The Motown Sound
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Back in 2012 I played guitar in a live-music and dance show that featured all music from the Motown record label. I spent quite some time transcribing, rehearsing and playing the songs and in doing so I began to wonder what it is that make this music so wonderful.
Over time I heard a handful of common elements across many of Motown artists' hits. Here's an in-depth analysis of what I found.
If you want to sound like you're from Detroit in the 60s and 70s, you've got to have these things.
Common Motown Elements
Hittin' All Four
One of the defining elements of Motown is its beat. A classic Motown sound makes great use of the snare drum on all four downbeats of the bar. When people talk about "Motown drums" this is what they often play.
A good example of this is "It's the Same Old Song," by the Four Tops. Listen to the snare drum hit every down beat and how it creates a strong driving force. It's a sound that makes people want to dance.
Another good example of this is The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." That beat is driving forward like a freight train.
You can also hear it in The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On," and on "I Can't Help Myself," also by the Four Tops. It's not quite as strong in this one because the guitar is hitting 2 and 4. But it's there.
Driving Beats 2 and 4
If all the Motown songs had strong four beats to a bar it would start to sound the same, so of course there are variations. The other most common rhythmic feel is emphasizing beats 2 and 4. This is frequently used in rock, but it's especially common in Motown.
Have a listen to the drums in The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love." Notice how the drummer emphasizes strong hits to the snare on beats 2 and 4.
Another good example is Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You."
A slightly different example is "Heatwave" by Martha and the Vandellas. This is interesting because the drums have a bit of shuffle to them.
The tambourine is also used to accentuate 2 and 4. Get that hip out and shake it against the tambo for The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love."
Guitar Accents on the 2 and 4
The guitar is often used to further accentuate beats 2 and 4. To do this they played staccato chords in higher registers which helps the guitar to cut through the mix. In some tracks you have to listen closer to find it with your ear. This is something people often miss, but it's essential for Motown.
The Tempations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" is an easy example and it's fairly loud in the mix. While the snare is hitting all 4 downbeats, the guitar hits 2 and 4 in a crisp, staccato manner.
Another good one is Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You." In this one both the snare and the guitar hit 2 and 4.
We do find some syncopated rhythms in some Motown songs. The most common is the Charleston rhythm -- a hard staccato on the 1, then a long chord held from the "end of 2." The piano plays this part in Martha and the Vandellas' "Heatwave." Here it is transcribed for guitar.
The baritone sax in "Heatwave" adds some extra cool to this with a pick-up to each chord. Here is that part transcribed for guitar.
Hip Guitar Riffs
Memorable riffs make up some of the most famous Motown songs. Just about everyone, all ages, knows this song from its opening riff alone:
It's actually just C major pentatonic in open position! The tone on the guitar is fantastic on "My Girl." A touch of twang in the lower register notes helps the riff to cut through the mix.
These riffs can then be transposed over the chords of the song, as they are in "My Girl."
The Four Tops had a great song that runs a riff over the entire length of "I Can't Help Myself." It's transposed over each chord and played by the piano. Here it is transcribed for guitar.
A great riff can also be used to shake things up in the middle of a song. The Temptations do this well in the bridge of their song "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." The guitar plays this riff while the horns play a big long C note in the empty space.
Clever Chord Sequences
Motown songwriters often looked for interesting chord sequences. Much of rock and pop music sticks closely to the I-IV-V chords, or in the 1960's often I-VIm-IV-V. When we play our "Dirty Dancing Burlesque" show so many of those songs are I-VIm-IV-V that it's hard to tell them apart!
Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's a great progression. But here are some clever alternatives from the Motown charts.
Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" goes like this:
Eb Gm Ab Bb7
I IIIm IV V7
That Gm chord is so beautiful in this song. The sequence is played over and over but it doesn't get boring.
The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On" is another great one. Here's a nice way to play that on guitar.
In the chorus of Stevie Wonder's "Signed Sealed Delivered" you get this awesome Mixolydian chord progression:
Here I am, baby,
Bb F Eb
Signed, sealed, de-livered; I'm yours.
Bb F Eb
Here I am, ba-by,
Bb F Eb Bb
Signed, sealed, de-livered; I'm yours
Sidenote: I know two other great songs that use this chord progression -- they're not Motown, but worth a listen: "Sympathy for the Devil" and the last half of "Hey Jude."
Stevie Wonder found a lot of great chord progressions. The end of each verse of "Superstition" goes like this:
B7 C7 B7 Bb7
When you believe in things that you don't understand,
A7 B7 SHOT
Then you suffer... Superstition ain't the way
Smokey Robinson's ballad "Ooo Baby Baby" has a few lush chords that make the song so dreamy:
Ooo la la la la
I did you wrong
My heart went out to play
And in the game I lost you
What a price to pay
Octaves on the Guitar
Another technique used in some of the later Motown recordings uses octaves on the guitar played in quick, funky rhythms. They're played high pitch so it cuts through.
The Jackson 5 do this perfectly in "I Want You Back." The cool thing is that these octaves are played over top of a long chord progression, but the Ab octaves just keep going.
The Supremes also used this to great effect in "You Keep Me Hanging On." Getting the rhythm just right is essential. A touch of delay can help, and usually all, or most of the rests are played with scratch.
Later Motown incorporated some great wah sounds. The perfect example of this is "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" by The Temptations. Amazing how different this song is to their earlier numbers like "My Girl"!
"Rolling Stone" has just one chord, but it's such a powerful song. Again, work on getting the rhythm just right or it won't fly.
And of course there are the first four notes of "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye. Most people recognize that song as soon as they hear those first notes from the wah guitar. There's a whole lot of "naughty" in that sound.
It wouldn't be a "Girl Group" if it didn't have the vocal harmonies -- or a "Boy Band" for that matter.
The Supremes and the Temptations are obvious examples of this. Sometimes the main melodies are harmonized, sometimes it's the response to "calls," and sometimes it's just some sweet "ooohs" and "aaahs" to flesh out the chords.
The Miracles' "Ooo Baby Baby" is one of my favourites for this. Smokey Robinson's voice soars over the gentle and rich chords produced by the Miracles.
And if you've got the harmonies, you need the choreographed dance moves to go with it! There's nothing like seeing three talented singers gently swaying back and forth, with a quick turn every 8 bars and a synchronized "snap" of the fingers.
The choreo was quite simple in those days, not like the boy bands of today. It was basic, but I'd say far more effective and a lot easier to actually sing if you're not jumping around the stage all night -- and of course we know the boy bands of today don't actually sing, do they?
Invest in some matching suits or dresses, and now you've got a show!
Finally, the 70s Motown really brought in the funk. Stevie Wonder had this in spades. "Superstition" just might be the funkiest song ever recorded. There's something about the tempo of this song that makes it so cool. It's surprisingly slow and it's actually quite hard to keep it to that tempo.
Another obvious example is The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Again -- one chord, great song!
There you have it, all the common elements I could find in the Motown records vault. Since Motown was around so long, the sounds changed of course, but that's also what makes Motown Records so exciting.
One final thought -- I had coffee with former Temptations member Riley Inge a couple weeks ago and I asked him if he had any advice for a younger musician playing this music. He said, "Just focus on the music because that's what it's all about."