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Recap and history

Congratulations on reaching Day 7 of Grade 1! You’ve worked so hard to get to this point and it’s starting to pay off.

This lesson will focus on recapping everything that you’ve looked at with Melanie and Sam up to this point. There will also be some listening assignments, performance opportunities, and history to keep you learning.


Follow along in the video to review what you've learned so far. We'll leave cliff notes below.

  • Feel: light touch. Backbeat. Lazy J Dilla. Slow to medium tempo
  • Harmony: jazz chords with a Gospel influence
  • Melody: singable and vocal-like
  • Sound: most often played on an electric, either a 335 or Strat with Whammy (which comes from gospel and prog)
  • What it’s saying: guitar doesn’t need to be loud and aggressive. Guitar can feel good. Guitar can make you go “ooo”. Can have a clean sparkly tone.

The five pillars of neo soul.

Neo-soul guitar is about paying attention to the five pillars. These pillars are crucial to adopting the sound and playing style of neo-soul guitar music.


  • This is the term used to describe the specific rhythmic details found in neo-soul guitar playing.
  • Feel can mean having a light touch when creating chord progressions or melodies.
  • It can also reference the backbeat groove often associated with the music of J Dilla.


  • This is the next pillar to understand.
  • The chord progressions found in neo-soul are similar to those found in jazz and gospel.
  • Understanding how the numbers system works is a key skill that makes the complex world of 7th chords and extension chords much easier to understand in their contexts.


  • This is the underlying foundation to creating memorable and catchy phrases.
  • Neo-soul guitar uses many techniques to mimic R&B vocal runs and ornamentations.
  • Being able to use vibrato, slides, hammer ons, and, pull offs are all extended techniques that can be applied to get closer to the sound of the human voice.


  • Don't forget about this one!
  • Your sound embodies everything that you play, so it is good to spend some time thinking about the guitar, amp, and pedals that you want to use to evoke a warm and smooth sound when creating music.
  • Strats with whammy bars are one of the safest options and are frequently used in the gospel guitar tradition, but you may prefer the sound of a Gibson 335, or semi-hollow body guitar too.

‘What it’s saying’

  • This is a fundamental question to ask when you’ve got a handle on all other pillars first.
  • This final pillar is about your intention as a neo-soul guitarist and how you’d like your playing to come across.
  • Do you want to make the audience feel good with your smooth tones?
  • Perhaps you prefer a clean and sparkly guitar tone to help ease your listener into a comfortable and laid-back environment.
  • You might play melodies sparsely and hang on chords a little while longer to really dig into the moment.

Neo-soul history lesson

Throughout the next four grades, Sam's going to break down the evolution of neo soul – from its birth to present day.

Don't slack on your history lessons! These may or may not (but definitely will) be on the quiz!

Key points

Neo-soul music often features minimalist production, behind-the-beat feel, and world-class musicians who started out in the world of gospel.

  • Questlove from the band The Roots is a true musical historian in this domain – go watch his interview with Red Bull music.
  • The term neo soul – In Questolve’s words, “I never claimed I do neo soul. When I first came out, I said, I do black music.”.
  • In fact, neo soul was a marketing term coined by Kedar Massenburg who managed D’Angelo and Eryka Badu. (Reference)

Founding works

The earliest neo-soul album was Brown Sugar by D’Angelo.

  • One of the most iconic performances in this early era that we can look back to is D'Angelo's 1997 performance of Lady with Spanky Alford on guitar.
  • In 1997 Erykah Badu dropped the album Baduizm and the single, On & On, another must-listen neo-soul tune.
  • D’Angelo’s follow-up album Voodoo dropped in 2000 and again featured Spanky Alford on guitar.
  • These three albums, Brown Sugar, Baduzim, and Voodoo are the holy trifecta of early neo-soul music.
  • Other artists in this era include Jill Scott, India Arie, Maxwell, Lauren Hill and
    Spanky Alford.


To understand neo-soul guitar, you need to understand Spanky Alford. He performed with D’Angelo, Al Green, and John Mayer.

  • Before he played secular music, Spanky played Black gospel-quartet church music.
  • You also have to go back to Spanky’s jazz-guitar influences: Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, and Charlie Christian – check out our Jazz Learning Pathway to go deeper into jazz.
  • This article on Spanky is worth a read.

The popularity of neo soul

  • Neo-soul music wasn’t super popular in the 2000s, and it never really came back to into the mainstream.
  • Even with the streaming popularity of artists like Tom Misch, Moonchild, and even John Mayer’s recent music (which nods to the style through Isaiah Sharkey and Pino Palladino), it’s still a relatively niche style of music.
  • It did, however, explode in popularity within the online guitar community, but that's a story for another day.

Listening assignment

We've got some listening homework for you now!

The following songs are must-listen tracks to familiarize yourself with the neo-soul guitar tradition.

The guitar playing on these records helped to define the neo-soul guitar style and gave rise to the genre as we know it. Sam is going to test you on each of the tracks during the quiz.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a way to practice listening to tracks.

It’s a little different from normal listening as the idea behind the skill is to develop the ability to listen deeper into each of the elements that make up the song.

This might be as simple as asking some of the following questions while listening.

  • What’s the vibe?
  • What are the drums and bass doing?
  • What’s the guitar doing?
  • What's the tonality? Can you play the chords?
  • Are there any specific chords that catch your ear?
  • Is the guitar playing a melody or more of a rhythmic part?
  • What are the other instruments doing to support the vocals?
  • Can you hear any extended techniques (shakes, vibrato, slides) being used by the guitar player?

These questions will help you to hear all of your favorite tracks in 4k!

Active listening is listening at a deeper level where everything is under the microscope.

Next up, you’ll look at some amazing songs to bolster your performance abilities and help to expand your neo-soul guitar chops!

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