“You probably don’t know my name, but I bet you know at least one of my songs,” Nile Rodgers says in BBC documentary, Nile Rodgers: The Hitmaker.
Indeed, over the past 40 years Rodgers has penned, played and produced a vast wealth of hit songs, starting with “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” the era-defining late-’70s smashes by the band he co-founded, disco powerhouse Chic.
Innumerable session, writing, production, arranging and film music credits commenced in the 1980s and continue today, with Rodgers making essential contributions to work by David Bowie (Let’s Dance, 1983), Diana Ross (Diana, 1980), Debbie Harry (Koo Koo, 1981), Duran Duran (“The Reflex” and “The Wild Boys,” 1984; Notorious, 1986), Madonna (Like a Virgin, 1984), INXS (“Original Sin,” 1983), Robert Plant (The Honeydrippers: Volume One, 1984), Jeff Beck (Flash, 1985), Thompson Twins (Here’s to Future Days, 1985), Mick Jagger (She’s the Boss, 1985), Al Jarreau (L is For Lover, 1986), Steve Winwood (Back in the High Life, 1986), B-52’s (Cosmic Thing, 1989), the Vaughan Brothers (Family Style, 1990), Michael Jackson (“Money,” 1995) and many others. More recently, Rodgers and the Hitmaker contributed to 2013 hit albums True by Avicii and Random Access Memories by Daft Punk, including the latter’s multi-platinum dance hit, “Get Lucky.”
“I honestly can’t count, but I recently got this really sweet e-mail that said, ‘Dear Nile, I’m from Sony publishing and I’m going over your performance royalties. I’ve just reached 400 and I’ve merely scratched the surface,’” said Rodgers.
What is known is most of the songs in his vast catalog were created with the help of the “Hitmaker,” a 1960 Stratocaster with a 1959 neck that Rodgers fortuitously happened upon in a Miami Beach, Fla., in 1973.
At the time, Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards had formed the Big Apple Band, which backed an R&B act called New York City. The band had only one hit (“I’m Doin’ Fine,”) but it was enough to earn a rotating opening slot for the Jackson 5 on the U.S. leg of their first world tour.
“We had those Acoustic amplifiers with the horns because we wanted to be like Sly and the Family Stone, but I was playing this big jazz guitar, so my level would feed back,” Rodgers said. “It also didn’t sound funky. It was nice sounding, but it wasn’t funky. So my partner, Bernard Edwards, he told me, ‘Man, you’ve got to get a Strat.’ Now, I loved Hendrix and I loved Clapton, but I didn’t quite understand why I needed a Strat, because I wanted to be more like George Benson or Wes Montgomery. But then this young kid plugged into my amplifier and he was playing a Fender Strat. I heard this kid play and I was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s younger than me and he sounds better than me. He sounds funky; he sounds incredible.’ And the very next day I traded my jazz guitar and they gave me $300 plus this guitar. This guitar has been with me ever since.”
It is estimated that Rodgers has since made music worth more than $2 billion with the Hitmaker.
“This may be the most famous guitar ever heard but not seen in the public eye the way that, say, Bruce Springsteen’s Tele or Eric Clapton’s Strat has,” said Fender’s Justin Norvell. “It didn’t stay put with one band or one style—from disco to funk to hip-hop to pop to EDM. It’s like the original mix-tape guitar.”
The Early Years
One of the most influential music producers in the history of pop music, Rodgers grew up in New York (the Bronx, Alphabet City, Greenwich Village) in an unconventional household.
“My mom and dad were beatniks, and they lived the whole bohemian, cool beatnick-y lifestyle,” Rodgers told the BBC. “They were heroin addicts, too. That was weird, but I got used to it.
Rodgers also had an interest in classical music, and he became a proficient flute and clarinet player in the school orchestra before a teenage crush led him to guitar.
“I was about 16 years old and staying with my uncle, and my uncle’s girlfriend had this beautiful daughter who had an R&B band,” recalled Rodgers. “Even though I loved R&B music, I never really tried to play it and I certainly never played guitar. But this girl was so attractive to me; I was so smitten with her. She said that she needed a guitar player for her band, and I thought I knew enough about music in general that I could probably figure out something good enough to play with them because I assumed they were not on that high of a level. Well to my surprise, they were pretty damn good.
“They gave me a guitar to play and I was terrible. I tuned the strings to something sort of discernible; probably to all fifths or something like that, but whatever I tried to play was horrible. This girl—I don’t remember if she laughed at me, but she certainly made me feel embarrassed. At that moment, it was like throwing down the gauntlet. I was determined to become a guitar player.”
