Drawing from a vast well of American R&B and soul, Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal deliver powerhouse sounds from their home base in Nebraska.
On its latest, Green Light, the sextet melds Stax, Motown, Philly, and Muscle Shoals sounds, woven together by Hoyer’s gigantic voice and the superb guitar work of Benjamin Kushner. If you thought authentic R&B was a thing of the past, this band lends hope. VG asked Kushner to divulge his soulful secrets.
Classic R&B guitar is a lost art. How did you learn that style of playing?
I wouldn’t say the style is lost, it’s just harder to find. Listening to radio and recordings at home, thanks to my older siblings, I developed a passion for the propulsive nature of R&B rhythm guitar. My passions were amplified by hearing and observing great players like John Lee Hooker, David Pruitt of The Bel Airs, and many others onstage. Live music was the best lesson for me. Madison, Wisconsin, had the Club De Washington, where I learned from artists such as Paul Black and Andy Ewen. In Lincoln, we have The Zoo Bar and I am so thankful to learn from Magic Slim and Sean Benjamin. Live music has been an amazing inspiration.
What do you see as the guitar’s job in R&B and soul?
It’s fun because the guitar can have multiple roles. There’s the iconic attack of a high triad, or less, on the two and four beats. Some call that the “idiot” guitar – but don’t call it that until you’ve mastered it and placed your guitar in the pocket! It’s not so much harmonic as percussive – I enjoy feeling like part of the drum kit. Then harmonic layers can have tremolo or wah parts that bring that as well as funky feels.
A lot of what you do is centered around not overplaying, like on “Evolution.”
The idea of economy is crucial. Josh Hoyer’s writing insists on this and one must stay true to the songs. On the verses of “Evolution” I throw in a quiet C-minor triad with tremolo after the main phrases of rhythm guitar. But most of the time, when you say less, it means more.
There’s some rhythmic comping on “Harmony.” How did you develop your expert sense of timing?
Having good time is essential to me. I spent many hours with metronomes as a young player, and listened to great players sit in the pocket – as well as consciously push or pull back their time. “Harmony” gives me the opportunity to blend interesting harmonic structure, building into higher inversions as the verses progress, and incorporate funky time feels.
You take a full-on guitar solo on “Green Light.” There’s a lot of Chicago blues in there.
“Green Light” is a straight-up dance track! One of the coolest aspects of rhythm guitar is when you’re laying into the pocket just right and you can feel and see the listeners start to move! As far as the lead, Josh just kept telling me to “play sexy,” since he’s inviting someone to dance. That’s what came out of my Telecaster.
The wah is an important tool for you. Was Skip Pitts’ playing on the 1971 hit “Theme fromShaft” a key track in your life?
I love the “Shaft” theme, along with many wah classics, but I never used a wah until I joined Josh. I approached it with naive excitement. Never gratuitous, it must be played to the needs of the song, even in how you pump the pedal.
Who are your guitar influences?
I grew up listening to a diversity of music, thanks to family and friends. In jazz, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Django Reinhardt, and Joe Pass come to mind. In rock and roll, Santana and Brian May, plus Jimmy Nolen’s work with James Brown, Nile Rodgers, Eddie Roberts, Curtis Mayfield, and King Sunny Adé. Ry Cooder has had a huge influence on me since I was a teenager.
Describe your gear on the album.
Six of the songs were played on a Tele-style guitar made of Southern yellow pine by Phil Whitmarsh at Old Market Guitarworks here in Lincoln. The pine is more than 400 years old and came from the interior of an old building in Omaha’s Old Market, so it’s ideal. We chose Lollar pickups.
I also use a comfortable Frankencaster with an ash body and Squier neck. The amp is a ’65-reissue Deluxe, which we miked in the studio.
Soul music is back in a big way. Do you sense this resurgence when gigging with Soul Colossal?
Yes, I honestly feel like good soul music is always surging, one way or another. At its best, it’s heartfelt, personal, inviting, and often danceable – and can have very powerful lyrics.
This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.