From the Office of Willis, Messina and White

March 10, 2023 4 min read

From the Office of Willis, Messina and White

The Motown Sound. Everybody knows what it is. Even if you don’t know what it is, you’ve certainly heard it. You’ve heard it with Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and The Jackson 5, among many, many others.

If you still haven’t, well... 1) you’re missing out, and 2) put that streaming subscription to good use and have a listen!

Motown was one of the labels in the 1960s and 1970s that had a unique sound tied to it, and the reason for that was the studio house band that played on the recordings. Mussel Shoals had The Swampers, Stax Records had Booker T. and the MGs, several Los Angeles studios had The Wrecking Crew, and Motown had The Funk Brothers.

Made up of a collection of jazz and blues musicians in the Detroit area, the Funk Brothers famously played on more number 1 hits than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Elvis combined! That’s a lot of hits! The names of the musicians were virtually unknown to the public until Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, on which the musicians were finally named in the credits. The group received even more prominence and popularity thanks to the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which told the group’s story.

Arguably, bass legend James Jamerson is the most mentioned and celebrated musician from the band (and rightfully so). The band did see its fair share of great guitarists pass through its ranks as well, including Ray Parker Jr. (the Ghostbusters guy), Dennis Coffee and Wah Wah Watson, to name a few. However, probably the most recorded, and most recognized, were the trio of Eddie Willis, Joe Messina and Robert White.

All three came from different backgrounds, playing blues, jazz (particularly bebop, in Messina’s case) and R&B. Most of these were also the same for the other band members, who would perform in jazz clubs when not in the studio. In stacking those influences, the three musicians crafted guitar parts that locked together and were quite distinct.

Because not much was originally known about the musicians, you didn’t always know who played what. Thanks to the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary, you did get a view into what made Messina and Willis unique (regretfully, Robert White passed away in 1994, before the movie was shot, though archival interview footage was included). During the live numbers in the documentary, Messina is seen playing rhythm parts that moved with the band or playing a signature lick during a tune that still stayed out of the way (like during the performance of “You Really Got A Hold On Me”). Willis, on the other hand, was like a drummer with a guitar, more often than not hitting chords in time with the snare, adding some harmonic content to the downbeat. 

And White? Well, he wrote the riff to “My Girl”. ‘Nuff said, am I right?

If you listen to the isolated guitars from the track “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, you can hear the chord stabs on beats two and four (the backbeat rhythm that Willis is famous for), along with the two different rhythm parts, both playing at different registers. This allows both to be heard while thickening up the sound considerably.

Hitsville USA (where the studios were located in Detroit) made the most of their equipment and limited track count (up to eight whole tracks!) The guitars had to be captured cleanly in the tiny, one-room studio, so no amps were used. All of the guitars were plugged into direct boxes that were built by the studio engineers. These were then summed into one track on the tape machine. For monitoring in the live room, all three guitarists huddled around one speaker that had their guitars and the bass.

Three guitars, one track, no edits, no redos. These means of recording almost seem foreign today, with unlimited track counts, digital editing, the means to record the take multiple times to get it right, and other studio luxuries we have today. The musicians had to be good and be able to nail the take. Just the story of James Jamerson nailing the bass track for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, three sheets to the wind and on his back in a single take is the stuff of legend!

The Motown guitar sound is also quite distinct in its blend. Willis was commonly seen playing a firebird with mini humbuckers, Messina a red telecaster (with a strat headstock, something you don’t see every day), and White a hollow-body Gibson L-5. You can hear the three different guitar sounds on the isolated tracks above, making it easier to guess who played what.

But it’s the interplay between the musicians that made the sound. The Funk Brothers and their guitarists have played some of the textbook examples of proper group interplay, where everyone contributes to the benefit of the song, and not the self. So fire up a Motown playlist and bask in the glory of that band, and the glorious sound they made. You can thank me later.


By Kevin Daoust -

Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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