A resolute Rodgers soon picked up a Beatles songbook and diligently attempted to learn “A Day in the Life.”
“No matter how hard I tried, it would never really sound like the song,” Rodgers said. “What I didn’t realize was that I had the guitar out of tune. My mom’s boyfriend at the time came in and heard me struggling over this song. He saw me reading the book and he knew I could read music, so he couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get it right. He picked up the guitar and said, ‘How the hell do you have this thing tuned?’ He tuned the guitar for me, and I will never forget this feeling. All of a sudden, these positions that I had been practicing over and over and over again so diligently, once he tuned the guitar for me, it was easy as pie. When I first played that song, I never had a feeling of elation like that. I’ve been chasing that high ever since I picked this thing up. I felt like the first guy who climbed Mount Everest, and from that moment on I decided that I would never fool around with other instruments, and that I would concentrate on guitar. That was the beginning of this wonderful journey that I’ve been into now for some 40 years.”
From Amateur to Professional
By the time he was 19, Rodgers was already working as a session guitarist and had scored a gig with the Sesame Street touring band. But it was joining the house band at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater that truly elevated his game. There, Rodgers encountered the world’s biggest R&B artists—Aretha Franklin, Betty Wright, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Maxine Brown, Ben E. King and many others.
“My whole life really changed because of the Apollo,” reflected Rodgers. “It was a revue type of situation. We were playing for a lot of one-hit wonders, but also for the big stars. If the big stars had a full rhythm section, sometimes they would use me to supplement their band because all those records in the old days would have two or three guitar players on them. So that’s where I learned how to play these diverse styles. Changed my whole life.”
Another life-changing moment came in 1970, when Rodgers met Edwards at a stand-in gig.
“Before the night was over, it was clear that even though he and I were pickup guys, Bernard and I were the guys who sort of brought everybody together,” Rodgers told the BBC. “After we met that first time, we became inseparable. He was my bass player and I was his guitar player.”
The pair went on to form Chic, and after the huge success of the band’s first few singles, Atlantic Records invited the pair to produce any act on the label’s roster. They chose Sister Sledge, whose 1978 album We Are Family included two number-one hits — the title track and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”—effectively establishing Rodgers and Edwards as top-notch producers. Together and individually, they would go on to produce many of the world’s top artists.
One of Rodgers’ earliest solo production projects came in 1983, when he helped craft chart-topping David Bowie’s comeback album Let’s Dance. In so doing, Rodgers also introduced Austin, Texas, blues guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan to the world by enlisting him to play on the album. Years later, Rodgers produced 1990 Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan album Family Style, which was released shortly after Stevie Ray Vaughan’s untimely death.
“The very first time I met S.R.V. it was the most charming thing ever,” said Rodgers. “He played my guitar and he used to use much heavier-gauge strings. So he was playing my Strat and he broke a string. I didn’t know because I was off in another room doing something else. When I got back to my guitar there was a sweet handwritten note that I still have. It said, ‘Dear Nile, so sorry. I didn’t mean to break no strangs.’ And he spelled it with an A!”
On Family Style track “Brothers,” when you hear someone say “Now, ya’ll share,” the comment actually refers to the Hitmaker being passed back and forth between Jimmie and Stevie.
Regardless of who has played the Hitmaker, however—from the Vaughan brothers to Jeff Beck to Johnny Marr and others—Rodgers said the response is always the same.
“The one thing I notice is that right away, every single guitar player stops and goes ‘Wow. Wow.’”
“I mean, I hate to sound so extravagant, but obviously we started making hit records very early in my life, and I knew that there was something very unique about this sound,” Rodgers said. “So I started to chase this; chase this over and over again. I have a locker of Stratocasters. I might have more Strats than Fender because I just had to have another one and I could not find another one no matter what I did.”
The Almost Catastrophe
Rodgers has always believed that his guitar is truly unique. And as the Fender Custom Shop began working on a tribute signature model, his theory was soon proven.
“I’ve looked at a lot of guitars and I’ve never seen a Stratocaster like this one,” said the Fender Custom Shop’s Mike Eldred. “When I first I picked it up and looked at it, from a guitar-builder standpoint, you immediately see that there’s some weird stuff going on there. The neck is really thin, the body is really light and it’s a hard-tail bridge. He’s got that brass pickguard happening, which loads the sound down and makes it sound bassier. Yet the headstock is really thin and it has high-mass tuners, so it’s just like this potpourri of stuff that shouldn’t work really, but it all works great.”
Imagine Rodgers’ horror, then, when he accidentally left the Hitmaker on a New York commuter train in early October 2013.
On that day, Rodgers was distracted by a phone call from a good friend. He had battled an extremely aggressive cancer that had been diagnosed in 2010, and his friend was on the line recounting her own difficult experience.
