I play in bed at night is a jazz guitar. I don’t play the Hitmaker at night. I play Hitmaker to make records, but I go to bed with a D’Angelico … or an [Gibson] L-5.

If you look at the edge of my bed, you’ll see a bunch of jazz guitars and like a Dobro or something like that. I want to hear the guitar, I don’t want to have to plug in.

This [Acoustasonic] I can play without plugging in. So I lay in bed, I have this nice guitar that’s light as a feather, like my Hitmaker, it’s really light. So I have a guitar that I’m treating like a jazz guitar that feels like the Hitmakers. This feels like the best of both worlds.

You were working in the jazz world before you transitioned into pop. Luther Vandross helped you get into pop, right?

We were great friends; we were in the same band together. Then, when I started Chic, he ended up working for me.

I started out working for him, then he wound up working for me, ‘cause we had a bigger hit — until he became the super famous Luther Vandross.

So I knew what I was doing, and I knew what I was going to play. And the other guitar players there were super famous. I knew what they were famous for — there was no mystery. I was thrilled to be a part of that scene.

I broke into it, but in fact, Luther threw me into it — thank God.

But I had already made up my mind that for the most part I was going to make a living playing other people’s music. And if I was going to be playing other people’s music, I had to be playing the instrument that was the sound of other people’s music. The sound of other people’s music was not a big jazz box [hollowbody guitar]...

I was living in the world of Hendrix, of Ike Turner, The Isley Brothers, Heatwave, solid body guitars.

When I got my first solid body guitar, which is the Hitmaker, by the way, I traded a big jazz box for it … and I got $300 back. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Whoa, a Strat and $300?! Are you kidding me? This is awesome!’

Little did I know that the Strat I got was the runt of the litter and it didn’t really meet Strat standards. It’s nothing like any other Strat you’ve ever seen. It’s the thinnest Strat you’ll ever see.

Even though they’ve redone the Hitmaker, I think that in Fender’s heart of hearts, they just couldn’t quite go that far. It was like, ‘Man, we’re almost there, but c’mon now, do you really want us to make a guitar that thin?’

The new Hitmakers are awesome. They play great. I’ve played them on records; people can’t tell. That’s cool, but there’s something about the original guitar being so skinny and so thin and so light that I’ve just grown into that.

Every few years, articles start circulating proclaiming how the guitar is dead and gone from pop music. Then there are articles celebrating how the guitar is back. Have you felt demand for guitar wax and wane in your career?

Not for me because as a musician, if you don’t need me playing on your record, you probably don’t need me as a producer. I play on 95 percent of the records I’ve ever made, even if there’s a guitar player in the band. I’ve played on record where there were two guitar players in the band. I play on everything I produce almost.

I can’t even remember a record that I produced that I didn’t play on. I’m sure it exists!

Day before yesterday, I was reading somewhere, talking about a B-52’s song called “Topaz.” They were saying, ‘Wow, listen to how great Keith Strickland has developed.’ And it’s true, Keith is playing and he did develop. But I’m saying, ‘They part that you’re actually talking about is me playing!’

I didn’t want to say anything because I think Keith has really stepped up.

What else is going on in your world? Are you going to try and get back on tour as soon as possible?

I live for the live show. Ever since I was a child, I always envision myself as a live performer. It’s really interesting.

I put up a post yesterday on Instagram of a show that I have never put up before. It’s just because I was going back and looking at stuff from the beginning, and I was going, ‘Wow, we were killing!’

At the beginning of certain songs I would just improvise and play whatever until the crowd is with me, and I forgot how much fun that is and how wonderful that is. It’s that moment that I have to talk directly to a person for a minute.

I’m not really known as a guitar player who just goes off [and solos]. I did that when I was a kid — playing behind my back and stuff. One day I might do it, just for the fun of it ‘cause it is fun to watch, but it is a little silly.

Fortunately, you’re known for doing a much simpler thing. Joe Satriani has to eat his guitar strings every night.

(Laughs) Yeah, you’re right.

It’s funny that some of the most fun times I have are playing with guys who have to do that, ‘cause then I get a chance to open up and do that. Playing with Steve Vai, I have the time of my life. Playing with Dweezil Zappa, I have the time of my life. Or with Keith Urban, I have the time of my life ‘cause we’re just trying to rip each other.

My mission is to make people feel good. I write music to make people feel happy. I don’t write music to show off. That’s not what I do.

To me, when I’m here at home, playing by myself, that’s when I show off.

Someone asked me, ‘If you could have anything in life, what would you want it to be?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. I’d like to play better.’ That’s why when I got to bed at night, I play stuff that’s impossible for me to play.

I just wrote this song that I’ve nicknamed “Arpeggio City.” The reason why I wrote it is because it’s impossible to play. It’s like ridiculous.

But you know what? In two months, I’ll be able to play that bad boy like it’s nothing, and I’ll be like fire all over this thing. But it’s not a commercial song, it’s an exercise. It’s harmonically and melodically quite stable, but there’s no kid that saying, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to buy that song ‘Arpeggio City.’