“She was sharing her own horrific cancer story, and I was so engrossed in what she was saying that I ran off the train not realizing I had left my baby in the overhead bin,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t even realize it until I had gotten all the way home, and at that point I panicked.”
Distraught, Rodgers hopped in his new sports car, feverishly navigating New York rush-hour traffic to reach the end of the train line within five minutes of the train he’d previously taken.
“For two-and-a-half hours we searched, and it was an exercise in futility,” Rodgers said. “But for some reason I wouldn’t leave. I didn’t leave because I didn’t know what to do. Once I left I’d be admitting that I’m never getting this guitar back again. I was being unrealistic, but thank God I was being emotional and unrealistic because I just stayed. I wouldn’t allow anybody to tell me ‘Sorry pal, that’s it.’”
Rodgers eventually found a police officer who recommended that they drive over and search the train yard. And there, seemingly miraculously, they found the Hitmaker unharmed in its case.
Rodgers recounted the experience on his blog as such:
This is the one guitar I can’t live without. It’s never let me down. It’s played on so many records, at so many concerts, and even comforted me after the death of my Chic band co-founder Bernard Edwards, whose dead body I discovered right across the hall from my hotel room. The loss of my guitar gave me that same type of fear. Paralyzing fear. Devastating fear.
A Tribute to the Hitmaker
Fortunately, even during those few hours of paralyzing fear, Rodgers found a silver lining. Only days before, Fender Custom Shop Master Builder Paul Waller had visited Rodgers in New York, bringing along the latest prototype.
“It was the first time in my life that I felt that we were really close to having a replica,” Rodgers said. “The funniest thing about Paul being at my house, though, was after two hours of measuring it and doing all of this stuff, he spent another two hours rubbing the neck on my guitar. I’m going, ‘Dude, that looks like porno to me.’ Whenever he would find something that was identifiable, he would stop and take a photo and make a note. So I just felt confident, I really did feel confident that I was going to get my baby back or a reasonable facsimile of it, so that helped me a little bit.
“I had a zen moment of sorts, and because I knew another one really is coming after looking for one for 40 years. I thought it was karma. I guess I was meant to lose it and I guess Fender was meant to make me another one.”
By early November, Rodgers received another prototype from the Fender Custom Shop.
“This one was so good and so close that I called Mike Eldred and I said, ‘You know what, I am so happy with this guitar, let’s just use this one because I’m really thrilled with this. This is fine with me.’ He said, ‘No Nile, let’s get it perfect.’ That meant so much to me.”
A few days before Thanksgiving 2013, Rodgers hopped on a flight from New York to LAX, and then traveled to Corona to visit Eldred, Waller and Norvell at the Fender Custom Shop and hammer out final details. There, he played yet another prototype.
“This feels really great,” Rodgers said at first. “This just feels so good.” After playing for a few minutes longer, though, he asked for neck measurements at the fifth and seventh frets.
“The neck width dimension was off by .020”, which is about the same thickness as a human hair,” Waller said. “The neck had been worn thinner in that one area due to years of playing.”
And with that, Rodgers and the real Hitmaker departed for a series of shows in Shanghai, China, while the Custom Shop finalized work on the tribute model. Plans called for the guitar to be unveiled at the 2014 NAMM Show in Anaheim, Calif.
“As the Strat celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2014, there is no better guitar to highlight the versatility and continued relevance of this iconic instrument than to release the Nile Rodgers Signature Stratocaster,” Norvell said.
As noted, legions of today’s listeners probably wouldn’t recognize Rodgers and the Hitmaker by name, but recent mega-hits such as “Get Lucky” prove that all those listeners have nonetheless heard them most assuredly, just as previous generations had in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. To this day, the sounds of Nile Rodgers and the Hitmaker remain as ubiquitous as ever. And from his chance discovery of the instrument in 1973 to the Oct. 2013 train incident and everything in between and beyond, perhaps the title “Get Lucky” is an ideal summary of Rodger’s lifelong experience with the instrument. He certainly has had a great deal of great luck with it.
“I feel like I’m the most fortunate recipient of this incredible accident; this chain of events,” Rodgers said. “I could have gone to a different pawnshop. I could have seen another instrument in the window. This was probably the cheapest Strat in the place, and maybe the only one with a maple neck. I don’t honestly remember the circumstances because I wasn’t Strat-savvy at all. I just wanted a Fender Stratocaster. Who would have thought? I mean, talk about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Who would ever thought in a million years that I’d get something so unbelievably unique and special?”
Enjoy this Nile Rodgers playlist on Spotify.